Mulligan’s workbook for the 2008 Broadway production of The Seagull, in which she played Nina, contains a Chagall landscape, some drawings by her costar Mackenzie Crook, and a copy of the Yeats poem Ephemera, about waning love. She is much moved by such expressions of transitoriness, for reasons she doesn't like to go into but that have something to do, one suspects, with her upbringing in various hotels in Dusseldorf and London, where her father worked as manager; she used to observe guests from under the dining trolley. She compiles these scrapbooks for every role. It is entirely different from the scrapbook she prepared for the 2007 production of the play in London, which contains a letter to Chekhov from actress, press clippings about the working life of Russian women, a note from Mulligan’s director when she got appendicitis (“Recuperate, return”). Why didn’t she use the old scrap-book? “No,” she says. “I would have tried to copy it. I was a few years older and I didn't want to do the same thing over and over.” Mulligan is a creature of the present-tense. “It's the reason for the unpredictability with which she exists in the world, and which she exudes when you’re watching her onscreen,” notes Gyllenhaal. In a film career notably short of the kind of costume dramas with which English actresses usually pad out their résumés, she has instead sought out trans-Atlantic headwinds, appearing in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2, Steve McQueen’s Shame, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, bringing her talent for fresh apprehension — for emotions netted on the wing — to roles that feel flush with the present, or else haunted by its passing. She was affecting as one of the doomed youth in Never Let Me Go, while her Daisy is a living, breathing, rebuke to Gatsby’s obsessive exhumation of the past. We hear her before see her in the film, through a diaphanous scrim of white curtains at the Buchanan house, laughter rising up from behind an enormous sofa, as if the very décor were in on some irresistible joke. During filming she and Di Caprio exchanged in-character love notes, after Di Caprio made Mulligan a gift of a protein bar she had coveted. “So he got one for me and wrote me this little note: ‘Darling Daisy…’. and signed Jay. He’d drawn a little Daisy on the front of it….” she recalls.
“You feel like you’re in on some sort of secret with her constantly,” says Tobey Maguire, who plays Nick Carraway, the story’s amenable midwestern narrator. “You’re the one that she’s chosen to be part of a secret club or language. She pulls you in. I remember hearing her voice and I just went: that’s Daisy. It was like the cartoons with the snake charmer, and the eyes start swirling around. She said four words and I was there, I was snake-charmed." It is by her voice, of course, that Daisy is largely characterized in Fitzgerald’s novel — alternately described as “low, thrilling,” possessed of an “exhilarating ripple,” full of “fluctuating, feverish warmth,” and — most famously — “full of money.” Mulligan’s own register is naturally low. Even though her round, dimpled face plays young, her voice — one of those dulcet cut-glass British voices you used to be able to hear on the BBC — brings unexpected notes of sanguinity. "She’s got almost a childlike quality about her physically,” says Luhrmann, “but she has the voice of Rita Hayworth.” It was this paradox that tugged her performance in An Education closer to the zesty self-possession of a young Shirley MacLaine than to the winsomeness of Audrey Hepburn, to whom she was continually compared in that first spring of Hollywood’s infatuation with her, when Harvey Weinstein called her the “Belle” of Sundance and Warren Beatty, finding out she was taking a bus to meetings in LA, offered his services as a chauffeur.