Benefits of Doubt

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Benefits of Doubt

Actress Emily Mortimer is typically self-deprecating, thinks that movie stars are mollycoddled and claims she can barely keep her mouth above the water

By Nancy Mills

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Published: Fri 25 Nov 2011, 10:01 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 3:14 AM

“In Martin Scorsese’s hands,” Emily Mortimer says, “a family film can be more serious and gut-wrenching than a horror movie.”

In Scorsese’s Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) and that released in the US on November 23, she plays a cheerful flower seller.

Set in Paris in the 1930s, Hugo is about an orphan (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the walls of a train station and makes sure its clocks run on time. He also is on a quest to unlock a secret left to him by his late father (Jude Law).

“In Shutter Island, my character was so dark,” Mortimer says, speaking by telephone from Los Angeles, “but I found the lightness in her. On the surface, my Hugo character is a happy, life-affirming person, bringing colour into people’s lives with her flowers. But she’s lost a brother and maybe a lover in the trenches during World War I.”

Mortimer, who will turn 40 on December 1, likes to play characters with hidden depths.

“It occurred to me that inside every child murderer there’s a flower seller,” she says, “and inside every flower girl there’s a child murderer.

Hugo is full of loss and pain,” Mortimer continues, “and in some ways it’s more serious than a movie like Shutter Island. It’s not Scorsese Light. He just made a movie that’s suitable for kids — but it’s for everybody. He wasn’t dumbing it down and making it easier for kids to stomach.”

The daughter of John Mortimer, the British attorney/writer who wrote the stories that inspired the television series Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-1992), is a great Scorsese admirer.

“Of all the geniuses I’ve met,” she says, “he’s the least intimidating. He’s so interested in what’s going on around him. He loves to talk, and he talks so much. You never get those awkward silences you get with a lot of geniuses.

“Movies are Scorsese’s way into the world,” she continues. “When he was a little boy, he had asthma, and his father took him to the cinema in the middle of the night. He looks outward and is saved by the delight and adventure and weirdness he can find in films.”

After working with Scorsese on Shutter Island, Mortimer willingly accepted a small role in Hugo to do so again.

“My part isn’t in the book,” she says, “but I understand why they added it. I’m there to show a more human side to the inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), so that he’s not a one-dimensional villain.”

It’s a typical self-deprecating remark from Mortimer, who, ever since she began acting while a student at Oxford University, has tried to deflect attention from herself.

“Sometimes, in England, people think of me just as a lucky, privileged daughter of somebody famous, someone who’s had everything handed to her on a silver platter,” Mortimer says. “It was hard to convince myself that I wasn’t. It’s the guilt of the privileged, and it’s hard to get over.”

She also feels that she gets special treatment in Hollywood. “Having an English accent is an unfair advantage here,” Mortimer says. “We’re given the benefit of the doubt in many ways.”

She doesn’t give herself the benefit of the doubt, to judge by her own description of herself: “I feel like I’m the British actor with slightly greasy hair.”

Others obviously disagree: Mortimer has collected more than 50 film and television credits since she began working in 1994, ranging from a bit part as one of Hugh Grant’s blind dates in Notting Hill (1999) to Katherine in Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) to the love interest of Inspector Clouseau (Steve Martin) in The Pink Panther (2006) and its 2009 sequel.

“I haven’t been pigeonholed,” Mortimer says, sounding pleased. “I worked out quite early that the way to survive being a famous person’s daughter was to be in a million different things. So I became a moving target.”

Her first few years as an actor were difficult, she recalls.

“I did a lot of bad TV in England and bad movies,” Mortimer recalls. “I see the beginning of my career as Lovely & Amazing (2001).”

Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, that independent film brought Mortimer a lot of attention and boosted her confidence.

“I never went to drama school,” she says, “so I never knew what it was to be ‘in the moment.’ I felt inadequate.”

Lovely & Amazing changed everything. Since then Mortimer has barely stopped working, often in prestigious projects. Woody Allen hired her to play a rich girl who falls for an outsider (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in Match Point (2005), and she appeared opposite Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl (2007). That year she also guested on 30 Rock in the recurring role of Phoebe, the girlfriend of Alec Baldwin’s character, a role that she says she’d be happy to reprise.

Currently she’s about to start filming an as-yet-untitled HBO series, created by Aaron Sorkin and set in a network newsroom.

“Jeff Daniels plays a cantankerous but brilliant news anchor,” Mortimer says, “and I’m his producer.

It’s going to be a pretty demanding schedule… As a film actor, I didn’t realise how involved I was going to be. Movie actors are coddled, even down to being given brown-paper envelopes with pocket money at the end of each week. We’re transported everywhere, and people call us to wake us up. We’re treated as completely incapable children that can’t be trusted to do anything for ourselves.

“But I sort of am one,” she admits with a sigh. “It suited me down to the ground. This requires me to be much more of a grown-up. I’m having to deal with a lot more stuff than I ever have done. But my kids can hang out in my trailer.”

The production will be shot in New York, allowing Mortimer to spend every night at her Brooklyn home with her husband, actor Alessandro Nivola, and their children.

“It will be possible for Alessandro to work while I’m doing this job,” she says. “We’ll have our extended family come to help.”

Mortimer and Nivola met while making Love’s Labour’s Lost and married three years later. Since then they have juggled two careers and two children — on the whole, she says, successfully.

“Neither of us has had to turn down work so that the other could take a job,” Mortimer says. “The toughest time we’ve had was when I was filming Transsiberian (2008) in Lithuania and Alessandro was making The Eye (2008) in Albuquerque. They were both long jobs, and we couldn’t see enough of each other.”

At the time they had only one child, Sam, who is now eight. May Rose will be two in January.

“Because I’m from England and half my extended family is over there, the kids are used to travelling,” their mother says. “We’re close to each other’s families, and we stick together through it all.

“My husband does half,” Mortimer says. “We try to help each other in all aspects of our lives so we can both have careers and be parents.

“I’m just about coping — I’ve barely got my mouth above the level of the water.”

— New York Times Syndicate

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