Emily Mortimer Interview on HARRY BROWN
This week, I was part of a roundtable with Emily Mortimer in which she took some time to talk about her role in the new movie HARRY BROWN starring Michael Caine (You can watch the trailer and read the synopsis here. She talked about what attracted her to the role, how she prepared for it and the overall socio-political significance of the movie.
Harry Brown will be released to theaters on April 30, 2010. Until then, enjoy the interview below.
This role is a side of you we haven’t seen before. What attracted you to Alice Frampton?
Emily Mortimer: Alice Frampton, yeah. Why did I want to do this part, well there were a number of reasons. Specifically about the part, I think that was part of the reasoning or just my instinct in that I was drawn to it because it was different from stuff that I had done before and I think if there is any kind of plan to how I sort of guide my career it’s that.
It’s to do thing or just try to do things that are different from the last and try to not bore myself or anyone else in the process and not to try to do the same thing twice. I don’t know whether this is true of everyone but it’s certainly true of me; I think that I’m best when I’m out of my comfort zone which is such an awful phrase. But I think that’s when interesting things happen, when you don’t really know what you’re doing and it’s dangerous to know what you’re doing too much. So that was part of the attraction, that this was a different type of part than I’d played before.
Then of course it was just impossible to turn down an opportunity to act opposite Michael Caine. Who wouldn’t want to do that? And I was entirely un-disappointed by the reality of being with him in a movie. He was so great.
Also, the film itself, I thought that it was really interesting. I was particularly impressed by Daniel Barber, the director, when I met him and talked to him about it after reading the script. I thought the script was really gripping and interesting but I was nervous about it because it’s territory that’s very familiar. You switch on the telly and there are sort of thirty channels of TV showing cop dramas. It’s just such a familiar territory for audiences. I was nervous that there was potential for it to fall into cliché. Then I watched a short film that he made that was nominated for an Oscar. It was called ‘The Tonto Woman’ which I think is based on a Cormac McCarthy short story. I’m not sure.
Emily Mortimer: Elmore Leonard, exactly. It was very epic and kind of had an odd sort of western vibe to it and an intense scenes between characters and beautifully shot. The way that the characters interacted in that film was really striking and unusual.
He (Daniel Barber) talked to me about his plans for this film and it was so interesting and he used the western as a model for the way that he approached this movie. I knew from talking to him that he had an auteur take on the whole thing and that he was going to elevate it out of the sort of TV drama territory that we’re familiar with, raise it to something that would be more epic and strange and fatalistic and kind badass than what we’re used to seeing on the telly. So I was excited by meeting him. So there were a lot of different reasons for taking the job.
It’s a shocking film about the current state of violence in the UK. What’s your opinion, since having the experience of this film, as to the solution to what seems at times completely out of control?
Emily Mortimer: I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that I did become more and more convinced that this was really a problem as I was doing the film. I approached it with a tiny bit of skepticism in terms of the realities of what was really going on. I thought that it was a really interesting movie and I wasn’t doing it for political reasons. The politics of the movie, I’m not necessarily a sort of bleeding heart liberal or agree with vigilantes doing away with hoodies as a way of dealing with the problem of gang violence in modern society.
But I did realize that it’s not just something that kind of slightly right wing newspapers bang on about to fear monger. ‘The Daily Mail’. What’s the equivalent to ‘The Daily Mail’? Fox News or something here where there’s always another story, day after day, of someone being stabbed and this gang violence and you start to be weary of it a little but actually having spent a lot of time on this – we filmed it all in East London, Elephant and Castle which is a really sort of dodgy neck of the woods in London and I spent a lot of time with a real life lady police detective.
She’s the only female police detective in the whole of East London. I realized that this is really happening and it’s getting worse. I don’t know what one can do about it. I feel that it’s something to do with longing to belong, for these guys to feel that they’re a part of something. The communities that they’re in don’t offer them that at all. These are really poverty stricken communities and everybody is living life under really difficult and often terrible circumstances. There’s an abundance of drugs and deprivation and there’s no comfort to be had. There’s no feeling of belonging or that there’s any kind of hope. These gangs offer them some kind of brotherhood or whatever in a world where there’s very little of that feeling. That’s what I feel is particularly heartbreaking, having spent time there.
