Home-grown acting talent turned global star, Emily Mortimer, talks to Anna Walker about Sunday lunch, life in America and satirising Britishness in her new film, The Party
“I miss the s**t weather, I miss Sunday lunch and I miss having cold feet all the time. Someone only has to say the word ‘Kennington’ and I well up. If you asked me to go to London just to pick up a postage stamp and bring it back, I’d gladly hop on a plane.”
Emily Mortimer is homesick.
“Sunday lunch just doesn’t exist in America. I used to try very hard to perpetuate the business of Sunday lunch but nobody wants a big lunch on Sunday—they just want brunch!”
Emily, 45, met her husband, American actor Alessandro Nivola (below), in 2000 when they co-starred in Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labours Lost. In 2010 she became a US citizen, although she’s keen to explain, “We travel the world for work, so nowhere is really home.”
Despite this citizen-of-the-world status and a slew of American-accented roles, in the flesh Emily Mortimer is the quintessential English rose. The eldest daughter of renowned playwright John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey), she speaks with lilting, faintly plummy tones—peppered with emphatic expletives—and despairs at her son’s use of “pants” over “trousers”.
It’s unsurprising then that her latest project satirises the patently British institutions of politics and dinner parties. The Party follows a single evening in the home of Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), a middle-class politician who gathers her friends—including Emily’s Jinny, who’s pregnant with triplets (her first children with cold-footed partner Martha)—to celebrate her promotion to Shadow Health Minister.
As Emily explains, “It’s one of those evenings that you only have once or twice in a lifetime, when the s**t just hits the fan in every way.
“In this one farcical night, politics, health, love, birth, death, divorce, sexuality—it all comes up in a way that’s really brave and outrageous. It’s awesome seeing these liberal, left-wing intellectuals behaving like children and being governed by their passions in a way that begs the question: who really knows anything?”
"We’re all driven by our passions, by our culture by our friends, by the articles we read on our f*****g Twitter accounts…"
It’s a question the cast of The Party (which includes Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson and Cillian Murphy) were forced to ask themselves when they arrived on set the morning after Brexit, bowled over by the result.
“Literally everybody went away from the set that night not thinking by any stretch of the imagination that we’d come back the next morning and no longer be in Europe,” she laughs, clearly still incredulous. “It was amazing to think that there we were making this film about Britain’s political climate and yet not one of us had imagined that the climate of the entire country was going to change overnight.:
“What I love about this film is how you realise even people who have devoted their lives to informing themselves on the important matters of the day come at everything from an emotional point of view. We’re all driven by our passions, by our culture by our friends, by the articles we read on our f*****g Twitter accounts…”
One way in which Emily’s retaining a sense of her British identity is through her children, 13-year-old Sam and seven-year-old May. “I took them to my former university [Lincoln College, Oxford where she studied Russian] the other day hoping they’d fall in love. It’s such a beautiful cloistered college I thought it might look like Hogwarts. I try all sorts of stealths…”
Starring alongside Cherry Jones in The Party
This time with her children is precious, and something she used to worry about missing out on as a busy working mother. Has that sense of guilt eased as they’ve grown older?
“Oh no, it only gets worse as they get older! I think they actually need you more,” she laments. “My 13-year-old needs me more than ever. The just-turning-into-teen years are such a vulnerable, sweet age of crossover from child to man. I think guilt is just an emotion you have to accept as a parent, no matter what job you do."
“You always just feel guilty and worried and like you didn’t do it right, or you haven’t done enough, but that’s OK. I certainly don’t think the answer is to not work. Nobody does well if they force themselves to stay at home. One just becomes miserable.”
Working closer to her loved ones was a happy side effect of Doll & Em, the hit TV show she co-wrote and starred in with real-life best friend, actress Dolly Wells. The comedy follows an actress named Em who hires her best friend Doll (no prizes for guessing who plays who) as her personal assistant.
