Simply Dolly Wells

Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells: ‘We’re like a middle-aged Thelma and Louise’

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/emily-mortimer-dolly-wells-like-middle-aged-thelma-louise/   |   Written by Martha Hayes

Friends since childhood, the duo behind acclaimed TV show Doll & Em are now starring in a new BBC adaptation of The Pursuit of Love

 

It’s lunchtime in New York City and Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells – best friends, long-time collaborators and Brooklyn neighbours – are calling me on Zoom on their way to a spa break. Dolly is driving. Emily, having propped up her mobile phone so they can see me, is in the passenger seat, dipping Vietnamese summer rolls into a pot of chilli sauce.

Emily is casual but chic in a pale-brown and white spotted dress, her hair back in a half ponytail, while Dolly is wearing a pink blouse under a cream corduroy pinafore.

They are talking – well, yelling – into the phone about their forthcoming project, a BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, when suddenly the call cuts out. ‘Pull into that lane,’ is the last thing I hear Emily say. And then… complete silence.

Five minutes later, they call me back, slightly hysterical after being pulled over by the police. It was only a matter of the car’s roof box being left open but it was enough to put the fear of God into them. ‘We thought we were going to be arrested over Zoom!’ cries Emily.

It sounds just like a scene from Doll & Em (2013-2015), the Sky/HBO series that they co-wrote and starred in about a famous actor (Emily) who hires her best friend as her personal assistant (Dolly).

‘It’s like a middle-aged Thelma and Louise,’ chuckles Emily, 49, who is best known for her part in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama series The Newsroom (2012-2014).

 

 

‘I thought, “This is the end,”’ shudders Dolly, also 49, who last year appeared in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s adaptation of Dracula. Ordinarily, she says, they wouldn’t dream of doing an interview while driving, but Emily was held up at work and they are now running very late for their first minibreak together in years. Thanks to filming schedules and four children between them, it’s taken extraordinary planning. ‘This took such a big effort,’ emphasises Dolly. ‘I’m leaving for England in a couple of days [to star alongside Christopher Walken in Stephen Merchant’s new BBC comedy-drama, The Offenders] so we’re so excited.’

Emily’s work – editing The Pursuit of Love, which she has written and directed – has overrun, so she’ll be back on her laptop once they get to the spa. ‘Dolly will be luxuriating and having massages while I’m Skyping 35 executive producers,’ she sighs.

The spa trip is Dolly’s treat to Emily for finishing the much-anticipated three-part series, in which Emily also has a small role opposite Lily James, Dominic West and Andrew Scott. Dolly features, too, making this the third time the pair – whose friendship spans four decades – have worked together. In 2019, Dolly made her directorial debut with the indie film Good Posture, in which Emily played a famous, reclusive author who opens her home to a friend’s teenage daughter.

As a lifelong fan of Nancy Mitford (‘She’s fearless, honest, irreverent and allergic to sentiment’), it was a no-brainer for Emily to adapt the romantic comedy drama, following Linda Radlett (Lily James) and her best friend and cousin Fanny (Emily Beecham) as they search for the ideal husband. ‘It was Lily James who suggested I direct it,’ Emily explains. ‘She told producers she wanted a female director and that she thought I would be good… without her doing that, I don’t think anyone would have taken it at all seriously.

‘I didn’t in a million years think I’d be able to direct as well as Dolly,’ she continues, before Dolly adds: ‘I was thrilled to be in it mainly to watch Em direct! I was really proud… Day by day getting slightly irritated because she’s really, really good!’

 

The hiring of a female director, and how that came about, also speaks volumes about how the industry has changed for the better since Me Too.

‘For the person making that decision to be the leading lady as opposed to the leading man is really exciting,’ says Dolly. ‘Having a woman sailing the ship means there’s already a precedent where inappropriate or non-consensual things are, I feel, much less likely to happen.’

‘I do think it’s getting so much better but it’s still there,’ Emily adds. ‘When you talk to younger women who you assume everything has changed for, there’s still a confusion about how to be in charge of yourself and have your sexuality not define you, whereas for men it doesn’t define them.’

Emily and Dolly (along with their families) both relocated from New York to the UK for three months to film the series at locations in Bath, Bristol and Oxford. Filming was challenging because of Covid. ‘She had to direct everything in a mask which would have sent me crazy,’ recalls Dolly. ‘It was such a miserable time that everybody was determined to work their hardest and have the most fun.’

