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'The Newsroom' star Emily Mortimer on becoming American and learning to speak Sorkin
British actress goes super-patriotic in new HBO drama
Emily Mortimer spent the first 8 minutes of our 20 minute interview about her role in HBO's "The Newsroom" answering a single question. Of course, it was a question fundamental to her understanding of her role as TV news producer Mackenzie MacHale. We're told in the series pilot that Mackenzie has English parents but was born in America and is more patriotic and a bigger believer in the American dream than her colleagues who don't have a pronounced British accent.
So we talked for a while about Mortimer's own relationship with America, her adjustment to working on American television in general and for Aaron Sorkin in particular, what she and co-star Jeff Daniels knew going in about their characters — and how and why their relationship ended badly years before — and more.
One of the really interesting things about Mackenzie is she’s English but she’s described as one of the most American, most patriotic people there. What’s your own relationship with America? You’re married to an American. You’re an American citizen now. What do you remember of your first time coming here, and your growing evolution and feeling about this country?
Emily Mortimer: God, that’s such a big question. That’s like the last 13 years of my life that I have to encapsulate in a sentence.
Take your time.
Emily Mortimer: God, it’s so confused to me now. I feel in some ways the beneficiary of this incredible perspective that you get of the world when you are an expatriate living somewhere else. Because you have -- it’s like looking down at the world from outer space. You get this perspective that not many other people have. And you start to see that there is no right way and there is no wrong way, but there’s amazing things about both countries, specifically England and America. I could tell the story of my becoming a citizen which actually does encapsulate, somehow, my confused feelings about America, which was I became a citizen for totally cynical reasons.
I’d been here kind of and I’d been here as a spouse, as a wife of an American who I love very, very much, and who I support very much, and whose children are now American and therefore we live here. But if I had, in a perfect world, I always say, well that may even have changed now. I’m not quite sure. It is ever-changing the whole thing, but I have a real hankering for him and I miss him a lot. So becoming a citizen was a bit of a big deal because it was done for singularly cynical reasons. It was all about some taxing, which heaven forbid should by husband die, I wouldn’t have to basically give my house to your government, -- they have the fear that you’re going to run off home with everything, which probably I would have done. They were probably quite right to make me a citizen. So I became a citizen and I started on this journey with a kind of cynical motive. It was exhausting and endless, and it took fucking forever. A year of my life, of getting all my tax forms and my business every time I’ve ever left and come back to the country. Every movie I’ve ever done. Every cent I’ve ever earned here. Doctors reports, anal probes, I mean you name it. You get prodded and probed and investigated, photos of the wedding, everything. Interviewed endlessly. And then you have to answer a hundred questions on the fucking Constitution.
You probably know it a lot better than I do.
Emily Mortimer: I’ve forgotten it all. I crammed it one night, the night before. For a night my husband was amazed, and then it’s all gone out in one ear and out the other. He, meanwhile, was becoming a British citizen for equally cynical reasons: because a movie he was in wanted him to be one ‘cause it meant they didn’t have to pay taxes or something. And he became a British citizen, and all it took was 400 quid. He paid 400 quid and went to some room in Whitehall or something and said, “God save the Queen.” And that was it, and he got his passport. I was infuriated. I was like, “I don’t understand. This is so unfair.” I get all through this process of becoming a citizen and I kept thinking, “I don’t care that much. I really don’t care. You’re acting like I should be so lucky.”
Anyway, it came to my naturalization moment. I got it all as it all happened, and I was asked to come to the courthouse in Brooklyn to get my certificates of naturalization, and there’s a ceremony. I stood there in this room with I don’t know how many -- hundreds of other people, other people, most of them a different color and just from a totally different background from me, with their families and children, their wives, their cousins, and it was me and like three other people who were pretty much the only white faces in this room. And this guy, this Irish-American judge gave a speech. And it was one of the most moving moments of my life and I cried. I sat there listening to this man talk about how, you know, America -- I think he said, “America is a better place today than it was yesterday because all you people have made the long and dark old journey to be here. And I stood here as a young boy with my father and I still have this -- keep this piece of paper with your naturalization certificate on it because this is a symbol of this journey that you’ve made to be here, and this future that you’re forging for you and your family. And I stood here 50 years ago as a little boy with my father and I’ve got this piece of paper and it’s a symbol of his life’s journey.”
