Emily Mortimer

Soma Magazine

A delicate English belle gazes into the camera. With reed-thin arms and a pale, lightly-freckled complexion, she’s the very picture of sweetness and virtue. There’s vulnerability—maybe a hint of fear—in her gaze. Raise your voice, utter an unkind word, and she’ll flinch, if not cry. You imagine hot tears spilling over her lashes to slide down her dewy, soft cheeks. Oh, but appearances are deceiving.

Look at Emily Mortimer. She could be the adorable girl blushing at the top of the porch steps next door, or the detached society princess who turns shyly—scornfully?—away if you dare approach. But in the movies, she’s always doing something unexpected, taking the image she projects and tossing it right out the proverbial window. It’s quite effective: The contrast between the boldness lurking in Emily Mortimer and our expectations of her knocks us out. Whether she’s climbing out of bed stark naked and demanding a head-to-toe critique of her body in Lovely & Amazing or crouching on the floor in her garter belt, covered in custard, as Ewan McGregor violates her in Young Adam, Mortimer makes our jaws drop. We didn’t know this darling girl could do such a thing.

“I am attracted to people who are surprising,” Mortimer says, speaking on her cell phone while being driven from the London set of the upcoming Woody Allen film to an interview. “There’s something very depressing about people, in fiction and in life, with domino opinions, that thing where you know one thing about them so you know everything about them. Some people, you find out they’re a vegetarian and you know everything else about them. And then there are some very surprising vegetarians.”

Mortimer credits her father, screenwriter and former lawyer John Mortimer, with this fascination. “He defended criminals, and as a result, he’s incredibly open-minded,” she says. “He says things like generally murderers are the nicest people he’s ever met. He likes murderers a lot. He says they got rid of the one person on earth who was giving them hell. People can have done the worst things and still have some element of decency about them and something interesting to say.”

The 32-year-old actress wants to make it clear that she didn’t simply agree to portray these surprising young women because she liked them. Early in a career, she says, an actor takes what is offered. “But you probably fight a little harder for the parts that you want, so maybe there is a connection between them,” she concedes, before excusing herself. “I’m doing an interview on the telephone. Would you warn the driver that I’ll be talking rubbish about myself?”

The role that brought widespread attention to the London-born, Oxford-educated Mortimer was neurotic actress Elizabeth Marks in Nicole Holofcener’s 2001 film, Lovely & Amazing. In a movie with countless moments to make women laugh—or cringe—at their insecurities, the one scene that had everyone talking was the one in which Mortimer’s character stands naked before cocky TV star Dermot Mulroney and asks for his frank appraisal. “It plays brilliantly on how nudity normally works in movies,” Mortimer says, recalling what she still considers her best work. “You’re sort of jolted out of the reality of a movie by nude scenes. It’s very distracting and embarrassing, and this played on that. It was meant to be embarrassing, because you were meant to be looking at the size of the girl’s tits and the size of her bush and the muscle tone on her arms, all the things you do in an unconscious way when someone takes they clothes off. I loved how agonizing it was and pathetic and yet somehow strong at the same time. It was a brilliantly complex moment.”

Laying herself quite literally bare for her audience brought a breakthrough for Mortimer. Since winning an Independent Spirit Award for the performance, she’s begun to land bigger-budget fare like the action-filled thriller The 51st State with Samuel L. Jackson. But she also continues to make small, quality movies and take on roles that continue to astound, namely Young Adam, in which she plays Cathy Dimly, a woman accidentally killed by her former boyfriend. Before he does her in, though, there’s a scene in which he pours condiments all over her scantily-clad body and forces himself on her, while she howls with laughter and then tears. It’s another case of a sweet innocent stealing a movie with a scene so shocking it changes the whole tenor of the audience’s experience, suggesting that something perverse lies behind all that sweetness. “Sweet, innocent girls often do things that are shocking,” Mortimer says. “The vicar’s daughter was always the one who was getting screwed under a bush at a very young age.”

While Mortimer is proud of these performances, she doesn’t want to be type-cast. “I thought, I’ve got to be careful now, because it’s going to look like an obsession of mine: humiliating myself on screen. I thought to myself, I think I’m going to keep my clothes firmly on for awhile.” Unfortunately, even with her knickers firmly in place, Hollywood seems to want to mess with Ms. Mortimer and the sweet vicars’ daughters she portrays. She recently wrapped production on The Pink Panther, starring Steve Martin, in which she plays Inspector Clouseau’s secretary. “I thought, This is a big studio comedy. There’s nothing shocking or disgusting about this, and then I realized my character is basically the studio-sanitized comic version of the same character,” she says with a resigned laugh. “She’s adorable. She’s perky and French and totally innocent, but as physically inept as he is. So, whenever they’re together in a room, they always wind up in the most physically compromising positions that look, to people who walk in on them, like terrible acts are going on.”

While it might seem to Mortimer that there’s a conspiracy to make her look silly on screen, some of her recent work departs from that trend. In Bright Young Things (on screens August 20), an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies, Mortimer plays a very well-behaved socialite in love with a writer too poor for her to marry. In Dear Frankie (in theaters October 22), she stars as a mother who lies to her son to protect him from the truth about his abusive father, tapping into the maternal instincts she says came naturally, even though during production she was only pregnant with the one-year-old son she has with her husband, actor Alessandro Nivola.

Playing 1920s British It Girl Nina Blount, “the Paris Hilton of her day” in Bright Young Things required a different kind of work. She had to dig into her own background, as “a middle-class, privileged English girl from a very safe, very nice background,” she says, in a way she’d avoided doing for most of her career. “In England, we like to put people in their places, to know where they’re from, who their parents are. And once you’ve got them defined, it’s hard to undo that. I’ve always been really scared of that. I came to America and subconsciously, I think, I was trying to get away from all that and maybe I had to make a few bold, dangerous, insane moves to shake it all up a bit.”

In other words, because she’s played a few women with dirty, little secrets lurking, she’s now able to play an heiress with an eccentric, rich dad and no real concern for anything beyond her next lunch date or glass of champagne. Amusingly—considering the overt sexuality of Mortimer’s earlier roles—Nina Blount says of sex, “For physical pleasure, I’d sooner visit my dentist. It gives me a pain.”

Mortimer found much to love about the aloof Nina Blount. “She was this girl who did have very strong emotions, but it wasn’t done to say ‘I love you so much,’” she says.  “There was something quite heartbreaking about that tension of someone who felt those things but didn’t have a vocabulary to articulate them and could only talk about the color of her nails.”

The next round of magazine articles about Mortimer might be about a posh English girl who plays posh English girls—or, more likely, an actress you just can’t pin down. “In this Woody Allen film, I’m playing an upper middle class English girl with all the privileges and trappings,” she says. “It does make me feel nervous. It makes me feel much more nervous than taking all my clothes off.”