It wasn't a trick or casual question for actress Carey Mulligan.
Her agent called one Friday afternoon when she was shooting the Ryan Gosling picture "Drive" in Los Angeles and asked, "Have you ever read 'The Great Gatsby'?"
"I said that I hadn't and he said, well, you should read it 'cause you have an audition now on Monday," she recalled during a recent phone interview.
With no script to study, the book became her bible for the character of Daisy Buchanan, described on the page as having an "absurd, charming little laugh" and a face sad and lovely with "bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth."
The London-born actress was staying off Sunset Boulevard and, like a high school or college student with a reading list and a deadline, went and bought a copy of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic first published in 1925.
"Lucky that it's not very big. It's not long, it's quite an accessible novel," she said.
"So the first time I read it, I was really thinking about Daisy and thinking about the scenes that I was going to do on Monday. And then when I read it again, I got to appreciate it in a better way."
She won the role of Daisy opposite Leonardo DiCaprio's mysterious Jay Gatsby and Joel Edgerton as her philandering, blue-blooded husband, Tom Buchanan. Tobey Maguire plays her cousin and the story's narrator, Nick Carraway, in the Baz Luhrmann version opening in theaters today in 2-D and 3-D.
When people heard about her casting, their reactions were immediate and unkind, regarding the character.
"Everyone said how much they hated Daisy. I had a lot of people go, 'Oh, she's awful.' And I was like, well, I can't think that about her, because I can't play her thinking she's awful.
"Lots of people have strong opinions about the book because it's so well loved and I think you face that with every adaptation of a novel." She had, after all, appeared in the 2010 adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, "Never Let Me Go," alongside Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley.
"I wanted the serious conversations about the character to be with Baz and to follow his direction."
Steered clear of Mia Farrow as Daisy
Ms. Mulligan, an Oscar nominee for "An Education" in which she was a teen beguiled by an older man, has come to view Daisy as a woman who enjoys having fun, who would like to live in a carefree world but has a weakness of character and is very easily led and emotionally erratic.
She had the part for almost a year before filming started and had an idea that it would be on a large scale, based on the director's past work, and how appropriate that would be for the 1920s "to have a sort of decadent quality and to have a very kind of expensive, rich aesthetic. I had no idea how the whole thing was going to come together until I saw it a couple of days ago."
Although largely set in 1922, the movie has a contemporary vibe, thanks to its soundtrack along with its timeless themes.
"It's that idea of wealth and power and status, and a small group of people having a lot of power. And, then, on the flip side, a very aspirational society that demands and wants more and more and more but ultimately can't be satisfied."
Ms. Mulligan actively avoided other big-screen or TV adaptations of "Gatsby," especially the 1974 release starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. It was critically panned but popular with audiences, especially women.
"I am an absolutely enormous fan of Mia Farrow, so I thought if I watch it, then the chances are I'll try and steal something from her performance, even if it's subconscious," she said. The arrival of her Daisy won't liberate her enough to watch the nearly 40-year-old release.
"I think probably in a couple of years I might have the courage to watch it. It's so awful, when you watch yourself on screen, you question every choice that you've made. But if you watch someone else playing the same character, you would doubly so question every choice."
Costumes worn by Mr. Redford, Ms. Farrow, Sam Waterston, Karen Black, Lois Chiles and others won designer Theoni V. Aldredge an Academy Award. Catherine Martin -- already a two-time winner for "Moulin Rouge" -- produces and picked some stunning designs for the modern take.
But when your pearl-and-diamond headband comes from Tiffany's and some of your dresses and furs from Prada, you're not walking away with any souvenirs.
"I was wearing a lot of jewelry that was very, very expensive, and I had a man following me around making sure I didn't steal anything," she said with an easy laugh. Besides, the costumes were headed for eventual displays in this country and overseas.
Her mini-memento? "A tiny daisy fell off a purple dress that I wear in the film. There were tiny daisies embroidered onto it and one of them fell off. I kept that."
'I can't watch myself on screen'
It has been three years since Ms. Mulligan's Academy Award nomination for best actress alongside Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Gabourey Sidibe and eventual winner Sandra Bullock.
Asked what she learned about herself during that process, she said, "I went through all that stuff for 'An Education' and then I did the release of 'Never Let Me Go' the following year and then wasn't able to do any press for 'Drive' and 'Shame,' which are the two films after that because I was shooting 'Gatsby.'
"So I feel like I stepped away from that stuff for a really long time. So coming back in for this, I think I've learned that I can't watch myself on screen. I shouldn't because it ruins the experience and I love doing my job so much, I enjoy less the part that comes afterward.
"Also, that I can build things up and be terribly critical of myself and also just sort of anxious about the press and the media and all the stuff that comes along with releasing the film."
When Mr. Luhrmann recently asked how she was doing, she confessed, "I'm terrified, it's so scary, the pressure and everyone's going to review the film."
He then gave her some gentle advice. "You've just got to spend the next couple of weeks just enjoying it. Nothing bad has happened. We'll never make this film again -- me, Leo, Tobey, you -- and let's have fun. We did it with pure hearts and we did what we wanted to and how we saw it."
All of which led her to this conclusion: "I think I'm trying to learn to let go of things once I've worked on them and not worry so much about people's reactions to things."
As for her take on Gatsby, who goes to extremes to try to reconnect with Daisy, Ms. Mulligan mused, "I think he loved her when he met her and he was fascinated by her, and she was the most talked about and desired person in the town when he met her and he did love her.
"And then, I think, it was love and infatuation. I think she began to represent everything that he wanted, everything he always aspired to, and so, yes, the American dream of course partly.
"The wealth, as well as the status and the elegance and integrity that come with that, which is ultimately what Tom says that he can never have. But I think she represents that whole world to him and so she becomes the focus for him. That seems to be his end goal but that soon disintegrates when he sees her in reality. Who she really is."
A character strangers love to hate.moviesvideo