Some people know Emily Mortimer as one of Mary Poppins’ former charges. Others know her as Em from her semi-autobiographical HBO comedy Doll & Em, or from her roles in films like Hugo, Match Point, Lars And The Real Girl, and Shutter Island. You might even remember her as Phoebe, Jack Donaghy’s very delicate fiancé with hollow birdlike bones, on 30 Rock. (She’ll introduce herself again, just in case.) But—unless you’re a devotee of Scream 3, in which she played an actress in the movie’s film-within-a-film, Stab 3: Return To Woodsboro—you probably don’t know her as a horror actress.
That changes with Relic, IFC’s buzzy new horror movie from Australian director Natalie Erika James. Three generations of women form the emotional and dramatic core of this unconventional haunted-house movie, with Mortimer at its center as Kay, mom of Sam (Bella Heathcote) and daughter of Edna (Robyn Nevin), who’s trapped between the two when Edna begins showing symptoms of cognitive decline that may or may not be supernatural in origin.
We interviewed Mortimer by phone from the 300-year-old house where she’s been isolating in the U.K. And while we did talk about the film and her process—and, fair warning, about the ending of the film, albeit in vague terms—we also couldn’t help but wonder if she’s a believer in the supernatural herself.
The A.V. Club: I wanted to start by asking you a question that I like to ask people who are in supernatural horror movies. Do you believe in ghosts yourself?
Emily Mortimer: Not at all. But I don’t know whether that’s just because I’m too scared to even begin to think about it, or if I just don’t want to face the possibility. I might just be in denial.
The only time I’ve thought that maybe I could believe in a ghost is when my dad died. My dad had always been obsessed [with] this poem by Lord Byron where he talks about the summer of a dormouse, and how man’s life is just the summer of a dormouse because it goes by so quick. So everybody gave him little dormice, and things like that. I don’t know whether you have those in America—they’re mice with very big ears, like in Alice In Wonderland. They’re little country mice that live in fields, and you very rarely get to see them anymore. They’re practically extinct in England.
But about a week after he died, his secretary came to clear out his office. So [his secretary] came to my mom in the kitchen and said, “Penny, come quickly, there’s a mouse in the bath, and I think it’s a dormouse.” And a bath was [my dad’s] favorite thing. My mom said, “it’s the wrong time of year for a dormouse, and anyway they’re nearly extinct,” but she went in, and lo and behold there’s a dormouse sitting there in the bath. She released him into the garden, which my dad also loved. There was something very amazing about that. A dormouse sitting in the bath, my dad’s two favorite things.
But apart from that, I haven’t started believing in ghosts. At the moment, I’m actually staying in a house in the countryside in England that was built in 1704, so I definitely didn’t want to start now. I feel like if there were ghosts, this house would have a lot of them, and so I’m just not going to let myself think about that.
AVC: This film is a bit of a departure for you, in the sense that it’s a horror film. What drew you to this project in particular?
EM: I just really loved the script. I felt like it was an incredibly interesting and cool take on the horror of our real-life path of death, of people that you love dying and getting old and their bodies and their minds disintegrating before your eyes. And I think that anyone who’s gone through an elderly parent dying—helping them die is horrifying. It’s actually much scarier than many horror films. [Laughs.] It is like they’ve been taken over by something supernatural, or not familiar at all, and they become another being at times.
I think that this movie really gets the pain of that, and the beauty of it as well. It also [gets] at the cathartic beauty of being with the people that you love as they die, and of helping them go. Also, it was really scary, and almost funny in how audacious it was at times. I felt like it used the genre really brilliantly, but it also transcends more than just the horror. It really works, and not just as a horror film. You could tell that the person who wrote it had a real filmmakers’ eye.
AVC: You talked about relating to the life experience of having a parent die—as an actor, how do you keep from being overwhelmed when you’re working with painful emotions like those?
EM: You do have to get completely immersed in what you’re doing. You have to hurl yourself into it, otherwise you can’t hope to [get an authentic performance]. You have to find a way of experiencing the experiences that the person you’re playing is experiencing, in order to really feel what they’re feeling. I don’t even know how to express quite what it is you’re doing, but you definitely have to do it.
But, as one gets older especially, nothing in a film can compare to the horror of one’s real life. [Laughs.] In imagining other people’s pain, it’s not your pain anymore. So yeah, it can be exhausting and it can be challenging and you feel bad—sometimes you feel like you’re not doing a good job, or you question yourself—but it’s an escape from your own pain, actually.
