By SHAWN MACOMBER
Over the last quarter-century, Emily Mortimer has continually proven herself one of the most interesting and versatile actors in film, bringing true poignancy, passion and authenticity to an almost absurdly diverse array of roles. She’s nimble enough to skip from NOTTING HILL to SHUTTER ISLAND; to kill it in both LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST and OUR IDIOT BROTHER. Yet aside from a memorable turn as Angelina Tyler in SCREAM 3 back in 2000, the London-born actress has largely bided her time when it comes to further exploring the darker corners of genre filmmaking, choosing instead to dig deep for psychological thrillers such as MATCH POINT and TRANSSIBERIAN that more closely resembled the beloved Hitchcock films of her youth.
While part of that absence can be attributed to waiting for the right role to come along, it also no doubt has its roots in the pure, visceral nature of her early encounters with the genre. “I had a friend growing up,” Mortimer tells RUE MORGUE. “He was the oldest and then he had a brother and then [his parents] wanted one more and got four instead. So they had six children altogether, all under the age of 10. And his dad totally lost it and started getting really into horror movies.”
Which was how Mortimer and her friend ended up immersed in the grim, wild worlds unspooling on rented VHS copies of THE EVIL DEAD and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE…at a very young age. As for so many of us, those seminal films left a mark. “I mean, they were kind of amazing movies and, looking back, there was something brilliant about them. I had a real respect for the genre even then, but I also got really scared and ended up feeling like, real life is scary enough—why make it scarier for yourself?”
That began to change during Mortimer’s much-lauded 2012-2014 run on THE NEWSROOM: Turns out co-star John Gallagher Jr. (10 CLOVERFIELD LANE) was a “true horror-film aficionado,” and reacquainted Mortimer with the idea of scare cinema as a real and vibrant art form. Which brings us to Mortimer’s triumphant and unsettling return to the genre in MARY, a harrowing and beautiful film (in select theaters and on VOD this Friday) that takes a family drama, puts it on a boat in the middle of the ocean, and then sets a malevolent spirit loose on the vessel to wreak havoc.
For Mortimer, the role of Sarah was attractive on multiple levels. First and foremost, it presented an opportunity to work with legit living legend Gary Oldman, who plays Sarah’s tortured, semi-estranged husband David. “He was the bait,” Mortimer admits. “He’s such an incredible talent, and if possible, I didn’t want to die without having acted with him.” Then there was director Michael Goi, whose episodes of AMERICAN HORROR STORY had greatly impressed her. “I thought he would have an interesting, unconventional take on a horror film,” she says.
It wasn’t long, however, before the pathos of her role began to draw Mortimer in on a narrative level—something about the guilt Sarah feels over past transgressions, how it reverberates and, perhaps, ultimately nourishes the evil that pursues her. “The way MARY taps into the existential fear, which I think we all have to one degree or another, that those you love and want to protect might actually be the ones who suffer as a result of something you’ve done wrong, is very interesting and powerful,” the actress says. “[The film] also does a good job of exploring the real disconnect between how you are meant to be traditionally as a woman—or how society makes you feel you should be, anyway—and how you actually are or how you actually feel or the thoughts you really have, none of which are necessarily perfect according to this outside perspective on the feminine ideal. Which is to say, there can be a lot of built-in confusion that comes about in women who are expected to be a certain way and then end up simply being human—expectations a man with equivalent flaws is not subjected to.”
In some respects, MARY—which, somewhat deliciously, arrives less than a year after Mortimer co-starred in MARY POPPINS RETURNS—harks back to Mortimer’s aforementioned TRANSSIBERIAN. There, too, complex psychological and emotional aspects were at play, but also a beautiful-yet-terrifying natural element to overcome—the ocean in one, snowbound tundra in the other. On MARY, she recalls, “We were at this dock in Gulf Shores, Alabama that was run by fishermen who are out on boats all the time. We talked to them a lot about the draw of the sea, how it has this kind of mystical pull on people. People who go out fishing for weeks on end, they’re sort of in love with the ocean. They have a close, intense bond with it, and they’re very superstitious because there’s so much that can go wrong. And that was really driven home when we ourselves got out on boats to shoot. You do feel isolated and vulnerable and at the mercy of the elements. You just have to put your faith in things going right—because they could easily not.”
One thing definitely went right: Her long-awaited square-off in front of the cameras with Oldman. “He’s such a great person to act with,” Mortimer enthuses. “His enjoyment of what he does is so palpable. And his talent? I learned so much just watching him. Also, he’s such a good laugh. He’s really funny—the best company, really. It was totally not disappointing.”
Mortimer is also effusive in her praise of young actresses Chloe Perrin (ITSY BITSY) and Stefanie Scott (INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3), the younger co-stars who portray her daughters Mary and Lindsey, respectively, as well as Owen Teague (IT), cast as an ill-fated deck hand and Lindsey’s boyfriend. “Both of my daughters in the movie were extraordinary actresses,” she says. “Owen as well. They all had incredible instincts, really understood the genre and never made it cheesy. Just really cool and really professional actors who were so important to making this movie work.”
One final feather in MARY’s cap: It has whet Mortimer’s appetite for further genre fare. “I’ve actually already done sort of an art-house version of a horror film since MARY with a young, very talented Australian filmmaker named Natalie James,” she reveals. “It’s called RELIC, and I play the daughter of a woman with Alzheimer’s who becomes haunted. It’s definitely a horror film done really well, with real flair and originality, and I think Natalie is going to go very far in the horror genre.”