Guest of Honor

Emily Mortimer’s ‘Doll & Em’ Puts Friendships on Display and to the Test

The co-creator and star of the HBO series discusses the perks and perils of working with your best friend, the recent rise in meta-performances, and how to give the Queen a titter.

Photo Credit: K.C. Bailey / HBO

British actor Emily Mortimer played the wealthy, cheated-upon wife in Woody Allen’s “Match Point.” She went on to appear in the Martin Scorsese films “Shutter Island” and “Hugo.” And her latest TV project (she was a regular on Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom”) is the HBO comedy “Doll & Em,” which she created with her best friend, Dolly Wells. In a case of conspicuous type-casting, Emily plays Em, a well-known actor, and Dolly plays Doll, her best friend… who Em hires as her assistant. On the eve of the show’s second-season debut, Emily told Rico what on the show is actually really real for real… and what’s just there to make viewers super uncomfortable.


Rico Gagliano: And the real Emily, it’s great to have you.

Emily Mortimer: It’s great to be here!

Rico Gagliano: So, to address an elephant in the room — elsewhere in this episode, we spoke with Julie Klausner, who plays a version of herself in the series “Difficult People.” Then there was the Ricky Gervais show, “Extras,” in which stars played versions of themselves. There was of course the series, “Louie.” What is the appeal to actors of this era to take themselves on as characters, do you think?

Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells on the set of "Doll & Em" (Photo Credit: K.C. Bailey / HBO)
Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells on the set of “Doll & Em” (Photo Credit: K.C. Bailey / HBO)

Emily Mortimer: It’s a very interesting question and one that I’m sure somewhere people are writing thesis on as we speak! It definitely seems to be a sort of fashion of the modern age. But I feel like the modern age is full of examples of public and private lives becoming “crossed over.” The public being private and the private being public and all sorts of confusion in that area.

Even the film, “Birdman,” which won all the Oscars last year. That was… we were watching that movie just as we wrapped “Doll & Em,” and we saw so many parallels — we’re like, “Oh my gosh! Someone already beat us to it!”

But yeah, I mean every time I put a picture on Instagram, or tweet something, I just… I’m filled with self-disgust, and confusion. This is an area which is ripe with investigation; where as I said our private lives have become ever more public. Even for people who aren’t in the public eye.

Rico Gagliano: I hadn’t thought of that, because it is true: whenever you put up a picture of yourself on Instagram, or post something on Facebook, you’re sort of creating a character of “you” that you want the world to see… and is it you?

Emily Mortimer: Exactly! I mean what we had real fun with on the show was… me and Dolly — my real life best friend and collaborator — have known each other for many, many, many years, since we were four. And so what we do with the show, in both seasons, is we set up this very extremely real dynamic between us.  Which is really real. We talk to each other how we talk to each other in real life, call each other by our real names. You set up this authenticity for the audience… which is then extremely disconcerting when things start to go wrong. And it gives you all sorts of opportunities for making an audience squirm.

Rico Gagliano: Which I think I see a lot of British comedy doing increasingly — putting the screws to the audience.

You bring up that conflict between the two characters.  It mainly comes from a power imbalance. Emily, the character, has a fancy career and way more options than Dolly in many ways. What was the root of that idea? Did that actually play out with you and Dolly in real life?

Emily Mortimer: No, thank God. I don’t think we could’ve possibly sat down to write this together had it been that way. But… well first of all, we just found it a sort of gruesomely fascinating topic. And we’d experienced witnessing this relationship between film stars and their assistants, and what a weird dynamic that can sometimes be. Because very often these are people who are from the same sort of socioeconomic background, they’re the same age, the same sex, they’ve got a lot in common… apart from one serving the other. And often those people are very good friends, or they become very good friends, inevitably, because they’re the closest people to each other on earth.

Rico Gagliano: They’re the only people you can trust in a lot of ways.

Emily Mortimer: Yes, but there’s still something kinda screwed up about it. That it’s like, you know, what happens when you’re just relaxing on the sofa together? Is the assistant the one that goes to get the ice cream when you’re just watching a movie?

