Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer communicate on the telepathic frequency accessible only to lifelong friends, often asking and answering questions with simply some purposeful eye contact or a laugh. The bond between the two actor-writers formed the basis of their cult sitcom, Doll & Em, a comedy of manners in which a fictionalized Mortimer hires her BFF as an assistant and slowly upends the fragile dynamics of their relationship. (Think Entourage, but funny, and with women.) When they convene at Manhattan’s plush Soho House to discuss Good Posture, Wells’s first foray into feature directing, they share the easy rapport of two people who know each other well enough to transcend talking.
In her film, Wells cast Mortimer as novelist Julia Price, a genius spending her days holed up in her bedroom, only to be roused from her self-imposed exile by the arrival of a houseguest named Lilian (Grace Van Patten), a purposeless slacker uniquely receptive to Julia’s prickly tough love. They force one another out of their respective arrested developments in a vividly realized patch of Brooklyn that Wells calls home. She made this project personal on every front she could, hiring collaborators who were more than mere co-workers. The result is a lo-fi intimacy consistent throughout each gently unfolding scene, an indie movie that gives American indie movies a good name.
Wells, Mortimer, and Van Patten all sat down with Vulture the day before Good Posture’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss embarrassing teenage indiscretions, why Doll & Em is so hard to stream these days, and Mortimer’s favorite Elaine Stritch memory from 30 Rock.
For starters, Dolly and Emily, how did you two first meet?
Dolly Wells: We apparently met when we were 6 months old, because our fathers knew each other. Then we re-met when we were 7, that’s when we really met. We were sort of like cousins, we’d see each other quite a lot from 7 to about 20. Then at about 20, it was cemented, we became inseparable.
Was the decision to pursue acting one you arrived at together?
Emily Mortimer: No, and we never really talked about it either! It was mainly boys. There was one night when we were at another friend’s house, and we laid in bed all night long talking about boys.
DW: There were two boys treating us particularly badly at this time.
EM: We commiserated, and we realized that we were having so much fun talking about it that it was almost worth it — almost worth the pain of what had happened just to gossip.
Grace Van Patten: Did you both go to the same school?
DW: No, there were four of us, and Em went to school with one of our other best friends. And though we’re all the same age, she’s a month older, so she was in the year above ours. Everything she was doing was slightly ahead — she was acting before me, in university before me.
So for Good Posture, was the character of Julia Price conceived with Emily in mind?
DW: The truth of it is that I didn’t want Em to feel like she had to be in it. She’s a very generous and sweet and supportive girl, and I knew if I asked her she’d say yes because she’d feel like she had to, so I was trying to think of ways to be casual. “Hey, so, I’m making this thing…” Talking with my husband and trying to think of other people, though, he helped me realize I was just avoiding the obvious. I ended up asking her, and she immediately said yes without needing to know anything about it.
Julia has a large presence in the film, but she’s pretty seldom seen. To what extent is that a purely creative choice, or is that a function of the logistics of shooting?
DW: Eh, it’s both! When writing, I did like the idea of this force that’s there and not there. Mostly creative, though she was very busy. I remember us talking, like, “Could you do two days? Three days?”
EM: I was producing a film at the time that I was feeling responsible for, having gotten my husband involved. It was the first thing we produced apart from Doll & Em without a production company, I’d found this film and gotten him involved, and I just couldn’t tell him I’d be going off to be in Dolly’s movie while I was supposed to be producing with him. I told her, “I think I can do three days?” Ultimately, it adds to the whole thing that Julia’s elusive. Doll assimilated the problem and made it a virtue; she’s the mysterious woman in the attic.
GVP: I had no idea about any of this. The relationship in the movie felt so purposeful to me.
Grace, you play the stock type of the rudderless 20-something. As someone who achieved success from a young age, was that a mind-set you had to more imagine rather than recall?
GVP: I definitely learned what to not do with my life. Don’t be lazy, don’t feel like things will just line up for you, always work hard for your success. I know so many people like my character Lilian, so I could think about them.
DW: She found Lilian so quickly. I remember, at the beginning, you were saying, “Oh, this is so gross.” Everything about making yourself too at-home in someone else’s house.
GVP: It’s so uncomfortable!
DW: Yes, but when anyone’s gotten up in arms about the character, I’m amazed, because she’s so — who hasn’t lived like that? Who doesn’t have that side of themselves?
