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Emily Mortimer

Emily Mortimer can't quite believe that she is turning 40 later this year. 'It's a shock to find you're not the ingenue any more. I remember when they were casting Pride and Prejudice a few years ago and thinking, "I'd love to be Lizzie. Why haven't I been put up for that?" And then it was Keira Knightley and you think, "My God, she's a teenager." And, actually, that's right. And you're not a teenager anymore.'

Age is not a factor in her latest film, the new Pixar movie, Cars 2, in which she does a voiceover alongside Michael Caine and Owen Wilson. 'I'm a rather glamorous car, Holley Shiftwell, a highly technical purple number full of gadgets. We are trying to solve an international biodiesel crime.'

She is sipping a large latte at a coffee shop in Brooklyn just a stone's throw from the house where she lives with her American actor husband, Alessandro Nivola (whom she met on the set of Love's Labour Lost in 2000), and her two children, Sam and May, aged seven and 18 months.

Mortimer seems to be getting more work, not less, as the years pass. Last year she appeared in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island and when we meet she has just been cast as the female lead in a new HBO drama by Aaron Sorkin (the writer of The West Wing and The Social Network), with Jeff Daniels as the male lead.

Mortimer jokes that she cannot help noticing the difference between her husband's and her own on-screen lovers. 'Alessandro's girlfriends are always 20-year-olds whereas I get cast as the mother of some teenage person and my boyfriends are 60-year-olds. Although,' she adds hastily, 'they're usually very attractive 60-year-olds.'

She certainly doesn't look nearly 40 - although as she wears dark glasses throughout our interview, it is hard really to see her face. The sunglasses are the only starry flourish she has; otherwise she is relaxed and informal, wearing slightly grubby black jeans, flip-flops and a transparent white shirt. She is quirky and good company with a particularly English sense of humour, which brings to mind her late father, the barrister and author John Mortimer.

'I recently realised that my son's friends don't think of me as a young lady - which is how I think of myself - but as some old bat who comes to pick up their friend from school,' she says.

'Your idea of yourself has to start to change and that's quite difficult.'

Mortimer says she has become a bit more discriminating about the sort of roles she will take on. In the past, she says, she was happy to do almost anything in the name of art. In Silent Witness she played a drug addict. 'I had to give a guy a blow-job for a gram of cocaine. And my granny watched it and asked me afterwards, "Why can't you be in something like Keeping Up Appearances?" - which she loved.'

In the film Lovely and Amazing she stood naked before her boyfriend while he listed her physical defects. Then in Young Adam she worked with Ewan McGregor who memorably threw ketchup and custard over her naked body. Yet she recently turned down a role in a boundary-pushing television drama. 'I couldn't tell if it was brilliant or just an excuse to show willies and boobs and have lots of weird sex.'

Anyway, she says, she is not so relaxed about baring all these days. 'I still would strip off if I had to but I have become less confident about it.' She looks down at her (very slim) figure disparagingly. 'It's definitely not what it was.'

Working on Cars 2, says Mortimer, was slightly surreal. 'They are incredibly thorough and you do find yourself acting out the scene even though you don't need to.' Her voice in the film is pretty much her own - smokily throaty and a little plummy.

She says that she never met most of the big names in the film - her part was recorded wherever she happened to be - but she was bowled over by one visit she made to the Pixar studios. 'The ethos is incredible and you start feeling the whole world should be run like that. All the animators have their own little pods which are complete follies to the imagination; one's on stilts like a Vietnamese hut, another is a tiny speakeasy nightclub.'

I ask if her father had any reservations about her pursuing a career as an actress. 'No,' she says in mock frustration. 'I wish he'd had more reservations. I often told him off for not warning me against it, because it feels as if that was his role. But he loved actors - he thought it was the most noble profession and that all actors were the most wonderful people. He wanted to be Fred Astaire; his missed calling was to walk down a white staircase with a silver-topped cane.'

She tells a story about the way her father used to tease her about 'the other girl'. 'Whenever I auditioned for something I would always come home and say, "There's this other girl..." It's still the same; there's always the other girl.'

Her father died two years ago and she says she still misses him terribly. 'He was always the best company. There was never any doubt that you were having the most fun at your table in the restaurant. It was such a nice feeling and it's just so sad not to have it anymore. I'd always plan to tell him about my worries and preoccupations but then when I was with him I'd think, "Everything's all right, who cares, as long as we can have a nice glass of champagne."'

