Interview: Emily Mortimer On 'Cars 2' & 'Hugo Cabret'

Emily Mortimer talks 'Cars 2,' becoming a super-spy, her favorite Pixar film and the similarities between the working styles of directors John Lasseter, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.

Emily Mortimer is a terrible driver. Her husband, actor Alessandro Nivola, banned her from driving, and in an attempt to prove it was an irrational act she borrowed a friend's car and within one morning had three tickets and a minor accident. She is a truly terrible driver, but she makes one sleek and sexy car in Cars 2. Mortimer jokes that she will never look quite as cool as she does as the intrepid (though green) secret agent Holley Shiftwell in the film.

Holly is a new character introduced into the story when Mater is mistaken for an international spy setting off a series of globetrotting misadventures. Ms. Shiftwell is the smooth, tech savvy and sophisticated counterpart to Mater's (a bit more bumbling) charm. We had the opportunity to chat with Mortimer at the Los Angeles press event for Cars 2 about becoming a super-spy, her favorite Pixar film and the similarities between the working styles of directors John Lasseter, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.

SR: How did you approach Holly? Did you access your inner Bond girl?

"I didn't know that there was an inner bond girl, but I've had to sort of develop one in order to play this part. I've been comparing the process of approaching the part to the one I had to employ when I did the Woody Allen film ("Match Point"). Which is basically that you can't prepare. You just have to turn up and do it because there's no real script. You know, there's an idea, and there's some dialog but it's's not what you see in the movie at the end of the day. It's a very beginning, sort of early, sort of nascent thing that you get involved with, and there's no way of really discerning how to do it and the script is quite complicated and very difficult to read and really written for the animators, not for actors. In a way you just have to turn up and sort of throw yourself into it and put yourself in the hands of John (Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer at Pixar and director of the film), and he tells you what to do and you start doing it and really there's no way of doing anything other than just being yourself."


SR: Did he give you any references for spy movies or characters to look at? Are you a fan of the spy genre?

"Yeah, it's such a sort of universally-liked genre and those movies have worked so well down the ages, and down the whole history of cinema, especially the whole James Bond thing, I guess. So we didn't really need to be coached in that very much."

SR: It's just in the common (film) vernacular a little bit?

"It is, exactly. But I felt like in a way it wasn't going to serve me well to sort of try to be a Bond girl. I don't know really what that is. I just could be myself imagining myself in that situation and imagining myself as a trained spy who was on her first mission in the field and how daunting that would be. Also how exciting."

Mortimer as Shiftwell in 'Cars 2'

SR: She's quite sharp.

"She's very sharp. She's very savvy and technically sort of brilliant but at the same time with little moments of insecurity and vulnerability peek through. And for that reason I think she and Mater have quite a lot in common. They're both sort of thrown in the deep end in a way. You know she's got more...well she's more sophisticated and she's got more know-how about how to cope. But in a way I think that they recognize in each other the fact that they've both been thrown in the deep end in this slightly strange world and they're trying to survive and make the best of it."

SR: You had said that you became pretty cool in the eyes of your seven-year-old son after doing Cars 2 because he is such a Cars and Pixar fan -- does he have a favorite and do you have a favorite Pixar film?

"Well "Nemo" just because it was the first one that we got really into, all of us, and it was one of his first words, ah that's so embarrassing. And my Dad used to call him little Nemo and he would ring up and say, 'How is little Nemo doing?' My Dad died a couple of years ago and I always think of that and it makes me so fond of that movie. And I love that movie. It was just so perfect. The storytelling in that film, the characterization, the idea of this clown fish that can't tell a joke, the unfunny clown fish...and it's just so great. And then Dory who's helping him but can't remember anything. Like the least helpful assistant. The helper who just can't remember anything. You know it was just perfectly executed and we would sit and watch that, me and Alessandro thinking why can't real films be like that? Why is it that this movie is so brilliantly done, and the performances are so great and there is such attention to the storytelling."

