It’s an odd feeling, to sit down with someone, just hours after you’ve seen them play a film character so different from their real-life persona. But that’s what happened when Emily Mortimer walked into a room at the Essex House in Manhattan, to talk about her role in the upcoming thriller Transsiberian. The night before, I was watching her as Jessie, a reformed party animal who, with her harmless, down-home husband Roy (Woody Harrelson), crosses the unforgiving terrain of Northern Russia on one of the last of the great railroads, the Transsiberian. Before you know it, she’s covering up a murder, flushing heroin down a toilet, and dangling off the back of a speeding train. A day later, here she sits before me, American accent replaced by a British one, munching on a brownie and fiddling with a pen.
Mortimer has much to be excited about. Transsiberian is an apt thriller from indie auteur director Brad Anderson (The Machinist), and along with the big-budget sequel to The Pink Panther, she just finished shooting an actor’s dream—a film called Ashecliffe co-starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Sir Ben Kingsley (who co-stars in Transsiberian), Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, and directed by none other than Martin Scorsese. The actress (a former BlackBook cover girl) has a cool, London charm about her, the kind of woman who calls you ‘baby,’ and who frequently makes herself laugh, which is contagious. Here she is on moral ambiguity, exposing oneself, and getting cold feet.
It’s strange to be sitting here with you, because I just watched Transsiberian, so a few hours ago you were your character Jessie.
Are you scared?
Yeah. I can’t trust you.
Just give me a drink.
Ha. So, have you seen any of Brad Anderson’s work before doing this?
No, I didn’t. I got this job with about two days to go before we started, and I’d never seen anything of his. I saw The Machinist within about a week of doing the movie, and I realized I was in incredibly safe hands, the hands of a real deal filmmaker, you know? So it was cool, because this character is really complex, baffling, and as complicated and confusing as people are in real life, but I was directed by a real auteur. Your character is really frustrating, because she has this insurmountable problem with telling the truth.
That, to me, is what’s interesting about the film. I think it poses a lot of difficult questions about morality, what it is to be a good person, what it is to be a strong person, and a good wife. And it doesn’t really try to answer any of them. So you’re left with this unsettled, frustrated feeling at the end, which is, to my mind, what makes it interesting. It asks the question “Can you get away with murder?” It forces the audience to question the essence of bourgeoisie morality.
Mortimer in Transsiberian.
The murder she commits is ambiguous in a way, because it seems like self-defense.
Well, not really! I think there were just one too many blows to the head. Up to a point, it’s self-defense. And then beyond that point—
Do you think something overcame her and she just had to let something out?
Yeah, I do. I think it’s just one of those unexplained things that just kind of happens sometimes in life. We talked about that moment a lot. It became a kind of pinnacle, the central moment in the film. And that’s the point where it’s overt, and it becomes more than just a normal thriller. Where there’s just one too many blows.
Samantha Morton was supposed to play your role, until she got injured days before filming. When you read the script, was it a selling point that such an accomplished actress had already taken the part?
Yeah, I guess so, if I think of it. I mean, I didn’t necessarily think that way when it happened, but that might have made me feel more predisposed to it than I otherwise would have before I read it. But I read it, and I was kind of hoping that I wasn’t going to like it, because I’d just come back from shooting Lars and the Real Girl in Toronto, and it was just before Christmas, and I was about to go off to be with my family in England for Christmas. And my little boy’s just breaking up from school, and it was all perfect. And then literally two days later, I got this phone call saying, can you come in two days, and you have to decide in twelve hours whether or not to come. And I was praying that I wasn’t going like the script and that the part wasn’t going be that good, because it would make life so much easier. And then of course I read it and it was really cool and interesting, and I had to do it.
So the next day you’re on a plane to Lithuania?
Yeah, I had to take my little boy on an airplane to Lithuania in the middle of the night, and he got an ear infection, and we were in some strange hotel in the middle of nowhere, with jet lag and an ear infection. And I was just thinking, what the hell have I done to myself? But it very quickly became apparent that whatever pain it was going to cost, was worth it.
What’s your motivation for choosing your roles? I know you’re in The Pink Panther, and you’re doing the sequel, and it wasn’t critically well received but it did well at the box office.
The Pink Panther was an easy yes. I don’t have any problem with that movie. In fact, it’s the opposite. I think Steve Martin’s excellent as Inspector Clouseau, and for me it was a real challenge, because it was physical comedy and potentially really embarrassing. Exposing yourself or taking your clothes off, or being in some dark film is safe, because you’re in some kind of indie, cool thing. Whereas to do comedy is potentially embarrassing and exposing, so it felt strangely like a brave choice! The thought of trying to be funny and not, telling a joke that doesn’t work, to me is so much more embarrassing than taking off your clothes.
Mortimer and Harrelson freeze up.
So can you tell me about Ashecliffe, the movie you’re making with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio?
We just wrapped on Wednesday. I worked with Sir Ben Kingsley again on it.
I just spoke to an actor named Adam Scott, who shot The Aviator with Scorsese, and he said working with him made him shit his pants. Did Scorsese have any effect on your bowels?
I shit my pants in the presence of many great minds and talents, but not at all with Marty. I found him really chatty. You can say something lame, and he’ll make you feel like you haven’t been an idiot for saying it. He’s incredibly good at making you feel comfortable. There’s also something really old-school about his sets, which is quite intimidating, but in a good way. It’s like you’re walking onto some sort of old-fashioned movie set from the 1930s, and everything is quiet, everybody’s in their place, and everybody who’s doing their job, from the camera man to the costume designer, is at the top of their field, a sort of master of the art. So it’s just plain class.
Your character in Transsiberian has a wild past. Can you relate at all?
No, but I did pinch a policeman’s bottom once in the hills of Tuscany. There was a car chase as a result.
Is it true that you live in Echo Park in L.A.?
I did. And then we moved to Brooklyn, just two years ago.
So what is it about these less glamorous neighborhoods that attract you? You don’t have the typical residence of a movie star.
I guess because we (her and husband Alessandro Nivola) don’t have the typical income of a movie star! Maybe I should do a few more Pink Panthers. I would like to live in Manhattan actually, but that really was a question of once you’ve been in L.A. and had space, to come back and live in some tiny apartment, which is all we could probably afford in the city, it would have been hard. In Brooklyn we can live a house. Okay, last question. In the movie, was that really snow and were those really your bare feet?
That was fucking snow. Believe you me.