A lot of the kids that were in the movie as extras and even the kids who were sort of the principle characters, the gang kids, come from that world. This isn’t unfamiliar territory to them and a lot of them had had experiences that weren’t completely dissimilar from the people that they were playing in the movie. But a lot of the kids that were just on the local estates, or projects as you call them, would come and be extras in the movie. You just see that people with such a kind of hard veneer but there’s a real longing for something else. They respond, these kids respond so sort of easily and in such a kind of heartbreaking way to being given something to do. They really loved being in the movie and it was so cool seeing them, their enthusiasm and excitement that was generated amongst them just from us being there and getting a chance to act in it and be a part of something. I am probably sounding like a bleeding heart liberal but I do really believe that that’s part of the problem anyway and that these people, it’s not that they’re sort of a bad lot. It’s a problem that has to do with society and the way that we allow these neighborhoods to just sort degenerate.
The film was shockingly realistic. Was that in the script? Were you aware that it was going to be that tangible or was it surprising when you saw it the first time?
Emily Mortimer: I was actually. I didn’t really talk to Daniel that much about how he was going to portray the violence before we started. I just knew that he was a good director from having chatted with him, and as I said, he talked about this western theme. I felt like he was elevating it out of, as I said, a potential for cliché. I suddenly realized, ‘Yeah, that’s true and he’s the vigilante. This is kind of cool and interesting.’ He talked about how he was going to shoot certain scenes with me in them and use the camera from down below, looking up which I think is called a cowboy shot; anyway, all that kind of stuff which seemed really exciting. But I didn’t talk specifically about he was going to manage the violence.
I was totally blown away by it and really kind of taken aback. It’s very difficult to watch. I think that’s what’s interesting about the film. It is unseemly what goes on and it’s hard to stomach and it’s hard to kind of accept and what people do to each other. It’s horrifying. I think that it’s good that it’s portrayed in all it’s kind of ugliness. It certainly doesn’t glamorize violence, this film. It’s as difficult and uncomfortable to watch as it should be, I think. I wasn’t prepared for quite the level of intensity of that when I first saw it.
You mentioned you spent some time with a female cop in East London. Can you talk about that, what you saw, what she told you?
Emily Mortimer: It was really interesting actually. First of all, practically what ended up in the movie that I got from her was a lot of those interview scenes where we’re interviewing the lads and trying to get confessions out of them. She was investigating a case at the time of a young boy having been stabbed in a supermarket in the east end of London for no reason. He’d been stabbed and a number of guys had gone into the supermarket with hoods on and there’d been some altercation and they ended up stabbing him. They were all pulled in for questioning, all the members of this game but they couldn’t see from the camera, the video footage of it which one had done it. So that was the challenge, to work that out and then they closed ranks, these young guys, these gang members. They close ranks.
That whole thing of ‘no comment, no comment, no comment’, that’s completely taken from the reality of what goes on. That’s what they’ve been taught to say and they say it again and again and again, and as a police detective investigating these crimes you have a certain amount of time. It’s a sort of ticking clock situation. You can only pull them in for a certain amount of hours before you have to charge them with something. So it’s a really delicate process and these interviews are so fascinating. I got to watch video of the way that they go about their interviewing techniques and it changes from person to person and from crime to crime. It was so much more subtle than I remembered seeing it on the telly. You just think it’s this kind of brow beating of a person. It’s real psychological games that get played out in those rooms but when you’re up against these gangs it’s impossible to break through.
She said that all you’re hoping for is an answer other than no comment. Once you get them to talk you’re on to something but they’re just so good at it and they know that all the others are doing the same thing. It’s water tight. A lot of the dialogue, we ended up improvising those scenes in the end and a lot of the dialogue that’s in them comes from having spent time with this lady and the way that I talk to them and try to get confessions out of them, that was directly lifted from spending time with her. What was so exciting about doing those scenes is that the guys themselves, as I said, the actors, it was very familiar territory for them. They could go for days and days and days improvising the confrontations.
So we just went off on one with those scenes and it was really exciting. Again, what was interesting on top of that was this take on a police detective, a lady police detective for 2010 as opposed to what one might think of which is the kind of Helen Mirren model from the ’90’s. It still is a woman in a man’s world but it’s a bit more complex now than it was. Certainly the lady that I spent time with wasn’t the kind of ball breaking, terrifying madam that one thinks she might be. She was really kind of an affable and easy going lady.
Was she like your character?