 

In her take on The Pursuit of Love, Emily has created a period adaptation that feels fresh, modern and unique. Dolly plays Linda’s mother, Aunt Sadie, opposite Dominic West as Linda’s father; Emily plays Fanny’s mother, while Andrew Scott, as Lord Merlin, makes a particularly memorable entrance to the song Dandy in the Underworld by T Rex.

It would be remiss not to mention the tabloid scandal that ensued when Lily and Dominic, who is married, were photographed on what appeared to be a minibreak in Rome at the end of filming, but neither Emily nor Dolly comment on it. They have both known Dominic for many years, since he dated and had a daughter, Martha, with their close friend, aristocrat Polly Astor. Martha, who Dolly is godmother to, also appears in the show.

Was it distracting being on the set of a production like The Pursuit of Love with your best friend? Did they have to rein in the gossiping? ‘I had to be quite disciplined,’ laughs Dolly. ‘I would have loved to be pulling her aside with, “I just have to talk to you about something.”’

 

The pair made up for it out of hours. Dolly would visit Emily at the old hunting lodge on Gloucestershire’s Badminton Estate, where she and her family lived during the shoot. ‘It was very domestic and blissful,’ recalls Emily. ‘We keep saying, “We’ll always have Badminton!”’

Their friendship could have been quite intimidating for the other cast members had Emily not nurtured such a warm, inclusive atmosphere on set. She had worked with most of the cast (bar Lily James and Emily Beecham) before and even roped in her two children, Sam, 17, and May, 11, along with her mum, Penelope, for small parts.

‘It might sound like nepotism but if it makes sense, it makes sense,’ says Dolly, whose own kids, Elsie, 19, and Ezra, 16, featured in Doll & Em. ‘There can be complications when you know someone but [on this occasion] it made for something wonderful.’

Emily and Dolly first met aged four at a birthday party and recall their families getting to know each other because their fathers moved in the same literary circles. Emily’s father was the late writer and barrister John Mortimer, best known for creating the TV courtroom drama Rumpole of the Bailey in the 1970s, and Dolly’s father was the late comic actor and satirist John Wells, who contributed to Private Eye.

 

Aged seven, the duo started going on regular skiing trips to Austria with their mothers, who became close friends. ‘Both of our mums’ lives were spent looking after their husbands and children but they are easily the cleverest, most interesting people we both know and could have done anything they set their minds to,’ explains Emily, a self-confessed ‘terrible’ skier.

‘We would just lie down in the snow at ski school and refuse to carry on,’ she laughs. They were happier back at the lodge, acting out episodes of Coronation Street. ‘We had about three lines we’d say, like [mimicking Mavis, one of the soap’s best-loved, but dithering characters], “Oh, I don’t really know!” holding pint glasses of water,’ recalls Dolly, who often led Emily astray.

Emily grew up in Buckinghamshire alongside her younger sister, while Dolly, the youngest of six children, grew up in Kensington, west London. Emily favoured going over to Dolly’s house: ‘I remember being very into Doll because she was quite naughty. I was always getting into scrapes because she did a lot of dares.

 

At 14, Dolly tried to bleach Emily’s jeans – while she was still wearing them – leaving her shrieking from chemical burns. She also had a habit of sending out fake party invitations to everyone on her street, directing them to the house of a hapless neighbour. ‘I remember this furious woman from number 50 ringing my mum to say, “I had 18 people dressed in fancy dress at my house this evening,”’ says Dolly. ‘I could see my mum was secretly quite proud.’

They remained friends through their teens despite going to different secondary schools when Emily got into St Paul’s Girls’ in Hammersmith and Dolly didn’t. ‘I wasn’t quite as clever,’ says Dolly, who went to boarding school in Sussex. ‘She didn’t concentrate in the exam!’ says Emily. ‘I remember looking over at her and she was colouring in her name. She’s easily the cleverest of us all.’

But it was after they’d finished university – Dolly read English and classical literature at Manchester; Emily, Russian and English at Oxford – that they became particularly close. One weekend, while staying with Polly Astor, they found themselves confiding in each other. ‘We stayed up talking, outdoing each other with awful stories about boys being mean to us,’ says Dolly. ‘We then became more important to each other than the boys who were making us feel bad.’

