GQ, Sept 2005
Chummy, Plummy, Yummy: Actress Emily Mortimer is no ordinary LA lady. She drinks, she swears and she refuses to have her ‘assets’ enhanced. But with starring roles in Woody Allen’s and Steve Martin’s latest movies, the funniest and most fearless of LA’s beautiful Britpack looks set to become our hottest Hollywood property.
It’s not often these days that a journalist gets to attack a bottle of chardonnay with a hot young Hollywood actress. Such things just don’t happen any more. Not at four in the afternoon, on a Tuesday. Not unless she thinks he’s a lawyer or an agent. And especially not in Los Angeles, where no one drinks anyway, least of all movie stars giving interviews.
And yet here is England’s Emily Mortimer, star of the forthcoming Pink Panther and Woody Allen’s latest, Matchpoint, beckoning me over to the corner booth of a wine bar in the trendy suburb of Los Feliz where she lives. She’s looking rather louche, sitting there alone in a strappy red dress. It appears we have the place entirely to ourselves.
“This is all terribly un-LA, I know,” she says, gleefully raising a giant glass. “Want to join me?”
There’s a lot that’s “terribly un-LA” about Emily Mortimer. No matter that she has lived here for most of the last five years, or that she married an American, the actor Alessandro Nivola. She still smokes, her boobs are real and her milky skin is defiantly untanned. She has retained her accent (Notting Hill, mildly plummy) and she says ‘pavement’ not ‘sidewalk’. And best of all, she arrives unchaperoned to interviews – there are no hovering publicists checking their watches or policing the questions. Which is lucky because few publicists would allow their clients to get lubricated like this within blurting range of a digital recorder.
But her publicist needn’t worry. Mortimer has made a career out of plunging herself into positions of vulnerability, the kind that scare off most of her peers, and coming out all the stronger at the other end. In 2001, for example, she starred in Lovely and Amazing, a poignant indie about female insecurity, which had her standing starkers in front of Dermot Mulroney while he gave her a cold physical appraisal – her tits, he told her, looked “droopy from the side”, and she needed not only to trim her bush but to “trim the trim”. Mortimer won an Independent Spirit Award for that one.
Further indignity followed a couple of years later in Young Adam when she allowed Ewan McGregor to splatter her with custard, administer a brisk spanking and then fuck her roughly from behind. The film was rightly hailed as one of the best British films in recent years.
“I have a strong sense memory of that scene,” says Mortimer. “It was cold, sticky and the smell was just retchmaking.” She makes a pukey face. “It wasn’t just custard – there was ketchup, brown sauce and ink and sugar. Try mixing those ingredients. I defy you not to gag.”
Still, all that custard and nakedness was not without reward. It wasn’t long after she washed the condiments from her hair that Hollywood came knocking. There were other movies in between, such as Steven Fry’s Bright Young Things and Dear Frankie, a mother-son weepie based in Scotland. But this year, for the first time, Mortimer ascends to the billboard heights of Kate Beckinsale, Kate Winslet, Rachel Weisz and Keira Knightley – fellow English roses who have struck it large in Hollywood.
In the autumn she stars opposite Steve Martin in the highly anticipated prequel to Blake Edwards’s 1964 classic, The Pink Panther. Mortimer plays Nicole, Clouseau’s perky but inept French secretary, who in the course of their nudge-nudge slapstick, frequently gets entangled with her boss.
“There I was thinking that after Young Adam I could stop being so risque and do a mainstream Hollywood comedy, and half the time I end up practically sitting on Steve Martin’s face!” She cracks up laughing. “I love Steve Martin, by the way. He was totally charming, incredibly generous and he was just a total gent.”
And in the winter, she’s in Matchpoint, Woody Allen’s skewering of the English upper-middle class. It’s perfect casting for Mortimer who admits to having been “a bit of a Sloane” herself. The daughter of the barrister-turned-fiction writer, Sir John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, Emily was in the year below Rachel Weisz at St Paul’s Girls School and then took Russian at Oxford like Kate Beckinsale. In fact, she’s English in the way that Americans imagine English girls to be – pretty, posh and Oxbridge-educated.
