Emily Mortimer’s new film, The Bookshop, releases theatrically this month, and she’s doing a lot of press. She is disarmingly charming. The the longer you speak with her, the more she seems to the quintessential English lady, one whose personality encompasses the casually polite and well-appointed elegance of a gal you might encounter on a commuter train from Oxford to Southhampton, along with the admirable qualities of stalwart Women’s Land Army volunteers who fed their country during World War II.
It’s easy to forget that Mortimer’s a star whose appearances on the big screen in movies as diverse as Lovely and Amazing, Hugo, and Lars and the Real Girl, and in small screen series such as The Newsroom and Doll and Em, garner bankable critical acclaim that’s matched by her successes as a screenwriter and producer. Mortimer’s triumphs in an industry known to be challenging for women might lead you to expect her to be anything but the warm person she presents to the press. But speaking to her about her upbringing makes it clear that she comes by her warmth honestly.
SHE LEARNED THE POWER OF BEING HEARD
Mortimer was born in Hammersmith, London, into a loving, supportive family. From early childhood, her parents taught her the power of being heard and accepted. They believed in the important role art and theater play in society. Her father, Sir John Mortimer, was a well-known barrister and playwright, whose plays were performed on radio broadcasts, stage, film and a TV program starring Sirs Laurence Olivier and Alan Bates.
As a young child, Emily wrote plays, and performed them in the back garden of their home. She reminisces about her childhood with appreciation, expressing awareness of how lucky she was to have her parents’ unqualified support.
“When I was 7 or 8 years old, I wrote a play called A Hard Day’s Knight which was about a sort of hopeless medieval knight and his love life. I did another play completely cribbed from a show called Flambards we all watched. Mine, like the show, was an Edwardian drama, where I made it all about lost love, and horse riding, and soldiers going off to war. I was so obsessed with it, I made my mother name our dog after the little boy in the show named Tizzy. My friends and I would put these plays on in the garden at my house. My best friend at the time and the neighbor kids and I would get dressed up and perform, forcing my poor parents to sit for hours while we acted out these never-ending melodramas. They were truly the picture of patience,” she recalls.
SURROUNDED BY GIRLS
Mortimer went through primary and secondary schools surrounded by girls. She attended St Paul’s Girls’ School in Brook Green, known as one of Britain’s best schools academically. She says it transformed her from being a painfully shy girl to being someone far more outgoing and confident, something she doubts would have happened had she gone to school with boys.
“I know that I was fearfully shy as a child, so much so that I couldn’t even put my hand up in class without going red. I was really devastated by shyness. By the time I left St. Paul’s, which was very into encouraging women to be the best that they can be, and believed in education for girls, I was much less shy than when I began. I dread to think what I would have been like had I been amongst boys. I think I wouldn’t have done at all well,” she confides.
ADJUSTING TO THE PRESENCE OF BOYS
Emily had a baptism of fire in secondary school, when she started performing onstage with boys. She laughs as she says, “A whole new layer of trauma was introduced into my life. I was expected to interact with these boys. Maybe there would have been less trauma had I been with them and around them before. I had hardly ever even seen a boy before I was about 15! I was suddenly having to kiss them onstage in my high school theater. I can remember kissing this boy in a Terence Rattigan play, and I had never kissed a boy before, and I had to do it for the first time in my life when we were both onstage. Of course once my education involved boys, by the time I got to Oxford, I did make up for lost time.”
FROM OXFORD TO SHOW BIZ
While at Oxford, she performed in several plays, and was spotted by a producer who cast her in Catherine Cookson’s The Glass Virgin, in 1995. That led to her first feature film, opposite Val Kilmer in The Ghost and the Darkness. From there, she’s never stopped working. Always seeking to work with directors who have a strong, clear vision of the world they are creating and who want her to be a part of that world, she’s accepted a diverse range of challenging roles in films helmed by Martin Scorsese, Niclole Holofcener, Wes Craven, Stephen Fry, and Craig Gillespie, among other visionary directors.
Working with Kenneth Branagh on Love’s Labour’s Lost, she met her husband and producing partner, actor Alessandro Nivola. Most recently she’s appeared in Sally Potter’s The Party, and she plays the central character and carries the film in Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, which releases this month.
ENTERING THE AUTEUR’S WORLD
“The best part of being an actor is working with these fascinating people, and helping them tell their stories. I love working with filmmakers, with auteurs where the script has to be, in some ways, part of their product. What’s so exciting to me is, to help put the crazy stuff that goes on inside their head on celluloid, and present it to the world. Yes, I like working with filmmakers who are creating an entire universe. Martin Scorsese is the ultimate auteur, and he doesn’t generally write his scripts, but you still feel every beat of the story is his. He’s the puppet master. His scripts are a map for the worlds he creates. I think that the great experiences have been with directors that really understand the world that they are presenting and they are making, helping them tell the story that they have in mind. Getting into their universe, inhabiting it, and being a part of telling their story. I’m always drawn more to the story than to the character, because generally if the story is interesting, the characters are too. Everything about what they’re trying to do becomes interesting. It’s definitely the filmmaker and the story that I’m drawn to. I always feel like I’m better when I’m interested and engaged in the story of the story I’m trying to tell. If you just make it about a performance or trying to come over cool, or attractive, or smart, you’re lost. It’s so much better when it’s about helping to tell someone’s story,” she comments.
