Today sees the UK launch of Doll & Em, the new dramedy from Dolly Wells & Emily Mortimer for Sky Living HD and HBO.
The show features its titular stars playing exaggerated versions of themselves, as well as showbiz cameos from Hollywood A-Listers and a few TVO regulars for good measure.
With Dolly Wells now residing in New York City, TVO’s East Coast correspondent Gina R Snape went in search of the Luxury Comedy star to talk about all things Doll & Em…
Dolly Wells doesn’t know it, but she’s on the verge of becoming a real New Yorker. Battling the subway, dealing with the horrific cold fronts and wave after wave of skin-scourging cold and snowstorms, it’s a far cry from the warmth of Los Angeles or the hot bright lights of the Luxury Comedy studio.
We meet to chat about Doll & Em, an extraordinary, complex six-part series written by and co-staring Dolly, with overtones of independent cinema: “my baby” is how she describes it. Sitting down over tea and chocolate, the conversation meanders from the making of this new TV show to the filming of Luxury Comedy and back again. Delightful and chatty, introspective and considerate, a conversation with Dolly takes many turns.
Discussing the inspiration behind Doll & Em, Dolly explains: “Basically, we wanted an excuse to hang out because Emily was living here and I was living in London and we’d both started having children and things. If we were going to be hanging out we had to be doing something to justify it to our families. So we began sort of tepidly, if that’s the word. By the time we thought of this idea we’d been doing it for a long time.”
Inspired by the Harold Pinter play The Servant, and the film All About Eve, Emily began adapting the central concept from a variety of sources. “We got really fascinated by people having assistants,” reveals Dolly. “We’d hear stories about other actors, very successful actors, who’d have assistants and there’s just something innately funny about it. Of course, it’s a totally serious job, but there’s something funny about your job being somebody else. Because the person who is the ‘star’ is at some point going to behave like a child, or do something weird, the person working for them in that capacity is going to feel slightly resentful. So if you make it two best friends, who are completely equal…it felt like it was a massive canvass to put silly ideas on.”
A lot of the humour in the show derives from discomfort. When this is highlighted, Wells lights up and exclaims: “Yes! I love that sort of thing. I can remember when I was about a really early teenager watching Abigail’s Party and just being like, “Ooooooh!” I couldn’t even watch it, it was just agony. I don’t even know what made me go back to watch it fourteen times, but I just found it so enjoyable. And I think that is the sort of sense of humour Emily and I share – humour that comes out of something that’s really sad or awkward, or somebody revealing slightly too much of themselves.”
“Em and I felt like we were lifting the lid on jealousy in a way,” she continues, “because people hate admitting to being jealous and it’s such an unattractive quality. But you feel jealous of everybody. And also you certainly feel jealous about the person you love the most, because your intentions are supposed to be so good. Yet if you’re at the same point in your life, and if one of you is really successful or has children, or whatever, then there’s feelings of jealousy. Hopefully it’s very relatable too, because it doesn’t matter whether it’s a brother and sister, or a mother and daughter, or a boyfriend and girlfriend, there’s always something about a relationship that’s quite raw.”
Jealousy and discomfort are two recurring themes in the series. But as writers, Dolly and Emily sought to lift the lid on other taboo subjects too. This is what creates the richness and complexity of the series. They don’t shy away from things such as women/actresses and age, competition, vanity, the fear of disappointing others. In the show, sometimes Doll appears to make genuine faux pas, and other times it’s as if she knows exactly what she’s doing and saying things that undermine or embarrass on purpose.
“That’s one of our favourite bits,” Dolly states, “because it’s something that both of us have grown up with. It’s very English where you’re saying something, but you’re really not; I suppose everyone must do it. But it’s funny because you can’t really say anything when someone does that to you, so that is something that also makes us laugh.
“We had so many other ideas of what embarrassing things you could say in front of other people. Assistants know everything about people. So if you’re also their best friend you know REALLY EVERYTHING. And if you’re in a slightly vindictive mood… if you have a character that you really know and really care about, it does sort of write itself.”
One of the subjects that the series touches on is women and their age, and the notion that age is more of an issue for women than it is for men perhaps doesn’t bother Wells as much as it does many other actresses of her standing. “One agent asked me for my age,” she reveals, “and I said of course I’ll tell you, obviously. But men don’t always have to say their age, it’s not the linchpin. I feel like I’m very at ease – I am who I am and I am the age I am. But I don’t see why it has to be relevant. My mother would always say “Don’t lie about it. It just doesn’t really need to be relevant, particularly.” Maybe it’s starting to get equal? But it feels much more relevant for women – you want to know. Women go “Oh great, she’s older than me.” It’s so silly, but it seemed funny to us. And I really admire Em, she was the one saying “No, let’s make fun of age.” That was really fun to do as well.”
“It’s not even about being unhappy with your life,” she continues. “I think it’s when you feel that there’s an area of your life that you haven’t necessarily achieved at the speed you want. It’s usually, “Help I’m 40 and I haven’t had children yet” or, “Help, I’m 40, my career hasn’t really gone very well.” If you have loads of children or a fantastic career, it sort of becomes irrelevant. But there’s something that we put on ourselves about how old you are or what part you’re going to play. So it’s a good area to make fun of, because it’s completely irrelevant. You’re going to be sexy whether you’re 31, 41, 51, 61, if you feel it. So it just seemed like a goldmine. It seemed like a really amusing area with Doll and Em being the same age.”