GVP: Those are the last years that you can get away with being aimless and mooching off other people. Everyone has to learn that they can’t pull that off anymore.
EM: When I was about 17, I was staying at a house in Italy, and that’s where I got really properly drunk for the first time. Another one of me and Dolly’s mutual friends told me that if I didn’t get drunk and kiss a boy, she’d disown me as a friend. She wanted me to have the whole experience, so she put a bottle of red wine up to my mouth and tipped it until it was spilling past my lips. We had a weird, exhausting night, but the next morning, I remember going to the bathroom in this beautiful house and doing what any entitled teenager would do: I washed my face and pulled out the makeup and started putting it on, going through all the drawers. After I’ve gone through the mascaras and creams, I see in the mirror that the mother of the house has been sitting behind me on the loo the entire time. She watched me rob her bathroom!
DW: I still sometimes do things like that, though! There are things about Lilian that I’ve taken such a long time to learn. I was staying with a friend — Timm Sharp, who plays George in the movie — and I was telling him about how my husband finds it annoying that when I brush my teeth, toothpaste will sometimes get on the mirror. Timm said, “Oh yeah, that happens whenever you stay here.” We do things without realizing, never give it a thought. Cohabitation’s a science.
When we think of coming-of-age movies, we think of teenagers and high school, but I’m seeing more and more of this among characters in their 20s and 30s. Is this process getting delayed?
EM: What’re you thinking of?
Off the top of my head, Girls, which even takes place around the same radius in Brooklyn.
DW: You also see some of this in the Seth Rogen movies, about going from young adulthood to regular adulthood. What I’ve said about Lilian’s character is that she gets a second chance at being born, that little bedroom turns into her womb and Julia’s her surrogate-mother character. It doesn’t matter at the end whether she’s working at a café or wherever else because she’s taken charge of herself. Until then, she’s been able to cruise through life, she’s had a way with boys fancying her.
Sure, there’s the great scene where she meets the guy at the bar who sucks so bad but she decides to take him home anyway, like, “Why not?”
GVP: That’s my boyfriend in real life.
Ah, well. I’m sure he’s better than his character in the movie!
GVP: Nope, he’s exactly like that. That’s him.
Good, good, good, good, this is going good. Funny thing, that scene was shot at my regular bar. Just the night before, I had been sitting in the exact seat Grace was in.
DW: In a slight way, I thought this film could be my love letter to the Brooklyn I know. I moved to New York five years ago, and when we came to Bed-Stuy and really made a home there, I started personifying it. Brooklyn felt exciting to me, felt like being in my early 20s and having lots of potential with no idea how to realize it. I was aware of my own privilege, too, coming into an area that’s now been gentrified by white middle-class people such as myself. All the things that are lovely, that I really cherish about the neighborhood, can also be threatened by my cherishing them. You’ve got to try to find your own place and fit in somewhere that has its own history. Lilian’s like a slightly entitled white newcomer in a neighborhood the way she settles right in at the house, too.
The other major archetype in the film is the reclusive writer, well regarded but not working much anymore. Did you have any sort of reference point for Julia, either in the writing or performance?
EM: I didn’t know her all that well. She was sort of a mythological figure to me. But my father’s first wife, Penelope — he married two women named Penelope, this would be Penelope the First — was a novelist and real intellectual. She wrote The Pumpkin Eater, which they made into the movie with Anne Bancroft. She was a formative influence, though I only knew her through photographs. Towering, brilliant woman, wrote lots for The New Yorker. She terrified my dad, one of the only women he was ever intimidated by. I remember she came for lunch in the country once when I was a little girl, and my dad saying, “Aren’t the days beautiful here?” and her replying, “They’re very vulgar.” I only ever got wafts of her, but she was fascinating.
DW: Doris Lessing had Jenny Diski to live with her, and Diski wrote a book called In Gratitude about how frightening and rewarding the time they spent together was for her. I had barely gotten halfway through by the time I realized they had a rich relationship.
What’s curious about this production was how it reversed the dynamic you shared fictitiously on Doll & Em, with one of you technically (or not-so-technically) employed by the other. Was it odd to be giving direction to a friend, or taking it?
EM: That world of Doll & Em was purely imaginary, there was never anyone really taking orders from anyone else once we were out of the scene. But this time around, I really was taking direction, and it was just incredible. I’ve seen her in many roles and many contexts and many places, but I’d never seen Dolly directing a film before, and I loved watching her. She was peaceful.
DW: I was scared!
