Emily Mortimer, an actress and writer, says she owes her directing job on Amazon Prime Video’s screen adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love to Downton Abbey alum Lily James.
“It was Lily who got me the job as director,” Mortimer, 49, told UPI in a Zoom interview recently. “Because the producers didn’t want to alienate Lily, they gave me the gig, which was incredible; I loved it so much.”
Mortimer, a longtime fan of Mitford’s work, also wrote – and plays the unforgettable role of The Bolter – in the three-part dramedy, which premieres on Netflix on Friday.
The Pursuit of Love follows upper-class cousins and best friends Linda (James) and Fanny (Emily Beecham) from their adolescence to their marriages and motherhood.
Set between World Wars, the show features an outstanding supporting cast led by Andrew Scott, Dominic West, and Dolly Wells.
Mortimer initially joined the project as a screenwriter.
“I was approached and asked if I would adapt the novel by some producers who already had gotten the rights to it,” Mortimer recalled.
“At first, I thought: ‘Oh, God! Does the world really need another period costume drama in a big house in the English countryside?’ My initial answer to that was no. But then I read it again and I thought, ‘Yes, the world does need this and I would like to see it.'”
The Newsroom and Shutter Island star was most intrigued by how The Pursuit of Love treats the concept of romance alternately with deadly seriousness, suspicion and mockery.
“That’s how we all experience romantic love. It is an absurd notion that you could fall in love and live happily ever after with the same person for the rest of your life and, yet, it is something we all still reach for,” Mortimer said.
She also loved how the story celebrates female friendship, despite all of its ups and downs.
The actresses at the heart of the show differed from their characters — and each other.
“Lily is full of passion and love, but she is also very precise and worked-out in her approach to her performance,” Mortimer explained.
“Emily is more instinctive and uses that side of her brain more, letting things happen in a haphazard way, which is equally wonderful, but different,” she added.
“They really respect each other, and I think that is what Linda and Fanny have — this kind of fascination and respect for each other, but they are sort of chalk and cheese.”
Although the clothing and furnishings might be foreign to modern-day viewers, Mortimer hopes they will recognize themselves and their concerns in her heroines and their lives.
“I felt like the book was very much related to me as a woman. I felt like it was talking about things that I was still really interested in,” she said.
“So, I thought it was very important that it had that feeling, but I wanted to also keep it grounded in the moment, with the design and the costumes.
Mortimer added that she injected a contemporary sensibility into the piece by honoring the book’s “punk rock soul” with a soundtrack that includes tracks by T. Rex, Le Tigre, Marianne Faithfull and Nina Simone.
“The music of the 1920s and ’30s is terribly unsexy and unexciting,” Mortimer said. “Whatever I had to do, I couldn’t use that music. … There’s something kind of punk rock about Linda’s attitude to life, which is Nancy’s attitude.”
Mortimer said she also found time to play Fanny’s stylish, fun-loving, but commitment-phobic mum.
“I had written a pretty juicy part, there,” she said.
“Also, she was so doable because she was just in a couple of scenes every episode. It wasn’t like I had to be there [in front of the camera] for any length of time.
“I just loved the character because she is so unapologetic and funny and has lived life marching to the beat of her own drum.”
Mortimer said she felt overwhelmed at times, juggling writing and directing duties while also playing a character who steals every scene she is in.
“I kept thinking: ‘This is mad! I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew. I can’t be The Bolter.’ I kept trying to fire myself and ringing the producers, telling them: ‘You have to hire someone else! Dolly can be The Bolter,'” she laughed.
“And they wouldn’t let me, so I was forced to run around the set with a strange wig on my head,” she said. “I showed up for nobody on the days that I was acting. I was just dead behind the eyes.
“Poor Emily was not there for any of her crew, either. I wouldn’t do that again in a hurry, but I do love The Bolter and I am pleased that they wouldn’t let me fire myself, ultimately.”