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I have to imagine there are few things that will test your range as an actor better than recording lines for an animated character. With nothing but a script, a microphone, and a director in front of them, an actor has to envision everything about what’s around them in order to put themselves in the right mindset. I have to imagine it’s even harder when you’re providing a voice for a spy movie in which you’re playing an anthropomorphic car.
A few months back I had the pleasure of visiting Pixar Studios in Emeryville, CA and in addition to getting to tour the compound (that place is so much fun and has so much going on that I am amazed they can get any work done), we also had the chance to speak with some of the talented people behind the film. I posted my one-on-one interview with composer Michael Giacchino last week, and today we have Pixar first-timer Emily Mortimer, who plays British-spy-in-training named Holley Shiftwell.
Sitting down with the actress in a two-on-one interview (another journalist from another outlet was present) Mortimer discusses the accommodating nature of Pixar, working with director John Lasseter, and the nature of acting in animation versus live-action. Check it out below.
Have you got a cold?
I’ve got a terrible cold. And I had to record some lines yesterday and I just had to blow the hell out of my nose, it was so embarrassing, for hours, in the sound booth.
Forgive my ignorance on this, is this the first time you’ve voiced a character on an animated film?
I guess I have an animated voice for Howl's Moving Castle, which is a Miyazaki film, but it was already made, I just did the English translation. So I did the Sophie, the young Sophie in that with Gene Simmons. It was so amazing to meet her before she died, she was the old lady in it. Not Gene Simmons from KISS. Gene Simmons was amazing, she was such a great leader for actors. But anyway, that was that. And that was a completely different gig because it was already there as a made movie that we were just dubbing. It was quite confusing, it was helpful to have the movie there to watch, but you were kind of lip-synching with the cartoon characters and then having them, hearing this constantly, hearing this very high little Japanese voice doing the part that I was supposed to be playing, I was kind of baffled by it, I wanted to try and copy that, or what am I to be doing. Where as this is more organic and you’re there from the beginning and you’re part of the collaborative process of making, building a character and a part and a story and everything.
What was your preparation process like?
None. I mean, there is no preparation to be had because...
You didn’t ride around Los Angeles in Jaguar sports cars?
No, I wish. I would have loved to have had some spy training but I didn’t have any of that. You don’t really know, you don’t get the script until, Dan said he never got the script until he walked into the booth, but I was given them often the night before. But such is the nature of life that, you know, with the tiny, my baby was really young when I started, so it would be like, you’d have a brief look and then it would be kind of in the car on the way there that you’d start. And they were very hard to read, the scripts, because they’re, that was almost the most challenging part of it because they’re the most different from what I’m familiar with. The screenplay for the movie is totally different, because it’s so technical and they’re really for the animators I guess, the scripts, and so it’s quite hard to decipher what’s going on.
Yeah, lots of stage direction and then occasional lines of dialogue but you know you rely, you totally put yourself in the hands of John, when you turn up and he tells you everything except the scene and he plays the other parts, and does everything, and you just have to close your eyes and hold your nose and make for the best.
Or blowing your nose your fair share.
Or blowing my nose all over him. And generally he was amazing. I mean it was amazing how he is able to conjure the world of the movie and he’s so into it and so excited about it that you catch it. There were moments where the technical descriptions he would give of what was going on in the scene, especially the chases and the spy stuff and the gadgets, which he, it’s a terrible stereotypical stuff here, but it just happened to be, I happened to be stereotypically old-fashioned girly about cars and also gadgets, I’m technophobic, I don’t really understand any of it, and so I didn’t know the different makes of cares. So they, of course, are getting a huge kick out of telling me, “So this is this and that and then your something ray scream is coming out of here,” and it’s a bit like listening to directions when you’re in a car, sort of, “I know I should be following this but for some reason I’m just looking at your nose.”
So when it came to working with John, was he with you in the booth the entire time?
Yes, they’re very accommodating in that they will fly to wherever you need to be, so if you’re shooting something in London, I was shooting in London a Scorsese film, Hugo Cabret, and they came there, I think we also did Michael [Caine] at the same time for a couple of sessions and John didn’t come, they had him on link-up. And he was still kind of in there, he was on a screen in the room. And then Brad, his co-director came. And then in New York they were there, they all came. I only had to come here once.
Pixar’s kind of responsible for some of the best movies that come out each year. Do you think there ever was a stigma like, “Oh you’re doing an animated film? Really?” Whereas now, like, Brad Pitt was in Megamind with Will Farrell, more that everyone’s done it. It’s almost like a big A-list thing to do.
Yeah, it’s cool to do, I know. I don’t know whether, I don’t know the answer to that, I don’t know whether I’ve been watching animated movies as intensely for long enough since my son was born to know whether there was stigma. All I know is when I watched Nemo for the first time, it’s one of my favorites, I feel very passionate about it because it was the first one we got into.
Yeah. It’s so heartbreaking, that whole story. My son’s first way of embarrassing me, one of them, was Nemo, because we’d sit him in front of this movie so many times. My dad used to call him Nemo, he’d say, “How’s little Nemo doing?” so I associate it with that. But anyway, it was Albert Brooks was the dad, and he’s one of my favorite actors ever. I mean Broadcast News was one of my favorite films.
That’s your favorite film?
I love that film. He’s got the most brilliant line in a movie in that film, which is where he says, “If only ‘needy’ were a turn-on.” Which is just, so true, life would be so easy if “needy” were a turn on! Anyway, so I don’t remember thinking “Oh, Albert Brooks is in this, how embarrassing for him.” I remember thinking, “God this is amazing, they’ve got Albert Brooks doing this part and he’s so great.” And then Ellen DeGeneres is the, she’s such a perfect character, the helpful friend who can’t fucking remember anything, can’t remember anything from one second to the next, and she’s trying to help him find his kids. She’s getting vital information and she forgets, it’s so great. I just was always, me and my husband watched them so many times and we were always so overwhelmed by the performances.
So how do you do it then, if you’re required to emote in a particular way, and you talked a little bit about it earlier on as well, how is it different, let’s say, I mean there’s not really any comparison, to the scenes in Shutter Island, which are fairly forlorn, by any stretch of the imagination, getting into gear for something like that versus doing this. Is this easier or difficult in any sort of way?
It’s just every job, I mean let me tell you something, I feel like I kind of relate to the character, my character in this movie, because her whole sort of journey, if you can use such a grand word, it’s somebody that’s put into a difficult situation, and although she’s fully equipped to deal with it, she doesn’t know that she is at first. There’s this bit of kind of, a feeling of, “I don’t know if I can do this.” And that’s something that I easily relate to, because I think that’s what, partly that’s who I am, because I’m always thinking I can’t do things and sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m wrong, but more often than not, that’s how you feel as an actor, because every job is different.
So having aced the role of a female secret spy, how about being the first female James Bond?
I, why the fuck not? I would love to be the first female James Bond. My whole ethos in terms of choosing jobs has always generally been, well in retrospect, it seems like the ones that I’ve been best at have been the ones that I had been completely convinced I couldn’t do. I think you have to really think you can’t do something in order to be able to bring it...
You have to try harder.
Yeah, you have to try harder and it’s the challenge of the thing. And that is what in the end, ultimately that’s the kick that one gets from being an actor is the unknown. When I know when I’m probably feeling most terrified and most unsure is probably when I’m being the best. So by that logic, I would make a very good Bond. I feel like it would be the worst casting ever.
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