And I was just incredibly moved. And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that were I was standing in that room in Whitehall which my husband did stand there with my mother, I would not be given that speech. No one would stand up and say England is a better place today because of all you people make a long and difficult journey to be here. No way. There isn’t that feeling. Even though maybe that’s not born out in every strain of life here in America, there really is a feeling of we welcome change. We welcome people stepping out of something and trying something new. That’s part of what this country was built on. It’s really entirely what this country was built on and we still remember that.
And there’s a feeling. It’s a very liberating feeling for somebody that’s come from England especially, which is nothing if not cynical. And I love it for that. And in some ways I think it is incredible, in terms of the way that we view our politics and our politicians. Cynicism is incredibly healthy in some ways. But in other ways it can be very restrictive and you feel like you are defined within the first few moments of your life, and that is you for the rest of your life. Nothing is ever going to change whether or not you’re an over privileged English school girl that goes to some posh school in Hammersmith like I was, or somebody on a housing estates in Scotland or whatever. That that you are totally defined by, I mean, really it’s really true that the auspices of your birth kind of define you for the rest of your life in some ways. And just having that not be a thing here has been incredible for me, personally. It’s opened my eyes in a way about life in general and how to live life in general. I’ve probably talked for 15 minutes.
No, that’s excellent. So having been through that experience, how much does that inform the way you play that aspect of Mackenzie?
Emily Mortimer: Well, I think it does a lot. And I think that there’s something, you know how people say that sometimes when you discover something later in life you have the zeal of the converted. I think maybe that’s how she feels about this idea that whatever William (Hurt), as far as the other characters are concerned, and especially Will’s character. And I know, you know, looking around today people think that that feeling is ever waning in America. Whereas she feels maybe that’s true, but it’s still so there and we’ve got to get it back, because it is what is great about this country. And I think that she has the zeal of the converted. She comes from a place where that feeling doesn’t hold true, and she’s recognized it in this country. Well, even though she is technically American, she just didn’t grow up here. And when you come from the outside and you feel that feeling, whether it’s incredibly seductive and inspiring and once you’ve got hold of it, you passionately want to protect it. And I think that she’s naturally an optimist anyway. I mean, that’s just innate, and somebody that operates best when she’s in sort of extreme, arguing recklessly for things that she believes passionately and that may be completely unrealistic. That somehow suits her mode of being. But definitely yes, she has the zeal of the convert as far as this whole idea of what it is to be an American, what it is to feel proud of that ethos that anything is possible.
Now you’ve done some T.V. in the UK. I believe the only television you did here before this was when you had hollow bones on "30 Rock."
Emily Mortimer: Yes.
Were you looking to do an American series? How did this come about?
Emily Mortimer: No, not at all. It hadn’t crossed my mind and I’m not really a television person. I’m not really a television viewer, to my shame, ‘cause I know that it is where it’s at now.
Emily Mortimer: I still am so flummoxed by the channels in America. To me, you know, in England there are still really four main channels. You don’t need to look anywhere further, and you can watch great television all day long. Here, I mean, I don’t know where to find anything. If I tried I couldn’t tell you where to go to find a program. So I don’t watch very much of it. I know that’s shaming and I should. So therefore I had never aspired to be on it, but I read the script and it was sort of just undeniably brilliant. I had never really read anything like it. It was immediately just so intoxicating and kind of funny, and exciting, and relevant, and heartbreaking in a way, and sexy in an old fashioned way. I was just like, “I’ve got to be in this.” I mean, and little did I know what that entailed. I’ve since found out that it’s really hard work doing these T.V. shows and these actors that do this are -- I mean, now I guess I’m one of them, but I had no idea how much hard work it was.
So what’s been the biggest adjustment for you in terms of the process?
Emily Mortimer: There’s just so many things, but the time factor is just crazy. The scripts are nearly 90 pages long, some of them. That’s a feature film. And we’re shooting it in nine days. He is so brilliant, he is so brilliant, and they are so brilliantly written that you want to be brilliant. You feel like you’re not going to do this justice unless you too are brilliant, but it seems almost impossible. I don’t know, time will tell. We’ll watch them and we’ll find out. You lie awake at night just feeling like, “I have let this thing down.” It’s impossible for me to be as good as it required me to be in the time given. And then on the other hand I think, well if you were given a year to do it, would it be any better? Maybe there’s something about the frenzy and the frantic rush to get this thing done that actually chimes with the life of these people that we’re depicting on the screen. There’s deadlines and craziness and you have to fuckin’ high achieve in a high octane environment in a very limited amount of time. So maybe, I hope, that pays off. But that’s really hard. The other thing that’s really hard is on a movie you do everything in your power and the movie does everything in its power not to repeat itself. Like it’s an anathema in a movie performance that you do the same scene twice or even really the same. I guess it’s just because of the way that time spans out in a movie as opposed to a T.V. show, you have to progress the story and everything has to be transformative. Every moment has to change from the next one, to the next one, to the next one. This is not like that. You know, this is the pleasure I realized. I suddenly realized, “My god. I’ve done this scene before. I’ve basically done this scene.” Obviously it’s always different, brilliant, and amazing. The news that we’re dealing with at any given— but basically the setup and the relationship—
Yeah, the emotional place that you’re in with someone else.
