Mother’s Day may be a bit off on the calendar, but it’s presently a particularly maternal time for Emily Mortimer. She just had a baby, her second, with husband Alessandro Nivola, and our conversation occurs with lamb curry in the pot and her own mother set to arrive shortly from England for a visit. More darkly, on-screen, in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Mortimer plays Rachel Solando, a mother held at a remote asylum for the criminally insane after killing her three children. When Rachel goes mysteriously missing, Leonardo DiCaprio’s federal marshal is called in to investigate. Vulture caught up with Mortimer recently to talk about the joys of both motherhood and fake blood, the zen tranquility of a Scorsese set, and her scotched plans to play Alfred Hitchcock’s wife.
Congratulations on the baby, first off.
Thank you so much. She’s adorable, although I wonder if they aren’t all adorable for the first three weeks. I have the feeling that she’s going to wake up soon and be less adorable. When she cries when she’s hungry, up until a day or two ago it was a tiny, hardly noticeable whimper. Yesterday she got some lungs on her and really bellowed, and the little fat corners of her mouth turned down at the side. But it makes you love them even more; it’s so clever how nature works.
Quite the contrast from your Shutter Island character, obviously.
I know, I haven’t been to see it yet because I’m so scared of the infanticide — I don’t know if I can handle all these dead children everywhere. But I guess I’m going to have to at the premiere. I’ve been told it’s not too traumatizing, though.
It’s not really played for scares, although you have that one particularly bloody scene.
That was so offensively sticky. I had all that blood thrown over me very unceremoniously from a bucket at about 5:30 in the morning, and it stayed on for the entire day. The clothes stick to you by the end of a fourteen-hour day, and for days afterward I was finding streaks of blood on various parts of my clothes and body.
Is Scorsese specific in his directorial references?
You’re never going to feel in safer hands than in walking onto a Scorsese set. You know that you’ve got someone who’s a genius and master of the art watching over you. I understood that this was in some ways a homage to other movies. I knew what kind of film I was in, and that there was something exciting and unusual about it. It’s partly this fifties B-movie, a bit like a Gothic Emily Brontë novel, and then there are all the films that Marty’s inspired by — those Michael Powell movies, like Black Narcissus. You could just feel he was paying homage to those, and use that to understand what was expected of you in a scene.
Were you given movies to watch, in preparation?
We were, including Titicut Follies, a haunting documentary Frederick Wiseman made in the sixties that’s set in a similar asylum. It offers revelatory insights as to what really went on in those places at that time, and the brutality and horror of it. And I talked to this one guy — I have this awful post-baby brain, I can’t remember his name — but he had had a lot to do with the asylum where Titicut Follies was set, and he said very often these women, generally as the result of severe post-natal depression, are experiencing voices in their heads telling them this is what they have to do for the sake of their children. They’re granting them some incredible gift, and a kind of euphoria sometimes sets in afterward — the feeling that they’ve done something difficult but necessary. That was liberating because it meant that you could go anywhere with those scenes, rather than just be restricted by your own conventional sense of how horrific it is to do something like that.
Regarding films that tip their hat to the past, there’s another such intriguing project on your upcoming filmography. What’s the status on Number 13?
That lost its financing as it was about to shoot. It was a great script about an early Hitchcock film, Number 13, and I was going to play his wife. It was cleverly written because it was like a Hitchcock film itself, but also a biography of the early years of his filmmaking. Chase Palmer, the writer-director, seemed so bright and interesting, so hopefully it’ll come back around.