Emily Mortimer (Mackenzie McHale in The Newsroom) returns next month in a startlingly-good spoof reality show she created with an old school friend. The series asks: What would happen if a British actress in Hollywood hired her best friend as a personal assistant? The answer, according to the first two episodes of Doll & Em, is a glorious female incarnation of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Mortimer, as a version of herself, attempts to cheer up her miserable best friend, played by Dolly Wells, who has just broken up with her boyfriend in England, by inviting her for an extended stay in Los Angeles. With Dolly dreading a return across the Atlantic to singledom, Emily strikes upon the idea that she could stay as a temporary PA.
In the words of Mortimer, speaking after a BAFTA screening in London: “You take two friends who have always been equal, and then totally jeopardize their friendship by putting them in this situation, with all the best intentions in the world. And then it just gets fucked.”
The show focuses on their struggle to adapt to the new relationship amid the madness of Los Angeles. Regular cameos from the likes of Bradley Cooper, Chloë Sevigny and John Cusack help to gently skewer Hollywood’s blowhards and two-faced schmoozers. Dolly’s first brush with stardom ends in tears at a party in the hills. “No big deal?” she sobs through a locked bathroom door. “Susan Sarandon just shouted at me, Em!”
In a scene shot “totally guerilla style” between takes in a trailer on the set of The Newsroom, Emily is oblivious to Dolly’s weeping as she complains that although the death of her father was “very, very sad” the memory is not enough to bring her to tears when required on camera. Actors, agents, and movie producers all feel the heat in this tragic-comic examination of Hollywood, but the real subject of the series is the fiery, competitive, and loving relationship that is unique to female best friends.
“Female relationship is something that doesn’t really seem to have been well covered—obviously romantic relationships have, but there is something so passionate and wonderful and amazing about having an incredibly close female friend,” said Wells.
Mortimer and Wells, who can’t help finishing each other’s sentences, were keen to emphasize that the “master-slave” dynamic of Doll & Em is nothing like their own friendship. “It was funny for us to imagine what we would fight about,” Wells said. “The way we get on has always been to say the worst thing we can possibly say. To admit things you would never say to anyone else—and to make each other laugh. Like always wanting to knock each other over when we’re pregnant, ‘Ooh, don’t stand too close to me I’ve got a real urge to push you over.’”
Mortimer took over, as they both collapsed in giggles: “We went up a cliff somewhere, and I knew what she would be thinking…”
The relationship at the heart of Doll & Em has been built over decades, and the script took almost as long to draft. “We had to come up with something because we’ve been pretending to write a script for years,” said Mortimer. “Really it was an excuse to hang out and rack up really huge phone bills because I have been living in America for a long time and Doll was in England and we talked to each other for hours and hours and we’d say to our husbands ‘It’s work, it’s work: we’re working on a screenplay.’ And it got quite weird because we told quite a lot of people—not just our husbands.
“We had four children between us in the time it took us to write this script. We had to do something otherwise people would think we’re totally mad.”
The central premise of the show had been a source of amusement for years. They often discussed the weird dynamic between a star and their personal assistant. “We had always been fascinated about that relationship between a PA and their boss,” said Mortimer. “They become a really integral part of their lives, they know everything about them. They are bridesmaids at their wedding, they’re godparents to their children. It gets really intense.”
Wells chimed in: “And there’s not a sort of shut-off time like at work, there might be a moment when you’re very much part of the conversation and then suddenly you’re not wanted anymore, and that’s the moment when you’ve got to back out. There seems something intrinsically funny about it.”
The Mortimer character is oblivious to her demeaning attitude; losing her temper when Dolly struggles with driving in L.A., or offering a consoling tub of ice-cream before asking her to fetch it from the freezer.
Asked why she often played somewhat unsympathetic characters like Em, or Mackenzie in The Newsroom, Mortimer seemed taken aback. “Am I whiny? I don’t know. Yes, maybe. Oh, God. Well I’ve got to go off and become less whiny—I’ve got the last season of The Newsroom to become less whiny. I will do my best,” she promised The Daily Beast.
“I had many moments after I’d shot [Doll & Em] of thinking ‘Fuck—why did I do this?’ What it is, in this instance, is you set up the stereotype which everyone expects which is the diva, annoying whiny actress and the put-upon assistant and then as a way of investigating our preconception of whiny actresses you start to turn that on its head and that’s what happens as the season goes along.”
Once again, Wells steps in to complete the explanation: “Without giving too much away,” she said. “Her whininess changes. What we really wanted was to feel sympathy, so you’d think ‘She’ being a dick, but I get it.’”
Doll & Em starts on February 18 on Sky Living in the U.K., and will be shown on HBO in the U.S. next month.