So that was one thing — just the sort of macabre fascination with that relationship. But then, we did get really interested in exploring jealousy as an emotion. Which I think is a very under-explored emotion, because it’s something that I think everybody feels all the time. And we feel it, especially, for the people that we love the most and for whom we want the most! You know, our best friends or our spouses. Their success inevitably makes you kind of reflect back on your own lack of it.

Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells on the set of "Doll & Em" (Photo Credit: K.C. Bailey / HBO)
Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells on the set of “Doll & Em” (Photo Credit: K.C. Bailey / HBO)

Rico Gagliano: Ohhhh, it’s so true!

Emily Mortimer: So I think that there’s a sort of confessional aspect to both seasons, where it’s like outing these kind of awkward feelings. That’s what Dolly and my friendship is really about. It’s confessing the weird screwed-up stuff that goes on inside our brains, and telling each other things, and then the other person forgiving you and actually finding you kind of funny for saying it.

Rico Gagliano: Now, that being said… it does shine through, on the show, that these two people really love each other. But they do spend about 40 percent of the time wanting to kill each other, I would estimate.

Emily Mortimer: Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: Tell me about the time, making this show, that you most wanted to kill Doll.

Emily Mortimer: That I most wanted to kill her [laughs]?! God, I really need to come up with one, because people are longing to know about how much we hate each other in real life.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah! We need to feel that ‘cause otherwise it’s too perfect.

Emily Mortimer: But we can ever satisfy them! Our friends and family get very irritated by us while we’re making the show. Particularly my mother. I mean, both of our mothers are in this season. And finally, on the last night, we had the last-night wrap party and we all came home, and she said, “How was it?” And I was like, “Oh mum, it was amazing! They were all so sort of enthused, and everybody had had such a great time and said that it was one of the things that they enjoyed working on the most!”

And mum just looked at me and went, “That usually means it’s gonna be shit.”

And I was like, “Oh my God, you hate me! You’ve been quietly hating me!”

Rico Gagliano: It’s the jealousy thing!

Emily Mortimer: Yeah, exactly!

Rico Gagliano: Her own child! She can’t, on some level, stand it — that you pulled it off.

All right, We have two questions that we ask everyone on the show…

Emily Mortimer: Yes.

Rico Gagliano: …And the first one is: if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what’s the question you’d least like to be asked?

Emily Mortimer: There is a question in interviews which I find very annoying: I don’t think men get asked how they balance family life with their career.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, interesting.

Emily Mortimer: I don’t really think they get asked that question.

Emily Mortimer and Mikhail Baryshnikov on the set of "Doll & Em" (Photo Credit: K.C. Bailey / HBO)
Emily Mortimer and Mikhail Baryshnikov on the set of “Doll & Em” (Photo Credit: K.C. Bailey / HBO)

Rico Gagliano: Although that’s in your show. I mean, that is a theme of the show, is how Emily balances her family life with her work.

Emily Mortimer: Yes of course. And of course it’s something that is interesting. But it’s just such a trick question. It’s such a trap for women, I think, because no matter what you say, you’re sort of irritating. If you say, “Oh, it’s not a problem at all,” then people hate you. And if you say, “Oh, you know, I feel so guilty and wracked with remorse about leaving my darling children when I go off to work!” everyone thinks, “Yeah, it’s really hard for you — you know, turning up some film set and being waited on.”

But generally I love being asked questions. I don’t want to put people off asking me questions. I’m pathetically grateful to be asked a question.

Rico Gagliano: All right, noted. Here’s our last question. It’s actually more of an order really, which is: tell us something we don’t know.

Emily Mortimer: Well, apparently Queen Elizabeth The First found dogs very amusing….

Rico Gagliano: OK.

Emily Mortimer: …And would laugh uproariously whenever she saw a dog. So Shakespeare would try to get dogs into his plays as often as possible, just to give Queen Elizabeth a titter.

Rico Gagliano: Really?!

Emily Mortimer: Yeah, apparently there’s a dog in “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which there’s no reason to be there, apart from the fact that whenever Queen Elizabeth I saw a dog she just pissed herself laughing. Did you know that?

Rico Gagliano: [laughing.] We think Shakespeare’s this great genius; really he’s a pandering hack!