Emily Mortimer: Yes. It repeats itself over and over again, and gradually slowly changes. It’s quite easy to get sick of the sound of your own voice. “God, I’ve said this before in sort of the same way.” And then you just have to accept that that’s part of what people enjoy. They want and they hope to see the same sets of characters doing the same sort of things to each other because it’s part of the pleasure. In some weird way, I was a literature student that studied English and Western Literature in Bastion, read an awful lot of 19th century novels and haven’t read much that’s been written since then, but I really love Dickens. They all wrote in serial form. Their books came out in serial form in magazines. It’s the same thing. There’s a lot of sort of going over the same stuff, because that’s what people wanted. They want to see what’s going to happen next, but they also want the same thing to happen next, because they love being in the company of these characters. They don’t want anything too transformative to happen too quickly, because then the story’s over.
Now in terms of the frenzy, you have a big monologue in the center of the pilot. Aaron writes monologues; it’s one of those things he does. I imagine you get a number of these other big speeches over the course of the season, where the time pressure increases and increases. How did you learn to approach those both in the pilot and as the season went along?
Emily Mortimer: Yeah. Well, you know, actually he was pretty generous in that sense that he didn’t inflict that on us too often. There were sometimes speeches that were kind of half a page or -- and Jeff has a lot of dialogue in those newsroom scenes, in the studio when he’s presenting. But a lot of that was in the end on autocue as it would be in a real life news room. But there are times when you have suddenly an awful lot to say, but in some weird way they’ve became the easiest times because you really prepare for those, because you know you can’t screw it up. You don’t have the time to come in there and not know your lines. So those are the ones that you really study. The ones that really throw you are the kind of little scenes where you have a few lines of very technical dialogue and you don’t bother to learn them because you’ve got so much else you’re worrying about. And then you’re in there and you can’t fucking remember the line, and you say it a million different times and you never get it right. Those big-set pieces, and there’s some sort of sense of narrative through them, and you get on a roll. A lot of the time you go and just think, “I should have done it differently.” But there are some moments when actually those set pieces where it was you on your own kind of holding the scene together doing this kind of musical, crazy, sort of rhythmic dialogue it actually really is kind of exciting and it sort of informs itself, like you understand how to do it in a weird way.
Another adjustment in terms of going from movies and theater to this is you’re learning about the characters as you go. I talked to Jeff before about, how all you knew in terms of Will and Mackenzie’s history what was in the script for the pilot. You didn’t know anything beyond that. What is that like in terms of building a character and building a performance when you don’t know all the history, and you don’t know what could be coming next and what could be revealed in terms of motivation?
Emily Mortimer: It’s weird when you look back on the whole thing, like the whole ten episodes I get. At the time you just don’t really question it and you make your own choices. And then they may prove not have been right, but you kind of just go with it because you don’t have time not to. But it’s weirder now almost. Looking back over it all and just thinking, “My god, I started off this way and I changed kind of through the thing. And I wonder if that was right, was I meant to do it like that?” Some facets of your character, which may have been in the first episode but they get drawn. I feel like she just is at times so demented, my character. So kind of mad, and I loved her for it. But I guess maybe those scenes work -- maybe they work because there seem to be more and more and more of them is the thing (goes on). But I hope they do. I’m like, “Oh god, if they don’t that’s going to be really embarrassing because I’m really like crazy at times in this thing.” It’s once you’ve shot all ten and you look back and retrospectively have some understanding of where the whole thing went, and then you start double guessing and questioning yourself and thinking, “Oh, I should have done it all differently.” But at the time you’re were just rolling with it, and you don’t have time to think. That’s one quite nice thing about five months on a Sorkin show is like there’s no time to think and it’s quite useful sometimes. I mean, we need time to think.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com