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The Americanization of Emily Mortimer

The British actress discuss her new film Our Idiot Brother, starring in HBO's More as the Story Develiops, and life with husband Alessandro Nivola. logo
Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, and Emily Mortimer
in Our Idiot Brother
(© The Weinstein Company)
Growing up as the daughter of famed British novelist and playwright Sir John Mortimer may not strike everyone as the perfect training ground for playing Liz, one of Paul Rudd's harried sisters, in Jesse Peretz's new family dramedy, Our Idiot Brother, but Emily Mortimer thinks it was great. "After all, isn't every family dysfunctional in some way or other?" she says. "I liked that the film is so forgiving of human nature."

The film, which also stars Elizabeth Banks, Steve Coogan, and Zooey Deschanel, follows honest but hapless Ned (Rudd), an oblong peg permanently jammed into a round hole, on his journey to find a place in a world he never made and just barely lives in. Released from prison after a bogus drug bust, he turns to his family -- especially Liz (Mortimer) and her sleazy documentarian hubby, Dylan (Coogan) -- for help and somewhere to stay. "Ned's a character that audiences love to love, a lot like some of the characters that Peter Sellers used to play," Mortimer says.

Had one asked the young Emily if she was going to be an actress, never mind a Hollywood star, the answer would have been no. "I thought I was going to do something useful with the money my parents put up for my education -- maybe go back to Russia where I studied or save the world."

Instead, she was discovered while acting at university -- in a stage adaptation of Kafka's The Trial directed by future Oscar winner Tom Hooper. "I was in it along with my best friend from primary school, Eve Best. An agent visiting her daughter came to see the play and she took me on," she recalls. "So then I kept acting. I did a few plays in London including The Lights and I was even in my father's television adaptation of Cider with Rosie, a British classic by Laurie Lee, set just after World War I."

Did her father ever give her career advice? "My father neither encouraged nor discouraged me from becoming an actor," she says. "He did love actors, and he was an actor manqué himself. I think he would have loved to be Fred Astaire walking down a long staircase with a silver cane, which was kind of sweet, since a man less like Fred Astaire would be hard to find."

Emily Mortimer and Alessandro Nivola
(© David Gordon)
Mortimer found her own perfect man, actor Alessandro Nivola, when the two co-starred in Kenneth Branagh's film version of Love's Labours Lost. "That was the beginning of the rest of my life," says Mortimer. "He lived here and I came to be with him and now I have these two American children. That film changed my whole life and I never saw any of it coming," she explains.

Since being ensconced in New York, she has done a little bit of theater, most notably, Jez Butterworth's Parlour Song at the Atlantic Theatre Company, opposite Jonathan Cake. "I'd love to do another play although I get very nervous. I have to feel really passionate about the material to overcome the fear, but there's no satisfaction better than the feeling of performing on a stage with an audience," she says.

"I would love to do another Shakespeare, because I haven't done that since University and I love doing Shakespeare so much," she adds. "One of my great moments at college was doing Much Ado About Nothing. I'd also like to do a Feydeau farce. My dad translated A Flea in her Ear and I did that at University and he got to see me do it."

She's got plenty to keep her busy, though. Mortimer just finished filming Hugo, her second film with Oscar winner Martin Scorsese. The 3D movie is adapted by Tony Award winner John Logan from Brian Selznick's best-selling graphic novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, about a Parisian orphan living in a train station. 'It's so exciting to see Marty's first venture into 3D and I think it's a real testament to his radicalism as a director to take on this medium that a lot of people have been so snobbish about," she says. "It takes someone as fearless and cool as he is to push the envelope of this new technology."

She also has the female lead in HBO's much-anticipated More as the Story Develops, written by Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin. "Jeff Daniels plays this news anchor and I play his executive producer, and it's got all sorts of wonderful theater people in the cast like Alison Pill, Sam Waterston, Thomas Sadoski and John Gallagher, Jr.," she notes. "I have experience in the theater but not like these guys. They are real theater actors and it really shows in their performances, because this piece is all about the words."

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