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Lobbing questions at Match Point's Emily Mortimer
by Greg Ursic

In the past three years I’ve conducted roughly two dozen interviews without a hitch. But to be on the safe side, as I waited to be hooked into my conference call with Emily Mortimer to talk about her role in the upcoming Woody Allen film Match Point, I went over my mental checklist. Questions ready? Check. Working batteries for the tape recorder? Check. Phone and mic working? Check. Office door locked and “Do Not Disturb Under Pain of Death” warning given to staff? Check. As the saying goes I was loaded and ready for bear (not that I’m a hunter, but it was the first analogy that came to mind). Or so I thought…

After we said our good-byes to Mortimer, I had about 45 minutes to spare before my next scheduled conference call with Scarlett Johansson. I decided to use the break to get a head start on the ever-onerous task of transcribing the previous interview. I hit the rewind button and waited for the familiar click, then hit play. The first few seconds were a tad garbled, but I expected that, as there had been some initial feedback from the mic during the interview. After several minutes however, the speech, which faded in and out devolved into an indecipherable squeal. I fast-forwarded the tape, in the hopes that it was just the one section that I’d lost, but to my horror it grew worse. Damn Murphy and his Law!

Hence I have to give thanks to the Dreamworks staff for putting me in touch with the other interviewers, and to Shawn Wine of The Hurricane in Miami for graciously providing me with a copy of the interview (thankfully his recorder worked!) Okay, now back to our regularly scheduled interview.

While I knew Mortimer from her roles in Young Adam(2003) and Dear Frankie (2004), (two films that couldn’t have been more different from one another), I didn’t know much about her career. After a bit of research, I learned that she was raised in a life of relative privilege as the daughter of Johnathan Mortimer the successful novelist who penned the Rumpole of the Bailey series (which likely gave her an insight into the role of Match Point’s Chloe). Oxford educated, she worked in television before being winning the role of Val Kilmer’s wife in The Ghost and the Darkness, which was followed by a collection of roles in films as varied as Elizabeth and Scream 3. There is also has a self-deprecating streak that runs through her interviews – she has referred to herself as “the lady in that thing” – and she fears “being summed up in one single sentence”. Hopefully Match Point will help to quell some of those fears.

In Match Point Mortimer plays Chloe, a young woman of privilege who marries Chris a former tennis player who is enthralled by the boundless opportunity his new station has to offer. Chris places everything in jeopardy however after meeting the sensuous Nola (Scarlett Johansson), his brother-in-law’s fiancee and his fascination quickly turns into obsession. And that is never a good thing.

The first question posed to Mortimer was what it was like working with Woody Allen as compared to her previous directors? “It was actually surprisingly easy…[because] as a director really knows what he’s doing…There was just something effortless, easy about the whole process that made it very easy, [we were] always out by three everyday” adding with a laugh “which made him very popular with the English crew.” Mortimer indicated that Allen created a sense of freedom on the set, “…you don’t feel him sort of standing there trying to conduct proceedings - he’s not hands on … yet you’re being brilliantly manipulated in his vision, but it doesn’t feel that way at the time.”

While the themes of infidelity and obsession are the obvious focus of the film, Mortimer was quick to point out that the underlying concept of luck and the vagaries therein where what occupied Allen. “…He kept referring to the fact that he was lucky and he felt that the whole way that the film was going was along about this brilliant thing, fortuitous, and the whole reason he was in England in the first place was kind of a lucky mistake.”

Woody Allen film shoots are legendary for the veil of secrecy that surrounds them: actors only get the script for their character, they often shoot their scenes solo, etc.. I asked Mortimer what she knew about Match Point (known simply as WASP 04 -Woody Allen Summer Project 04) when Allen first approached her, how she prepared for her role and whether they held rehearsals.

“I got the entire script – having met him [Allen] without having read the script it was a brief meeting and I was of course thrilled. [he]came to my hotel room in New York and then I heard a few hours later that I had [been considered for the role]. And then I was amazed to find that a script appeared.” Mortimer explained that, true to form, there were “special” considerations surrounding the offer. “I had to read it in a few hours and send it back and say then and there whether I would do it.’ Her voice trails to a whisper and she giggles “I said [to myself] before I read it of course that I was going to do it.” She was even more resolute once she’d finished the script.

“It had that thriller kind of element even at the beginning, even before you knew what was going to go on. It’s incredible reading one of his movies because it’s very spare… there’s not much scene direction, he doesn’t feel the need to explain things, it’s very brisk and laconic.” Mortimer exclaims with a sigh, “You read so many scripts in our job and so many of them are so overwritten and desperately trying to explain themselves…” and then her interest peaks once again “[so it was] very arresting to read it.” Shortly after accepting the role they began shooting.

Mortimer found the Woody Allen School of filmmaking to be somewhat daunting at first. “The rehearsal process you asked about, it’s true, there is no real rehearsal; very often the first time you say your lines is the first take.” Surely she must have found the process somewhat disquieting? “To begin it was rather as I’d never worked like that before.” And once again her lingering self-doubt makes a guest appearance, “I tend to not have natural faith in my instinctive abilities.” But Allen was determined to draw her out.

“He kept saying “You’ve got to trust me” I think that was the phrase he would use whenever we would voice our concerns. He’d say [she laughs] “Just trust me. I’ve been doing this a long time, you may not like the movie but I think you’ll like yourself in it.” Allen eventually won her over with his enthusiasm. “ It was an exercise in trust and once you learned to give in to the process it was very liberating and exhilarating. Watching it I was amazed by how real the performances are and it comes from the spontaneity of not really know what you’re doing.”

A clear convert to “The Allen Method”, Mortimer was intent on spreading the gospel. “What it forces you to do, and it’s a horrible phrase and I’ve never really known what it meant, [is] that thing of being in the moment. You can’t rely on some sort of memory of how you did the line once or a conversation you’ve had in the back of your head of about what the scene was meant to be doing. All you can do is listen really to the other person and respond to them with the lines that you know you have to say and it somehow works and after awhile it became very exciting doing it that way.”

In an interview with online site Guardian Unlimited, Mortimer lamented that she was tired of recent movie conventions in that they all have to come to a neat conclusion. So how in her opinion does Matchpoint compare? “I think it’s the opposite of a neat conclusion. I mean what’s so brilliant about it is that it is a neat conclusion for the character [Chloe] in some ways.” She laughs guiltily (spoilers have been omitted) and explains that “…for me and Chris in some way everything is sorted out: I’ve got my husband, I’m none the wiser and I’m perfectly happy. And it’s very neat in that sense.” She’s quick to add however, “it’s a complete kind of chaos in as far as how it leaves the audience feeling and you can only imagine how that guy [Chris] is going to feel at some point. I think there’s something existential almost about the end of the movie. I mean he [Allen] would probably balk at that and think that that was probably too high falutin’ a word to describe this movie, but I do. I love,” then repeats to emphasize her point, “I love the way it ends and that immediately made me excited about it when I was reading it for the first time.”

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originally posted: 11/29/05 19:32:48
last updated: 12/29/05 12:59:19
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