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Emily Mortimer on Her HBO Comedy Doll & Em, Strong Female Role Clichés, and the Future of Will and Mac on The Newsroom

Emily Mortimer attends InStyle magazine's The Best of British Talent pre-BAFTA party at Dartmouth House on February 4, 2014 in London, England.
Photo: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

If Emily Mortimer had gotten her way, the new HBO comedy Doll & Em would be called something else. In the show, she plays Em, a famous and insecure Hollywood actress who hires her best friend Doll (played by Mortimer’s real life bestie Dolly Wells of Peep Show fame) as her personal assistant. Spoiler: It doesn’t go well! Mortimer tells Vulture that the situation isn’t even semiautobiographical; in Doll & Em, for example, Em is starring in a movie described as “the female Godfather — the strongest woman ever!” With Doll & Em set to premiere tonight, Vulture chatted with Mortimer about the origins of the show, the real paranoia that sets in on a film set, and what’s next on The Newsroom.

How did the idea to do a show with your best friend first come up?
It came up an embarrassingly long time ago. I moved to America when I got married, and me and Doll decided to write together then, just as I had my first baby Sam who’s now ten. We needed an excuse to keep talking to each other in as intense a way as we always did, and to justify the ridiculously high phone bills and constant airplane tickets. It was a good cover to say we were writing a screenplay together. In fairness, we were trying to write something together, but it just took us a very long time to be focused and grown-up about the whole thing.

What was it about?
We started adapting a short story from a book of short stories and then panicked and thought the script should be the whole book of short stories. If anybody looked at the 360-page document we’d been preparing all these years, it would have looked a lot like Jack Nicholson’s screenplay in The Shining. Eventually we had the idea for the show, which is, “What happens when you make your best friend your assistant? Everything fucks up.” It was our friend [series director] Azazel Jacobs’s idea to have us be in it.

So you weren’t initially planning on playing yourselves, or versions of yourselves?
No, no. Ten years ago, we were much more lofty about our ideals. We thought we’d write some great screenplay that would have nothing to do with us, so we wouldn’t need to be in it. Ten years later we were like, “Fuck it. Let’s just write it for ourselves. It’s hard enough to get a job.” We used our names because we were improvising and it was the easiest thing to do. Then Aza strung the footage together, told us he thought it was a pilot, wrote “Doll & Em” on it, and we were stuck with it. We kept vaguely trying to persuade everyone that we should dub our names to Paul and Pem or something. When we arrived at Cannes for Mipcom, there was this huge 20-foot poster of us that said Doll & Em, and we were horrified. Oh my God, all our friends are going to hate us.

I understand. In the beginning, Em’s pretty much an awful friend.
I know! There were many times where I thought, This is so masochistic. But a lot of our inspiration were movies like The Servant and All About Eve, so of course your sympathies aren’t going to be with the entitled, overpaid actress whose job most people feel they could do just as well. But you wind up feeling for both characters, I hope.

In the movie Em is shooting, the director keeps describing her role as “the female Godfather,” which made me laugh every single time. Where did that idea come from?
We didn’t set out to make anything political, but there is this thing that’s amusing about the notion of this actress being given this “part of a lifetime.” She keeps on being told how wonderful it is that she gets to play this strong woman and how there aren’t nearly enough parts for strong women. It’s such a cliché conversation in our business. “God, it’s such a wonderful opportunity to play this strong woman!” It was just amusing to us that the more Em gets told how lucky she is, the more freaked out she feels about how she’s not nearly strong enough to play this strong woman. So then we thought, Who would be the ultimate strong woman? The female Godfather.

Is that how it is on most sets? You’re constantly coddled?
It’s a pretty endemic part of the job, one you just learn to live with. You’re always being made a fuss over because they want to make you feel comfortable and they’re so happy to have you — and they are happy to have you — but there’s also a feeling you put on yourself, and surely the people who’ve employed you in their heart of hearts, of, I hope she can fucking do it! You’re thinking it. They’re thinking it. You’re often looking at the monitors and seeing people whispering to each other and then the director will come and give you notes based on that, and when you’re nervous and wondering if you can do this, and knowing everyone else is wondering that too, you’re convinced the whispered conversation is, “Oh my God, who can we call to replace this person?” Normally you’re able to talk yourself down and get on with it. We really didn’t want to do some exposé of Hollywood. That’s so done. But we did want to get at the noir element of this increasingly encroaching paranoia that can happen on a film set in Hollywood where everyone’s telling you you’re wonderful all the time.

I heard you shot the first episode while you were making The Newsroom.
Yeah, we shot in my trailer on the set. We had all these incredible production values without knowing it, shooting on the Sunset Gower lot. We did have to edit around people banging on the door asking when I was going to be ready to go to set, people coming in with costume changes. It was a bit chaotic. I remember Olivia Munn passed us and went, “Are you having a gang bang in there?”

Has Aaron Sorkin seen it?
I don’t think so. It all happened so fast, between HBO buying it and putting it on the air. He’s in major Newsroom mode. I’m sure he will, and I’m sure I’m going to get teased at the read-through next week.

There were many resolutions and happy endings in the season finale last year. Did you expect to be coming back for a third season?
Oh! I didn’t think of it that way. I thought, Okay, Will and Mac are getting engaged, but they’ve been together before and it was a fucking disaster. To me, it was a bit like Doll and Em — the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Yeah, they’re engaged, but what difference does that make? I guess there was a way of seeing it as Aaron tying it all up. I think he’s a real romantic, but he’s also a real storyteller and people being happy together isn’t really a very good story. The next season isn’t going to be me and Will living in wedded bliss, I don’t think. To me, it just seemed like another crazy predicament they were getting themselves into.

You mentioned the cliché about strong female roles, and I’m sure you’re aware of the criticism about The Newsroom’s females characters for being clumsy, overly emotional, and in need of fixing. I think the same can be said of the male characters, too, but plenty of people have written about the show’s “women problem.” How do you feel about MacKenzie, whose season-one email snafu is cited most often when it comes to this subject?
I agree with you that the men are equally clumsy and hopeless and brilliant. MacKenzie and Sloan and Maggie are all at the same time brilliant minds and occasionally they screw up. I don’t quite understand that thing of having to make perfect role models. It’s so counter to the idea of flawed people, which is surely what we’re all interested in seeing. I guess what you learn from all this controversy is that we’re still unfortunately living in a day and age where just to write a female character, you are kind of being political. You don’t set out to be but because there isn’t complete equality, you are being political. I don’t really get why there’s something wrong with somebody being good at some things and not good at other things. But I guess I understand why people are talking about it. It’s cool. It’s carrying on a dialogue about it, and why not?

Emily Mortimer on Her HBO Comedy Doll & Em