Emily Mortimer: She wasn’t. My character was written as a much more held back personality but there was something interesting which was this; we both have very similar backgrounds. She was a vocational cop. Her father had been a cop. She was doing it because she really felt like it was a good thing to do. She’s very educated. She’d been to Cambridge University. She was on a fast track promotion to the top. I think as a result she played down her status with the guys around her. She didn’t try to kind of pull rank but was bubbly, cheerful, a kind of easy going girl. She’s spending a lot of time trying to dissipate resentment because women in that position have to be kind of badasses. They’re the best. They’re the top to have gotten as high up as they have in a man’s world. They have to be pretty good at what they do and I think that creates a tension. There was a lot that was really interesting about getting to hangout with her. I was really grateful for that experience. She was a very cool lady.
Michael Caine makes it look so effortless. He dismisses the hard work of acting when we talk to him, too. Just know your lines and you’ll be fine is what he says. Is that reflected on set or is he Harry Brown at the flick of a switch before the scene?
Emily Mortimer: No. He’s definitely not method, thank God. He’s just the most expert professional dude I’ve ever really worked with, I think, but he’s been in it for such a long time and so he knows what he’s doing. He comes, turns up and is completely prepared. He delivers an amazing performance and there’s no nonsense, no complaining or high maintenance silliness going on. He doesn’t fart around. He gets on with it and then he goes home. In the meantime he’ll have a joke and a laugh and a cup of tea. He’s just incredibly professional and easy going and cool. I loved him. He’s also got a twinkle in his eye and he’s a terrible giggler which is fatal for me. The minute that I can tell that someone has the propensity to crack up it’s impossible for me not to. So we had a bit of a difficult time.
I have this thing in the movie where I get whiplash, I guess, pretty near the end of the film. I have that car crash and I was told by some stunt guy that it was very important that I held my neck at all times. In reality it would be incredibly painful and I’d be having to support my neck in order to stop it hurting quite so much. A stunt guy tells you something like that and then disappears off to shoot and I thought, ‘I’ve got to remember that. That’s so important. I’ve got days left of filming this thing and I mustn’t forget to keep my hands up to my neck.’ Then I kept thinking about it and I basically had my hand glued to my neck the entire time whether or not I was acting. I would be on the set pouring cups of tea and smoking cigarettes, hanging out with my hand on my neck and Michael just couldn’t stop ripping me about it.
He kept going, ‘Will you take your bloody hands off of your neck? What do you think you look like?’ We got in this running joke about this thing and then of course whenever it came to the point where I actually had to do a scene with him with my hand on my neck, I think it’s the scene where he emerges out of the dust and smoke and I’ve just had the car crash and there he is at the window and finally the pursuer and the pursued meet, whatever; I turn around with my hand on my neck and I can just see this little glimmer in his eye and it was like, ‘Who’s going to be the first to go?’ We both just cracked up and ended up having to do it over and over again. We couldn’t get through it. So he’s definitely not taking himself seriously and methoding away in the corner. He’s just really a cool dude and I really enjoyed working with him.
You’ve worked with Martin Scorsese on ‘Shutter Island’, a veteran director on that and a first time director here. Can you compare and contrast the experience?
Emily Mortimer: It’s so different just doing a film like this which is an independent film that doesn’t have a lot of money and it’s an incredibly tight schedule and so you’re working in this really intense way in a few weeks and it’s done. It just feels more chaotic somehow but in a good way. It’s exciting and it’s kind of a miracle that it all comes off and you’re not sure up until the moment, until the day before you start shooting or even while you’re shooting whether or not it’s all going to work out or whether the money is going to fall apart. It’s kind of somehow happens and there you are.
The Scorsese film, I guess the difference is that there’s just more time. There’s more time for everything. There’s more time to shoot a scene and the chaos factor is infinitely reduced. You walk onto a Scorsese set and it’s just silent and everything is this well oiled machine and you could hear a pin drop. It’s kind of old school and classy as hell but the amazing thing about someone like Scorsese is that he has the enthusiasm for what he does which is the same enthusiasm as a first time director like Daniel. The level of passion and enthusiasm that both have is the same.
That’s what I think Martin Scorsese a true genius. He hasn’t stopped loving what he does and getting such a kick out of it. It’s not to do with an ego with him, I don’t think. Obviously, I’m sure he has a very healthy ego but it’s about other people’s movies. It’s a passion for other people’s films, that’s his driving force, a love of movies. He can’t get over the fact that he’s being allowed to make a short like Hitchcock or a camera move like a Michael Powell movie. He’s so alive and enthusiastic when it comes to the business of making films. He has the same kind of enthusiasm as a first time director.