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EMBRACING MOTHERHOOD

Category: Dear Frankie News
Article Date: February 26, 2005 | Publication: San Francisco Chronicle | Author: Ruthe Stein
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A little back story before the focus moves to the star of this yarn, the lovely and amazing Emily Mortimer. That's not showbiz puffery -- it's how she was described in a film with those adjectives in the title. Mortimer's new movie, "Dear Frankie," was set to be in theaters last October. But the honchos at Miramax postponed it to Friday, hoping that her leading man, Gerard Butler, would be a huge heartthrob after "The Phantom of the Opera.''

As has become apparent, Butler is as much a phantom now as he was before the bloated movie musical. This probably means there will be no stampede to see "Dear Frankie," which is unfortunate for the following reasons:

A. As a stranger who agrees to pretend to be the father of a young deaf boy who doesn't know his own dad, Butler is way more appealing than he was as the phantom.

B. "Frankie" is a deeply moving family drama, the kind you want to succeed because you would like to see more of them.

C. Playing a resourceful single mom may not be the breakthrough role Mortimer deserves to distinguish her from Emily Watson, Samantha Morton and other youngish British actresses who appear in lots of small films.

D. There is no D, but my computer, which seems to have a mind of its own, keeps printing one.

But there is an E, as in Emily. She's sipping tea across from me in a noisy bar, perfectly dressed and coiffed in a way that would have made the old studio heads smile with approval. With her lineage, Mortimer, 33, doesn't need sloppy attire or rings through her nose to prove she's a free spirit. She is, after all, the offspring of John Mortimer, England's celebrated crusading lawyer who wrote the hugely popular mystery series "Rumpole of the Bailey" from his own experiences.

He didn't object when his beautiful daughter stripped naked in a scene that anyone who saw "Lovely & Amazing" is unlikely to forget. Playing a character with low self-esteem, she asks a lover (Dermot Mulroney) to examine her body part by part and tell her everything that's wrong with it.

"My dad spent a long stretch of his life defending pornographic movies, and as a result, there is really nothing that can shock him," Mortimer says with a laugh. "My whole family is sort of unshockable. A more challenging thing was sitting next to my father-in-law at the first screening in Los Angeles thinking, 'I don't know whether he can take this, and we are going to have a long, long dinner trying to avoid the one theme that everybody will be thinking about.' " Fortunately, she's married to a fellow actor, Alessandro Nivola, whom she met while making a musical version of "Love's Labour's Lost." So at least he understood the exigencies of show business.

Appearing nude was easier than Mortimer imagined. "But I did have a moment, when I was undoing the cover of the bed and about to do the scene, of thinking, 'I hope this is a good film because if it's not, I'm really making a fool of myself right now.' But then I started doing it, and Dermot starting telling me all this stuff about my body, and I remembered that mysterious phrase about being in the moment. I never knew what that meant before, but I suddenly knew what it felt like because at that moment I was as exposed and vulnerable and as brave as the girl I was playing. It was an incredibly exciting feeling.''

Making "Dear Frankie" had its exciting moments, too, even though Mortimer keeps her clothes on throughout. She was impressed with first-time director Shona Auerbach's ability to tell the story through pictures.

Butler found being directed by one woman and co-starring with another a piece of cake. "I'm good with women, I hate to say, but I've always been relaxed around them and happy when there's less macho energy around," he says. "I think it has to do with only having a mother to bring me up and no father figure. I am really attuned more with the emotional styles of women.''

Mortimer, who was pregnant with her first child while making the movie, found it a "tall order" to get her head around the notion of being the mother of 9-year-old Frankie (Jack McElhone). "You can imagine some things, like I can imagine what it might be like to rob a bank or be a drug addict or even to kill someone. But not motherhood.''

So she focused instead on her sister, Rosie, who is 13 years younger and was traveling around the United States with a friend during the shoot. "I'm really protective of her. She's a naughty little sister, always getting herself into trouble. I was ringing her up constantly, leaving weeping messages on her mobile like, 'Ring me up when you get out of that club in downtown Chicago and tell me you're still alive.' I could draw on my anxiousness about her for my feelings about Frankie."

Now that Mortimer has her own little boy, she says she completely understands the feeling of "lying down on a road and letting a bus drive over you rather than harm your child. I'd do anything to protect him from this sort of harsh reality of life.''

While her life sounds more privileged than harsh, Mortimer reveals that her 20s were horrendous. "I was constantly saying to my parents, 'Why didn't you tell me that it was going to be this nightmare, and I was going to feel so miserable and insecure?' I just think it takes a long time to work out who you are, really, and it's quite an agonizing process at times.''

Sometimes Mortimer wishes her parents had challenged her instead of responding so positively to her plans to become an actress. "My dad especially loved it because he really would have liked to have been Fred Astaire and walk down a white staircase with his top hat and silver-topped cane. He is obsessed with Fred Astaire. So he was absolutely thrilled that was what I wanted to do. He thinks it's constantly glamorous and wonderful.''

She and Nivola split their time between Los Angeles and London. Because her father is in his 80s, Mortimer tries to get back home to see him as often as possible. "I end up cooking up the oddest excuses to go. If someone said, 'Will you go home and pick up a postage stamp from London,' I'd be on an airplane.''

Fortunately, her profession often takes her across the Atlantic, most recently to work with Woody Allen. His new movie may be set in London, but it goes over the same territory as his New York films -- namely, disastrous love affairs and even more disastrous marriages. Mortimer finds it funny in parts "because it's very accurate about betrayal.'' Uncharacteristically, her character is not neurotic. "She is kind of ridiculously self-assured and blind to the complications of life. She doesn't see the dark side of things and chooses to avoid thinking too much what might be going wrong around her." Doesn't sound like "Annie Hall Redux.''

Mortimer quickly figured out that Allen either likes you or he fires you. "You realize when you get to the point where he can't fire you because of the expense to reshoot the scenes," she says, "so you feel safe and really start to enjoy working with him.''



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DEAR FRANKIE” (PG-13) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.

 


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