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Mamie Gummer is forging her own path

Yes, she is Meryl Streep's daughter, but she's also an actress in her own right. After stage and TV work, she's starring in her first series, 'Emily Owens, M.D.'

October 14, 2012|By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times
  • Actress Mamie Gummer in New York.
Actress Mamie Gummer in New York. (Amy Sussman / Invision /…)

Mamie Gummer is her mother's daughter. And maybe that's part of the problem.

She's so aware that you're so aware that her mother is Meryl Streep, it's as if she has developed a stopwatch in her head ready to irritably clock the minute her 63-year-old mother will get mentioned — she's noticeably tense and brief with her responses. But at 29, Gummer needn't feel defined by the link.

The actress has managed to steadily establish her own identity since her tender debut in "Heartburn," opposite her mother and Jack Nicholson, more than two decades ago. She now finds herself headlining her first TV series, "Emily Owens, M.D.," on the CW, which premieres Tuesday.

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"I've been the star of my own show forever — it's just now people can tune in once a week to watch me," she quipped.

That's not to say Gummer is flashy. Yes, in this moment, hot pink lipstick tints her thin lips, and she's wearing body-hugging blush leather pants while also navigating the sleek tiled floor of a hotel lobby in Ruthie Davis metallic stilettos, but the leggy actress is in promotion mode, ready for the obligatory photo shoot. Otherwise, she's reserved.

"All this," she said, referring to the media blitz that comes with heading a show, "is weird."

Gummer, born Mary Willa and the second eldest of Streep's four children, perks up when discussing the young adult drama. In it, she plays the title character: a shy, love-struck medical student who quickly realizes working at a big hospital is eerily similar to high school. Emily is awkward, passive and thinks too much — resulting in a lot of voice-over exposition.

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"She was just sort of jumping around the page and at me," Gummer said of the character. "It felt like a great opportunity to carry a show for myself — to play on a bigger level."

Gummer, who studied theater at Northwestern University, had honed her stage persona in plays such as "Mr. Marmalade," opposite Michael C. Hall, and "The Water's Edge."

"I think that if that's your norm, then that's what you do," she said of wanting to be an actress. "There was no, like, bright and shiny spotlight that came down and hit me one day. The spotlight was all I ever saw."

After a few small movie roles and a part in HBO's 2008 Emmy-winning miniseries "John Adams," Gummer gravitated toward television — partly, and surprisingly, for practical reasons: "I'm not going to lie to you. The last play I did in New York, I got paid $330 a week," she said. "So I was like, 'OK, I love this, but this can't realistically sustain me.'"

She landed guest stints on CBS' "A Gifted Man" and Showtime's "The Big C." But none played to her strength — quirkiness — quite like CBS' "The Good Wife." Gummer made her first appearance in the legal drama's freshman season playing Nancy Crozier, a charmingly naive but calculating attorney. It's a role she has reprised four times — and hopes to continue doing ("I call it 'The Good Job'").

"When she came in to audition, what was really good is you didn't get a sense that it was a scheme," Robert King, co-creator of the series, said by telephone. "You sensed actual innocence with her, while all the other actresses kind of pretended to be sweet. She was very unexpected. And that's what makes her so appealing to watch."

Her stab at TV hasn't been without its struggles. Last year, Gummer played a doctor in ABC's "Off the Map," from "Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rhimes, but it failed to make it past one season.

"There were a lot of cooks in that kitchen trying to make it work but adding way too much eggs to the pudding," she said of the experience.

Now she finds herself on the last network she thought she would.

"CW shows have been very glittery," she said. "To be honest, I don't know how this show will fit because I haven't really tuned in. I'm not, like, watching the 'Vampire Diaries.' " It's the sort of discomfited revelation that Emily Owens might make.

"She's so honest, so vulnerable, so raw," said the show's creator, Jennie Snyder Urman. "And that makes her so likable. She brings this sort of naivete to the role that is subtle and elegant.... When I think about her, I don't think about her mom."

When Gummer is asked to reflect on the struggle of getting the industry to take notice of her talents apart from her famous mother, she wrestled out a stiff smile before grudgingly offering a response.

"I don't know. It's all in other people's perception," she said. "I don't have anything to compare it to. Of course, it's like a really unique position, I guess, I'm in. Although increasingly not so much. We're everywhere — these children of stars wanting to be stars."

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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