Sense and Sentimentality

It's difficult to talk about Emily Mortimer without referring to how appropriately the title of her breakout American role in Lovely & Amazing also describes the actor. Mortimer has the giant eyes of a Keane painting set on delicate features and that irresistible British accent that makes one instantly assume she's been classically trained at RADA. Mortimer, however, never thought she would become an actor and instead studied Russian in college. "I had a lot of money pumped into my education," she observes. "And I sort of pissed it all away."

Depends on how you look at it. After appearing in period pieces on English television and smaller roles in films such as Notting Hill (she was the "perfect" girl Hugh Grant considered dating) and Scream 3 (as an actor in the film-within-a-film), Mortimer stunned audiences as the sweetly insecure L.A. actor dangerously obsessed with her own appearance in Lovely & Amazing. In one memorable scene, she stood naked and asked a lover to evaluate her body in the harshest terms. The role won her an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress and some unusual attention. When her husband, actor Alessandro Nivola, accepted the award on her behalf, he recalled just how much the film had impacted people, recalling how a woman at the Hollywood YMCA shouted at her, "You should f***ing do something about that bush!" Mortimer laughs at the memory. "It's true," she says, noding. "I think I said, 'Yes, you're quite right' or something like that."

Now, Mortimer is onscreen in a performance she considers even more naked than that in Lovely & Amazing, as a single mother raising a deaf child in Miramax Films' Dear Frankie. As Lizzie, Mortimer plays a flinty and proud parent who has been moving from town to town, hiding from an abusive husband with her mother and son. Lizzie invents a story that Frankie's real father is a sailor, going so far as to write letters as the father. When Frankie believes his father's ship is coming to their town, Lizzie hires a stranger (played by Gerard Butler) to pose as his parent for the weekend. It's a sweet but not saccharine tale from first-time director Shona Auerbach and writer Andrea Gibb in which Mortimer finds just the right balance as a tough but loving mother, and it has earned a lot of positive word-of-mouth on the festival circuit. But Mortimer was well aware that the subject matter ran the risk of playing out too sentimental. "I definitely was worried," she admits of reading the initial script. "I felt there were lots of pitfalls it could fall into. When I started reading it, I was like: 'Uh-oh, deaf child.' And my back went up a bit. But then I started to realize that the story is unlike anything I've ever seen before, and I was really struck by it." Mortimer was intrigued by the idea of playing a woman who does some questionable things, though her love for her son never wavers. "The conceit is kind of dark, the way this mother is blatantly lying to her child," she notes. "That's not safe territory; it's interesting and slightly odd and daring. And I loved that notion of parental guilt, because I think it's a huge part of our lives. And many films don't explore it."

Mortimer credits Auerbach and Jack McElhone, who plays Frankie, with keeping any sentimentality out of the film. She had previously appeared in the Ewan McGregor film Young Adam with McElhone, although they didn't have any scenes together. "He'd just sort of shaken his light saber at me in the car park," Mortimer recalls. "But he's amazing. He's a tough little cookie and sharp as hell and instinctively not sappy in any way." At the time, Mortimer was pregnant with her first child and wary of playing somebody's mother. "Most things are impossible to imagine as an actor," she says. "You can only vaguely imagine what it might be like to rob a bank or kill someone. But a relationship like this is so specific. I was really nervous." The co-stars went out together before filming began, on what Mortimer calls a "disastrous date" during which she asked all the wrong questions. "Eventually, we got to the subject of football, which he's obsessed with, and I was okay," she reveals. "We really did hit it off after that, and we could just make each other laugh without making it seem like an effort."

Effortless is an ideal word to describe Mortimer's onscreen presence, whether as a love-struck socialite in last year's Bright Young Things or her savvy hitwoman tracking Samuel L. Jackson in Formula 51. No matter how varied, the actor always infuses her roles with an innate strength and charisma. Although Mortimer grew up in a privileged, academic family in England, she dreamed of being an ice dancer. "I never thought I'd get into acting," she says. "I must have somewhere wanted to do it because I was always acting out adverts I'd seen on TV and doing school plays. I definitely was a bit of a fantasist."

She trained at the Moscow Arts Theatre while on an exchange program in college, but she was more interested in her teacher than pursuing the craft. "I just fell madly in love with him and didn't hear a word he said," she reveals. "He turned out to be, in fact, incredibly boring. But I was still besotted with him." One night, after drinking herself silly out of nervousness, she found herself standing on a balcony with him under a beautiful moon. "He was so involved with himself, talking about the moon and just loving the sound of his own voice," she recalls. "And I remember it was so romantic but also awful because I really had to get sick and I couldn't bear to leave this great moment. So I vomited quietly into my hand. He didn't even notice, he was so involved with himself."

Mortimer returned to college at Oxford and caught the eye of an agent while performing in a school play. "She wrote me a letter and said I should come to see her," Mortimer says. "And I did, and she sent me on an audition for a miniseries, and I got the main part, and I just never stopped, really. It just sort of happened." Her parents were very supportive, and she confesses to being a little disappointed that she never got to have the conversation in which they tried to talk her out of pursuing acting as a career. "I keep getting cross with them about that now," she says, laughing. "I keep asking, 'Why didn't I get the speech that I was going to ruin my life?'"

Mortimer continued to work steadily, but she admits she didn't take acting too seriously at first, which she felt guilty about. "I felt like sort of a charlatan, I had no clue what I was doing," she says. "I was slightly embarrassed in some way, like I should be doing something more serious with my life. Then a weird thing happened where I sort of made a decision to see what it would be like to take it seriously, because it was frightening and angst-ridden and it wasn't worth putting myself through if I wasn't going to believe in it." Around this time she was shooting The Sleeping Dictionary, with Brenda Blethyn, who was reading the script for Lovely & Amazing. "She kept saying it was hilarious, and then she said, 'You know, there's a good part for you,'" Mortimer says. "I didn't want to look too desperate or hound her to read the script. But she didn't forget it. She rung up my agents and told them to get me a meeting and rung up Nicole [Holofcener, the writer-director] and told her to meet me. I should really have given her a commission for it."

It was while working on the film that Mortimer came to embrace and enjoy her career. "I felt what it was like to do something with people you admire and tell a story that was worth telling," she says. "There was such a pleasure in that. It stopped being about you and started being about something bigger. That was when I really fell in love with it. And I'm so glad."

Since then, Mortimer has tackled a wide variety of roles and will continue to throughout the year as she appears in two more very different films. She will appear opposite Steve Martin's Inspector Clouseau as a clumsy secretary in The Pink Panther and in the new Woody Allen film, Match Point. While little can be revealed about Allen's film, it is known that it was shot entirely in London, a first for the auteur. As for Pink Panther, it will be Mortimer's first foray into slapstick comedy, which concerns her. "I was terribly nervous doing it," she admits. "It's one thing, taking your clothes off on camera, but trying to tell a joke that doesn't work is so much more exposing and embarrassing." But the actor welcomes the opportunity to try new roles and genres. "That's the sort of thing I look for," she says, "not to get bored or to bore people." BSW