WRITING, DEVELOPING AND PRODUCING
Emily started producing with the TV hit Doll & Em in 2013, which she wrote with her lifelong friend and fellow actress/writer Dolly Wells. What’s funny about IMDb is often it doesn’t reflect the whole scope of a career, or how it develops over time. Emily had been writing her whole life, but one wouldn’t know it by looking at her credits. In fact, she’d already been published by The Times in London by the age of 14. Later, as a professional actress, she was asked by The Evening Standard to write a column based on being an actress in London. She created a fictitious diary about the experience of a character named Nina, based on the character in the Chekhov play, The Seagull.
BIRTHING KING BEE
The fan-pleasing Doll & Em started as an excuse for Mortimer and her best friend, Dolly Wells, to spending hours talking to each other on the phone every. Their creative conversations became a show about an actress and the down-and-out best friend she hires as an assistant. Though they’d been chatting about developing the project for about ten years, once they got serious about it, it took only a year from script to screen.
At that point, Emily’s husband, Alessandro stepped in and,without having any previous experience, produced it. It led to a well-reviewed hit series, which spanned two seasons. Also, with Doll & Em, Emily and Alessandro’s production company King Bee was born. They had found a way to make a successful, meaningful show about the friendship and challenges of two women over 40, and they had done it all by asking for help, and involving trusted friends and family in the creation and filming of it. It was a huge lesson for Emily, Alessandro, and Dolly, all of whom have gone on to officially expand their hyphenates to some mixture of writer/director/producer/actor. King Bee now has a first look deal with eOne, and Dolly Wells has just written and directed Good Posture, her first feature, with Emily as co-star.
AGING, WISDOM AND FRIENDSHIP
“Mostly getting old is awful, but there are a couple of things that are great. You learn there are things you can do, and be fearless about, and choose to do based in love and friendship, and sometimes easy and fun actually works, but more than that, we realized that we know how things work. We had lots of experience. We had lots of good friendships with people that we liked and admired that we could involve in what we were doing. From that came King Bee, and now we’ve got a deal for first look at eOne Studios. I think our ethos is really just that, which is to produce things based on our aesthetic and on what we love. With Doll & Em, we discovered making people you care about laugh might mean other people find it fun and funny, too. We also wanted it to be something that all the people we loved most in the world were part of…our mothers, and all our children, our husbands, and our friends are all in there,” Mortimer says.
“It was really the discovery that making things and creating things can and should be fun and could feel like how we felt as children. It was incredibly freeing, and I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get that feeling back again, because we really never thought anyone would see it. I’m certainly going to try.” she continues.
“I think we were playing with the idea of what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be an aging woman in an age, where sexual politics and gender politics are changing so much: how to be a reconstructed woman when you spend half your lifetime being an un-reconstructed woman. There’s humor in that. I think the main thing with our writing is to try to be as honest as we can about life. All the parts of life. If you can find an honesty and truthfulness in the characters you’re creating, you’re safe. Being brutally honest is funny and it often gets at something quite deep, more than trying to be politically correct or zeitgeist-y.”
THE BOOKSHOP, TO DUST AND MARY POPPINS RETURNS
In Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, releasing theatrically on August 24, Emily stars as a women who loves books and seeks a new beginning as a book retailer in a small town in the English countryside. Based on a classic novel, the film co-stars Patricia Clarkson and Bill Nighy. Mortimer had never before worked with Nighy, but says she stalked him until he said yes to being in the film.
As producing partner in King Bee, Mortimer is behind the new film To Dust, which won the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. In December, Mary Poppins Returns opens, with Mortimer playing the grown-up Jane Banks. The film’s premiere date, which lands on the prime calendar real estate of December 25th, will be a career first. Of the film, she says, “Rob Marshall is one of those perfect gentlemen, and an elegant person inside and out. He’s also a great filmmaker, and really knows how to create something wonderful. Even being on the set felt like magic every day. I’ve seen the movie, and it’s really magic. I am so proud to be part of it.”
As for future projects, Mortimer has big plans that are soon to be made public. One is as a screenwriter, and the other will only drop hints about, with excitement in her voice. “I’m doing something very woman-centric, and I’m incredibly excited about, about to be announced. Stay tuned. I’m so thrilled, and can’t wait to be part of producing it!”
WHY WE CHOSE HER:
Emily Mortimer has guided her own career, on her own terms, despite the challenges she has faced as a woman in film. Through her show Doll & Em, she has also discovered a secret from which all women can learn, regardless of their profession; to base as many choices as possible in life on what is fun, and to surround oneself with endeavors involving as many loved ones and trusted friends as can be practically included. The more experience women in our society get, the better that advice sounds. We can’t wait to see what Emily Mortimer has in store for us next. Her path is an inspiration not only to women in film, all women who crave autonomy and who take a fearless approach to their future.