Britain’s Emily Mortimer cannot believe the year she’s had working with two of the world’s most enduring cinema icons: Woody Allen in his melodramatic Match Point, and starring opposite Steve Martin no less, in The Pink Panther, opening early next year.
A striking dark-haired, fair-skinned actress who possesses equal parts elegance and spunk, the classy Mortimer (born December 1, 1971) is a British actress who is as comfortable in historical dramas as in modern day thrillers and comedies. Her father is dramatist John Mortimer, best known for his Rumpole of the Bailey series. Before becoming successful as an actress, Emily wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph, and was also screenwriter for an screen adaptation of Lorna Sage’s novel, Bad Blood.
Mortimer studied at St Paul’s Girls’ School, where she first developed an interest in acting, appearing in several student productions. After St. Paul’s, she moved on to Lincoln College, Oxford, where she read Russian. Mortimer found time to perform in several plays while studying at Oxford, and while acting in a student production she was spotted by a producer who cast her in a supporting role in a television adaptation of Catherine Cookson’s The Glass Virgin in 1995. Subsequent television roles included Sharpe’s Sword. Her first film role was opposite Val Kilmer in 1996’s The Ghost and the Darkness. Mortimer had a stronger role in the Irish coming-of-age story, The Last of the High Kings, released later the same year, and in 1998, she played Miss Flynn in the TV mini-series Cider With Rosie, which was adapted for television by her father.
Also in 1998, Emily Mortimer appeared as Kat Ashley in the international hit Elizabeth, and in 1999, she enjoyed three roles that raised her profile outside the U.K.: She was the ill-fated “Perfect Girl” dropped by Hugh Grant in Notting Hill, appeared as Esther in the American TV mini-series Noah’s Ark, and was Angelina, the star of the film-within-a-film, in the upscale slasher flick Scream 3. In 2000, Mortimer was cast as Katherine in Kenneth Branagh’s ill-fated musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost, but the experience had a happy ending for her – she met actor Alessandro Nivola, and the two soon fell in love and have been together ever since.
Mortimer wowed critics for her dazzling turn in Lovely and Amazing and the following year, took on her biggest role in an American film to date, playing opposite Bruce Willis in The Kid. 2002 was another big year for her, with major roles in two major releases – The 51st State, starring opposite Samuel L. Jackson, and a key supporting character in John Woo’s war drama Windtalkers. In 2004, she appeared in the movie Dear Frankie, and now, in Woody Allen’s “Matchpoint”, his first film since Everybody Says I Love You, that is set outside the U.S. Early Oscar-buzz suggests a nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role in Allen’s film, a thriller in which she plays a conservative wife of a scheming tennis pro whose affair with a young American actress has deadly repercussions. Mortimer will then be seen in the farcical Pink Panther remake. In this exclusive interview, Mortimer talks sex, infidelity and icons with Garth Franklin.
Question: So with Match Point, is it a case of Woody Allen offering you something and you not even bothering to even find out what the script is and saying yes pretty much immediately? Did he know about you?
Mortimer: He says he did, yes. Well, it’s interesting, Juliet Taylor, his casting agent that casts all his movies, said that I had come into her consciousness years before in a melodrama on the tellie in England, based on a Catherine Cookson novel. You know those Catherine Cookson series. It was called The Glass Virgin, I was the glass virgin, and it was the first job I did out of university years and years ago and thank God I never knew that Woody Allen’s casting director was watching it. Somehow she said she was in some hotel room with nothing to do in the evening and she’d come to London for two days and she switched it on and she saw me and I’ve always sort of rather hidden from people that I thought might have had the chance of seeing that thing, so I felt like I was terrible in it. And I was in a terrible old wig that looked like it had been dropped from out of space onto my head, and some ridiculous sort of bodice and big fluffy skirts. She said she remembered me from that moment, and then when my name started to come up in movies here she followed my career. I think Woody and her had both watched Lovely & Amazing and I think Woody really loved that, so I got the call to go and meet him which I did and then I got sent the script with a little note saying: I think it would be very interesting to have you in this film and I wonder if you could read it and let me know. Of course you would do it immediately as it would be very, very difficult to turn down a part in a Woody Allen film.
