Working-mum’s guilt, ageism and sexism… actress Emily Mortimer is questioning everything she once felt she had to put up with. But, she tells Jane Mulkerrins, she has high hopes for her daughter’s generation.
‘No one considers anyone else’s opinion any more,’ laments Emily Mortimer. ‘Particularly on the internet and Twitter. Everyone is so convinced that they’re right and are appalled by anyone not thinking exactly what they think. There’s no acknowledgement that life isn’t black and white.’
We’re in a cavernous studio beside the Hudson River in New York, where British-born Emily, has been based for 15 years. Five minutes into our conversation, the polarised state of the internet – and society – comes up. The fact that we’ve got this philosophical this fast speaks volumes about our current cultural context – in an era of Donald Trump and Brexit, many feel social media has become a bloody battlefield – but it’s also highly pertinent to Emily’s latest film The Bookshop.
Adapted from the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald and set in 1959, it’s the story of Florence Green, played by Emily, a middle-aged widow who opens a bookshop in a small Suffolk seaside town. Her efforts, however, are thwarted by intransigent, narrow-minded locals. ‘She’s very English in that she doesn’t have an ounce of self-pity but is quietly subversive,’ says Emily of Florence, who stocks Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita (a literary classic about a man’s sexual attraction to a 12-year-old girl) in her shop. ‘There’s nothing show-off about her, but she’s a brave fighter.’
‘Her main opposition is the malevolent Violet Gamart, played by Patricia Clarkson, a wealthy aristocrat who wields her social sway without mercy and who, to Emily, ‘represents any sort of authority that doesn’t want to let someone else do something – sometimes for no good reason’. But there is some support for the shop in the shape of the reclusive Edmund Brundish, played by Bill Nighy (whom Emily calls a ‘matinée idol’ and admits she fell ‘madly in love with’ on set).
The tale is not your typical Hollywood fare with a neat, predictable ending. Even the locals’ reasons for objecting to the shop are ambiguous. ‘It’s a sort of anti-American-dream story: you can try and try, and still fail – and, in fact, that’s the experience for most of life. People don’t always triumph over adversity.’ Emily says all this, as Florence no doubt would, cheerfully. ‘There aren’t nearly enough stories told about the courage that it takes to admit defeat and move on.’
Books can help with that, she believes: ‘I think of reading as a kind of medicine, a comfort, that’s just as important as going to the gym or seeing a shrink,’ she says. ‘It’s a way of saving your sanity and your soul.’
‘Books also symbolise freedom,’ she continues. ‘Nobody is telling you what to think. You’re getting to grips, often, with the grey areas of life, thinking about things in a complex, detailed way, and making up your own mind.’ All this as opposed to the ‘moral certitude’ – those polarised opinions – she finds online.
Emily and I have met several times over the past few years, including for Doll & Em, the satirical comedy she wrote and starred in with her best friend Dolly Wells – who also played her best friend and personal assistant – and for The Newsroom, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin’s drama set in a fictional cable news station. We reflect on how prescient that series, which started in 2012, seems now. ‘It was so ahead of its time,’ says Emily, who played MacKenzie McHale, a foreign correspondent turned producer with a steadfast belief in journalistic integrity. ‘At the time we were giving Aaron such grief about it – every episode was a tirade against social media and we would call him a grumpy old man.’ She sighs. ‘As it turns out, he was on to fake news before it became a thing.’ She had a line in the show’s first episode, she recalls: ‘“There’s nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate.” We didn’t realise how in jeopardy that was.
‘We were all… what’s that awful word now…“woke”?’ She pulls a face at the grammatical inaccuracy of the popular phrase, which means being fully engaged with current affairs. ‘We were all so “unwoke”. We were asleep at the wheel. That’s something Trump understood,’ she continues. ‘There was an arrogance, a feeling that the liberal agenda was complete, and everyone could be happy and equal; that all we needed was a few transgender bathrooms and less police brutality. Obviously, we were very wrong.’
Emily was, she says, ‘always a big reader’, though ironically studying literature at Oxford University, where she began acting, turned her off books for a while. ‘You had to do Jane Austen in a week, George Eliot in a week. You got two weeks for Charles Dickens. Reading became work. There are also times in your life when reading becomes more difficult. When you’ve got young children you can barely brush your teeth, let alone start a book.’ She speaks from experience: she and her husband, the US actor Alessandro Nivola, have two children: Sam, 14, and May, eight. ‘But once you’ve got reading in you, then it’s always there.’
It’s no surprise that Emily had books ‘in her’ from an early age, given that her late father was Sir John Mortimer, lawyer, novelist and creator of the TV series Rumpole of the Bailey. ‘He was a Dickens fanatic and so am I because of him,’ she says. ‘I remember him reading A Christmas Carol to me, and a lot of P G Wodehouse as well.’ It’s a habit she has continued with Sam and May: ‘I feel that it somehow connects my kids to my dad, who they never met.’
John also instilled in his daughter a love of the theatre. ‘He always wished he’d been an actor himself,’ she says. ‘He wanted to be Fred Astaire and come down a staircase with a silver-topped cane in a top hat and tails, but he didn’t quite have the leap or the natural rhythm to do that. So he took me to the theatre. I saw a lot of Shakespeare before I was too old to be scared of it.’