 

The pair have clearly been there for each other ever since, supporting one another, most significantly, through the deaths of their fathers (John Wells passed away in 1998; John Mortimer in 2009). ‘What was so moving to me was how she took my hand when my dad died,’ recalls Dolly. ‘I was just starting to think, “Maybe I can write something,” and she said, “Come on, let’s write something together.”’

That ‘something’ would eventually become Doll & Em. ‘Not only do we laugh together and have fun,’ says Dolly, ‘we bring something to each other we both feel we couldn’t do without the other.’

What do they each bring to the friendship? ‘Dolly’s the funniest person I know by a million miles,’ confirms Emily. ‘I think of put her mind to something and it’s brilliant.’

‘Emily is an intellectual in a way that I would like to be,’ explains Dolly. ‘She’s better read and has a real understanding of everything. I’m lazier for sure.’

In all the time they’ve known each other there has been no competitiveness between them, despite Emily being more well known – having starred in numerous Hollywood films, including Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005) alongside Scarlett Johansson, and the critically acclaimed comedy-drama Lars and the Real Girl (2007) opposite Ryan Gosling – when the opportunity to make Doll & Em arose. Dolly was, in comparison, known for less starry parts in TV comedies like Peep Show and The IT Crowd.

‘People were always longing for us to say we had [fallen out] when we did Doll & Em,’ muses Dolly, ‘but I don’t think you could write like that if you had that [sort of relationship].’

To their surprise, the show was a hit in the UK and the US, with The Hollywood Reporter describing it as a ‘wry comedy that evokes All About Eve’. ‘We thought no one was going to see it. Maybe our mums and our agents,’ recalls Emily.

 

Today, they have more in common than ever. They both married Americans (Dolly, the photographer Mischa Richter in 2000; Emily, her Love’s Labour’s Lost co-star Alessandro Nivola in 2003), and they have two children each, who are now nearly all teenagers. (‘We keep reassuring each other it’s healthy and normal that they think their parents are idiots,’ says Emily.) Both live in Brooklyn, too. Emily moved in 2003 and Dolly followed in 2014 because Mischa was keen to return to America.

They even got engaged at the same spot in Provincetown, Cape Cod. ‘Alessandro knew it was an important place for Doll and me,’ explains Emily, ‘so felt it was right to propose to me there which was so sweet.’

More recently they’ve supported each other through the pandemic and further bereavements. ‘My stepdad died during lockdown and it was heartbreaking watching his funeral over a screen. My mum is 87 and I didn’t see her for months,’ says Dolly. ‘We’ve both really missed our mums. And even Em and I didn’t see each other for months because I was quarantining in Cape Cod [where Mischa grew up] and she was staying in Long Island.’

 

They got through the worst of times with ‘endless phone calls’ and eventually, when they were both back in New York City, ‘outdoor dinners in Em’s garden, freezing under heat lamps but feeling really grateful to have our families together again’. These days, more often than not, they spend their free time hanging out at Emily’s bohemian 1880s brownstone property, where the Stella photo shoot took place. ‘I prefer having people over because I get social anxiety,’ Emily says. ‘My way of socialising is to cook – anything involving a lot of butter – so I don’t have to talk very much!’

Emily and Dolly both turn 50 this year. Just don’t ask how they’ll spend the big birthday. ‘Oh my God,’ says Dolly when I bring it up. ‘That’s really brought us down!’ cries Emily, before resolving that, by then, it will be the perfect excuse for a post-pandemic party.

Talk turns to fashion, and taste so similar that their wardrobes contain some of the same items, including a pair of shoes by the Argentinian label Martiniano. They both love vintage shopping. ‘Dolly looks like she’s in i-D magazine. I’m more conservative. I love men’s clothes,’ says Emily, who is set to appear in Dolly’s untitled next film. She is also working on a reboot of Rumpole of the Bailey with her younger sister.

‘We end up buying things at the same time without knowing the other has them,’ explains Dolly. Is it any wonder that the women, who share so much history, similar values and senses of humour, also share the same clothes? ‘We both like treats,’ concludes Emily. They’re almost at the spa now. ‘We love sushi, and nice clothes…’

‘And getting into trouble still feels quite fun,’ adds Dolly, before the pair collapse into giggles one last time. ‘I was quite excited about the police.’

‘The Pursuit of Love’ launches on 9 May at 9pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer









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