The actress: Emily Mortimer first attracted widespread attention via a small part in Notting Hill, and has since become one of Hollywood’s most reliable supporting characters. The British actress has played high comedy (30 Rock), low comedy (The Pink Panther), demented drama (Match Point), and more demented drama (Lars And The Real Girl), bringing charm and class to every role. Her latest is opposite Michael Caine in Harry Brown, in which she discovers that Caine, sick of the violence outside his flat, has gone vigilante.
Harry Brown (2009)—“D.I. Alice Frampton”
The A.V. Club: The description on IMDb says the main character, “[doles] out his own form of justice,” which sounds like a description of a big-budget Michael Bay monstrosity. How was the film pitched to you?
Emily Mortimer: I was nervous about the kind of clichés that it could have descended into. There’s a whole world of bad TV that’s along similar themes—the cop drama. I thought the script was very gripping and brilliant, but I was very aware of the pitfalls. And then I met Daniel Barber and I saw his short film called “The Tonto Woman,” and it was brilliant. Obviously he’s the sort of auteur-in-making, and I knew he was the guy that was going to elevate this film away from the potential pitfalls. His model was the Western, even though it’s set in England somewhere in the present day. I liked the idea of playing the sheriff part. I was the Tommy Lee Jones. It’s not like something one immediately recognizes watching the movie; if one was a film student, one could work out the references to Westerns. The way he uses the camera angles—especially with my character he uses this shot called the “cowboy shot,” which is when the camera is on the ground looking up. There’s something epic and grand and fatalistic and badass, in a way, about his style.
AVC: Did you audition for the part or did they approach you with it?
EM: I’m not sure that they approached me necessarily, but I definitely didn’t audition, which is always a relief. It always makes you feel very kind towards people when they don’t put you through that humiliation. I’m sure my agent was haranguing them and telling them that they had to book me and I was so fantastic and all that bullshit.
AVC: You said in a 2001 interview that you don’t think actors and actresses have a deliberate thought process about what roles they take—that it’s mostly just random, and they’re crazy to think otherwise. Do you still feel that way?
EM: I still think it’s pretty random. If there’s any plan or scheme on my part, it’s subconscious. Whatever I do tends to be very different from the thing I did last. You’re terrified of boring either yourself or anyone else. It’s always attractive if it feels like something that you haven’t done before. I generally tend to be better, I think, when I’m terrified out of my wits.
AVC: Were you terrified for this film?
EM: It was a challenging part even though it may not have seemed that way. She’s not that open of a character. She’s kind of a closed book. She isn’t the main character so it’s not her story, but she’s a very important part of the movie. I was very aware of lots of clichés with that character as well. You think of the model for police detectives in dramas, like Prime Suspect. I wanted that character to be from 2010 rather than from 1990-whatever. It’s definitely still the same setup with a woman in a man’s world and al that. The kind of ball-breaking, terrifying, bi-yatch doesn’t quite ring true nowadays. It’s more complex now.
EM: Samantha Morton couldn’t do the movie at the last moment and so they called me, and I was embarrassingly available. It’s kind of embarrassing when they’ve got two days in which to cast the part and you’re the one—
AVC: —who has literally nothing else going on.
EM: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, “Oh yeah I’ll sign for three months over Christmas with my tiny baby.” Anyway, I did it and I have absolutely no regrets about it. It turned out to be one of the most fun filming experiences I’ve ever had. It was really tough and we were in the middle of fucking nowhere and it snowed for months on end. Everybody got very drunk and became very good friends on the movie.
AVC: Is it rare that crews and film casts and the whole group becomes such good friends?
EM: It is quite rare. The harder the circumstances under which you’re making a movie, generally the better the friends you make. You’re far away from home and so you’re kind of lonely, and you end up all gravitating towards each other and the bar every night. It tends to be inversely proportionate to the comfort level on the movie, how close you become to everybody.
AVC: You bring a very cheery, happy energy to most of your parts, but you were much darker in this film. What was that shift like?
EM: My take on people and on the characters I play, the role you’re looking for, is that everybody is more than one thing. We’re many things, all of us, and there are times when we are capable of great levity and jolliness and then there are times when the opposite is true. Good people can do terrible things, like the girl in that movie, and bad people are capable of doing wonderful things. And that’s what life is all about, the complexities and grey areas. And often characters aren’t written that way in movies, especially characters for women. So you end up being either one thing or the other.
