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Q&A – Emily Mortimer on How She Got From Shutter Island to City Island

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The members of the dysfunctional family at the center of City Island all have their secrets — and for Vince (Andy Garcia), that means taking acting classes with Molly (Emily Mortimer). He auditions for a De Niro-Scorsese film, unbeknownst to his wife and children, and even manages to score a callback. This is something he can share only with Molly, leading his wife (Julianna Margulies) to conclude he’s having an affair. Mortimer says it wasn’t a stretch playing an aspiring actress who wishes she were in a Scorsese film — even though she had just come from the set of one.

Q: Chloë Sevigny was originally cast as your character. How did you step in?

A: Andy Garcia and I were shooting The Pink Panther 2, in Paris, a scene right outside Notre Dame, and we got caught in a rainstorm, so we took shelter in a café. I immediately ordered a cognac, he lit up a cigar, and he told me about this film, for want of anything else to talk about. And he told me that there was this part that would be great for me but unfortunately someone else was doing it. It was a very clever tactic, because it whet my appetite to be taunted like that. So when the money didn’t come together as quickly as they thought and the other actress got another job, as is the way with these things, he rung me up — and this was a year later — and said, “We’re shooting this summer. I would love for you to do it.” And so of course, by then, I was desperate to do it.

Q: Had you done Shutter Island already at this point? Because your character references Scorsese.

A: Yes: I went from Shutter Island to City Island, which can’t get any further away from each other. They’re polar opposites! One was an enormous studio film, shot over several months with every kind of luxury imaginable, and a gruesome thriller at that, and City Island is so much more low-key. It’s very sweet and kind of old-fashioned in a way, and it almost reminded me of a John Hughes movie, the spirit and the tone of it. And I was able to shoot my part in two weeks, which was pretty much the length of the entire film shoot. The thing is, I totally empathized with my character, because I don’t feel like someone who’s doing a Marty Scorsese film. I’m not the kind of girl who goes around doing Marty Scorsese! So I understood the admiration and jealousy she had for her companion, who has a callback in one of his films — the combination of pride and delight and horror that one feels when either your best friend or your husband gets a job you would have died for. It wasn’t any stretch at that point!

Q: Who is the kind of girl who does Marty Scorsese films?

A: Not me! [Laughs] Maybe I’m putting myself down with a sort of weird self-protection that I should sort out with a psychoanalyst.

Q: Perhaps Woody Allen can recommend one. Do you also perceive yourself, despite Match Point, of not being the kind of girl who does Woody Allen films?

A: Ha-ha! I was joking the other day that I will now only work with real legends, but I don’t know who else there really is, besides Woody and Marty and David Mamet. I’d love to do a Pedro Almodóvar film, because I love that he’s not afraid of glamour and I think glamour is missing from most films.

Q: If you weren’t an actress, what other kind of career path might you have chosen?

A: I studied Russian language and literature at university. I thought, when I told my parents I wanted to be an actress, that their job was to stop me. And no one did! And so I pissed away this very expensive education I was given, and there were a lot of things I could have done, but now I’m no good for anything else. I was doing a play and I was so outraged by all the pressure I was put under, and I behaved very badly. I was ungracious and complaining a lot, and I remember walking through the car park and seeing a man in a kiosk, and I remember yearning to be in that kiosk with him, just watching television and eating a sandwich. It feels like you’re taking your life in your hands to step on stage, and the stakes are always getting higher and higher, and sometimes I want something that requires nothing more from me than to sit in a warm box and take people’s money. Of course, my attitude is constantly changing, and, in a few weeks, I’ll be desperate for another crazy adventure.

Q: Your education didn’t go completely to waste — you must have had an occasion to use it during Transsiberian.

A: That’s true. I could speak to the extras in Russian. Although I forgot that the Lithuanians had been repressed by the Soviets, so they were very un-charmed by my Russian. But having a common language was useful. And I can have conversations with Ukrainian taxi drivers. I can swear really dirty words, and they’re very impressed by that. So it does come in handy.

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