By Moonah Ellison
& Chesley Turner
Photography: Jim Wright
Friendship. Jealousy. Sex. Love. Marriage. Family. Death. And, of course, the news. When we caught up with Emily Mortimer, it was all on the table, conveyed with a high frenetic energy and a wry wit, the telltale signs of a woman who’s got it all together, even though she’s not quite certain she does.
Right now, Emily has a lot going on. One of the biggest and newest developments is a new six-part mini-series for Sky Television in the UK. The series started as a whim with her best friend, Dolly. “Dolly and I got together with another good friend of ours that we’ve known for many years who happens to be a great filmmaker. And we sort of improvised some themes around the premise of the conceit of what would happen if you made your best friend your personal assistant. And the answer is, you know, everything is terribly disastrous.” The friends got together and improvised some scenes. Gorilla-style. No makeup, no crew, no nothing. Lo and behold, it worked, and well. “It turns out that there was something really quite interesting and funny and awful about this dynamic that we established.”
The director put the scenes together, and he pronounced it good enough to be a first episode of something bigger. Baffled but pleasantly surprised at this opinion, Emily and her husband took the not-really-finished-product project to Sky, and they got money to do five more. And then HBO bought it. “We never imagined in our wildest dreams it would happen like that. That it would have a life that would go so far beyond its beginnings. We couldn’t imagine a better, more perfect home for it.”
Turns out, this apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Emily’s father, John Mortimer, was a barrister but also a screenwriter for the beloved UK courtroom series, Rumpole of the Bailey. “I was very, very close to him, and I’m sure influenced by him in many, many ways.” Emily sees she has quite a lot in common with him. Both were raised in the same house in the English countryside as only children (Emily’s sister wasn’t born until she was 12), and both faced the formidable task of entertaining their own bright minds, alone. “The way we sort of entertained ourselves in this big garden was kind of writing plays for ourselves, where we were the director and the actor and the writer and the everything. In his case, I’m sure the plays were very high-brow. Mine were more acting out personal dramatic efforts. But there was some symmetry, in a weird way.”
Despite the poignant reverie, Emily has a raw, no-filter manner, throwing out whatever comes to her. “For better or for worse—I do wish I didn’t do it quite so much. Some of it, I’m like: Oh my god, I’m a kamikaze. I don’t censor myself nearly enough.” She quickly analyzes her own openness. “It’s a bit of a defense. Having realized that if you really are as honest as you can possibly be, it protects you in a way. You’re safe.” Circling back to her kismet-like mini-series, she says, “Dolly and I have definitely worked that out together. We find great solace in each other, because we are there to say the worst thing you could possibly even think to each other, and we make the other laugh in doing so.” That brutal honesty and off-the-cuff candor is what makes the show work. “When things really are brave enough to try and really be honest about something, you always love it. It’s such a nice feeling. It’s kind of like forgiveness or something.”
So these two best friends dig in with both hands to the awkward and anxiety-inducing subject of jealousy. Not the grandiose debilitating hatred, but the little jealousies among friends. “Jealousy between people who really love each other, which is something that is still quite taboo to talk about. It’s an incredibly common, universal feeling. Everybody feels it all the time, and it’s a horrible feeling. It makes you feel disgusted with yourself.” Which, for Emily, makes it the ideal centerpiece for their scripts. In all, it creates “kind of an amusing paradox.”
Great creative fodder, in today’s entertainment industry, comes from the universal things that no one talks about. And human nature is hardly the least of these. “You know, I see it in my own children—part of them is extremely conventional and just wanting to fit in and having an extreme sense of how things should be and wanting you to look the same as everybody else’s parents and do the same thing and your house to look the same. And then another part of them is a complete sort of mess of chaos and confusion and emotion and, like, beast and passion and fury and love and just whirling chaos. I think we all carry that through all of our lives.” So the epic battle for primacy between the id and the ego ends up in our convoluted expressions of self. “There are two parts of us: one which sort of keeps things in order for things to make sense, and then there’s another side where nothing makes sense and we’re all kind of animals.” And we constantly try to work it out.
Emily has a take on our understanding of mortality, as well. “I feel like I’m being extremely philosophical—and I don’t know what I’m talking about—but from my two pennies, we’ve got quite far away from the mysterious and quite brutal realities of life.” Human progress has made humans feel super-human, pulling us further and further from the reality that life is, in actuality, an inevitable cycle. “All men must die, as Hamlet said, or Hamlet’s mother said. …After all these years of being on earth, you would’ve thought that we’d have gotten used to the fact that we all die. That doesn’t seem to have happened. But in a way, that’s part of being alive, too.”
The lucky ones, it seems, find someone to laugh with through this earthly spin we all take, and as for her husband, Emily has this to say: “Well, I really like him. I just really like him. And I think he really likes me.” Acknowledging the boring, rote quality of being just another woman who tells the magazines she has a great marriage, she adds, “Well, you can’t exactly talk about every time you yelled at him and threatened to never see him again. Of course there are moments where it is really shit, like every relationship. But we really do like each other.”
Marriage and its redoubtable, if rewarding, challenges, is the basis for Emily’s part in her next film, Rio, Eu Te Amo, the Brazilian version of Paris, Je T’aime and New York, I Love You. “It’s me and an older guy, Basal Hoffman, pretending to be a completely dysfunctional and fucked up married couple with a forty-year age difference on holiday in Rio.”
But the Rio short and her new mini-series lie in stark contrast with Emily’s other current project: playing MacKenzie McHale in The Newsroom. The latest Aaron Sorkin production, catapulted by HBO, combines a stellar ensemble cast, characteristic Sorkin-penned banter, 20/20 political commentary, indefatigable defense of the fourth estate, and a point of view that has everyone expressing a point of view. And Emily’s happy to be a part of it. “I’ve never been on a job that’s lasted this long. So constantly, your ideas about it and about you in it and about what it means and what’s relevant and important…[they] change all the time as you grow.” And then there was her father. “I mean, not to get too Freudian and weird about it, but my dad had died only quite recently before I got the job. And he, you know, wrote for the television, and he wrote pretty idealistically, and he wrote very liberal, left-wing point of view, and it was comic and kind of two feet above the ground, but also based in some sort of reality and quite political. And so I think there was something in me that was very drawn to it and drawn to Aaron for that reason. It reminded me of something that I admired in my dad, and what I knew from home.”
Now, almost three years later, regretting nothing, she realizes she got more than she bargained for. And more than ever, she’s proud to be a part of such a well-executed show. “You come to process the pleasure of being in that world and realizing you’re fascinated by these characters and you love them and you’re rooting for them. There’s a real place for showing good people trying to do a good job well in a world where it’s quite difficult to do that.”
And then there’s trying to pin the tail on Will McAvoy. “I had the great pleasure of meeting Dan Rather the other day. He’s been a wonderful supporter of the show. And he was saying it’s hilarious how many of his fellow anchormen are convinced that Jeff Daniels’ character is based on them. And they all continue to think that. “ Then she tacks back to her father. “My father had that because he wrote Rumpole of the Bailey and everyone was convinced that they were Rumpole. I think that’s just a testament to the character and to the show.”
Now, while it is clear that Emily’s father is an enduring influence on her life, she is also happy to point out that her mother has just as much contribution to her quirkiness. “My mom is amazing and hilarious and wonderful and also totally brings me back down to earth whenever I get slightly too big for my boots.” After telling us stories of her mother smoking cigarettes while playing tennis and telling Emily that her new show could be shit, it seems her mom is the real family comedienne.
Friendship. Jealousy. Sex. Love. Marriage. Family. Death. Newsroom. We covered it all. So what’s next, Emily?