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Emily Mortimer Fights the Good Fight for 'The Newsroom'

Emily Mortimer Fights the Good Fight for 'The Newsroom'
Photo Source: Melissa Moseley/HBO

British actress Emily Mortimer stars opposite Jeff Daniels on Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” on HBO. Although she was initially approached about the role, she had an uphill battle to prove she could play the tough executive producer, MacKenzie McHale who continually goes head-to-head with Daniels’ news anchor Will McAvoy.

Mortimer, who’s spent most of her career working in film, says she’s never fought for a part the way she did for this one. Aaron Sorkin asked to have lunch with her, so she read the script. "I actually fell for it. Just hook, line, and sinker," she says. "I loved it." But then the lunch never happened. "And it was brilliant on their part because it was a bit like a boy calling you up on the phone and asking you out for a date and then never calling again. You become obsessed," Mortimer says. Mortimer hounded her agents, and eventually when people began reading and auditioning, her agents made sure she got an audition. "I just wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, and it became the most exhausting, challenging process I've ever had trying to get the job," she says.

What was your audition like for the role?
Emily Mortimer:
I auditioned four times. It was a bit like being on "American Idol." I had to go back each week for about a month and do it again. But not just do the same scenes again, do another three different sets of scenes with twenty more pages of dialogue to learn. Every time I felt like, "I'm going to get it," and then the next day I'd be told, "You've got to come back again." I was thinking, "Simon Cowell is here somewhere, but I just don't know which one he is!" Then finally, I got called back for the last time, and as I was standing outside the audition room, I heard myself say out loud to myself, "Failure is not an option," which is just such a geeky thing to have done, and I've never done it before or since. I laughed at myself at the time for saying that, but it obviously helped…I can remember that night lying in bed with my husband, staring up at the ceiling, saying "I think if I don't get this job, I'm going to be humiliated. I'm going to go mad actually"…I started thinking about this film "Grizzly Man," [about Timothy Treadwell]…He was a struggling actor and he got an audition for the part of "Woody" in "Cheers," and he auditioned four times for this part, and each time thought he was going to get a job and then didn't and then finally lost out to Woody Harrelson. And then [he] became an alcoholic and then went off and lived with the bears and got eaten by a bear, and he went completely mad… And I lay in bed with my husband and I just sat up in the bed and I was like, "I'm going to get eaten by bears if I can't get this job."

Good thing that you got the part, then.
It's a good thing that I got the part, but then also...[be] careful what you wish for. I've never worked in television before, apart from just a few days on "30 Rock." I did not know what I was getting myself into. The world doing these TV shows is just so extreme and so different from what I'm used to. I feel like I was in my infancy. I was like a babe in arms before I auditioned for the job, and I've become this kind of wizened old grown-up in the process of having to do the job. It's very, very intense work and unlike anything else I've ever had to do before, but wonderful as well.

Aaron Sorkin's writing is very stylized. Was it difficult learning his dialogue?
Aaron is very influenced by musical theater. There's a specific rhythm to the way that he writes, and when you get it right, it feels more like singing a song than saying a line of dialogue. The challenge is trying to find a rhythm.

Was preparing for this role different than how you would typically prepare for the film roles you've done?
I was thinking I should be preparing in the same way I prepare for anything, which is to try to find out who this character is. To me, in preparation for a role, the words are the least important thing. Really, it's just who you are. And once you know who you are, you can say any line of dialogue, but you can't hope to say the dialogue convincingly until you know who the character is. In a weird way, it was the other way around with this…you couldn't hope to know who your character was until you'd worked out how to say the lines…So a big part of the preparation was just starting to feel the way the words are meant to feel in your mouth and not feeling like you're talking in an alien foreign language.

What's a fun moment you remember from shooting?
I did a terrible Groucho Marx impersonation in one episode for Will (Daniels) to sort of cheer him up, and it went on and on and on and I came into the studio with a rather sort of timid version of this impersonation that I had prepared…and it was a bit timid and then Jeff [Daniels] told me to just go for it. He did a "Wayne's World" impersonation the week before, and he was like, “You've got to be with me on this. We've got to go for it…” And so I did the whole walk and I did the eyebrows and I did the cigar and I did the sheepish voice, I did it all and it went on and on and on and the director kept saying “rein it in, rein it in,” and I was like, “No, I'm not going to…” It was very liberating. There was something about just allowing myself to go to the furthest extreme at that moment, whether or not it stayed in the thing, and it was probably awfully embarrassing to watch, but it was good for me somehow. It freed me up a little bit.

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