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Been There, Felt That

Emily Mortimer knows what it's like to be an insecure actress. To play one in 'Lovely & Amazing,' she had to examine those feelings.

June 23, 2002|KEVIN MAYNARD

Emily Mortimer is making a mental checklist of her anatomical shortcomings. "Knock-kneed, one eye's smaller than the other," she says. "My teeth are a bit yellow, nose is a bit big, flat hair, thin." Not that the 30-year-old Oxford graduate suffers from a bad self-image, it's just that for her latest role as a neurotic Angeleno actress in Nicole Holofcener's "Lovely & Amazing," she had to put any normal, working actor's sense of vanity on the line.

Mortimer plays Elizabeth Marks, whose acting career is finally taking off now that her agent has pressured her into sexing up her image for auditions and magazine shoots. Naturally, the role hit home. "I've definitely been in some absurd outfit with a thousand people staring at you, feeling totally miserable like you want someone to come and collect you and take you home," she says. "And the whole thing about auditioning and feeling like you've got the job because somebody flirted outrageously with you and then you haven't. There are many instances where you kind of feel like a whore. And what was interesting about doing this job is that I examined all that, and in the process, I did expose myself and make myself very vulnerable."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 564 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie genre--The movie "Formula 51" is an action-comedy. A Sunday Calendar story about actress Emily Mortimer incorrectly characterized the genre.

Elizabeth also has a lot of pressure from her family: a caustic and unhappily married older sister (Catherine Keener), an adopted 10-year-old African American sister who wants blond hair (Raven Goodwin), and a mother (Brenda Blethyn) undergoing liposuction. It's enough to make Elizabeth question the skin she's in, especially in the film's most revealing scene: After bedding a handsome A-list actor (Dermot Mulroney)--whose latest project she didn't get, ironically, because she wasn't deemed sexy enough--she boldly stands naked before him and asks him to honestly critique her anatomy. It's the most provocative but desexualized piece of female nudity in indie film since Julianne Moore went bottomless in 1993's "Short Cuts." Yet there's nothing casual and incidental about this scene. It's full frontal and head-on uncomfortable.

"I knew that if I wanted to do the part, I would have to do the scene. But I remember getting out of bed at that moment in the scene, thinking, 'This better be a good film,' " Mortimer says, with a laugh. "If this is a good film, it's all right. But if it isn't, I'm destined for international humiliation." While the scene was in the original script, Mortimer worked with Holofcener on rewriting it to specifically tailor it to her own complaints about her body. "I had to sit down and think about all the things that freak me out about my body," she says.

Of course, aside from her willowy, skinny frame, which many actresses would kill for, it's hard to see any flaws in Mortimer's porcelain-featured beauty. "The script originally called for someone with fat thighs and a round belly, someone with a more normal body than Emily," Holofcener says. "But I wanted her so much for the part that I rationalized that it doesn't really matter what she looks like. There's plenty of hyper-thin actresses out there who think they're fat and would make us all throw up if we heard them. So I thought, 'Well, let her be one of those.' And she did it beautifully."

The scene was shot without rehearsals--true to the chaos of indie film, the entire shoot was only three weeks--and with a minimal amount of takes so that Mortimer wouldn't be naked for long. "There were maybe five people there, all men besides me and Emily," Holofcener says, "all kind of courteously looking away, like the boom operator's trying to boom them without looking. Everyone felt very protective of her."

Mortimer admits she has a lot in common with the insecure Elizabeth. One of the character's biggest quirks is that she's always taking in stray dogs, whether they want to be rescued. Mortimer confides she has similar obsessions. "I worry constantly about being a good person," she says.

Her "Lovely & Amazing" co-star Brenda Blethyn, who also plays her mother in the as-yet-unreleased "The Sleeping Dictionary," vouches for her. "Oh yes!" she says. "She sent me quite a big check the other day because I run the London Marathon for children with leukemia. But I think it was because it made her laugh so much that I was running a marathon."

At one point, Mortimer's preoccupation with civic duty led her to volunteer at a London refuge for Russian asylum seekers. Fluent in Russian from her days at Oxford, she went to help. "I thought, 'Oh brilliant! I can exorcise my guilt,' " she says jokingly. "Of course, in a desperate bid to be liked, I had given everybody my number. I was hounded for six months and I had about five or six regulars, sweet old men that I'd be driving to dental appointments in Lewisham. In the end, I just had to drop them. I felt so desperate, like, 'My God, I'm not good enough to do good work.' "

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