Emily grew up in London and Oxfordshire, and in spite of her many years in the US, has managed to retain her essential Britishness. She’s wry, self-deprecating and admits to an intense fear of ever being perceived as ‘cringey. I miss cynicism. British people are much less polite and much less reverent,’ she says.
Her mum Penelope still lives in Oxfordshire and her younger sister Rosie is in London. Can she see herself moving back? ‘I think it probably is where I belong,’ she says. ‘I used to find it heartbreaking when I had to leave to come back to the US, but I don’t mind so much these days. That’s the way my life has gone and it’s great.’
She has, however, been thinking a lot about where she’ll end up – as in, finally. ‘I think about where I’m going to be buried and what will happen when I die: will I get flown to the UK in a body bag?’ she wonders out loud. ‘I will need to decree where I want to go, won’t I? But if I die first and my husband wants us to be together, he might have to get buried next to me in England. I would have the last laugh then.’
Any residual homesickness has also been helped by the fact that Dolly Wells, Emily’s lifelong best friend, moved to Brooklyn five years ago with her own family, and lives ten minutes away. She relocated temporarily to make Doll & Em, but it quickly became permanent. ‘We’ve already got traditions such as Sunday lunches together and Easter Egg hunts. Our children are really close and love each other madly,’ she beams.
Working together on Doll & Em marked the beginning of a new phase of both their careers. ‘It’s not that you feel as though you’re a grown-up, but that you realise no one else is either,’ says Emily. ‘No one knows what they’re doing, so why not join in and try to do things?’
Emily is now also producing her own films under the production company she has set up with Alessandro, King Bee Productions. Their latest film, To Dust, a black comedy about grief and unlikely friendships, recently won a coveted audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Later this year she will be in the eagerly anticipated Mary Poppins Returns. A sequel to the 1964 classic, the film stars another British Emily, Emily Blunt, as the world’s most famous fictional nanny. Emily (Mortimer) and Ben Whishaw play Jane Banks and her brother Michael, the children who were in Mary’s care in the original, now in their 40s.
The role required ‘a little bit of flying. But Ben and I play the non-magical people, so we mainly stay on the ground,’ she says. There was also some singing required, the mention of which prompts some epic eye rolls from Emily. ‘I think I’ve got quite a good voice, but no one I’m related to agrees,’ she says, mock indignantly. ‘Alessandro’s really musical and so are Sam and May, and they are so snooty about my musical talents that I’ve got really neurotic about it.’
She is also afraid of heights – ‘and I had to sing while on this wire a hundred feet in the air. I was thinking, “I feel like I’m in a horror film,”’ she laughs. Even trickier than singing while flying, however, were the domestic logistics presented by having a household of two in-demand actor parents. ‘It was a summer of horrible absence,’ she says. ‘I was doing Mary Poppins and then Alessandro was in London filming Disobedience [alongside Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams] and we only crossed over for a week. I have a pretty equal work-life relationship with my husband, but I’ve bought into the feeling that when he goes off to work it’s a noble thing, and when I go it’s a guilty pleasure that I shouldn’t be indulging,’ she admits.
That feeling, however, has been challenged since the rise of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, which demand an end to pay inequalities in the industry, as well as highlighting a culture of abuse and harassment. ‘I’m realising that all the rules that I took for granted are fake and arbitrary. Of course you feel guilty about leaving your children, but why is it worse for me than it is for Alessandro? Who wrote that rule? And why am I too old to play the wife of a man who’s the same age as me? Who says that a man of 50 is still sexy but a woman of 50 isn’t? That’s b******t.’
Like so many women since the Me Too movement gained traction with the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, Emily has been walking back through previous encounters. ‘When it all first emerged, I kept saying, “I’ve never been sexually harassed.” And then I was having conversations with people, saying, “All I’ve had happen is blah blah blah” – comments and put-downs and “jokes” – and then I suddenly realised, wait, yes, that is harassment.
‘It’s strange, suddenly feeling very empowered,’ she reflects. ‘It’s like learning a whole different way to breathe. But it’s exciting – it feels like a revolution, and I hope my daughter’s generation is not even going to have to think about it.’
The only potential downside Emily can see, however, is that the ‘moral certitude’ might lead to a new sort of puritanism and censorship. ‘Would Lolita even get published today?’ she wonders. ‘I don’t know that it would.’
Easy for Emily
Book or Kindle? Book. Each title on my shelf brings to mind a particular relationship or period of my life. You can remember your life by the coffee stains on a book.
Last great book you read State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I am desperately trying to get the rights to adapt it. It would be like the Apocalypse Now for girls and set in the Amazon.
Favourite author? Charles Dickens. Lots of his books are about identity, such as trying to find out who your parents were and who you are as a result of them.
Series you’re binge-watching I tend to watch one or two episodes, get the gist and then stop. I still need to finish The Handmaid’s Tale, which I do think is amazing.
Dinner party or restaurant? Restaurant. My dad trained me to like restaurants and hotels because that’s what his favourite things were. He said that there’s no problem so great that it can’t be solved by a crisp white tablecloth and a glass of champagne.
Describe yourself in three words Gosh, I don’t know. ‘Not very woke, but waking up’? Actually, let’s say that: ‘I’m waking up.’
The Bookshop will be in cinemas on 29 June