Question: How do you turn a character like this into not a stock sort of stereotypical British caricature?
Mortimer: Well, in a way I think you both have to sort of embrace the kind of cliché because those girls ARE stock characters. I mean, I’ve met those girls through my life and it’s interesting because they’re a type, and once you know sort of one thing about them you know everything about them. It’s like that sort of domino opinion, in that you just know everything about those girls from meeting them once because you’ve met 100 of them and in some ways you just have to embrace the cliché, but at the same time she wasn’t ridiculous and the film wasn’t a comedy. There’s something quite comic about characters like that because they are very perky and jolly, and they don’t have never have much need to sort of go inside themselves and really have dark moments of the soul because everything’s sort of gone rather swimmingly. So they’re just sort of pretty jolly people who’ve had no reason to really be suspicious about life, the world or of anyone because everything’s kind of gone their way and that’s kind of funny. It’s amusing to observe because most of us have had to deal with quite a lot of shit, and to see someone that just hasn’t, or if they have they just ignored it, just hasn’t really allowed it to come into their field of vision is sort of funny. But then I think there’s something interesting about putting that character in a situation where’s she is potentially a victim. She is betrayed, and to watch the subtleties of how somebody that never likes to deal with the fact that bad things are going on in her life somehow grabble with the fact that maybe they are not, I think is very clever because she sort of remains brilliantly in denial throughout. But there are moments where she nearly lets it get to her, and there’s something quite sweet about seeing a character who you know is steadfastly kind of upbeat and jolly and direct and happy-go-lucky and into the periphery of her vision comes something slightly unsettling and watch her bat it away.
Question: Would a relationship like that last do you think? If you saw that couple five/ten years away from that movie do you think they’d still be together?
Mortimer: After what he did?
Mortimer: Oh, God knows. I mean relationships are such a mystery to anybody that’s not in them, I think – or even when you’re in them. I mean the… particular chemical sort of reaction that makes marriages last is something that’s just completely indefinable, and I think that’s hugely down to luck actually.
Question: Why do you think there’s so much infidelity that takes place in relationships – I mean this a film about betrayal and infidelity.
Mortimer: There wouldn’t be infidelity if people didn’t feel the need to be together or didn’t feel the need to be committed to each other. I think the two things go hand in hand, and they’re the paradox of life, where on the one hand one craves stability, real love, real intimacy and long-lasting relationships that are substantial, and on the other hand, of course, there’s a side of people that needs to be excited and have other experiences and all the rest of it. And there’s the two different drives in probably pretty much everybody, and I think that’s why this film is so disconcerting for people when they come out of it because I think it very boldly puts in front of us that paradox.
Question: Scarlett was telling me earlier that she thinks it’s hard enough being monogamous in a relationship, particularly in this kind of industry. How do you do it? I mean, is it difficult to build a balance…
Mortimer: No. I don’t find it difficult actually to, to be monogamous really. I mean I don’t know whether that’s strange or not, but I think the stakes are so high, the thought of losing or tampering with somehow what I’ve got, in terms of who I’m with and our set up – I would so not want to kind of screw around with that that I don’t even really allow myself to…
Question: I think she was also talking about the fact that, you know, film sets can be so incestuous and there’s a lot of intimacy involved with other people and, that unless you’re in a really wonderful committed relationship that it’s really difficult for outsiders to not to be affected by what goes on, on a movie set.
Mortimer: Maybe. I guess I’ve got to a different stage in my life really where I’m done all that and it was great at the time but bloody hell it’s exhausting and kind of stressful actually. I also think that marriage is much more of an exciting adventure than it credits for I think. And I love that it changes all the time and it’s fascinating actually being with someone, like in some ways you think of it as the end of something or you’re taught to think of it as the end of something but it’s the beginning of something completely different.
