LONDON — Carey Mulligan doesn’t like to take the easy route. When, against her parents’ wishes, she auditioned for drama schools, she chose a monologue from Sarah Kane’s “4.48 Psychosis,” a play about depression and suicide. The schools turned her down, but she persevered, securing a role in the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice” film, then earning plaudits as Nina in Ian Rickson’s stage production of “The Seagull.” In 2009, she won an Oscar nomination for her nuanced portrayal of a teenager who becomes involved with an older man in “An Education.”
Ever since, film has taken precedence over theater. But Ms. Mulligan, 33, is back onstage for a New York run in Dennis Kelly’s “Girls & Boys,” which opens June 20 at the Minetta Lane Theater.
The play, which originated at the Royal Court Theater and is directed by Lyndsey Turner, is a 90-minute monologue in which Ms. Mulligan offers an autobiographical account of her relationship with the man who becomes her husband, and which ends with a bone-chilling revelation. (Audible Inc., the audiobook subsidiary of Amazon, is bringing the performance to New York and recording it for an audio play.)
British critics were mixed on Mr. Kelly’s writing, but Ms. Mulligan’s performance provoked no ambivalence. She succeeds “in taking us to the darkest recesses of human behavior without a jot of sensationalism,” wrote Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph.
During an interview over coffee in late May, Ms. Mulligan seemed relaxed even though she was about to pack up her family for her New York stint. (She has a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son with her pop singer husband Marcus Mumford.) “I love New York,” she said, before going on to talk about why she does relatively little theater work, how she struggled through the “Girls & Boys” rehearsals, and whether it’s hard to switch off after a show. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You grew up wanting to act in theater. But you’ve been in relatively few plays — “Girls & Boys” is only the sixth since you made your debut at the Royal Court in 2004. Why is that?
I think I was spoiled really early on by getting to play Nina in “The Seagull.” I had done two plays before that, and the people were brilliant, but I didn’t love the experience. Then “The Seagull” — I just loved it so much. It was such a romantic time in my life. Playing that part felt like an expression of all the angst I had as a teenager: wanting to be an actress, my parents not wanting me to be an actress. Afterward it was a matter of finding something with such a high standard of writing. I did David Hare’s “Skylight,” with Bill Nighy, which was wonderful. Then “Girls & Boys” came along, and it seemed completely impossible. It was daring me to do it.
Was it the subject matter that seemed impossible?
No, the subject matter didn’t frighten me as much as doing a one-woman show. I spend my whole career trying to forget I am being watched. I look at the other person onstage in the eyes and try to tell the truth. But with a one-woman show, the other person is the audience. They are my Bill Nighy. And I didn’t know how to do that.
The material is nonetheless difficult, to say the least.
I got the script last July and I was really pregnant, about 10 days away from having my second child. I was so excited at the thought of being back at the Royal Court that I read it on my phone, in the car, while we were driving back from the country. When I got to the reveal, I dropped the phone on the floor. [Although the reveal] concerns children and I have a boy and a girl, I didn’t connect them personally to the play. My reaction was more about how to put an audience through this experience. It has to be about something other than the pain.
I umm-ed and ah-ed for a couple of weeks, only because it meant going back to work sooner than I would have liked. But in the end, I felt if I didn’t do it, I might spend the rest of my life regretting it.
Your character, who remains nameless, is funny and sharp, but dealing with an enormous emotional burden. How did you develop a sense of who she is?
I imagined what songs she might listen to, what outfit she might have worn when she met her husband. I made up lots of stories about the children, trying to flesh them out for myself. As the run went on, they became more and more real in my mind. When I’m really in the show, I can hear them onstage, really loud.
The first question for us was, where is this character, who is she talking to? And we decided that she was in this theater, in Chelsea or in New York, aware of her audience. The best shows feel like I am two glasses of wine in, regaling my friends. The bad ones are when you feel you are with a group of people who aren’t interested.
How did you approach being on your own onstage?
I worked through the script with everyone and it all felt very normal. Then one day, I stood up on my own to perform it, and it was really, really difficult. I had never had so much trouble in rehearsal. I would get two pages in, my throat would get tight, and I’d say, “I can’t do it.” Even two weeks before the opening, we were doing a run, and I did one page and my throat seized up. I actually fell to my knees and had to leave the room. I was freaking out. All those lovely people, coming to rehearsals, I had bailed on them and it was humiliating.
But I felt either I will get onstage and have a panic attack, or it will work. And, unbelievably, they trusted me, and it worked. I think I couldn’t be alone; I needed the audience.
How do you prepare for a performance?
I have an insane two-and-a-half hour routine. I get to the theater at five, eat something, go to sleep at six for half an hour, shower and do makeup and then go down onstage to warm up. In London, two previews in, I said to Lyndsey, “I’m so lonely, can someone come and warm up with me?” So the whole crew would come and play [the board game] Articulate!, which was so great. I’m hoping that in New York there will be some willing participants!
Is it difficult to switch the emotions off?
When it’s gone well, there is an adrenaline rush that helps. When I’ve had a bad show — and it’s always when someone you want to see it is there — it’s harder.
You’ve just finished the film “Wildlife.” What is coming next?
Nothing. Just “Girls & Boys,” and waiting for the next great thing, whatever it is.