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HOLIDAY SNEAKS | ROLE PLAYING

Just a quick 'Match'

Woody Allen's speedy filmmaking style caught Emily Mortimer off guard.

November 06, 2005|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

WHEN Emily Mortimer got the call from Woody Allen's casting agent saying that Allen wanted to meet with her, everyone she knew cautioned her not to expect much. Allen famously does not spend a lot of time chatting up actors while casting his films, doesn't require readings or auditions. "All my friends said, 'Don't expect a lot of time. He never gives a lot of time,' " she says. "Over and over until I was like, 'Got it. No time. Be prepared for brief.' "

Since it seemed the casting decision would therefore be made on a first impression, Mortimer wanted it to be a good one. Her mother had given her a woolen hat for her birthday; her husband, actor Alessandro Nivola, had told her she looked pretty in it. She wanted to look pretty, so she thought she would wear the hat. "But when I got to his building, I had this meltdown in the ladies' room," she says. "Like, was it too big a cliche? Was it too 'Annie Hall'? Would I look ridiculous? Standing in the ladies' room obsessing about this bloody hat."

Finally she decided she would wear it in, and then, after a bit, take it off. "So he could see me both ways, you know, with hat, without hat." As she entered the room, the director greeted her, smiled and said, "I really admire your work. I just wanted to see you -- and thanks for coming."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 08, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Emily Mortimer -- An article in Sunday's Calendar about actress Emily Mortimer and her new movie, "Match Point," said the actress is 36. Mortimer is 34.

The entire exchange took about three minutes. During which time she did not have the opportunity to remove her hat.

"I left figuring, 'Well, that's that, clearly didn't get the part,' " she says. "And I completely blamed the hat."

Of course, she was wrong, and within a few months she was working on "Match Point," Allen's foray into what could loosely be called the British drawing-room thriller, which opens Dec. 25. In it, a poor but ambitious tennis pro is drawn into the bosom of an upper-class British family, where he wins the heart of the daughter while beginning an affair with the fiancee of the son. As smitten daughter Chloe, Mortimer is as close to a moral center as the film has, which isn't saying much. Her infatuation with Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) may be sincere, but it carries all the arrogance of her class -- it never occurs to her that he might be looking for something other than a well-educated, well-meaning rich girl.

"It was actually a very difficult role to play," says Mortimer, who as the daughter of screenwriter Sir John Mortimer has some familiarity with posh society. "There was so little subtext, just this sense of utter entitlement. But I knew that whatever her motives might have been, she was in love. She just assumed she would get what she wanted," Mortimer adds with a laugh. "And people who do that so often do, don't they?"

A FRESH EYE ON THE BRITISH

WHEN the mostly British cast (Scarlett Johansson is American, Rhys-Meyers Irish) got the screenplay, their immediate reaction was how unlikable every character was. "The British are very paranoid about class," Mortimer says. "Anyone who's rich or posh is immediately a baddie. So we were asking questions like, 'Well, none of them seem very nice ... ' and Woody kept saying, 'No, no, they're not bad people. They just are who they are.'

"I think," she adds, "it takes a foreign eye to do a good film about British class right now. And Woody was just perfect for it. The script was so lean, so fresh, that it took us all by surprise."

As did Allen himself, who is less a writer-director than a cinema icon, with an image of highly honed neuroticism and a tendency toward obsession capable of reducing any actor to jitters. None of the cast had worked with him before, so there was a certain period of adjustment. Allen does almost no rehearsal, little blocking and minimal takes. "Often you'd be saying lines for the first, and sometimes last, time and the camera was rolling," says Mortimer. "I'd say, 'Oh, I don't think I got it, shall I do it again?' and Woody would say, 'No, no, that's perfect,' and off you'd go."

Mortimer is slight and pretty, with or without the hat, in your-nice-friend-from-college sort of way. Allen has said that she's the heart of the film -- Chloe may have the arrogance of her class, but her devotion makes her the most lovable of the film's characters.

At 36, Mortimer has spent 10 years stretching the dimensions of lovable. In "The Kid," she provided Bruce Willis' impatient moral center; in "Lovely and Amazing" she played the needy and narcissistic actress obsessed with her upper arms; in last year's "Dear Frankie," she was a single mother flailing about to save her deaf son from a grim truth.

Bright-eyed and animated, Mortimer seems built to disappear into such roles. She is one of those fine-boned women who fold themselves small, like a bird withdrawing from danger, only to explode into lanky grace. She and Nivola and their young son divide their time between Los Angeles and London; she's afraid she is in danger of becoming an expat, and while she loves Los Angeles in all its messy adolescent enthusiasm, she isn't sure she's ready for that.

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