In “Lars and the Real Girl,” English actress Emily Mortimer (“Match Point,” “The Pink Panther”) plays the title character’s pregnant sister-in-law. When he introduces her and his grouchy brother to his new girlfriend, a latex love doll, she is dumbfounded but almost immediately supportive, guiding him through a comic journey back to reality.
Mortimer took a few minutes from filming the “Pink Panther” sequel in Boston to talk about her role, the attraction of dangerous roles, and the film’s rubbery ingenue.
Ryan Gosling has the title role, but you play a much more dynamic and extroverted character, his doting, pregnant sister-in-law. Why do you think she devotes so much energy to reaching out to him, even when it puts her in opposition to her husband?
She has a very vested interest in making things work in her family and as a mother I understand that. When you’re about to have a baby you feel a very urgent need to reconcile every difference and every problem and make the world as perfect as it can be before you introduce your little baby into it. It goes along with washing down the cupboards and painting all the walls.
The film’s key question is whether the main character is deluded or barking mad. What’s your feeling?
What’s good about it is it does make you think about difference. People who seem crazy are often working out some problem in a way, working out some confused response to the world. And it takes those people to show we all are confused and in need in some way. It takes someone acting out in a dramatic way like Lars, and once the community gets over its shock, it understands itself and him much better. By the end it doesn’t seem he’s crazy at all, just that he’s worked out his issues in a rather original way.
Every scene in the script could be played either for laughter or tears. Was there a lot of discussion of how to approach it?
There was a lot of confusion about it! Maybe that lends the movie its sort of unique tone, because as we were making it we didn’t know what we were making, whether it was funny. There were moments that were and we let them be and there were others that weren’t and we let them not be funny but we were not completely sure of what we were making, we were just completely committed to it. We didn’t know how it would turn out, and I think that’s the experience of watching it as well. You’re not quite sure what kid of a movie you’re watching and I think that’s part of the pleasure of it.
You and Paul Schneider, the actor who plays your husband, have a very natural relationship onscreen. How did you achieve that?
Paul and I were convinced we needed to make that as real to ourselves as we could. I’m not one for method acting, but we went out shopping at Wal-Mart and then went out for a burger. That sealed it.
Church-oriented rural towns are often portrayed in movies as small-minded and judgmental. Did you like showing a very different picture of small town life?
They’re in some ways more understanding because they can’t turn their back on someone they’ve lived their whole life with. It’s kind of nice to see that depicted in a movie because your expectation is that a guy is going to show some extreme behavior that is shocking, and being ridiculed and dismissed by society. But in this film the acceptance is almost immediate. It really subverts your expectations and then the journey becomes a much more personal one for him, working out his relationship with his love, with this doll. And then finally putting it to rest.
Do you think this would have turned out to be a much different film if it had been written by a man?
There’s a woman’s touch, which isn’t to say it’s soft. What’s amazing is that this sex doll is never objectified in the movie. I think it would be harder for a man to resist that.
Before you committed to the film, did you have any misgivings that the notion of a sex doll is misogynist or demeaning to women?
Not really. There was something about it that was so arresting about the script I immediately thought, yes, I’d love to be in that film about the fellow with the rubber doll. You read so many scripts that are so like one another that when you read one with such a striking central idea, it’s really exciting. Things have to be dangerous to feel fresh. You have to be playing with fire on some level.
I read that the doll had her own trailer and assistant. Is that true?
She had her own room. She takes up a lot of space and she needed to be hung up at night on a sort of winch type thing. So she did need her personal space. But she didn’t have a trailer of her own. None of us did.
Your saying that a role has to be dangerous reminded me of your role in 2001’s “Lovely and Amazing.” You had an unforgettable scene where you stand fully nude on camera while your lover critiques your body, and he’s quite brutal. Wherever did you find the courage?
It wasn’t that difficult, and I don’t know why. One is made to feel so vulnerable just by acting in a movie, so exposed in a way that is so potentially completely damning and embarrassing. So to do it naked doesn’t feel like that much more of an exposure, really. I would have found it much more embarrassing to do a standup routine on camera and tell jokes no one laughed at. It was a moment as an actor I’ll never forget. I’ve never very much understood that phrase being in the moment, but really, then, I totally was. It was really incredible to go through all those emotions exactly as she would have done. It was an experience I was very grateful to have had. That was before I had my baby. I’m not sure I’d be as brazen about taking off my clothes now.
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