SR: There are a couple of different messages or themes in this film, there's big oil and renewable energy as a more Global theme and friendship and loyalty as a more interpersonal theme or moral. What's one thing that you'd like your kids to take away from the film?

"Well I think that that sort of dream sequence or whatever it is, when Mater is reliving the moments that he's embarrassed himself and feeling like such a sort of schmuck and hating himself...I feel like it's just so heartbreaking and I feel like the whole thing of that feeling, of feeling like you want the ground to open up and swallow you and that you don't belong, and you shouldn't be there, and you've done everything wrong, is something that we are all so familiar with. And it's something that is so important to not be scared of having because if your scared of it then it means that you don't put yourself out there and you're not brave, and you don't go out into the world and go for it. Because that feeling is inevitable. As me and Larry were talking about earlier, well not Larry, Dan, but Larry the Cable Guy and I were talking about earlier, it's absolutely part of life. Especially for performers - the feeling of awkwardness and like you're doing it all wrong and you should go home."

SR: Well I think it really is part of life for everyone, I mean I feel like that almost every day.

"Right! Exactly! But I think the message there is don't be intimidated by that feeling because that feeling is okay and actually that means you're living your life, it means you're being brave and you're going out into the world and you're seeing things and learning things and doing things."

In addition to her work in Cars 2, Mortimer plays Lisette, a flower shop girl, in director Martin Scorsese's highly anticipated foray into the world of 3D, Hugo Cabret, a film about an orphan boy who lives in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris.

SR: How would you compare John Lasseter and Martin Scorsese's directorial styles?

"Well you know funny enough, I have been comparing him (Lasseter) to both Scorsese and Woody Allen. Because the Woody Allen thing, like I said, it's impossible to prepare on a Woody Allen film. You don't know that you've got the job until a few days before, it's really hard to decipher the script for any long preparation process. You go there and you just have to turn up and be yourself, and in a way that's why they've cast you. John and Woody are the same in that way, they don't want you to be someone else, they want you to be you. And Woody makes it impossible to be someone else because you very rarely get to see the script, you never rehearse. The first take is the very first time you've said the lines generally and it's normally the last take -- you don't get a chance to do it again. So all you can do in that circumstance is just be you and you're putting yourself in the hands of a master and trusting that they know what to do with you.

"Scorsese and John Lasseter remind me of each other because they're both just total enthusiasts about what it is that they do. They're passionate and enthusiastic and you feel like it's not ego driven. Of course ego plays a part in it, of course, with everybody, but it's really thier love of what it is they do that keeps them going. With Scorsese it's his love of other people's movies."

SR: You're both great movie lovers and passionate when it comes to discussing movies, did that ever get distracting on-set?

"Yes, that happens! I had that on "Shutter Island" where I got into a conversation with him about Michael Powell movies and I ended up nearly getting into the car with him. I got so distracted that I almost got into this waiting car which he was getting into because we were talking so avidly and this sort of enterage stepped in and I was sort of removed. And then the next day I get in the post like the whole Michael Powell Criterion Collection from him.

"This film ("Hugo Cabret") you know I felt like it was just history in the making. I took Sam (her son) to the set just to see it because you know this is an incredible thing. This guy, one of the greatest filmmakers, is pushing the boundaries of cinema by using 3D. Most filmmakers are slightly snobbish about it or haven't really thought about it in a way as something to be potentially exiting and groundbreaking. And that just shows how cool he is that in his 70s he's using new, groundbreaking technology and making a movie in 3D. What's so wonderful is that, in part, it's a movie about the history of cinema and so he's using this new technology to tell the story of the old technology and the history of the movies which is the thing that he cares most about. To me it just felt like the coming together of so many different things that are brilliant about Scorsese, his daring and his looking to the future as well as his fascination with what's gone before and for that reason I was just like, 'Sam you've got to come on this set and see it.' I think it's groundbreaking that a proper filmmaker is making a movie in 3D."

Mortimer can be seen breaking her own ground in the animated tale of  international intrigue Cars 2 beginning this Friday, June 24th.

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