It’s like reading a book or watching a movie, you know? Something terrible could be happening in the movie or in the book, and you could be really feeling it, but it’s still not your own. It’s somebody else’s story. And so you’re at a remove from it. It’s a form of escape, acting, just like reading or whatever. It’s a pleasure, in a weird way, to not be in your own life for a second and to be imagining someone else’s, even if it’s a lot of pain and torment.
The pain is pleasure, because you’re escaping your own shit for a moment.
I think that’s why it’s not actually horrible acting something horrible. My own father died, and I was acting as someone whose mother was dying, but I wasn’t experiencing my father dying all over again. I was drawing from it, and I was feeling things, but it wasn’t anything as bad as when it really happened.
AVC: So it’s one degree removed, even if you’re drawing from personal experiences.
EM: Yes. And I think that you’ve become an actor in part to escape reality—to escape your own your experience of reality, which is often too much! You can’t take it. No one can take it. So it’s like an escape, even when it’s with really tough stuff.
AVC: Along with the heavy emotional stuff, there’s also a haunted house element to the film where you’re crawling down these narrow corridors, and climbing through holes in the walls, and things like that. What was that like?
EM: That was really—I wouldn’t say fun. That was the toughest part, being in that house, because it was many days where we were crawling through those corridors. That was really exhausting, physically and emotionally. It was really intense, because it was just constantly having to conjure up all this larger-than-life emotion. It was really full on, there was no respite. I guess that’s just what it’s like to be in a horror film—you’re having to dredge up all this feeling and terror and misery 24/7 for three days straight.
But there were other parts that were fun, like the fight where it’s all three of us, and the mother comes crawling through the wall after us.
AVC: Yes! It’s so creepy.
EM: That was so great. Part of it was just that it was so incredibly cool to have three female actors [doing the scene together]. Basically, the main three parts in the movie were women, and the director’s a woman, and then there were three female stunt people helping us with the scene—
AVC: That’s so cool.
EM: It was incredible! You’ve got this intense fight scene between three women, one of whom is seventysomething. And so it was just seven women on set trying to work out, like, how to like tear each other’s hair out. It was so cool, it was really fun and felt really good.
AVC: This sounds like a very woman-dominated set, which you still don’t see very often in horror.
EM: It was, it really was.
AVC: Speaking of three women: Another interesting thing about this film is the intergenerational dynamic, where you’re in the middle and then you have your mother and your daughter. Tell me about working with those actors, and the dynamics there.
EM: Well, I really love them both still to this day. I’m still in touch with them all the time, and I feel very close to them. I felt an immediate connection to Bella and Robyn when we first met. It was funny, just going in and doing the first read-through, I’m thinking, “These are really cool people. They’re unusual, funny, just badass!” [Laughs.] Robyn is—it’s safe to say that she’s a phenomenon. And Bella is the most brilliant actress. So they were brilliant to act with, but also brilliant to chat with. They’re so funny, and they didn’t take any of it too seriously. So I felt an immediate kinship with them, and was so grateful for that, because we were able to go there in a way that was quite intense.
I also felt like we all immediately understood the complexity of the familial strife. You can’t have three generations of women in a family without there being a lot of history and a lot of pain and a lot of resentment as well as a lot of love—and a lot of confusion. [We also understood] how that all plays itself out when people die, you know? Families come together when someone’s dying, and shit that’s been around over the years, but never really got dealt with that has to be faced. And everybody got that without having to talk too much about it. It was just understood, you know?
AVC: How was it working with Natalie Erika James, given that this was her first feature?
EM: I knew from reading the script that she was going to be brilliant at her job, and she was. She’s a real filmmaker that lives and breathes cinema. The way that she had written the script was very filmic. She was telling a really complex story in very bold visual images, and that was very striking to me.
AVC: I love the visual motif of decay and mold, and all the imagery that’s in the film. It’s really effective.
EM: And also that last 20 minutes—
AVC: We probably shouldn’t give too much away, but I know what you mean!
EM: When you read that in the script and then when you see it in the film, it’s the same impact. I couldn’t believe how she pulled it off visually. When you read it, you’re staggered, and then you’re like, “how is this going to work?” And then she did it. This was not a big budget movie at all, but she managed to do something so beautiful. It was one of those things that you would never in a million years would have come up with, or imagined yourself. It’s so bizarre and odd and fucked up, and yet it feels so right in a weird way, you know?
Relic is out on VOD and in select drive-in theaters now.