The Accidental Wisdom of ‘Doll & Em’ Star Emily Mortimer
In between discussing TV’s most realistic portrayal of female friendship, on her HBO comedy Doll & Em, the actress talks about Sorkin’s female ‘problem,’ strong women, and more.
Emily Mortimer is missing her best friend. It’s been several long seconds since she left her.
The British actress of, well, “everything” fame (The Newsroom, 30 Rock, Shutter Island, Match Point…) enters a Bryant Park-adjacent coffee shop in New York in the frenzied way that defines many of her best characters, having just said goodbye to her lifelong best friend, Dolly Wells, after pacing back and forth on 44th Street, arm-in-arm, gossiping while trying to locate the cozy spot.
Mortimer and Wells are in the midst of a frantic press day to promote the second season of their HBO comedy Doll & Em, a television breath of fresh air about the complicated, but Teflon, friendship between a successful actress (Mortimer) and her down-on-her-luck best friend (Wells, currently robbing scenes on Blunt Talk.)
The duo wrote the show over the course of a decade, star opposite each other in it, and are now promoting it together—an experience that’s fostered a bit of codependency. Fidgeting with a cappuccino, it’s clear that what Mortimer is really jonesing for is her best friend.
“I have a feeling it would’ve been fraught with more anxiety—the whole experience of writing it, performing it, and now publicizing it—if I was on my own,” she tells me about promoting Doll & Em, which is not just another acting gig for the seasoned performer, but the fruits of a nearly 40-year-long friendship.
“Doing it with a friend, it becomes not less important—obviously it’s important,” she goes on. “We care so much. But the stakes just seem less high. You feel less vulnerable and less scared, you’re braver because there’s this other person besides you who, at the end of the day, you can go home with and laugh at what idiotic things you both said.”
Then with a laugh, “You’re not on your own in a sea of self-pity.”
Stranded without her human lifeboat for an hour, Mortimer is charmingly cautious about what she says, but only because everything she says is actually quite thoughtful and maybe even provocative. We talk about her friendship with Wells and the misconception that Doll & Em, often called “the female Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is based on their own lives—perhaps a perilous comparison considering that, at separate times, each character could be fitfully branded by viewers as “unlikable.”
We talk about that word—“unlikable”—and what it means for an actress who’s made a career of turning “wife and girlfriend roles,” the kinds that many actresses criticize for lack of depth, into strong, complicated, flawed, and authentic women.
“Strong women” is a big talking point, given Mortimer’s recent trip from film to television to star in Aaron Sorkin’s cable news drama The Newsroom, on which she played MacKenzie McHale, executive producer of an evening news broadcast and haplessly-in-love eventual bride to Jeff Daniels’s Will McAvoy.
It’s a series that took a lot of flak, particularly from critics who found its portrayals of female characters irresponsible and even sexist. “It didn’t resonate as something to me,” she says about the controversy. “It felt like a red herring in a way.”
And we talk a lot about Doll & Em, possibly the sweetest and most raw—and therefore the most authentic and humorous—depiction of female friendship on TV, especially between women not spending their twenties hobnobbing around hipster Brooklyn.
Season 1 of Doll & Em follows what happens when Em, a successful actress shooting a big movie, gives her dearest friend Doll a job as her personal assistant to help get her back on her feet when she’s down on her luck.
“We were writing about the dynamic between two friends when one of them is working for the other and how weird and fucked up and sort of gruesome that would be,” Mortimer says. “We used our own friendship as the basis of their friendship in order to give it the authenticity to play around with.” But the duo fervently maintains that the show, which began its second season last Sunday, isn’t autobiographical.
Ask most actresses who create their own shows and write parts for themselves, and they’ll typically tell you it was a project born of necessity and frustration, a response to the fact that roles and projects made available weren’t rich enough for what their talents deserved.
Mortimer stresses that Doll & Em’s roots were far less noble. She and Wells just needed an excuse to give their husbands in order to spend more time together.