Question: How long have you guys been married now?
Mortimer: Well we’ve been together nearly six years and we’ve been married three so – you know…
Question: You’re just a young couple.
Mortimer: We’re still… there’s still time for it to all go pear-shaped but at the moment it just feels exciting. And I think that you can get more passionate about somebody the longer you’re with them and the more you know them and the more you go through together. Being married is definitely better than it’s cracked up to be I think.
Question: How surprised are you by the kind of professional success you have attained over the years? It seems that you’ve really come into your own. You…
Mortimer: I’m really amazed actually. It’s a really nice feeling, suddenly doing things that one feels proud of and feeling appreciated in some way. I don’t know what I thought would happen to me but I’m really lucky and the thought that I would have ever been in a Woody Allen film for example, you might as well have told me I was going to climb Everest or something. It just seemed like such a sort of ridiculous thing to imagine and it’s wonderful. I realise that, I’ve really come to appreciate how lucky it is to be doing a job that is fulfilling and interesting and keeps you sort of going somehow. As you get older it’s almost like I think work is the best cure for depression that there is. You know, it’s a blessing to be able to kind of go off and escape, not that I feel that I need to escape but everybody I think does need a part of their lives which is completely their own; something they can completely throw themselves into that has nothing to do with the sort of the responsibilities of everyday.
Question: Is that why you take on something like a Pink Panther because it gives you that chance to completely do something that you would never be able to do…
Mortimer: Yeah, I think so. I think for me that I’ve always found that, the sort of bigger the challenge the better I am, and if I do something that I think is sort of terrifying and very unlikely for whatever reason, maybe it’s just that it’s a Woody Allen movie, or maybe it’s that you’re going to stand naked in front of a guy while he analyses your body, or maybe it’s that you’re going to get smothered in custard, or maybe it’s, you know, it’s going to be that you’re suddenly doing slapstick comedy with Steve Martin, or whatever it is, that’s when I really come into my own. I don’t know quite why that is. I think it’s because I’m quite an anxious person in some ways and I worry a lot about things, and about not being good enough. I think when I bite off more than I can chew it somehow saves me. I think there’s a part of me that’s a sort of middle class English girl with a very kind of definite upbringing. I think I’ve always been scared of becoming one thing and being one thing and being like this girl in this movie – being a type and it’s very easy to be a type, and that to me feels like sort of death somehow. So I feel kind of most alive when I’m going against that somehow in whatever way, shape or form it is.
Question: How silly are you in The Pink Panther?
Mortimer: Pretty silly. I’m like his female counterpart. I’m like the sort of the girl Inspector Clouseau. It’s wonderful, like those Diane Arbus photos almost or something. It’s the difference between the image that you have of yourself and the one that the world sees and I think that’s true of Inspector Clouseau. In Inspector Clouseau’s mind he’s an incredibly debonair, sophisticated hero, and in fact he’s a sort of bumbling fool. And, the same is true of my character.
Question: Is she French?
Mortimer: She’s French and she thinks she’s very organised and she’s very, you know, focussed and she’s constantly sort of making sure everything is okay and then yet she’s completely physically kind of hopeless and constantly getting herself into scrapes. So there’s something quite sort of sweet about these two people.
Question: Is there a sudden release for you to be able to play a character like that because there are no rules?
Mortimer: Yean, that was very scary. In some ways it’s much easier, or the atmosphere on the set was something, is totally different from doing a drama like this, like the Woody Allen thing to doing The Pink Panther, and you would have thought the one where you’d be having the great time would be the comedy, but in fact it’s almost inversely proportionate. Like very often when the subject matter is just desperate somehow in order to kind of cope with it the set becomes more kind of alive and everybody’s in a good mood and everybody’s laughing about what’s going on. But then in a slapstick huge comedy like that the pressure is really on somehow. I don’t have many hang-ups about what I do in films, and I find that the more I kind of push it the more I enjoy it and the better results I get, and there are a lot of things I won’t turn my nose up at most things but the thought of being funny and not managing it – or trying to tell a joke and no one laughing on film has the potential for humiliation. I have no problem with taking off of my clothes and getting covered in custard but very, very anxious about the thought of not being funny and trying to be so…
Question: What about taking your clothes off and being funny?