But while in some, such an upbringing might breed arrogance, in Mortimer’s case, the effect is quite the opposite. She is so acutely aware of the privileges she has enjoyed that she is wonderfully self-deprecating, never missing an opportunity to laugh out loud at herself or to puncture the illusion that surrounds her profession, such a rare quality in Hollywood. One of her favourite stories is about the time during the shooting of the flawed gangster caper, The 51st State when she had to press up against Samuel L. Jackson, their faces centimetres apart. She giggled to break the tension and two snot bubbles burst out of her nose.
“He was quite nice about it, considering,” she shrugs. “But I don’t think he was particularly impressed.”
It’s impossible not to be charmed by Mortimer. I’m a people-pleaser,” she says. And it shows. She’s determined to do her best with every question I ask, marching off on all sorts of tangents as she goes. Ninety minutes fly by as we roam from teeth whitening treatments to Chekhov’s wife to her favourite subject of all: the peculiar condition of being a Londoner living in Los Angeles. For as very English as she is, her life seems set here, now, with her skyrocketing career, her husband and their 20 month old baby boy, Sam.
I ask her what she misses most about England. And she thinks for a while, cradling her wine and gazing into the middle distance.
“You can’t say ‘cunt’, here,” she says finally. “Apparently in America, it’s really nasty and gender-specific. I once said it in front of my mother-in-law and she sort of shuddered and sat me down to explain it all. It’s quite sad really, because in England it’s a term of endearment. You know, like ‘I love you, you cunt.’ I told my hairdresser about it, who’s English, and he said ‘oh yeah, I had a girlfriend who used to say ‘fuck me you cunt’.'”
Her expression softens, as though she’s just seen a little puppy. “I thought ‘aw, what a lovely little moment.’ Even being half-way round the world, you can get a taste of home in some hairdressers in Santa Monica.”
So I take it Los Angeles doesn’t quite feel like home yet.
I don’t think it ever really will be. If someone said ‘get me a postage stamp from London’ I’d be on the first plane. Any excuse.
But you do live here, and your family’s here.
Yes, it depends on your definition of home, I suppose. Maybe home is where you can see yourself dying. And I don’t want to die here, I know that. I don’t even want to get old here.
How old are you?
I’ll be 34 in October.
That’s older than Jesus.
I know. I feel very relieved that I’m not the Second Coming. At last, I can put that little nagging thought to rest.
Do you think you’ve changed living here?
I was forced to take myself seriously for the first time, because not taking yourself seriously out here just doesn’t compute. When I first arrived, I got chatted to by this producer at a party. He asked me what I did, and I said “oh I’m an actress” – and you just hate hearing yourself say those words because it’s such a fucking cliché. So I said, “but I’m not a very good one”. And it totally freaked him out, as if I said “I eat babies” or something.
He was probably just trying to chat you up.
You’d be surprised. Nobody flirts in LA. It’s a very unsexy town.
There’s a lot of sex going on, though.
Oh, I think people fuck each other, but it’s not in the air like it is in London – it’s more in your Blackberry as something to do on a Thursday night. There’s no ‘je ne sais quoi’ going on. So you go home and think ‘fucking hell, I better get a nosejob because no one’s twinkled at me for months.’
Have you had a nosejob?
No. But I have been trying to get my teeth done like everyone else out here. Look at that waiter – he looks all craggy and wasted like he stays up all night drinking, but his teeth are perfect. I thought the same thing watching Ray. All these smack addicts who are on the road all the time and they’ve all got sparkling fucking teeth.
Your teeth look fine to me.
Well, thank you. I went to three dentists in an attempt to get my teeth whitened and they each told me that I need thousands of dollars of dental work first. So I’m refusing to go. I’ve been using those strip things, instead. That’s a really unsexy admission isn’t it?
Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone. Anyway, it’s not as unsexy as your Samuel L Jackson story.
I know, I read things like that and think, ‘oh fucking hell, I should be a bit more mysterious.’
There was nothing left to the imagination in your nude scene in Lovely And Amazing. Very brave of you to do that.
Thank you. I knew that film had an impact when I was in the YMCA one day and some woman shouted across the swimming pool, “you’ve got to fucking do something about that bush!”
It was rather big.
I know. When I saw that in the script, I thought great – I don’t have to worry about that for a while.
Is there a bush clause in your contract – did you more money for it?
No, I just did it.
Apparently Halle Berry got an extra half million for getting her tits out in Swordfish.
