Emily Mortimer: tired of movies where all the explosiveness comes from special effects? Try this actress

Emily Mortimer: tired of movies where all the explosiveness comes from special effects? Try this actress – Interview

Graham Fuller

In the most troubling scene in Nicole Holofcener’s new film Lovely & Amazing, a neurotic Hollywood actress, vividly played by Emily Mortimer, stands naked in front of the star (Dermot Mulroney) she has just slept with and asks him to describe what he sees. He bemusedly complies, commenting on the asymmetry of her breasts, the bountifulness of her pubic hair and, worst of all for her, the fullness of her upper arms. Although she has taken control of their fleeting tryst, she has also willingly exposed herself to humiliation–characteristic behavior for this ineffably pretty, tender young woman, who is in such need of love she picks up stray dogs.

A rueful meditation on women’s lack of self-esteem in a society that sets merciless standards of beauty and professional achievement, Lovely & Amazing also stars Brenda Blethyn as Mortimer’s mother (a nervy liposuction patient), Catherine Keener as her sister (a failed artist whose husband cheats on her), and 10-year-old Raven Goodwin (as her overweight black stepsister). Mortimer’s own self-exposure in the film reveals a raw courage in the hitherto demure English actress that her previous roles–in the likes of Elizabeth [1998], Scream 3, The Kid and Love’s Labour’s Lost [all from 2000]–had barely afforded. The Oxford-educated daughter of barrister and Rumpole of the Bailey author John Mortimer, she is poised for stardom. Currently in risk-taking mode, she can next be seen as a leather-clad hitwoman in the upcoming Formula 51.

GRAHAM FULLER: I can imagine a lot of Hollywood actresses would have coveted the part of Elizabeth–who is, after all, a Hollywood actress–in Lovely & Amazing.

How did you wind up getting it?

EMILY MORTIMER: It’s because of Brenda Blethyn. We were doing a film [The Sleeping Dictionary, to be released next year] in Malaysia nearly two years ago, and we were sitting by the pool at our hotel one day and she was reading this script. She said, “God, it’s the most beautiful script, but I don’t know whether to do it, because I have to have liposuction on my stomach. [laughs] Do you think it’d gross people out to see me in my bra and panties?” And I said, “Not at all, and if it’s brilliant, you should do it.” And she said, “There’s this great part for you. I’ll tell the director.” People often start talking about other projects when they’re doing a film together and you’re sort of put in this slightly embarrassing position because you don’t want to ask too much about it in case it looks like you’re angling for a job. I didn’t think anything more about it, but Brenda bullied my agents into getting me an audition. In the meantime, I read the script and there was something about it that desperately made me w ant to do it. I eventually went in and read for it, and I remember my boyfriend [actor Alessandro Nivola] came and picked me up somewhere in Beverly Hills and I burst into tears because I thought I’d completely fucked it up. The next thing I knew, Nicole [Holofcener] said she’d like me to do it, but she was terrified that there were going to be two English people in her little L.A. family. So I then went through a huge rigmarole to prove that I could do an American accent.

GF: Did you empathize with your character?

EM: I identified with her extremely, of course, but it didn’t feel intense. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, this is speaking to me in such a big way, and it means so much.” And I think that’s a testament to Nicole’s writing. The dialogue is so brilliantly written that all the preparation you do in terms of going in deep and soul-searching seems almost irrelevant. You’ve already responded to it immediately in a way that you haven’t even really had to think about. It’s more in retrospect, when I see the film or think about it, that I feel the agony of Elizabeth more than when I actually played her.

If you’re asking about how much of her is like me, I would say a lot, but in a slightly different way. I definitely fluctuate between massive extremes of feeling entitled to happiness and then feeling totally worthless and unentitled. So I understand that confusion. But for her it manifests itself in her feelings about her physicality, and I’ve never had that anxiety.

GF: After she sleeps with the movie star. Kevin. she asks him to critique her body– especially the things that embarrass her about it–as she stands naked in front of him. But obviously it’s your body that’s being described.

