Interview Date: 04/28/2010
Run Date: 05/06/2010
Classically-trained British actress Emily Mortimer has taken on everything from screwball comedy to historical drama to teen slasher films. With the recently released "Harry Brown," Mortimer plays Detective Inspector Alice Frampton, an empathetic police officer investigating the murder of Leonard Attwell, an elderly man that may have provoked the wrong group of hooligans. As we spoke, Mortimer was somewhere in New York driving home to see her 3-month-old daughter, but genially chatted with Bullz-Eye en route about "Harry Brown."
Bullz-Eye: Director Daniel Barber said he had to omit real-life incidents because people wouldn't believe they actually happened. Yet in a recent review, Rex Reed said that "'Harry Brown' is so deliberately sick and twisted that many scenes fail the credibility test." Are you concerned about this type of reaction?
Emily Mortimer: I think there's something about the violence in the film that is very unsettling and difficult to watch and that's a good thing. Violence is generally made way too palatable in these kind of movies and it's become something that we have developed a tolerance for as an audience and there's something wrong about that. You're allowed to blow each other's brains out in a film and the rating doesn't go up. It only goes up if there's sex or swearing. It makes violence so sanitized and palatable and ordinary and easy and it's not that way in real life. It's unseemly and unsettling and horrible and I think the way violence is depicted in this film is just as horrible as in real life. It makes it difficult to watch but a better movie in my opinion.
BE: You've mentioned being able to flip the television on in England any night and find a crime drama. Besides the 80-year old protagonist, what was it about the script that you felt was different than its peers?
EM: I did think the script was brilliant, but I did feel nervous that it might fall into the stereotypical cop drama a little bit. We're all so familiar with that genre so it's really important that whoever made the film was going to avoid the clichés of that world. When I met Daniel, I realized that he was definitely the guy for the job. When Daniel talked to me about using the Western as a model for ['Harry Brown'], I realized that if Michael Caine was the outlaw, I was the sheriff. I was the Tommy Lee Jones character and that was a big draw. I knew this would be more badass than a regular cop drama.
BE: Michael talked to us recently about the conflation between an action film and a cautionary tale about England.
EM: It touches on the politics although I think it's slightly dangerous to play politics with movies. It raises some difficult questions – gang violence is definitely a problem –but to be trying to make a political point, well, I don't know. I think some very brilliant movies have done that well but it's not my taste really. I like things that are more complex than that. I remember reading about Stanley Kubrick talking about war movies and how everybody always has to make war movies that are anti-war. That's where most of our sympathies lie, but it doesn’t work as a movie if it's just propaganda. You have to show the other side as well; you have to show the excitement and the thrill of war at the same time. Otherwise, the movie just becomes polemic and boring.
BE: Did you spend any time with any actual law enforcement to prepare for the role?
EM: Yeah, I was with the only female Detective Inspector in East London who was a very similar character to the one I play. She was dealing with a lot of the gang crime so I saw her investigations and talked to her about the difficulties of pinning a charge against these youths. They all protect each other and say, "No comment." She showed me tapes of her interview techniques and a lot of the similar scenes in the movie were improvised. I used a lot of dialogue from the woman I was tailing.
There was an opportunity, though, that I had to be careful to avoid and that was the ball-breaking, woman-in-a-man's-world that we think of those women as being. It's more complex than that. Progress has been made even in the police force and discrimination against women is much less obvious.
BE: Was it hard to turn it off at the end of the day?
EM: There were times when it felt a bit heavy, especially when we were shooting a scene in the pub. I had to lie for days on this pee-stained carpet with the smell of old cats and cigarettes in this real pub in the East End of London. But I do really remember laughing and have a good time. Of the movies I've done, the ones I've been the most serious around the set have been the comedies because they're such a serious business trying to be funny. In the really dramatic films, everybody needs to let off steam.
BE: You have a pretty demanding role. Any off-screen injuries?EM: There was a moment when I was being strangled off-camera – it wasn't even on-camera – that they forgot that it would've been just as good to put a sandbag there instead of me. For the first few takes when Ben Drew is strangling me on the floor of this pub, it was really me. He was definitely in character. I broke some blood vessels in my eyes at a result of that. It just shows how pathetic that I am that it took two or three takes before I meekly asked if someone might replace my real neck with a sandbag.