Really? Fucking hell! I’m going about this all wrong aren’t I?
Would you do it again – go naked?
Well, you don’t want to be known as the girl that gets her kit off all the time. It’s the same in real life.
The go-to girl for bush and custard.
Exactly. But I’m not against nudity at all. Only now, since I’ve had a baby, I’ve slightly gone south. So I’m rather delighted that I’ve committed myself to celluloid at a time in my life when I was pert.
You sound like your character in the film – a perfectly pretty actress who’s all insecure about her body.
Any actor or actress that says they’re not insecure about their looks or getting older, is lying. But I don’t think I’m demented about it.
Demented’s a great word.
Isn’t it? The other week, some friends who are nothing to do with the industry were watching the MTV movie awards and they could not believe how demented all these people were. The way they described it to me was like a menagerie of desperation – all these desperate people, desperately trying to be loved or memorable or something.
Award shows are excruciating. Have you had to do that thing where you share the mike with Sisquo or someone, and you’re both reading bad jokes off a prompter…
I did once. There was one bogus awards show – I can’t remember the name of it – and I was presenting the award for best short film. But the guy who came to collect it didn’t notice when I went to kiss him. And instead of beating a hasty retreat, I kept trying to kiss him, following him across the stage with my lips pursed. People were tittering. It was horrible.
Sounds traumatic. Sorry to make you bring it up.
Oh don’t worry. I get reminded of it every time anyone brings me a photograph to sign – it’s always from that night for some reason.
Does that happen often – getting stopped for autographs or pictures?
Occasionally, but not much. The paparazzi don’t bother me so I’m quite lucky I suppose. Mind you, I’d love to have one of those made up names that proper celebrities leave in hotels.
What would yours be?
I’d use my porn name probably – mother’s maiden name and first dog. That’s it, right? So mine’s Tizzy Gollop. Just ask for Tizzy Gollop at the Dorchester.
She sounds like a good time, Tizzy.
She is, she’s a bloody good laugh. Tizzy Gollop’s going to be my alter ego. I don’t think she worries, do you? Not with a name like that.
Are you a worrier?
God yes. But I’m also incredibly foolhardy sometimes. Like the time I went to Russia for two years just after the Berlin Wall came down. I was only 17, I had just left school. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I literally had 2 telephone numbers in my little folder, I had a place to stay for the first two months in this Swedish lesbian businesswoman’s apartment. And I just stayed on. It was amazing. I’m sure some really horrid things could have happened to me and they didn’t.
Maybe your innocence protected you.
Yes, like a sort of Ready Brek glow. I was so innocent, I hadn’t even kissed anyone hardly. And it all happened in Russia. What was brilliant was that my coming of age coincided with this huge moment in history, when the curtain was lifted.
All sounds very Milan Kundera.
I know! I would really love to write about it one day. Actually I wanted to write a biography of Chekhov’s wife, and combine it with my experience. That probably sounds very la-di-da, but she’s a great character.
So how did you go from Russian to being an actress?
I can’t remember what I’ve said about that and what’s actually true. I suppose I never thought I’d end up as an actress, but I always did it – in school plays and things.
What was plan A then?
I wanted to do good, really.
Shouldn’t think there’s much call for that at the Oxford Careers Fair.
I know, “Good” doesn’t get a very big tent. But I was desperate to do good in the world somehow. And I wasn’t very good at being good, it turns out. After university I worked at this refuge for asylum seekers in Vauxhall, because there were a lot of Russian speakers who needed help with forms and stuff. The trouble was I was debriefed at the end instead of the beginning. So by the time the woman said, ‘don’t give out your number to anyone,’ I’d given my number out to about 10 people already. So for the next 6 months I was driving Iranians and Ukranians around to dental appointments in Lewisham. It totally took over my life.
So what happened?
I ended up just getting so irritated with it all, I had to stop.
That’s a shame. Doing good’s very fashionable these days. Everyone’s at it.
I know, Angelina Jolie does a lot of good. I bet she doesn’t get irritated.
Maybe you need to become the other kind of celebrity – not a do-gooder, but someone with a fragrance and a fashion line. Emily by Calvin Klein.
