With the second season of HBO’s Golden Globe-nominated The Newsroom in full swing, London-born actress Emily Mortimer, who portrays the show’s idealistic executive producer, “Mac” McHale, is managing to maintain her down-to-earth demeanor while riding a wave of critical acclaim. Here, the mother of two reveals her horrible stage fright, how she prefers to live outside of her comfort zone and why being a TV star makes her finally feel like a grown-up.
“I’m a moving target,” says Emily Mortimer, who’s just reached the Hamptons—from Los Angeles, by way of Brooklyn—for a few days of sun and sand. In fact, she’s just off the beach and her legs are still covered in sand.
Mortimer is clearly still decompressing after wrapping the second season of HBO’s hit series The Newsroom, in which she portrays the relentlessly paced and tortured personal life of cable news executive producer MacKenzie McHale. Plus, she’s still recovering from a flight on the red-eye (coach class, middle seat) and 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.
Mortimer is a sweet and funny mix of tough and tender, venerable and vulnerable. It’s this duality that comes across in her characters and makes her so likable, whether she’s playing the practical yet empathetic sister-in-law in Lars and the Real Girl, the naked young actress asking for a full-body critique in Lovely and Amazing, or her The Newsroom character, “Mac,” who wrecked her own office romance with her anchor, Will (played by Jeff Daniels), and, painfully, can’t stop trying to make it right. (By the way, of the second season, Mortimer says, “Our romance is still alive—and driving us both insane.”)
“Emily’s very elegant and very funny at the same time,” says The Newsroom’s 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 it’s because Mortimer sees herself in such a humble way. “I never learned how to act,” she insists, “so some part of me feels like I’m not really ‘the real deal’ because I didn’t train.” In fact, she’s shied away from theater in the past. “I get lots of weird stage fright,” she says. “I get scared I’m going to do something to really screw it up, like shout out, ‘F*** the Queen!’ or jump into the audience.” But she’s been forced to confront that fear with The Newsroom. “Doing this show is more similar to doing theater than movies. Bring it on—I could do a play now!”
Theater aside, Mortimer thrives on throwing herself into unfamiliar situations. “I like the feeling of closing my eyes, holding my nose and leaping to my death off a cliff,” she says. “That’s how I know to live life.” And working with Sorkin and The Newsroom cast and crew has been “incredibly big for me,” she adds. “We settled in to being 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.”
And eye-opening. “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 says, 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 [primarily] done movies, which is kind of infantilizing—you get woken up, driven to the set to work once or twice a week. Now I’m grown up; I’m a ball-breaking person who can hold down a job and raise a family.”
Which she seems to do with ease, even if it’s not easy. Mortimer juggles her role as a film and television actress with that of being a wife (her husband is actor Alessandro Nivola) and the mother of two active kids (Sam, 9 and May, 3). She grew up in and around London, attended Oxford, and now divides her time between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, with trips to her pale blue farmhouse in the Hamptons whenever possible.
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.” Their family seems incredibly close-knit, perhaps because of their unique bicoastal situation. “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 Alessandro’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.”
It’s clear Mortimer’s the executive producer of her own life, and has all the moving parts synchronized. And one new part she’s added: She’s been writing and acting in a comedy for British channel Sky Living 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 summer now, and Emily Mortimer can finally take a nice, deep breath of fresh air. But just for a few days. Then she’s off to see the Pope.