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Getting An Education

Peter Sarsgaard, Dominic Cooper, Carey Mulligan, and Alfred Molina discuss starring in Lone Scherfig's acclaimed new film.

Dominic Cooper and Peter Sarsgaard in An Education
An Education, Lone Scherfig's much-talked-about new film opening on October 9, is a period piece set in 1961 England, but it feels totally fresh today. The film focuses on middle-class teenager Jenny (played by Carey Mulligan), who listens to Juliette Greco records while smoking Gauloises and who desperately wants to break out of her staid suburban milieu. Her prayers appear to be answered when a thirty-something stranger David (Peter Sarsgaard) offers her a lift home one rainy day. Soon, their flirtation turns into an adventurous affair leading to a Bohemian lifestyle Jenny had only imagined -- and consequences she never contemplated.

As the only American in a cast full of Brits -- including Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Alfred Molina, Sally Hawkins, and Emma Thompson -- Sarsgaard more than manages to seem authentic. But even he was surprised Scherfig chose an American actor for the part of David. "I have no idea why they cast me, but I knew I wanted this role and that I could do it," says the actor, last seen on stage in CSC's Uncle Vanya. "In the end, it's not my job to try and figure out why they cast me." And while David makes his living by scamming and stealing, Sarsgaard is nevertheless very protective of his character. "David is not out to hurt anyone," he says. "You might find him despicable but what he does, he does for survival. It's Danny (played by Cooper) who's the one with the actual access to everything, the girls, the booze, the hot spots."

Cooper, flashing the boyish grin familiar to his fans from The History Boys and the film version of Mamma Mia!, admits that Danny is not the most sympathetic role, especially when he shows a more-than-friendly interest in Jenny. "My character is an absolute turd!" he says. "I mean, Danny's had everything and he's quite bored, until suddenly, there's this wonderful girl."

Rosamund Pike and Carey Mulligan in An Education
The film provides a breakthrough role for Mulligan, who earned rave reviews for her portrayal of Nina in Ian Rickson's revival of The Seagull in the West End and on Broadway. She did the film in between those two productions, and had no idea at the time that Saarsgard would become her Trigorin (a role played in London by Chiewetel Eijofor). "Peter and I were riding back together after a day's shoot when my mobile rang and it was Ian asking me what I thought of Peter as Trigorin," says Mulligan, who will co-star in Oliver Stone's Wall Street 2. "So I said just a moment, and then I asked Peter, 'Do you want to spend four more months working with me?'"

The actress admits the film was an education for her as well. "I really didn't know anything about the period. I mean I'd heard about the 'Swinging 60's' and Carnaby Street, but that's all," she says. "So when I got the script, I thought 'o-o-o-o-h, a 60s film, that'll be fun,' and of course it was, but it's such a different part of that time. I talked to my parents and some of their friends, and my driver was 16 in 1961, so we talked a lot as well. The other thing that was a challenge was that I was 22 playing 16, but because Jenny wants so much to be older and to be sophisticated, my age wasn't really a problem."

Molina, whose Broadway credits include Art and Fiddler on the Roof, says that he identifies with the character of Jenny's father, Jack, who is initially far more concerned about his daughter's academic life than her personal life. "I was eight years old in 1961 so I lived during this period and I recognize a lot of my own father in Jack," he says. "My parents were immigrants -- my dad is from Spain and my mother is from Italy -- and he was a World War II vet like Jack. Through the Education Act of 1944, all veterans and their children could have a higher education, and Nick Hornby (the screenwriter) and I talked about our fathers being part of all that. I was the first in my family to go to college."

In the end, the film's success belongs to Scherfig, and the Danish director credits her experience with the Dogma movement (a low-budget Danish film concept from the 1990s) for being able to make the finished film look more expensive. "In Dogma, we wrote films as we shot them, so for us, every obstacle was a gift," she notes. "The idea was if we couldn't fully re-create London in 1961 on our budget, then we'd use the same five vintage cars and the same extras over and over in different outfits in different positions. For me, all good art comes from taking risks."


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