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Good News Travels Fast

With the second season of HBO’s Golden Globe-nominated The Newsroom in full swing, actress Emily Mortimer, who portrays the show’s idealistic executive producer, “Mac” McHale, is managing to maintain her down-to-eart lifestyle while her career moves into overdrive. Here, the Amagansett resident and mother of two proves that living the simple life is delightfully sweet.

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 “Have you seen the car?” is Emily Mortimer’s way of saying, “Take a look at our under-the-radar way of life in Amagansett.” Indeed, the near-clunker says it all. Parked in the gravel-and-grass driveway of her pale blue farmhouse, the maroon Honda Civic is a hand-me-down from Mortimer’s grandmother-in-law (who drove it well into her 90s), and was probably new about the time Mortimer got her driver’s license. “It has holes in the floor,” she says. “It’s so simple it’s heartbreaking.”

In fact, the simplicity of Mortimer’s entire East End existence is in stark contrast with the rest of her life, in which she juggles roles as a film and TV actress, a wife (her husband is actor Alessandro Nivola) and the mother of two active young children (Sam, 9, and May, 3). Mortimer, who grew up in and around London and attended Oxford, now divides her time between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, where she portrays the relentlessly paced career and tortured personal life of cable news executive producer MacKenzie McHale on the hit HBO series The Newsroom.

Today, having just returned from wrapping the show’s second season in L.A., Mortimer is still recovering from not only a flight on the red-eye (coach class, middle seat), but an incident at the wrap party, where she got a piece of salt stuck in her throat while tossing back tequila shots and had a coughing fit that almost made her see the white light. It was a scary moment, but, true to form, she’s able to have fun with it. The actress, like her character, is a sweet and funny mix of tough and tender, venerable and vulnerable. It’s this duality that makes Mortimer so likeable—whether she’s playing the practical yet empathetic sister-in-law in Lars and the Real Girl, a naked young actress asking for a full-body critique in Lovely and Amazing, or her Newsroom character Mac, who’s wrecked her own office romance (with anchor Will, played by Jeff Daniels) and, painfully, can’t stop trying to make it right. 

“Emily’s very elegant and very funny at the same time,” says show writer and creator Aaron Sorkin. “Everyone in the cast and crew loves her. She’ll make the assistant prop master feel like they’re the most important person in the scene.”

Maybe that’s because Mortimer sees herself in such a humble way. She “never learned how to act,” she insists, “so some part of me feels like I’m not ‘the real deal’ because I didn’t train.” Instead, her method is to continually throw herself into unfamiliar situations. “I like the feeling of being terrified and not knowing what I’m doing,” she says. “Unless I’m closing my eyes, holding my nose and leaping to my death off a cliff, I don’t know how to be. That’s how I know to live life.” 

Working with Sorkin, as well as The Newsroom’s cast and crew, has been “incredibly big” for her, she says. “We settled in together this season, being this sort of team. We’re all jumping off the cliff, closing our eyes and holding hands. It’s exhilarating, really.”

Eye-opening, too. “I’ve never had a proper job like this before, going in to work every day and being ‘on’ and having to sustain this commitment and responsibility,” Mortimer explains, comparing the intensity of television to the relatively coddled work life of a movie actress. “This has been months and months of holding down an intense job. Up to now, I’ve just done movies, which is kind of infantilizing—you get woken up, driven to the set to work once or twice a week,” she says. “Now I’m grown up, I’m a ball-breaking person who can hold down a job and raise a family.” 

It’s something she seems to do with ease, even if it’s not easy. Her son, Sam, comes into the sunroom where we’re sitting to report on his art projects and ask about watching the “telly.” She can’t help but smile even as she gently says “no.” The family seems not only intact, but incredibly close-knit, perhaps because of their unique bicoastal situation. When they’re all on the East Coast, they walk to the Atlantic Avenue train station in Brooklyn to catch the LIRR, then walk to their house with their bags. “We feel so lucky to be here together and to still really like each other, and to have these kids who are so brave and resilient,” Mortimer says. “I suddenly get a wave of feeling so grateful when we’re together, and we miss each other when we’re not. If we were all in one place day in and day out, we might not have that feeling so much. So there are some good things to recommend this way of life. But there’s a lot that’s hard, too,” she adds. “I sometimes worry that it’s too hard for kids, but so far they seem not too demented,” she says with a laugh. 

Extended family is a big part of their lives as well. Soon Mortimer, Nivola and the kids are headed to England and Italy for a “major vacation,” Mortimer calls it. First stop: a visit to her family in London, followed by a trip to see Nivola’s family in Liguria and Sardinia, and finally a quick excursion to the Vatican, where a close family friend also happens to be an archbishop who received his vestment personally from the pope (he also married the couple). “Who knows whether we’ll meet the pope,” Mortimer says, “but we will see the pope.” 

Family is what brought Mortimer to the East End in the first place. Her husband’s grandfather, Costantino Nivola, was a well-known sculptor who lived here and used Amagansett sand to create relief casts for his concrete sculptures, which are still in the permanent collection of The Met. Constantino’s circle of friends included architects and artists such as Le Corbusier and Pollock, and he was very much a part of the Hamptons art scene in the 1950s. In fact, his original home is still in the family today. “I walk into that house and feel like I’ve gone back in time,” Mortimer says. “It feels so special and exotic and exciting and bohemian—you just get a whiff of it somehow. There are photos of the picnics they used to have with all the fascinating people who were around. That’s where I’d like be invited.”

As for the East End’s current social scene, Mortimer says she and Nivola aren’t here enough to really participate. Then there’s the issue of the car. “We rock up in that car to these mansions, and the valet guy has to open the door from the outside. And we just get out like the king and queen of Sheba.” 

And while she admits to being tempted by all that glitters here, her efforts at taking part aren’t always successful. “I get seduced by the promise of cappuccino and toenail polish, venture into town, see the seventh circle of hell there, with people elbowing each other over a chocolate croissant, and want to kill myself. Then I come home.” But that doesn’t completely stop her. “Two days later, it happens all over again.”

Most of the family’s time is spent by the bay. “Even in the height of summer, it’s just a few old couples, a dog and us—I don’t even mind the flies,” she says. “I love the feeling at the end of the day here, having been outside with the sea and the air. It’s how you imagine the air in heaven would be. I have an outdoor shower and a glass of wine and fall into bed and feel so thoroughly delighted with life.” 

As she should, being the executive producer of her own life, with all the moving parts synchronized. And one new part she’s added: She’s been writing and acting in a comedy with her best friend, comic actress Dolly Wells, called Doll and Em, based on their friendship and the impossible dynamic that’s created when your childhood bestie becomes your personal assistant. “It’s really about jealousy,” Mortimer says. “We’re outing it in a major way.” She’s also created internships, in conjunction with HBO and ICM, with Reel Works in Brooklyn, an organization that teaches filmmaking to teenagers and disadvantaged youth. One of the interns witnessed Mortimer’s salt-in-the throat incident in L.A. 

It’s high summer now, and Mortimer can finally take another deep breath of heaven’s air. But just for a few days. Then she’s off to see the pope.