"Newsroom" star Emily Mortimer: Americans are dangerously uninformed

"The Newsroom's" Emily Mortimer calls the Tea Party a "lunatic fringe," and says Americans fall too easily for lies

Published June 22, 2012 2:57PM (EDT)

On “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s new series set behind the scenes of a crusading cable news show, Emily Mortimer plays Mackenzie MacHale, a seasoned, idealistic journalist hell-bent on bringing Americans a news program that will actually inform them. That means joining forces with an equally strong-willed news anchor (Jeff Daniels), who also happens to be her ex-boyfriend. Mortimer has appeared mostly in films, including "Lovely & Amazing," "Match Point" and "Hugo," though one of her rare forays into TV resulted in her hilarious, unforgettable story line as the woman with Avian Bone Syndrome on "30 Rock." As befits an Aaron Sorkin heroine, Mortimer is a wonderful talker, all energetic, run-on sentences and emphatic curse words. She spoke with us about her politics, the show's romantic-comedy appeal, and impersonating Groucho Marx.

Were you a fan of Aaron Sorkin already? Had you watched his shows?

I had watched bits of “The West Wing” and of course I thought it was fantastic. And I’d seen “The Social Network” and “Moneyball,” and I thought “Moneyball” was just phenomenal, one of the best movies of the year. It’s such a truism to talk about Aaron’s “way with words," but I was a huge fan. But I felt like “Newsroom” was something a little bit different from other things I'd seen of his, in that there was this romantic element to it between my character and Jeff [Daniels]'s character, which gets more and more as the series goes on. And that was something that I was very drawn to. As a child I watched Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movies without really knowing what they were, but loving them, and I also love this show called “Moonlighting,” which you may not have heard of …

I can't even tell you how much I love “Moonlighting” and how much I talk about it and how much it, like, explains everything that is appealing about Bruce Willis.

I was so in love with him! I was obsessed with him, and her. And I used to not know how I was going to get through the week once it was over. I think I was about 12 or 13 when it was on in England and I was just like, “I don't know if I can survive the week without it.” There are very few romantic comedies these days that work. And I feel Sorkin understands what George Cukor and Billy Wilder and all those people who did it so brilliantly in those days did, which is that the best way of depicting sexual tension is the way people talk to each other, the words they use to talk to each other. And if you set something in a world where people talk and it's fast and funny anyway, like in the world of the news or politics, then you have a recipe for an incredible kind of banter. And so that was what I really responded to, that made me feel like, oh my God, I can be in something like “Moonlighting.” [Laughing] Don’t ever tell [Sorkin] I compared him to “Moonlighting."

“Moonlighting” is a wonderful and seminal show. I don’t think he’d be embarrassed. One of the sort of screwball elements in the second episode is when your character mistakenly sends an email to the whole staff. It’s almost farcical. I’m not sure if she would've made that kind of error …

Well, that's what I think Aaron is attracted to: Characters who are extremely smart and brilliant at what they do and then kind of go crazy, in like intense, insane ways. When these sorts of people fuck up, they fuck up large. And I also think that there's a theme through the series about the separation between young people, who understand technology and the age of the Internet, and the older generation that just haven't got a handle on it and can't quite be bothered to get a handle on it.

You don’t really look old enough to be the stand-in for the older generation and total technological ineptitude.

I’m so psyched that you said that. I'll take that. But I am old enough to be a Luddite as far as that kind of technology is concerned because I am in real life.

Were the politics of the show appealing to you as well?

I was very interested in the politics. I am kind of a political person. There was a time when I was in school when I thought maybe that's what I was going to do. I got all into the idea of politics and anarchists and Kropotkin, this Russian guy who founded the anarchist party. I got completely besotted by the idea of anarchy as the way that we should all live our lives and I was ready to kind of go fight for my belief, but then I got to university and did lots of plays and kind of forgot about that.

Are you as troubled by America’s news culture as Sorkin seems to be?

I can remember when Bush got in for the second time, just feeling like so much of the problem about the way that politics go here is that people are improperly informed. That they didn’t know that they had been lied to, or they didn't understand exactly to what extent they had been, and they still thought that there were weapons of mass destruction. And that was just crazy to me that people could be so under-informed. I do think that there's a difference in America to where I'm from. There’s so much wrong with England, but I think people are informed in general. I'm going to make a huge sweeping statement, but you just get the news much more [in England]. Listening to radio stations that play pop music all day and all night, the news will come on every two hours, foreign news too. It’s part of your daily routine, being informed about what's going on in the world. Whether you like it or not, you can't really escape it. I don't think the same is true here, and television broadcast news especially seems to me to be a pretty dicey area. You can't rely on getting the facts, or getting them presented in a way that is actually objective and makes sense and puts people in a position where they can make informed decisions about who to vote for. It's just over-sensationalized and, as our show keeps pointing out, one of the big problems is that they act like there's just two definite sides to every discussion -- and that's just not necessarily the case, but it feeds into the way this country has just become completely polarized. This Tea Party is presented on the television as the viable alternative instead of like a lunatic fringe.