EM: But you were so calm in the face of it! We had a short time to work, like all independent movies, making things potentially very chaotic. Dolly was the calm in the eye of the storm, though, able to be not just my friend but everybody’s. She’s not a person on high, she’s a collaborator. Kind, generous, always made enough time to give us another take when we wanted one. I can’t tell you how rare that is, especially on a small movie, where you don’t always have the time to get everything done.
DW: I am not Zen.
EM: She was.
DW: With Em coming, everyone on this largely English crew got excited, while I was getting nervous. Em and I had always written together, and now she’d be looking at something I’d done and forming an opinion of it. And I hadn’t learned all the technical language of the set, but my director of photography was kind and accommodating and never patronizing. I’d say, “I don’t know how to articulate this, but I’m not feeling enough.” He’d frame the shot this way and that, and it wouldn’t feel right until Em sat down. I felt it instantly. She was one part of my support system, and then there was Grace, who was a dream. There was so much to shoot, and we knew one another from a play we’d done together, where I’d played her mother. So what they’re saying, of me being calm, that wouldn’t have been true if we hadn’t all already known each other. We all had each other’s backs in terms of these close relationships.
GVP: I’d never felt so free to try things. I felt so comfortable, and that gives you a sense of freedom that’s important for an actor. She gives everyone the opportunity to be spontaneous. It was so fun, just a really positive experience.
DW: It’s because we’re all women!
Is that the secret?
EW: I can’t tell you what I’d be like as a man, so it’s tough to say. But maybe there’s something in how women communicate, and that I personally have no pride. I don’t feel bad if I’m getting something wrong, and I’m ready to learn. I wasn’t afraid to admit I don’t know things. But then, having said that, the men of the film give very sensitive and perceptive performances.
You can tell they’ve been directed by women!
DW: True! I just want to make clear how wonderful Timm and Ebon [Moss-Bacharach] were.
I recently wrote about Her Smell, another Brooklyn movie with a cast made up almost entirely of women and a crew staffed by people the director knew and trusted, and everyone talked in warm terms just like this.
EM: That’s exactly how we did Doll & Em.
DW: It doesn’t work when everyone’s coming in for the day and thinking about it like a job. That feeling spreads like an infection in a petri dish; everyone might be on the same page, and if one person’s heart isn’t in it, it’ll spoil things.
Zadie Smith, Martin Amis, and Jonathan Ames all appear in the movie. How’d you get these big literary figures?
DW: Zadie Smith and Martin Amis, I have to thank Em for. My cousin lived with Martin Amis, which I always found interesting, the premise of someone living with a writer. Em actually knew Martin separately, and had been friends with Zadie.
EM: My dad knew him. They were both writers. My dad was old enough to know Kingsley Amis, actually. They were friends. Zadie Smith, I’m not sure how we know each other. I’d met her around, I suppose? All English people know one another.
DW: We almost lost Zadie. It was so lucky that she’d agreed to come by and shoot a little, but the unlucky bit was that our lenses didn’t arrive that day until three o’clock in the afternoon. When I really freak out, I go to this calm place that’s even creepier, so I’m just wandering around like, Ah, this is amazing that this has happened. We’ve got an hour until she’s got to pick up her kids, and it’s so embarrassing, we don’t have our equipment. We had a shitty interview camera, and our DP suggested we just use that, which turned out to be the perfect look. Like, of course we should’ve just done that from the start. I also knew that I couldn’t write the dialogue for these novelists, because there’s no way it’d be as good as their actual writing, and it’d just be too cringey. Their speaking was almost all improvised.
For Americans, Doll & Em is very difficult to find. It’s not on HBO Go, none of the streaming services, no DVDs. Is there any plan in place to get it out there, or is licensing tied up with HBO and the BBC?
EM: Please put something about that in the article so we can forward it to them!
DW: We’re constantly being asked about this, still. Two days ago, I had a meeting where someone asked if they could watch Doll & Em, and I had to basically tell them no. Mention this, please, maybe it’ll do something.
Last thing, for Emily — whenever I interview anyone that appeared on 30 Rock, I like to ask if they’ve got any stories about the experience.
EM: All I remember about the shoot was that I was terrified to act opposite Elaine Stritch, this immense talent I’d always admired so much. Our first scene together, she marches onto set in full costume, these black tights with a big white sweater, and she just growls, “DOES ANYONE HAVE A FUCKING PEN?” Absolutely legendary woman.