Mortimer: Now that, that, that’s inevitably funny, taking your clothes off, isn’t it?
Question: So I mean these are two iconic actors -Woody Allen and Steve Martin. Did they surprise you?
Mortimer: I guess with Woody I was surprised by how calm he was. I felt like he was sort of the least neurotic director I’d ever met, the least neurotic person on the set. He seemed totally in charge of himself and of what he was doing. It’s like he’s just a master of his art and he’s done it a million times before and he seems to be totally at home with who he is and not anxious in the least, and we were home everyday at three, and he was always in a good mood and he had a little twinkle in his eye, and I felt like he was much more of a kind of jolly easy-going guy than I’d ever imagined he would be. Obviously there’s all the other stuff as well there somewhere, and he’s unlike anyone you’ve ever met, and there is in some ways a nervous energy or something. But really all those things go without saying, but I was just surprised by basically how calm and easy-going he was. And with Steve I was just totally enamoured of him, and I felt incredibly lucky to have that experience working with him. All my scenes are with him and I as I said I was very nervous, but it was like sort of playing tennis against someone that’s about a million times better at it than you are. You feel like just by association, just by being in the same room as them somehow you’re game is hopefully raising itself a little bit. And he was charming, and he couldn’t have been nicer to me and I just felt really looked after and just delighted.
Question: Is he the most unique leading man you’ve ever had?
Mortimer: Yeah, I think he’s definitely cleverer than anyone I think I’ve ever met.
Question: He’s quite a genius.
Mortimer: Yes, he is a genius. You really feel that you’re maybe possibly in the presence of a genius. There’s just something so swift and so original about the way that his mind works and also he’s a real gent I found. He’s a real gentleman, and he’s got such good manners, and you don’t really meet people with good manners you really notice it. And you realise people don’t… we’ve sort of lost the art of good manners I think.
Question: What else is up with you?
Mortimer: The other thing I’ve got coming out is this movie called, Paris Je T’aime – have you heard about this?
Question: Is that the one with all those French love stories…
Mortimer: Yeah, it’s twenty film directors from all over the world to make twenty short films in Paris. I’m in Wes Craven’s…As is Alexander Payne. All the film directors appear in each other’s and each one is five minutes long so I’ve just done that in Paris so that’s fresh in my mind. And then I’m about to do a movie with Ryan Reynolds. I don’t know whether they call it a dramedy or something, but it’s a really well written movie directed by the guy that directed Pretty Persuasion. It’s called Chaos Theory, it’s a Warner Brothers movie, and it’s a sort of romantic comedy but they’re married and they’re kind of going off each other as the film begins, and it’s a very sort of dramatic story as well.
Question: You married to him?
Mortimer: I’m married to him.
Question: You haven’t met him yet?
Mortimer: I’ve never met him, no. I’m going to meet him next – when I get back in January. And then I’m doing a movie with Luke Wilson which is a movie called Barry Monday and it’s a totally Indie thing – first time director, which I’m really looking forward to. It’s very quirky…It’s got Lily Tomlin and him and Jennifer Coolidge and that girl, Amy Adams that was in Junebug.
Question: Are you spending Christmas at home?
Mortimer: Going back to London for Christmas, yeah. We’re going back with this because there’s a premier in New York and then one in London and we’ll be there for Christmas, and I’ve got my little boy whipped up into such a state of overexcitement about Christmas – I’ve been completely…
Question: How old is he?
Mortimer: He’s 2 and a little bit, and I’ve been reading him every Christmas book there is and getting him completely overexcited, and taught him to say – I say what’s Father Christmas say and he goes “ho, ho, ho” – and I know he’s going to just completely explode…