I do think there's a danger with mixing politics and entertainment, and I think Aaron is really aware of that and feels like the show's going to work based on whether the relationships work. But what I love about him is that he is brave about going there, and if people are going to be watching his show, why not use it to make them think about something that is important to think about? And I think that's really cool. We went on Charlie Rose the other week and I was thinking, "Oh my God, I better have something interesting to say," so I read this book about Walter Cronkite, like I was literally writing up passages from the book, and then Charlie Rose didn’t ask me anything about politics. He only asked like, "What's it like to be an actor?" and [laughing] I didn't have anything to say. But anyway, one of the quotes I took down was from Edmund Burke: "Evil happens when good men do nothing." When people stop trying to change things and stop trying to make things better, then bad shit happens. And I think Aaron, for all his wonderful craziness, is a good person trying to do something, and that's amazing.

You’ve lived in America for more than a decade, but you’re British. Have you always been engaged with American politics?

Our world is so affected by who's in charge here that it feels like it's massively important. The first 10 years of my being here there was a guy in charge who was just so terrifying and it made me feel so unsettled the whole time that this guy was making those decisions. And it's such a nice feeling having this guy in charge now. But I feel like he's standing on a sort of postage stamp in a sea full of sharks. Please just cling on to that postage stamp!

So you are a person who follows the news, who is up on the news?

I have moments. I stopped being up on the news entirely when I was doing this job. I didn't read a paper or watch the television news for many months. And now it's been quite hard to get back into it. It's so loaded now because of this job that I'm doing. Even picking up the New York Times feels kind of loaded with meaning; I feel berated every time I look at it, like"'Oh God, all these people know what they're doing and I was just pretending.”

You've been on TV shows before, but you haven't starred in a show. Were you at all hesitant to get involved in a long-term project like this?

I wasn't, but I don’t think I was really thinking straight. It wasn't until afterward that I realized quite what I got myself into there. I was just seduced by the script of the pilot, the part and the writing, and that's always how I've kind of gone about choosing things. I was just like, “It's so great, I've got to, I want to be in it.” One of my really great friends is Kelly Macdonald who does “Boardwalk Empire,” and after I got the job I had lunch with her, she was like [laughing], “You know it's really quite horrible. It's fucking hard work, and it's amazing and wonderful and all that stuff.” So I got the whiff from talking to her of what I got myself into, but I hadn't really prepared myself at all. And probably it was more like hard work than anything I've had to do before.

How so?

It’s just so intense. The scripts were like 80 to 90 pages. One is like a screenplay of an indie movie, and then you're shooting it in nine days and it's just crazy. Towards the end of it, the fourth and a half month in, I took like a 10-minute nap in my trailer, and when I woke up, I realized it was the first time I'd seen my trailer from that point of view. I hadn't even sat down in my trailer before because I'd been just pacing from one side to the other to learn my lines.

Did you enjoy playing one character for so long? 

The thing about the movies is that you never want to repeat yourself. It's anathema in a movie to repeat a moment or a scene. Everything has to be different from everything else. It's sort of built into your process — that's such a pretentious word, but one of the things that one instinctively knows not to do on a movie is to repeat yourself. As I was doing the part, I realized part of the pleasure of television, what people want is to see the characters in similar circumstances every week. And you get a little bit freaked out, like, "I feel like I've done this before, I've said this before. I've said something very similar to this in a very similar way." It's kind of disconcerting. But it's telling a story over a long period of time, in incremental steps, and it does slowly change. It's more like life — it's like nothing changes and then suddenly everything changes.

Do you have a favorite line or scene?

There’s a moment in the sixth episode where I do this really bad Groucho Marx impersonation, and I have really fond memories of that. Just because Aaron wrote a scene where I had to do a bad Groucho Marx impersonation and it was so bizarre. I had the walk and the cigar but I was too scared to do the walk and the cigar, but Jeff made me do both. It will probably be really appalling to watch and embarrassing, and if you think that email scene was a farce … But it was really liberating and weird. By the end of it I was completely attached to this weird thing and the director kept trying to get me to tone it down, he kept being like, “Can you not do the eyebrows as well, can you not do the eyebrows and the walk?” And I was like, "I'm fucking doing it all! You can't make me not do the eyebrows now, come on!"

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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