Thriving on Fear, Being in the Moment

The actress has appeared in at least 40 film and television productions.
Emily Mortimer’s Amagansett style is as laid back and low key as her life here, devoted mostly to swimming and family. Durell Godfrey

   The problem with acting in the theater, as opposed to film and television, is the live audience, Emily Mortimer said recently at the modest Amagansett farmhouse she and her husband, Alessandro Nivola, bought five years ago. “Everyone in the audience has paid for a ticket and suspended their disbelief; they’re counting on you and you’ve got only one shot. I’m always afraid I will break the illusion by shouting something like ‘Fuck the Queen.’ ”
    Lucky for her, then, that she’s been able to put the plays she did at school in London and at Oxford University largely behind her. Ms. Mortimer, a lead in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama “Newsroom,” about the inner workings of a cable TV news program, has appeared in at least 40 film and television productions. Joining her in the cast of “Newsroom,” now in its second season, are Sam Waterston, Jeff Daniels, Jane Fonda, and Marcia Gay Harden, among many others.
    Often asked how hard it is to learn the dialogue, which can only be called abundant, she said, “The challenges are similar to Shakespearean acting: How do I learn the lines and also learn the rhythm of the dialogue, and how do I honor it? Sorkinese — I didn’t coin the term — is a language in and of itself that’s inverse. You have to honor it, and it won’t serve you at all well to try and make it your own language. It’s very stylized and you have to honor the style and make it sound your own.”
    Recognizing this was one of the many “moments of illumination” she has had over the past two years. Another was realizing that she had to listen to the music of the scene “and if you listen hard enough, you can realize what your own little section is. It’s as near as I’ve ever come to making music.”
    In the Sorkin style of dialogue, actors have to learn to speak over one another in a kind of endless overlap. Thinking of it as music makes it seem as if learning the lines would not be so difficult if one had the rhythm down. Not so fast, however. As she said, “There’s no winging it. You have to go home and learn it every night. And if one person doesn’t have it totally under their belt, the whole thing kind of falls apart.”
    Even though this season, “actors flubbing their lines happened less,” when it does happen, “you feel so much love for them and so elated when it’s not you who’s fucking up,” she said.
    There are five days between the read-through and the filming. If big scenes are at the end of the episode one feels very lucky, she said. “When it works out and we’re all sort of on our game and the stars are aligned, it does feel magical and it feels like a great good luck to be a part of it.”
    Oh, and the technical part of all that button pushing on the set, which is what goes on behind the talking head the viewers are watching? “No one knows what the hell we’re doing when we’re pushing buttons on all the machines, but we do it very authoritatively,” Ms. Mortimer said.
    Ms. Mortimer spoke of a subliminal familiarity she has felt working with Mr. Sorkin. He is similar in character, she said, to her father, the late John Mortimer, an English barrister, author, playwright, and creator of Horace Rumpole, the disheveled, irreverent defender of the British criminal classes. “The way he educated me and all his kids is something I hold so dear. His whole thing was the paradoxical nature of people. You can be a good person and kill someone and you can be a perfectly awful person and never get a parking ticket . . . everybody’s more than one thing, which has helped me a lot, not just in life. There was something radically unjudgmental about him.”
    As an extremely left-wing barrister, her father was passionate about prison reform. In honor of him, Ms. Mortimer has continued to visit prisons. Since moving to Brooklyn with Mr. Nivola and their two young children, Ms. Mortimer has gone once a month to visit the women in a female detention center. Although her schedule doesn’t allow for it right now, she said “I’m hoping to get back into it. It’s incredibly rewarding. The main feeling you come away with is ‘There but for the grace. . . .’ ”
    Ms. Mortimer was an only child until she was 12. A shy child, she may have turned to theater for some solace, she said. “I’d write little plays for my parents and act them out.” She went on to read English and Russian at Oxford, where, in her last semester, she was spotted onstage by an agent who took her on and proceeded to get her parts in “sub-BBC historical costume dramas,” she recalled.
    Her father, who had often defended people’s right to produce pornography, went with her to films in which she had to get naked. He would take off his glasses so he could sort of see something, she said, but it was more of a rosy glow.
    One such occasion was the time Ms. Mortimer was filming “Lovely and Amazing” (2001). It was the first time she did something she was proud of and it was because she “loved the script and wanted to not let it down.” Part of the story was autobiographical for Nicole Holofcener, who wrote and directed it. Not only did Ms. Mortimer have to get naked in the film, but she had to do so while an attractive fellow actor gave her a head-to-toe evaluation.
    “I had this paranoia about not really being an actor — I was sort of an impostor — and didn’t really understand what ‘being in the moment’ really was. So I can remember getting out of the bed naked, stepping on the floor and walking into the studio the scene was being filmed in, and thinking ‘Oh God, this film better be fucking good or this is so mortifying.’ ”
    The result was that she felt no gap between who she was pretending to be at that moment and who she really was. “It was a defining moment for me . . . really a cool feeling. So I wondered if it would be possible to have that feeling without taking my clothes off.”
    She added, “You might as well be the person you’re pretending to be. It’s a strange and seductive kind of feeling.”
    With “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007), a story about a disturbed young man played by Ryan Gosling whose mother died in childbirth and who has been unable to connect with people, he orders a life-size doll and treats her as if she were a real person. “I got sort of jealous of this doll,” Ms. Mortimer said. “She got all of Ryan’s attention and I wanted to tell her to get lost, to stick my finger up her nose,” but it also made her realize how powerful silence can be.
    Until she met her husband, also an actor, on the set of Kenneth Brannagh’s adaptation of “Love’s Labour Lost” in 2000, the theater terrified her, Ms. Mortimer said.
    “Being married to an actor helps with every aspect of getting ready for a part — well the particular actor I’m married to is very helpful and very kind and very bright,” she said. “But I only know what it’s like to be married to him so who knows if a doctor or a farmer or a plumber would be any more or less helpful. It depends on the dude I guess.”
    Life here is centered on their children (Sam, 9, and May, 31/2), the water (bay or beach), and family, which includes visiting Alessandro’s father, Pietro Niv­ola, and his stepmother, Katherine Stahl, in the old Springs farmhouse Costantino and Ruth Nivola bought in the 1940s.
    As for future roles she might want to try, fear seems like a must. “You’re drawn to the things that frighten you. As an actor one is accustomed to ceding control in almost every area.” She speaks nostalgically of making movies. “I look back at movies as being like the halcyon days of my infancy . . . so much less responsibility. You get looked after. It’s so lovely compared to television.”
    The words, in film, are less important than in television. “Writers in TV are gods because of the words. The writer is everything. On a movie set, the writer has to sit on the other side of the room with the animal wranglers and the director is king. It’s more visual and more about the moments between the words,” she said.
    But, being in “The Newsroom,” she added, is “thrilling. This job, constantly challenging and wonderfully so, it’s a high-octane thrill.”