AVC: If you think roles are often written in that black-or-white zone, do you find that you have to sometimes take parts you’re not too wild about?
EM: I’ve tried doing things for the wrong reasons in the hope that it will get me on in my career, and it never fucking works. I’ve attempted to be cynical about the job in hopes that it would reap its reward and it never does. You do the one film that you think is terrible, but it’s a big studio film and you hope you’ll get another job because of it, because blah blah blah, whatever it is. You know that you hate it and you have nothing to offer, and you just couldn’t care less if it got made because it’s not something in a million years you’d go and see yourself. And it ends up being shite and you just knew it was shite to begin with, and it doesn’t do you any favors at all if someone thought you were in another shite film. So I decided it doesn’t get me anywhere being cynical. It’s not that I want to be. If it ended up working for me, I would definitely do it that way, but it doesn’t. The answer is that you end up playing characters that are more interesting to you.
AVC: Are you thinking of a particular film?
EM: Yes, but it didn’t get released so you’ll never know what it is.
AVC: You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.
EM: I’m not going to tell you, it’s too mean to the people involved.
AVC: You seem to be pretty incapable of being mean.
EM: Tell that to my husband, he might beg to differ.
The Pink Panther (2006)—“Nicole”
EM: [Sarcastically.] Yeah, that’s a very complex character… But it was really fun. I did enjoy it. I enjoyed getting to hang out with Steve Martin.
AVC: I just read that they had to re-shoot the first film pretty extensively to change its rating. Is there a story behind that?
EM: Now that you mention it, they had to re-cut it a lot for the ratings. It was a difficult issue for them because the first movies had been stupid, childish films for grown-up people. They can’t make movies like that now because you lose an entire portion of your audience if it’s too risqué and naughty. So all these jokes, mostly involving me, looking like I was being given fellatio—or, I was giving him fellatio. Masses of really crap, dirty humor. The film is all the poorer for not having kept it in. But I get it. That’s how they make their money: kids.
Redbelt (2008) — “Laura Black”
AVC: Has there ever been a marketing decision on a film that has affected you?
EM: The ratings thing is the real issue. It really hurts movies. For example, in Redbelt, I smoked. The whole plot of my character was based on the fact that I was a smoker. And then they discovered that just by having someone smoking in the movie, it immediately makes the rating an R. So they had to cut out every shot where I had a cigarette in my hand and it totally affected the performance. No one would know watching the movie, but you know having seen the way you’re smoking cigarettes and then suddenly there isn’t one there. That was very frustrating to David Mamet as well. I can remember him saying, “It’s a nightmare.”
AVC: Does that change your approach at all? If the character is a smoker, it says something about the character that’s suddenly gone.
EM: It’s censorship, really. I don’t see why it’s not okay for somebody under the age of—I mean what is R? They have to be over the age of what?
EM: They can’t watch someone smoking when they can watch someone have their brains blown out? My son and I were watching an ad on the television the other day. And it said, “[Dramatic voice] Rated R.” He said, “What does ‘rated R’ mean?” I said, “God, I don’t know. You can’t watch it unless you’re over a certain age.”
AVC: Have you ever seen This Film Is Not Yet Rated?
EM: No. I’ve got to watch that.
AVC: It proves ratings are extremely skewed, particularly around gay themes. They have a side-by-side comparison of scenes where it’s two guys kissing and it’s R. And then there’s a guy and a girl more-than-kissing and it’s PG-13.
EM: God, that’s so brilliant. There you have it. There you have our society in a nutshell right there. You don’t need any more explanation.
AVC: Have you found the British rating system to be as restrictive?
EM: They don’t have such a problem with swearing. I may just be glorifying England because I’m feeling sentimental. Again, you can see people blowing each other’s brains out but you can’t say “shit” or “fuck” or “cunt.” It’s just sort of common parlance. “Cunt” in England is a term of endearment. [Laughs.] “I love you, you cunt,” is what people say.
