Emily Mortimer: The importance of not being too earnest

Emily Mortimer has made her first major comedy, a Pink Panther prequel. John Hiscock discovers she's a bit of a natural
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Emily Mortimer has built a reputation in Hollywood as a daring actress, willing to try most things at least once, particularly if they are unusual, controversial or both.

Emily Mortimer has built a reputation in Hollywood as a daring actress, willing to try most things at least once, particularly if they are unusual, controversial or both.

Last year, her advisers stepped in with a firm admonition. It was time, they said, for her to stop taking her clothes off in arty, low-budget films, no matter how worthy, and to make the transition to the big time. She should co-star in a major Hollywood comedy. The British actress acquiesced and duly signed on the dotted line; but instead of delivering witty dialogue in a sophisticated comedy, she found herself in a seemingly endless series of sexually provocative scenes, most of them involving close encounters with Steve Martin.

"It was much more outrageous than anything I had done previously but I had a complete ball," she recalled with a fetching giggle. "It was a totally different thing for me."

The film is The Pink Panther, a "prequel" to the 1964 Blake Edwards comedy classic, which starred Peter Sellers and David Niven and introduced the bumbling Inspector Clouseau to the world. The new version, which will be released in the United Kingdom in the autumn, features Martin in the Sellers role with Kevin Kline as the long-suffering Chief Inspector Dreyfus, originally played by Herbert Lom.

Emily Mortimer is Nicole, Clouseau's very French, very perky and completely inept secretary, a role that she enjoyed greatly once she overcame her initial reservations and threw herself wholeheartedly into it. "I had done a number of quite risqué independent movies and had got quite used to taking my clothes off and being smothered in custard and things," she laughs, "and the people who represented me decided it would be a good idea if I did this big, safe Hollywood comedy. But about half way through the filming I realised I ended up in practically every scene with my legs wrapped around Steve Martin's face.

"It's very broad physical comedy which I was really nervous about because there's something mortifying about trying to be funny on screen and not managing it. Being naked is something you can't really do anything about - there you are and you're not good or bad and that's fine - but telling a joke that no one laughs at is just soul-destroying.

"Steve Martin is a comic genius whose mind is phenomenal and works faster than anyone else's I've ever met. All my scenes are with him and, whenever Clouseau and Nicole are in a room together, complete chaos ensues and we end up in all sorts of compromising positions which are, of course, completely innocent but look terrible."

"In the end I just thought I've got to stop worrying about this because it's like playing tennis against someone who's about five million times better than you. You just hope that by being the same room as them, your game is raised a bit, so I managed to get over my nerves and had a great time doing it."

Fittingly for the daughter of John Mortimer, the barrister-playwright-screenwriter and author of the Rumpole of the Bailey books, 33-year-old Emily Mortimer has a delightful sense of humour. She has that most English of traits, a tendency towards self-deprecation, and she occasionally collapses into fits of giggles, usually when recalling a particularly embarrassing or humiliating situation involving herself.

She has lost nothing of her Englishness and has retained her London flat, despite spending most of her time now with her husband of two years, the actor Alessandro Nivola and their 18-month old daughter at their home in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. They met five years ago on the set of Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost.

"We both go back and forth between the two homes," she says. "At first it was fairly stressful and it caused a bit of marital strife because this constant to-ing and fro-ing seemed such a big thing. But once we realised we couldn't possibly not spend the rest of our lives together, we just decided to accept it and go with it... I've grown to love being in LA. It feels calming and nice and beautiful. I do miss home but I'm getting better about it."

We are talking in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. She's wearing a flower-patterned dress under a black cardigan and her long dark hair starkly contrasts with her fair skin. Ostensibly, the reason for our talk is the imminent release in America of the film Dear Frankie, in which she plays the Scottish mother of a deaf son who believes his father is at sea. She hires a stranger, played by Gerard Butler, to impersonate the missing father. Dear Frankie, which has done the film festival rounds, has already been released in Britain and is just the sort of worthy, low-budget art-house film her advisers had been trying to steer her away from.

Mortimer was pregnant when making the film, and it holds a special resonance for her because it brought home the problems she might have to face in protecting her child from reality. "You want to stave off that moment when they realise that life can be pretty scary and miserable," she says. "It's very hard to know how long to leave it before you have to start exposing them to the horrors of the world."