But, she says, 'I was always dreading any of my children looking like him. I wanted them to inherit everything but his looks. I see my dad in my little girl, May, so much - but not in a bag-of-spanners way.' (Her father once said his own face looked like a bag of spanners.)

She sees her father most of all in her 'new' half-brother, Ross Bentley, the son of the actress Wendy Craig, whom Mortimer fathered in the 1960s but only met in 2004, a few years before his death. Unlike a more conventional family, the Mortimers were thrilled.

'He just seemed like an amazing addition to our family,' says Emily today. 'The main feeling I had was how wonderful he was and how lucky we were. He was so ridiculously nice and bright and funny.'

Her father, says Emily, hit it off with his son immediately. 'They were sitting in my father's study and Ross saw a photograph of Fred Astaire that I had given my dad. He told my dad that he loved Stacey Kent singing Fred Astaire numbers. And my dad pressed a button on his CD player and that was the album that was in there.'

Her mother, Penny - who was Mortimer's second wife and already stepmother to several previous Mortimer children - took the news completely in her stride. Like her father, says Emily, her mother enjoys flouting the rules. The day before we meet, Emily says she walked through Central Park with her mother, who made a point of lighting up - just a few days after New York implemented an outdoor smoking ban. 'She's a total chainsmoker,' says Emily. 'And when she's here I find it really hard not to smoke. But I'm ashamed to admit that I'm not such a committed smoker as I was. I just don't want to die, basically.' She acknowledges that she's letting down the family side: her father famously took up smoking in his eighties owing, he said, to his 'extreme irritation' at the government's ban on smoking in public places.

Despite her closeness to her father, Emily says that living in England she could never escape being John Mortimer's daughter. 'I don't think Americans care so much about your background; you can just waft in and be glamorous and mysterious.'

Mortimer started acting while an undergraduate at Oxford University, where she read Russian, and was spotted by a producer who later cast her in a television adaptation of Catherine Cookson's novel The Glass Virgin. At the beginning of her acting career she often found herself being cast as a posh Sloane. 'I probably pigeonholed myself a little bit. I felt low self-esteem about what I could do. Now I'm more' - she tries to find the right word - 'not blasé but confident. I want to try things that are different all the time; that is my modus operandi, not to bore myself and not to bore other people.'

Being married to another actor is helpful, says Mortimer. But she cannot help herself feeling a twinge of jealousy when Nivola lands a role. 'I always think, "Where does that leave me? Am I just going to be stuck at home?" But I feel we have to be generous and understanding about each other's jobs.'

One role she feels she hasn't quite mastered is that of being a mother. 'I don't really think of myself as a mother who knows what's what. I never feel very authoritative when I tell Sam off.' Having her second child, May, changed the whole family dynamic. 'Suddenly you feel as if you're running a small business and you're having to negotiate between the two of them, make sure they both feel equally valued in the work place. And I've already really f—ed up because when Sam asked me, "Do you love May more than you love me?" I said, "No, I love you much more than I love May" - which of course now isn't true, but then she was just this quite boring thing that I had to keep alive.'

Mortimer was so bothered about the exchange that she visited a psychiatrist. 'I realised I had got myself into such a pickle and the shrink said, "You've got to change your answer," so I went back to Sam and said, "Actually, my love has grown. I didn't realise it was possible but I do love you both the same."'

When I ask her if she notices any differences in the English and American approaches to motherhood, she has one word: 'Nits. All my English friends and their kids are riddled with nits and whenever I go to England I get nits and actually I'm quite fond of nits and proud of them. In America if your child has nits you're treated like a pariah.'

Despite her misgivings, Mortimer recently became an American citizen. 'It was extremely arduous and I resented it enormously. I had to do an exam about the constitution and show them photos of our wedding. It was insane and I kept thinking, "I don't really care that much. It's not that big a deal." When my husband became a British citizen he just had to pay 400 quid and go and say, "God save the Queen," in some place in Berkeley Square.'

Yet she found herself very moved when the notion of American citizenship finally became a reality. 'I was practically the only white face among people from all over the world. The judge who ran the whole thing gave a speech about how America was a better place today than it was yesterday - because of us. I sort of cried and I did think to myself that that speech would never be given in England. There's something important about feeling valued as an immigrant.'

I ask if she feels more American now. 'I don't know what I feel. I always felt I was incredibly English and in some ways I still feel that, but I also realise that it's not a mistake that I'm in America: it's a way of escaping and hiding and not being pinned down. There's a freedom about not belonging that I really love.'

as published in The Sunday Telegraph 2011

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