Aside from being talented and experienced actresses, Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer are also very good friends. Having met as children, their friendship has withstood the test of time, surviving adolescence, university and flat-sharing in London.
Having worked together on sitcom Em & Doll, Mortimer now stars in Wells’ directorial debut, Good Posture, as landlady Julia who forms an unlikely friendship with her young, charming tenant Lilian (Grace van Patten).
We spoke to them about working together on Good Posture, and what changed once Dolly was the director.
Emily, what drew you to work on this project, apart from being friends with Dolly?
Emily: I would just do anything with Doll and whatever she asked of me I’d do, as her friend, but also as somebody who really thinks she’s amazing and cool and whatever she did would be worthwhile. I just feel so lucky that I’ve got somebody who’s so close to me that I really admire and respect and would [work with] if I didn’t know her at all. Sometimes you take that for granted, you don’t really think, “wow I’m so lucky to have somebody who’s a really cool filmmaker who’s my best friend and can put me in things.” So, it would always be the case that whatever she did I would be really drawn to.
I do remember… I wasn’t going to be in it for a while, when she was getting ready to make it, it was kind of all up in the air… It was 12 days of shooting and it was a very short lead up in terms of even writing it and production, pre-production and everything, so she was in a panic about it and she came over and I said, “well just tell me the story” and she told me… she sat on my bed and took me through it and it brought tears to my eyes. It was very moving, this story.
It…really got at something, you know, the fact these two slightly lonely women of these different generations were talking to each other through their dairy. There was something very, I don’t know, mysterious and cool and moving about that idea of it. So I assured her it was going to be really good. When she got to the point of having to cast this part she was having problems knowing how to do it and I was like, “well, I’ll do it!” I’m so glad that I put myself forward.
Dolly: I was thrilled! I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to put her in that position where she would feel like she had to, but she was like, “yes! However big, however small, of course, I’ll do it.” I was really thrilled because that’s who I saw playing the part, always.
Emily, you’ve worked with Dolly before, but what was it like to work with her in her first film as a director?
Emily: Really cool! I mean…even on Doll & Em it was a similar thing in that I can’t tell how much of that is us together or how much is her because it was the same on her set. It just felt very relaxed and there’s no pressure, there’s no real expectation. She takes out the sting and anxiety around delivering or making it good. It just doesn’t seem to come into it and it’s just fun. It’s always felt that way on Doll & Em…where we’re more interested in each other and what we’ve got to say about life than we are in what we’re doing. So it totally takes the pressure off of what we’re doing, because it doesn’t seem important at all, we’re just dying to get to the loos and talk about other things. That’s a nice atmosphere to work in because –
Dolly: It takes the pressure off
Emily: Yeah it takes the pressure off completely. But then, on top of that, it wasn’t the same thing as on Doll & Em because she was running a set and I really think that… the director is everything on a film set, I mean everything. Every film I’ve been on, the whole atmosphere on the set is imbued by the presence of the director and their vibe and what they’re like as a person. If they’re stressed, if they’re doubting you or doubting themselves or whatever, it just totally translates to everybody and everybody picks up on it.
It was the opposite of that, she was just really still and peaceful and loving in the midst of all this endless chaos, which is always there, and being asked a million questions by a million people. She was very present and observant. It was so cool seeing her- it was really amazing! I just didn’t know what to expect and there she was totally able to do it and rising to it.
A significant part of your time in the film is through voice-overs. What do you think the importance of that was for the film?
Emily: Lilian’s relationship was with the disembodied voice. It was through the diary that she was getting to know this person, through their letters to each other. So if you kept seeing her it would have slightly undermined that disembodied voice that was coming at her from the pages of her diary. So it was really important.
Dolly: Yes it was. It made her more frightening, I think. Who was this woman living behind this door, this reclusive woman? Also, this might take a bit of magic away, but we knew that Em was very busy and she had about three days. I knew how little time we had, so that was just a technical thing. But I think it worked really well because it was mostly about what Lilian was learning from these letters, rather than what Julia was learning. It fitted in with who her character was that you couldn’t quite get her, so suddenly to hear this voice and see these pages, it was like Lilian was getting something, she was getting interested in her. I think it was a build up to when she goes into her bedroom, it feels like more of an affront.