“The 10 years it took us to write this was really just 10 years of us trying to see each other as much as possible,” she says. “We really did think we could do it, but most of the time we didn’t. We just gossiped and talked and racked up phone bills and endless airline flights—lots of money spent on not really doing anything. It wasn’t an attempt to take back the power or anything like that.”
If there’s the temptation to assume that Doll & Em is some creative opus for Mortimer and Wells, it’s because of what the series manages to accomplish.
At a time where #SquadGoals have replaced meaningful connection and the closeness of a friendship is defined by how many times someone likes an Instagram photo instead of how many life-altering fights a pair has weathered, Doll & Em is a quietly powerful reminder of the ugliness of a deep, long, vanity-free friendship—and why that ugliness makes the relationship so beautiful.
Self-conscious that she might end up “sounding pretentious or something” given that we’re having coffee to discuss what is, ultimately, a light comedy, Mortimer says that she and Wells didn’t see the point of writing these characters unless they were going to feel “real.”
Their relationship is confessional, so it follows that their writing would be, too.
“We tell each other absolutely every weird, fucked up thought that comes into our head about anything,” she says. “We confess immediately. It’s wonderful having someone there that not only laughs at the weird, fucked up shit that pops into your head when you tell it to them, but also forgives it and loves you a bit more for having dared to say it.”
Season 1, for example, exposes the brutal emotions that arise when two people who love each other unconditionally find their relationship marred by jealousy—in this case when Doll’s star starts rising while Em’s fades.
“Jealousy is an emotion that is underexplored because we demonize it,” she says. “People who are jealous in pop culture, especially women, are portrayed as mean girls or Single White Female. You get the impression that they spend the whole day masturbating and cooking up plots, it’s like a sort of really evil emotion.”
The reality, however, is that everyone gets jealous, particularly of the people they love the most—even if they don’t want to admit it.
“It’s easy to be jealous of someone we don’t particularly know or like, but when it comes to someone you love and want the world for and everything good for, it’s confusing to feel jealous when things go well for them,” Mortimer continues. “It’s so human and so normal but no one talks about it. There’s something pleasurable about outing that as an emotion in the first season.”
When you read the gossip rags or cover the entertainment industry, you often read reports about actors having scripts altered because they don’t want the public to confuse the character’s morals or behavior for their own. (For instance, playing an actress named after yourself who might at times seem inconsiderate or jealous of her assistant, who happens to be her best friend.)
Worse, for the love of god, these actors don’t want people think they are “unlikable.”
It’s a new word for Mortimer, who says she only started really encountering it when she moved to television. In film, she says, a character’s likability “doesn’t even come into it.”
But the handwringing over a character’s likability is never as fervent or causes as much friction than when it comes to discussion over female characters on TV, specifically—something Mortimer learned loud and clear during her run on The Newsroom. Countless, breathless think pieces were written on the topic. Mortimer was stumped.
When asked about it, her answer is measured, but clear.
“Just for the record, I think the controversy about women on television I really understand. It’s right that it should be an ongoing discussion,” she says. “We’re all grappling with this issue in our lives as well as in culture. But I don’t really get what the problem was with The Newsroom. To me those women were incredibly strong women. They were wonderful parts to play.”
Coming from the film world, Mortimer was first surprised that the conversation was happening at all—though she says she certainly appreciates it. But she was especially surprised that it was happening in the context of The Newsroom, particularly her character.
“She was so strong, a great character,” she says. “But ‘strong,’ what does that even mean? It’s such a confusing thing. It’s so ripe for humor.”
It’s ripe for humor. It’s ripe for conversation. And, as it turns out, ripe for a TV show—one guided by Emily Mortimer’s accidentally profound wisdom.
“I think it’s an important conversation,” she says. “In its own small way, Doll and Em is contributing a tiny bit, in a very microcosmal way to that conversation. We are not trying to be political at all, obviously, but there is something amusing to us—and there is in our lives—about grappling with what it is to be a woman, or a strong woman. Especially women of our age.”
And especially best friends.