That was one of the few serious moments in our conversation. Like her father, Emily Mortimer is a born storyteller and delivers a punchline with perfect timing. An enticing mix of bawdy elegance and delicate femininity, she talks freely of her upbringing, past boyfriends and career. She was born to John Mortimer's second wife, Penelope -"he married two women called Penelope because it was easier for him," she says. Raised in Oxfordshire, she attended St Paul's Girls School in London, where she began her love affair with all things Russian.

"I started studying Russian at school because I had huge crush on one of the teachers, this woman who had just escaped from Leningrad in the hold of a ship and seemed to me to be the most devastatingly glamourous person I'd ever come across. She had gold teeth and lots of curly blonde hair and wore red stockings and was only about six year older than I was. She was very young and she was crazy and full of life and took us to art galleries all over London and really introduced me to Russian literature."

Before entering Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1990, to study English literature, she went on a trip to Russia and fell in love with a poet called Dennis. "That was very irritating because I wanted him to be called Vladivostok or something, but he was called Dennis and the only thing he could say in English was, 'Hello, my name is Tony Dakota. I am an astronaut from Minnesota,'" she laughs. "Anyway, that made me fall madly in love with him but I couldn't speak any Russian so we didn't really talk to each other at all. But we had a wonderful time and I was there for seven or eight months. When I came back I was so hooked on Russian that I studied both Russian and English at Oxford in my third year."

She returned to Russia and spent two terms at the Moscow Arts Theatre School. "I had a whale of a time but I didn't learn much because I got another crush," she giggles. "By this time I had spit up with the Russian poet but I got a crush on my teacher called Dmitri who had a much more authentic Russian name and I just stared at him for four months and didn't learn anything. Then I finally got him back to my flat for dinner and I got so drunk because I was so in love with him and so nervous." She hesitates for a moment. "I shouldn't be telling you this, but I'm going to... Anyway, we went out onto the balcony and he started talking about the Moon and being very romantic. I suddenly realised I was incredibly drunk and I needed to be sick but I didn't want to leave because he was looking up at the Moon and I thought it could be my moment. I ended up being sick quietly into my hand and he didn't notice because he was so pleased at the sound of his own voice. It took me all that time to realise that actually he was just very good-looking and not very interesting at all, so that ended."

She would love to return to Russia and she keeps up her language proficiency with practice. "I have excellent conversations with Ukrainian taxi drivers on the way to Los Angeles airport," she says.

Emily returned to England and in 1994, an Oxford classmate's mother who was with the William Morris talent agency began sending her on auditions. She made her debut the following year in a television mini-series, Catherine Cookson's The Glass Virgin. "I was the Glass Virgin," she groans. "Suddenly I was running about on some moor in a bodice and being paid an awful lot of money. It was like a holiday job or something to pass the time and amuse my friends."

But subsequent roles followed in television films and mini-series and she moved to the stage, appearing in The Lights at the Royal Court and in The Merchant Of Venice at Edinburgh's Lyceum. Her film debut came in 1996 playing Val Kilmer's wife in the period adventure The Ghost and the Darkness and the following year she appeared again with Kilmer in The Saint.

She played Cate Blanchett's devoted lady-in-waiting in Elizabeth and found a whole new audience as a spoiled actress who meets a sticky end in Wes Craven's Scream 3. Those who saw her in Lovely and Amazing applauded her bravado for a full-frontal nude scene in which she asks Dermot Mulroney's film star character to appraise her body frankly. "It wasn't sexy, it was just me being nude," she says dismissively. She has also appeared in John Woo's Windtalkers and more recently appeared with Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton in Young Adam.

"All the roles I have done have been fairly different and I try to keep it that way," she says. "I think it's something to do with having a kind of privileged, middle-class upbringing and feeling that my life up until I started acting was on a predictable trajectory. Being easily defined is kind of scary so it's nice to surprise people and surprise yourself and find these totally different personalities within yourself."

She and husband, Nivola, whose films include Jurassic Park 111, Laurel Canyon and The Clearing, have talked about working together but she is slightly wary. "I think falling in love on screen if you have already been together for five years can be slightly dangerous territory, because what if people think you have no chemistry?" she wonders. "It would be terribly depressing."

'The Pink Panther' opens in UK cinemas in October