“I read somewhere that acting is the shy person’s revenge,” Emily Mortimer says. “I always was — and still am — very, very shy really. And by doing the thing that I was most scared of was the only way I was going to be able to function in the world.”
The British actress, 46, has had a vast variety of roles throughout her career, in film and on television. Her first major film was 1996’s “The Ghost and the Darkness” alongside Val Kilmer, and ever since she’s dug deep to uncover all types of characters.
“I’m drawn more to filmmakers or stories or storytellers than I am to characters,” Mortimer notes. “What draws me to something is that I want to help tell that story. So the characters are all very different. But as a general rule of thumb I’m much better when I’m terrified witless. Which I have been quite often. When I think I know how to do something I’m never very good, but when I’m convinced I can’t and I’m scared of it, that pushes me.
Mortimer’s latest project is an endearing film called “The Bookshop” in which she plays a small-town woman in 1959 who decides to open a bookstore. The movie, to be released Friday, is one of many projects the actress has upcoming (she’ll notably costar in “Mary Poppins Returns” later this year).
“What I love about the movie and the story is that it’s one that’s very seldom told,” she says of “Bookshop.” “It’s about trying very hard to do something fulfilling. Most of our lives is trying very hard to do something and not succeeding, and I don’t think that experience is portrayed enough in cinema. There’s something beautiful and hopeful and brave about that.”
Here Mortimer discusses some of her most memorable projects, including “The Newsroom” and “Lovely & Amazing.”
Florence Green, “The Bookshop” (2018)
“I was told by Patricia Clarkson, who I’ve done about four movies with now, that I would be mad not to work with [director] Isabel [Coixet]. She basically said, ‘If you don’t do it I’ll never speak to you again.’ And I found that everything Patricia said to be true. Isabel is the most well-read person I’ve ever met — and I’ve met a lot of very well-read people — and she manages to be the least pretentious person at the same time. She makes everything fun and easy.”
Emily, “Doll & Em” (2013-15)
“Dolly Wells, who I wrote ‘Doll & Em’ with, is my real-life best friend. We’ve known each since we were about 6. Basically this show began as a lie we were telling our husbands to justify our long phone calls overseas. When I moved to America she and I ran up the most unbelievably crippling phone bills. We had to make up a lie about why we were talking to each other so much and why the phone bills were so extreme. There’s not much in the show that’s similar to us, but the one thing that is is that we’re completely co-dependent and we can’t not talk to each other every day for hours. So we said we were writing a script together. And then five years went by and we didn’t have a script. It got to the point where we had to think of an idea and start writing something.”
MacKenzie McHale, “The Newsroom” (2012-14)
“For many, many reasons I wish Aaron [Sorkin] would do another season. But I might be far too old to learn the lines now. I would literally walk from my trailer to the stage at the studio terrified to speak to anyone in case I forgot my lines. I wouldn’t even move my head from one side to the other in case the words fell out my ear. I realized after three years of doing the show, when it came to an end and I had to say goodbye to my trailer, that I hadn’t actually sat down in my trailer for three years. I’d been pacing around this little space for three years learning my lines.”
Rachel 1, “Shutter Island” (2010)
“It was my first experience working with Martin Scorsese — I later did “Hugo” with him. I admire him as a director, more than anyone else maybe. But it was terrifying. I had this really extreme mad scene, this Ophelia-esque madness. That my first scene in the movie. I was doing a play the night before and then I drove to this set and had to be completely mad in front of these amazing actors and Martin Scorsese. I don’t think I ever sat down in my trailer on that day, either.”
Phoebe, “30 Rock” (2007)
“Tina Fey is to thank for that bizarre and brilliant character who has hollow bones because of something called Avian Bone Syndrome. I didn’t really know much about the show, but I loved the character. It was Elaine Strich playing my mother-in-law. I remember her coming in with curlers in her hair and this big fur coat and tiny stockings — and not much else on. I just remember her yelling, ‘Anyone got a … pen?’ and I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to do about 20 scenes with this woman.’ But she took to me and for some reason we got on very well.”
Elizabeth Marks, “Lovely & Amazing” (2001)
“That was incredibly important for me. It was one of the first films I’d ever done that I really felt excited about. I’d been in a lot of pretty bad British television before I came to America, quite bad costume dramas, the kind that don’t ever come to American TV. I was feeling a bit disheartened about the whole business of acting. Then I met [director] Nicole [Holofcener] and I read her script and completely loved it. I finally felt like I’d met a cool group of people making movies who I wanted to hang out with. They were doing something noble and interesting. I couldn’t believe I got the part and that she was entrusting me with this very personal story. It felt like a real gift.”
Perfect Girl, “Notting Hill” (1999)
“When I got the job I didn’t think I was a ‘perfect girl,’ but I was more perfect than when I showed up to shoot. I had bought this suit in a secondhand shop in London, this old pinstriped suit, and I wore it a week before this job and I developed a terrible allergic reaction. Like nothing I have known before or since. I got welts all over my body and all over my face. I took incredible amounts of antihistamines and steroids to make this go away. They managed to get most of the inflammation down, but my face blew up like a balloon because of the steroids. I had a moon face and I had to be the perfect girl! One side of my moon face went down, but you can still see it in the film. I saw it recently and I look like a chipmunk. It was so humiliating.”