EM: Yes, Nicole and I wrote that speech together.

GF: So it was completely tailored to you?

EM: Apart from the line about the big bush, which was always there, though I have to say I did manage to come up with quite a big bush myself. [laughs] So, yeah, apart from that, I had to sit down and tell her all the things I find mortifying about my body. Of course, all women and a lot of men are self-conscious to a certain extent about how they look, but I don’t feel like it’s one of my pathologies. There are lots of things I am very neurotic about that would’ve been much more agonizing for me to have dealt with in such a personal, exposed way.

GF: Did you have any qualms about doing the scene?

EM: You don’t want to take your clothes off gratuitously in a bad film, and obviously it’s not a test of your skills. But there’s nothing you can really do about your body or how you look, and I’d much rather just stand naked than try to tell a joke that nobody laughs at in a movie. [laughs] To me, that’d be more humiliating. I knew that that scene was inevitable, because it was a totally organic part of the plot and a cathartic moment in the film. But I guess I kind of closed my mind to it. I didn’t think about it until I did it. There was this moment when I got out of bed to stand naked in front of all those people thinking, This bloody better be a good film, because if it isn’t I’ve really embarrassed myself! But it was extraordinary, too, because I had one of those moments that you’re always longing for as an actor, when the gap between what you’re feeling and what the character you’re playing is feeling is closed, or is as closed as it can be. I suddenly had this bizarre feeling, which I’ve never had bef ore, where I was as exposed and as vulnerable and, in a funny way, as in control as she was. And, without wanting to sound pretentious, it was amazing. I think it was a really important thing for me to have done, because as an actor I’ve been quite insecure about taking myself seriously. It’s taken me a while to admit that this is what I do, and if I’m going to do it, I might as well be serious about it. The stakes are so high in this job that you really have to put everything into it. Otherwise, there’s no point. In the last couple of years, I’ve experienced a turnaround in how I’ve approached the whole thing and I’ve gotten braver. I’ve been able to admit that I actually really care about it, that I want to do good things, and that maybe I do have some sort of artistic integrity, which I never thought I had before. So there was a sense that I was tying my colors to the mast when I did that scene.

GF: Is it important the scene isn’t erotic?

EM: Very important. That’s what makes it uncomfortable. I’ve seen it twice now and both times I found it really hard to look at. There was something really full-on about it, and any kind of erotic handle on the moment would have disguised the shock.

GF: We normally associate nudity with eroticism and here it’s been stripped of its-

EM: –sexiness. I know, and I love the way that it’s believable. It’s not only a cathartic moment for her, but for Kevin, too. I think there is something really touching about the fact that this bland movie star becomes intrigued by this girl. You feel like they’ve both been through something and come out a bit better.

GF: Do you think it’s tragic that most women feel they’ve got to conform to stereotypes of beauty?

EM: It’s a terrible tragedy for women. But I think it’s even scarier that we only have a few years when we can have children, which is where it all stems from. It’s no wonder that society has made such a big deal of that time in women’s lives. As a girl–I mean, I know I should have become a woman years ago, but I never quite managed it, though I’m on my way now– you’re so aware of that and it’s impossible not to be freaked out by it. And, of course, there’s more to life than that.

GF: I’ve noticed from articles I’ve read about you that you tend to be very self deprecating in a jokey way. And you’re very funny in that English sense, but it made me wonder if you lacked confidence.

EM: It’s definitely easy fodder for a psychoanalyst. I think it’s some sort of self-protective mechanism. It can be quite boring and I think I’ve started to grow out of it because telling people you’re crap wastes a lot of time. [laughs] But I’ve always done it. Catherine [Keener] says she does it, too. She said to me, “I normally tell everybody that I’m shit in [a film] or at least play it down, because I feel like a fool if I boast about it.” But Lovely & Amazing is definitely the thing I’m proudest of. It’s impossible not to be excited on behalf of Nicole and her little film, which I’m lucky to be a part of

Graham Fuller is Interview’s Film Writer at Large.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Brant Publications, Inc.

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