Oh god yes – anything for a bit of cash. I’ve done too many independent films, I could really do with some money. I’m sure that just sounds horrible. But it’s true – I’m longing to sell out. I’ll put my name to anything.
Had any offers?
Well, I’m trying. Whenever beauty magazines ask me what my favourite product is, I always say it’s this dry shampoo from the 70s. It’s like 99p in some dusty corner of Boots. You spray it in your hair, and then you brush it out, and then it looks like you’ve just washed your hair. It’s magical. You don’t have to have a bath for about three days.
Batiste – for girls who don’t bathe.
What’s this about a screenplay you’ve written?
I wrote an adaptation of the literary critic Lorna Sage’s memoirs, Bad Blood. What happened was I went to lunch with this producer and he suggested it. I think he just wanted to take someone out to lunch, really, but I was unemployed at the time so I took him at his word, quickly wrote a treatment and kind of shamed him into giving me the job.
When’s it coming out?
Oh, that’s a long way off. It’s fucking difficult to raise money you know.
How does writing compare to acting?
It’s hell. It’s months and months of misery. It’s so lonely and gruesome and depressing and you’re constantly reminded of how stupid you are.
You’re not stupid, you went to Oxford.
I don’t think my going to Oxford is proof of my intelligence. You just get on a train aged about four and as long as your parents have got enough cash to see you through, you end up going through all the posh schools and colleges. It’s no big deal. I probably wouldn’t have gone to Oxford if I’d been born on a housing estate in Leeds.
Still you finished the screenplay, that’s something.
My trouble is once I’ve started something I can’t not finish. The shame of not doing something I said I was going to do is just too great. And now I’m writing another one with my friend.
Why? I thought it was torture.
I don’t know. It’s like having a baby or something. Once you’ve got the first one out, you forget the pain, you’re so pleased that it came out alive.
What about auditions – do they get easier with time? How was the Pink Panther audition?
It wasn’t too bad. I flew to New York, met Sean Levy the director, and Steve Martin, and we did two or three scenes. He gave me the Heimlich manoeuvre.
Was it easy?
Weirdly, I really enjoyed it. I feel like I’m better when I’m forced into some terrifying unknown situation. Like the time I went to Russia. It’s less frightening than everyday existence somehow. I think if I had to make joke jokes – like clever sophisticated reparti – then I’d find that very scary. Trying to be funny is potentially very embarrassing, much more so than taking off your clothes.
But physical comedy is easier?
For me, I think it is. I’m quite naturally gawky. My friends used to make me run for a cheap laugh.
Are you and Steve Martin pals now?
Well, it wasn’t like we were down the pub every night drinking Jack and coke till five in the morning. But I think he’s hilarious. All of my scenes are with him and he was totally charming, incredibly generous and really funny.
And Woody Allen?
Woody is very funny too, but he’s more throwaway with it. As a figure he’s quite distant. He doesn’t believe in a lot of rehearsal. He likes the spontaneity of not even having said the words before you do the take. It’s really quite exciting. You’re forced to rely on your wits.
It’s odd that an American should take a poke at the class system.
Yes but we’re so neurotic about class in England that we can’t actually look objectively at it at all. Anyone who’s posh is automatically a baddie, and if they’re not then people get suspicious of why not. But these people aren’t bad people, they’re just privileged, wealthy people who are ultimately sexless, unexciting and arrogant. I think what’s interesting is that he originally wrote it to be set in New York. He just transposed it to England.
Americans don’t like to admit to their own class system.
Well, they do admit it, but they’re not so inverted snobbish about it. In England, it’s an anachronism. Lord and Lady So-and-So won’t get a table in a trendy London restaurant. It’s more likely that Posh and Becks would. And it’s a bit of a shameful secret that you’ve been to certain schools or universities. But on the East Coast of America people are quite open about all that. They talk openly about their connections and who they know. Now, I’ve got to keep an eye on the time because of the babysitter.
It’s gone 5.40. Fancy another glass?
I can’t, honestly. If I have more than two glasses of wine, I feel like I’ve been run over by a bus the next day. Doesn’t seem fair. It’s getting so there’s no point socialising because you feel so terrible afterwards.
And you can’t socialise sober.
God no. Everybody’s really boring until you’ve had a drink or two.
Go on, another glass won’t hurt.
Tell you what – why don’t you get one and I’ll have a sip of yours?