160th Commencement Speaker Emily Mortimer talks acting, humanity

Image Courtesy of Peter Ash Lee.

Over the course of her career, British actress and filmmaker Emily Mortimer has starred in numerous film and television productions, including “The Bookshop,” “Relic” and HBO’s “The Newsroom,” also appearing in childhood favorites such as “The Pink Panther,” “Mary Poppins Returns” and the English-dubbed “Howl’s Moving Castle.” In 2003, she won an Independent Spirit Award for her performance as Elizabeth Marks in “Lovely and Amazing.” In 2022, she was nominated for a BAFTA award for her work as a supporting actress in “The Pursuit of Love,” a miniseries she also wrote and directed. She will portray Mrs. Brown in the upcoming “Paddington in Peru” movie. Yet, she describes herself as a work in progress. 

“I’m suddenly sort of beginning to see how to…work out how to be alive in the world,” Mortimer said in a Zoom interview with The Miscellany News on March 21. She noted the difficulty of being a woman of her generation. “I spent a lot of my life trying to be acceptable and pleasing to other people and making that the main thrust of my existence. Now, I’m just working out that it’s altogether better for everybody involved if you…focus on the things that actually really interest you.” 

The 160th Commencement speaker joined the call from a restaurant in West London. At 11 p.m. GMT, she was wrapping up a day of filming for a new, top-secret project she co-wrote with director and Vassar alum Noah Baumbach ’91. Apologizing for the noise, she took the rest of the interview outside on her walk home, amid the bustling Thursday-night nightlife. 

As she answered questions about her career and early life, Mortimer returned to the same point: She is a storyteller. “Through all of it, I’ve been…a storyteller of some kind,” she said. “There’s so many other ways of talking about myself, but that’s the beginning, I suppose.” 

Mortimer was first introduced to storytelling when she recited a speech about blind pelicans and anarchy for an academic competition. An introverted child, she found nothing more daunting than standing at a lectern in front of her classmates. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” she remembered. “And then it was almost like a hand or something reached out and took mine and it was okay.” Performing became a means for her to navigate her shyness. “I had to force myself to do the scariest thing, otherwise I wouldn’t do anything,” she said in the interview.  

She continued: “I’ve learned that I can put myself in almost any situation and survive because basically what I do is a form of bungee jumping where you are constantly throwing yourself off a cliff and hoping you don’t sort of die.” She walked away from the competition in first place. 

When asked if she always wanted to be an actress, Mortimer responded with an immediate and enthusiastic “Yes!” Initially, she thought she might be an ice dancer: “When I was little, I just wanted to wear lots of sequins and feathers.” She quickly pivoted to a career in acting after discovering she could not skate. Growing up, she held many home performances, often imitating advertisements for washing powder or pretending to be Delia Smith, a British television chef. “I would sort of act out, you know, how to make a Victoria sponge cake in front of my parents.” 

Her father in particular has had a great impact on Mortimer’s career and life. John Clifford Mortimer was a barrister, playwright and chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform, the oldest criminal reform charity in England. Describing his work as a defense lawyer, Mortimer spoke with great care and respect. “He would say that you could be a good person and kill someone and a terrible person and never get a parking ticket your whole life.” His work found its way into hers. She explained, “I think that a good performance or a good piece of writing is all about finding the contradictions in people.” 

Mortimer herself, though, seems to contain no contradictions at present. Throughout the interview, she is nothing but down-to-earth and charmingly self-deprecating. When describing her directorial debut in 2021 for “The Pursuit of Love,” she joked about her lack of authoritative command: “My children just basically sort of laugh at me if I tr[y] to be super tough.” She graciously credited Lily James, who portrayed the protagonist of the film, for encouraging her. “It was an amazing feeling…this much younger woman who I really admire as an actor, who was producing the thing, endowing me with this trust.” 

Directing “The Pursuit of Love” is Mortimer’s proudest achievement—at least, so far. The film, which she adapted from a 1945 novel by Nancy Mitford, is drastically different from Mortimer’s own life, which is why she liked the project so much. “[Directing] just felt like it was about a love for the story,” she said. 

Her direction was evidently successful. In a 2021 review, Time Magazine stated: “Without sacrificing humor or social commentary, Mortimer thrillingly modernizes “The Pursuit of Love” by ratcheting up the romance in unexpected ways.” The New Yorker said, “Mortimer’s adaptation injects new life into Nancy Mitford’s sharpest observations.” 

From behind the curtain as both a director and writer, Mortimer has found a new appreciation for acting. She frowned at the infantilization of actors, arguing that directing, writing and acting are more alike than people perceive: “It’s storytelling, all of it.” Actors are not given nearly enough credit, she said. “You are given your pocket money in a little brown envelope and you are told what time you have to wake up and you’re put in a car and you’re driven to set and somebody follows you to the loo to make sure you don’t run away.” 

Mortimer’s time at Oxford University studying English and Russian solidified her love for performance. Though she does not consider herself an academic, school taught her what she truly enjoyed. “I started to realize the only thing I was getting up in the morning to do was to rehearse in the college play.” She regards academia and creativity as complements of each other. Acting, she explained, is studying both sides of an argument. 

In two months, Mortimer will speak to Vassar’s class of 2024 at the 160th Commencement. As a precursor to her address, Mortimer’s biggest piece of advice to the general Vassar community is to reject shame. Most of her life, she said, Mortimer focused on pleasing other people, but she has since learned that people-pleasing is a disservice to everyone. “It is actually a more generous act to find joy for yourself in the world because then you’ll be a more joyful person to be around.” 

She added that it is important to share one’s faults along with one’s virtues. “The culture we live in now is so judgmental, it’s so sanctimonious…the tendency is towards not seeing the nuance.” She returned to her father’s philosophy regarding criminal defense: “He really firmly believed that it was a measure of our civilization, how well we treat the people who are deemed the lowest people.” She said, “To me, [it] is really important that we forgive ourselves and we forgive others.” 

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