…I was a bit scared of the geography and all of that, because I liked her not being there, but I would think, well how has she heard Lilian talking to the plants and calling her Miss Havisham. I wanted her to be a floating presence, who couldn’t quite leave the house but you didn’t quite know where she was either. Where the furthest she would go was to have tea with George.
What did you think of the relationship between Lilian and Julia?
Emily: It’s a beautiful relationship. It’s lovely and unusual. I don’t think you often see the story of a young girl and an older woman, or middle-aged woman and a girl in her twenties. It’s quite rare to see an intergenerational friendship between women who aren’t mother or daughter depicted. I have a friendship like that, we do, as I get older I’m starting to crave those women of younger generation and older generation friendships because you learn so much from both.
Especially from other women, as we’re more –
Dolly: We’re forthcoming and you’re not trying to win them over.
Emily: And I think that a lot of what Doll was interested in within the film, but also what we talk about in life, is…our generation of women especially are still of the generation where the validation of men was quite important. Not just sexually, but you needed it to succeed in any kind of profession. You needed men to approve of you, and like you, and not be too threatened by you, but find you interesting and fascinating and charming. That was how you were going to get on in the world, both in your private life, as well as your public life.
So…what’s really cool about what she’s exploring in that this friendship is two women who are suddenly discovering that it can be really fulfilling and interesting developing a relationship with another woman that’s a friendship. That isn’t to do with sexuality and isn’t to do with men.
Dolly: Exactly. And that they can both learn that it isn’t a typical relationship of a young woman taking up the place of the older one who will now be kicked aside. Instead, they are both so important and vital to each other. When you’re looking at them on the sofa you feel that they’re both equally lost, that they are two women going through something.
Emily: And that those kinds of relationships can actually be quite exciting, they don’t have to be ‘oh, I’ll resort to my friendship with my female friends because I can’t deal with men”. These relationships can be more exciting and fun-
Dolly: And open because the rules of the game change. With our generation and generations above there is such importance of being validated by men. Even just the fact that in the workplace or whatever, you would need to be respected because then you may get the job. Whereas, in this, you can be so honest and free, because you’re both women and by nature, women do seem to be more open and vulnerable and more willing to show their dirty whatever’s. So there’s something sweet about these two women on the sofa.
I didn’t want it to be the cliche of the older one being cross with the younger one because she’s going to steal her [man]. It starts like that, that quite traditional, obvious way of thinking the younger one has flirted with the older one’s husband, but that’s really almost a sort of trope to get rid of [the husband]. Also, that the younger one, her instincts are “oh I know, I’m pretty so I’ll flirt with men and they’ll carry my bag and make me a nice dinner. I’ll piss off the wife and that will be easy.” Her instinct is to hope she won’t get stuck with this frightening, clever woman that she doesn’t really understand. Yet, it’s actually more fulfilling, because really she’s looking for a mother and really Julia is looking for a daughter.
I love that bit about her novel, about her watching another mother and daughter. It just made their relationship feel like a surrogate mother-daughter relationship. They were the only two in their own circles who really got each other.
Dolly: There was something so different in both of their portrayals, it didn’t become mawkish, they didn’t push it too far. Like I love it when Em sort of touches her knee but then looks away, you see on her face that she wishes she knew how to do this. It was almost more touching that they both wanted to have this connection but they can’t quite have it, because that would be unrealistic. For Julia to suddenly take her into her arms wouldn’t be believable, or for Grace to say ‘I love you.’
As you say, you started with the stereotype before going away from all those cliches and it just becomes a very original story. Like at the end. You sort of wrapped it up, but there’s still so much unanswered.
Dolly: Yes we tried to leave that… I felt scared at moments, have I wrapped it up too much. Hopefully I didn’t. You don’t want to know everything, and I didn’t want her to suddenly have some wonderful job. I wanted her to be working in a cafe and taking it slow.
Good Posture is released in the U.K on 4th October 2019.
This interview has been edited and condensed.