Since she was a teenager, Carey Mulligan has been turning in effortlessly effective performances. An underrated and pliable leading lady, she can play ingenue as easily as she can gruff—and every flavor in between. Perhaps it took a film like Promising Young Woman, which lets Mulligan do it all at once, for her to get this close to Oscar gold. She’s a front-runner in the best-actress category heading into this Sunday’s ceremony…and after taking a tour of her acting history, it’s not hard to see why.
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Carey Mulligan was still just a teenager when, after trying and failing to get into drama school, she heard about a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s most famous book. She had to audition three times to win the role of perhaps the most forgettable Bennet sister: Kitty. Despite being constantly in the showy shadow of Jena Malone’s Lydia, Mulligan’s Kitt—with her dimples, brunette curls, and giggles—occasionally managed to steal the show.
Northanger Abbey (2007)
Literary period pieces are a right of passage for almost any young British actor, but Mulligan got to show off her range here by playing one of Jane Austen’s most notorious mean girls: Isabella Thorpe. Her curls now a glossy gold, Mulligan traded Kitty’s giggles for Isabella’s infuriating simpers—proving that while the bonnets may be the same, the girl underneath was completely different.
Doctor Who (2007)
This long-running sci-fi series is another rite of passage for actors out of the U.K. But Mulligan just happened to star in one of the most famous installments in the show’s decades-long history. Even 14 years later, “Blink”—a stand-alone story which features very little Doctor and a whole lot of Mulligan trying to avoid getting got by some menacing statues—remains the go-to episode for newcomers to the show. Mulligan’s brave, adventurous Sally Sparrow instantly became a genre icon on both sides of the pond.
An Education (2009)
Outside the geekosphere, Mulligan caught the eye of American cinephiles at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival with her first major film roles in two starring vehicles: The Greatest and An Education. The latter, a coming-of-age story based on Lynn Barber’s memoir, was not only a highly coveted role, but landed Mulligan a BAFTA win and her first Oscar nomination. Her performance, precocious innocence falling for seductive charm, would prove her calling card in Hollywood.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Mulligan joined fellow literary period piece refugee (and her Pride & Prejudice costar) Keira Knightley for this slow-burn adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s sorrowful sci-fi novel. Sure, this ’80s-set dystopian film is technically also a literary period piece—but Knightley and Mulligan ditch the bonnets for muted knitwear, politely vying for the attention of Andrew Garfield. Knightley is the more established, vivacious star, but Mulligan’s Kathy delivers a subtler allure that captures both Garfield’s and the audience’s attention.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s hypnotic crime thriller has an iconic score, cinematography, Ryan Gosling, and his satin jacket, all shouting loudly for the spotlight—but, ultimately, there has to be a reason for Gosling’s nameless driver to break his code. In one unforgettable elevator scene, Mulligan’s sweet-faced neighbor character serves up sorrow, anger, love, lust, and revulsion all without saying a word.
As quietly effective as her performance in Drive is, Shame is Mulligan shouting her abilities from the rooftops. Shamelessly exhibitionist, manic, panicked, and bruised, Mulligan’s Sissy blows through her sex-addicted brother’s already chaotic life. She inspires both empathy (as when she plaintively sings “New York, New York” in a minor key) and revulsion (when she tries to climb in bed with him), but ultimately gives Michael Fassbender’s Brandon the only human connection he can grab onto in the cold maze of Manhattan.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Already an old hat at classic literary adaptations, Mulligan fearlessly tacked sophomore English’s most famous golden girl: Daisy Buchanan. Mulligan had tightened up her American accent work—and whatever you might have to say about Baz Luhrmann’s garish adaptation, it’s hard to fault Mulligan, who is appropriately soft and romantic one moment and brittle the next. Just like the American Dre—well, you get it.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Mulligan is really a supporting character to her Drive costar Oscar Isaac as he goes on an odyssey through the ’60s folk music scene. But her exasperated immunity to Isaac’s charms and her impressive harmonies make a memorable impression. As Jean, Mulligan also shines on the infinitely replayable Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, alongside her real-life husband Marcus Mumford.
Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)
In Thomas Vinterberg’s propulsive take on Thomas Hardy’s classic 19th-century pastoral novel, Mulligan finally finds a literary production worthy of her range. As Bathsheba Everdene, a woman with an unwieldy name but a spine of steel, Mulligan bounces off a trio of suitors, all while managing her own independent fortune and estate in an era where women were rarely allowed to do so. She also sings again, beautifully. Full-blown Carey Mulligan musical when?
Mulligan once again entered the awards conversation in Dee Rees’s bleak southern historical drama. Perpetually grimy and hampered with Depression-era microbangs, Mulligan’s empathetic voiceover weaves together the chaotic, lethal drama of a deeply racist, terribly impoverished south.
Promising Young Woman (2020)
In Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, Mulligan weaponizes all the women she has ever played for a sharp, chameleonic, and emotionally devastating star turn. Her Cassandra slips in and out of multiple personas and wigs in order to act as avenging angel against men who would take advantage of vulnerable women. Marshalling Kitty’s dimples, Sally’s detective skills, Sissy’s bruises, Kathy’s innocent allure, Jean’s disgust, and the steel in Bathsheba’s spine, Mulligan holds the film, and the fate of every one of its unworthy men, in her capable grasp.