"I think guilt is just an emotion you have to accept as a parent, no matter what job you do"
“Normally when you do a job you’re far away from your family and in some ways you don’t want to talk about it too much because you don’t want to rub their noses in it, but with Doll & Em it was quite the opposite. Everyone was involved—my mum, my children, my husband produced and all our friends were involved from the costume design to the music. It was an amazing feeling having the people you love most in the world coming with you on this journey.
“One of our kids—I think it was Dolly’s son Ezzie—texted an old friend of Dolly’s saying something like, ‘Doll & Em is the dog’s b******s’ and for weeks this girl was labouring under the illusion that Dolly sent it.” She’s lost in a fit of giggles.
Though writing Doll & Em wasn’t her first experience on the other side of the camera—Emily has previously worked on a column for The Daily Telegraph and adapted Lorna Sage’s memoir Bad Blood—there was a unique release that came with a subject matter so close to home.
“I enjoyed the chance to be really honest. There’s sometimes quite a lonely and isolated feeling when you’re acting. You can get completely convinced that everybody hates you, and that you’re doing a terrible job. You look behind the monitor and see people whispering and feel sure they’re about to fire you. It’s a breeding ground for paranoia and there are moments when it can get terribly bad."
In Doll & Em which she wrote with best friend Dolly Wells
“It’s ridiculous where one’s brain goes when you put yourself in that vulnerable position where you’re longing for approval all the time. You never get it at home when you need it either; you only get it when you don’t. It was so cathartic to write about that feeling and make it funny.”
Emily is known for her daring and diverse choices, which range from the terrifying Shutter Island to the family-friendly Pink Panther films. Despite her varied taste, are there any dream roles she hasn’t had chance to play?
“Yes,” she sighs, “but I’m too old for them now. I wish I could have been Katharine Hepburn. It’s so funny because I always thought of her as being such a grown-up and now I’m older than she was in any of the films that I love her in…though I guess I could be her in On Golden Pond!
"There’s sometimes quite a lonely and isolated feeling when you’re acting"
“Really though, I just want to work with filmmakers that I love. I don’t mind what part, though it would be cool to start playing more disastrous people…some really awful people.”
One upcoming project is pitched as far away from “awful” as possible. Emily is set to star as the grown-up Jane Banks in Disney’s Mary Poppins sequel—the imaginatively titled Mary Poppins Returns. Don’t expect her to launch into a rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” any time soon though.
“I can’t sing for toffee. At school, they created a special class for my friend and me.
We were so bad at singing that there were the ‘robins’ and the ‘larks’ and we were the ‘crows’. I’ve been self-conscious about my singing voice ever since.
With Steve Martin in the Pink Panther films
“I did have to sing a tiny bit and Emily Blunt [who’ll be taking on Julie Andrews’s mantle as Mary Poppins] said she could see my entire body going into spasms as I waited for my one moment. It’s a pathological fear, like other people have of heights, but I overcame it and it worked out.”
One might think 20 years in the industry would dull the shine of filmmaking. Not so for Emily. Her fervour for her work remains that of a giddy teenage thespian.
“The feeling I’ve always loved the most—whether you’re performing, producing or writing—is people coming together with a desire to make something happen. It’s such a folly to the imagination trying to make a film or a TV show or a play. The chances of success are slim and yet people are so passionate about it.
“A cinematographer I worked with on Transsiberian has an expression for those who are foolhardy enough to think they can make a film. He calls them Perro Verde, which translates as ‘Green Dog’ in Spanish. It means a completely madcap individual who has the courage and crazy determination and…oh, I don’t know,” the words tumble as she talks, so eager is she to convey the joy that is filmmaking, “that sense of battling the odds or something, to really do this thing.”
“You go through life and you meet these Perro Verdes and think, This is cool, this is right. You just try to tell a story that means something.
“Very often you don’t manage it, and the story you’re telling doesn’t really mean anything to anybody. But sometimes, just sometimes…” She pauses, all that giddy love for her craft hanging in the silence. “You get it right.”