30 Rock (2007) —“Phoebe”
EM: I had never done anything like that before. I loved it. It’s quite frightening; the business of trying to be funny is very hairy. In comedy, the potential for humiliation is huge. Trying to be funny and failing is about the most embarrassing thing you can do. But, given that, the 30 Rock crew is incredibly cool and easygoing. Tina Fey is about the most awe-inspiring lady I know. She’s just so self-possessed and sweet and normal and you can’t believe that she’s the powerhouse she is. She doesn’t give that impression at all. She has to work so hard. She produces, writes, and stars in that show and does that live stuff. She’s amazing. But everybody’s standing around the monitor waiting to see if you’re funny. If your line doesn’t get a laugh in the rehearsal, then they change it. It’s all teams of writers. It’s quite scary if you’re not used to it.
AVC: How did the pace of the sitcom, which is obviously much faster than a film, affect your performance?
EM: I don’t know. I think it must have affected it hugely. It feels very intense. I think Georges Feydeau said comedy is just tragedy speeded up. It’s like bad things happening at one hundred revolutions per second, and so there’s something helpful about the fast pace of a TV set where everything has to be finished by the end of the week. You have to finish the episode; it doesn’t matter how long you have to go on Friday night, but you have to get it done.
Lars And The Real Girl (2007) – “Karin”
EM: That was filmed in Toronto a few years ago, and I was incredibly taken by the script. Nancy Oliver wrote the script and I knew when I read it, it was going to be an interesting film. What I thought was fascinating was her subversive take on it: It wasn’t what the normal trajectory of what you would expect that story would be, which would be he’s an outcast in the community for doing something so shocking. I loved that she was embraced immediately, this sex doll, by the community, and became a pillar of the community—sitting on church council meetings and things like that. There was something so odd about that notion and kind of true. These small communities are much more accepting of differences on some level than one thinks. Very often there is someone that’s very, very odd in their midst, and as long as they don’t have to acknowledge that they’re different, as long as there’s somehow a way of integrating that oddness into the community, they’re very accepting. It’s only when it’s given a name that it scares people.
AVC: But your character is the villain in that respect, since she’s more hesitant to accept the weirdness.
EM: Yeah, but I felt the key to that character was that she was pregnant. I’ve been pregnant twice now. You get a bee in your bonnet about everything. Not only do you find yourself wiping the dust off the light fittings on the ceiling, you also try to fix everything in your life, in preparation for the new baby. You want to make everything nice and clean and tidy and ordered, and you take it upon yourself to do it. My character was trying to tidy up everything from her brother-in-law’s relationship with his brother to the cupboard in the kitchen. She was sort of demented in her determination to do so. It’s a really interesting relationship, with one’s brother-in-law. The brother-in-law—and the sister-in-law, as well—is someone that you’re very close to and have an incredible understanding of based on the fact that they spent their entire life as the sibling of your husband or wife. Very often they’re kind of the opposite. They’re all the things that you wish your spouse was. They define themselves in opposition to their brother or sister. So very often you’re getting all the sides to the person that you complain they don’t have.
Match Point (2005) — “Chloe Hewett Wilton”
EM: What can I say about Match Point? Shit. That was definitely terrifying. I was convinced I was going to be the one really bad performance in a Woody Allen film. I allowed it to really get to me. I came home every night sobbing about how I was going to be in the box set on the shelves of people’s houses. There’s this box set, and I’m going to be the one shit performance in it, and everybody else is so good. I didn’t know what to do with that character. On one hand, she was kind of a comic character, a ridiculous person, and then on the other hand, it was a serious movie. It was really hard to get a grasp on, because I’ve always fancied being in a Woody Allen film, but never as a posh girl from Oxfordshire. You never in a million years thought that you would ever end up in a Woody Allen film even though that might be your dream, and there you are. Suddenly you’ve got one. But you’re not playing the quintessential Woody Allen heroine, which is somebody that’s full of self-doubt and heartbreakingly naïve.
This girl was a nightmare in some ways and totally entitled, and felt like everything was going to be all right. Most of the women in Woody Allen films feel like everything’s awful. I didn’t understand what to do. But some of the confusion is helpful. Of course I was in the safest hands possible. I was, after all, in a Woody Allen film, and he knows what he’s doing. But I got really scared and spooked while I was doing it. Then when I watched it I realized I had wasted a lot of energy worrying.