Refreshing and naturalistic, the show’s big success is perhaps the focus on the relationship between the two female characters who are completely believable. It may prompt suggestions of a feminist agenda; and although it may have been largely unintentional,Dolly is overjoyed to learn that the show passes the Bechdel Test “Yes. We rarely talk about men. I’m so pleased that we did that without knowing. And now I’m thinking about where the series can go, and whether we were setting out to be feminist in the way that you make something,” she opines, “or if we were just setting out to make something hoping it will be good, and by it being good and strong and interesting, you don’t really have to make any more point than that, hopefully”.
“So many female characters and female relationships are written where it’s a story about a man, or having just broken up with a man, or badly written silly female characters that are just very two-dimensional. Whereas were just thinking ‘what interests us both in films are character studies rather than a crazy narrative, or whatever’. It’s like saying there isn’t a beginning, a middle and an end to very much. Of course, there is to life; but the things we cared about the most were making two very sympathetic characters that were visibly flawed – both of them – but that you would never hopefully absolutely lose faith in either of them. Like, you’d think “I can imagine doing that!” and “Of course she’s gonna, oh here they go both being pathetic”! But you sympathize. One of the women doesn’t suddenly become the bad woman or the good woman. They just both become versions of themselves. They just change together. And so there’s something more there. It was a lot more emotional than I expected.”
Indeed, it was perhaps the real life relationship between the two women which truly informed the end results. “We really love each other and we are really close friends,” she states. “And it is sort of like a marriage. And we joke sometimes when we are together that we feel like one very strong man. There’s something about having both of you together to sort of make you braver about the things you believe or the things you want to say, which is fantastic. But I think it was mostly that it was just a sort of character study on female friendship. Lot’s of people were saying to me when we were first coming up with the idea that there’s something really heartbreaking about female friendship and when it goes wrong, because it isn’t given nearly as much airtime because it’s not as interesting as talking about sex. I mean, you know, you break up with someone and OOOOH all the DRAMA of it all and what it makes you feel about yourself physically or I don’t know what; whereas, there’s a sad little silence about female friendships where, if something goes wrong and you break up you’re probably both going to go off feeling like it was your fault or it’s not something you can really share and it’s sort of awful.
“Also, if you want to be a sort of strong, intelligent and independent woman,” she surmises, “you don’t want to be messing up other women. It’s like the worst side of yourself is coming out and it’s so shaming. But also, the male characters in it actually have quite a hard time. I mean, the director [Mike – played by Aaron Himelstein] is ridiculed. He’s so good. I love him, he’s so good.” TVO agrees, but confesses the character was cringeworthy! Dolly laughs and admits: “Well yeah! The poor guy. It’s so unfair. He’s just probably deeply insecure, but his way is to be like “I AM NOT! I am the new thing!”
Himelstein’s character plays a interestingly pivotal role. He’s very negative toward Em. But the way the narrative is written, he says exactly what’s happening between Doll and Em without hitting you over the head with it, so that whatever’s going on he manages to put the finger on it and thus digs the hole deeper. But he isn’t conscious about coming between them, nor does Doll know the effect he has on Em. Dolly agrees, adding: “It’s like a private little thing that she goes through. And that’s also a bit – without being sort of tiny violins – about how hard it is to be an actor. Because it is sort of a ridiculous job. There is something in that job to me.”
“Oh, that’s another thing”, she interjects, “We wanted to talk about women being strong, and that women don’t want to be told that. It’s like you can’t work it out. We were trying to say – we fight so hard to be strong, but if we’re told we’re strong (especially by a man!) it really confuses you because it’s like you’re saying that as a criticism. You wouldn’t say “Oh god. I heard Brad Pitt’s really tough” like you would about a female actress. There’s an implication that they got there because they’ve had to not behave in the way that they should behave or something. So there’s something about calling people strong, and yet you also so want to be strong. You want to be told it by another woman! For some reason there’s something weird going on there. So that really interested us.
TVO observes, to Dolly’s agreement, that what she saw was someone about to start a film in a vulnerable position wanting someone someone she trusts there, and the person she calls is also quite vulnerable and needs help herself. However, in reality both women have a wealth of connections to fall back upon, with their partners and various friends all playing their part in bringing Doll & Em to life.
“We did the first five episodes in LA and it was so exciting,” reveals Dolly. “Emily’s acting career is fantastic and it’s been going well for ages. But writing together we were on the same level. And I remember driving down La Brea Avenue and seeing those yellow signs when they say they’re filming saying Doll & Em, and we were just so excited it was ridiculous. We took loads of pictures. And the director’s a really good friend of ours who we really love. My husband was taking the pictures, Emily’s husband’s producing it. It was definitely all family or friends. I think it’s also like a shorthand, because there’s not lots of people telling everyone what to do.
“Also, when it’s someone you are so close to,” she continues, “it’s so weird, I mean she’s literally my best friend ever, and so you’re working together and you’re really being in the moment. I mean, that’s what was fun – it’s really easy to do because you’re so used to being together. But there were moments like the episode where she’s drunk, where you’re thinking “This is so good! This is so good! Come on, carry on. Let nothing go wrong!” Like hoping the doorbell doesn’t go.”
“The first episode was really done on a shoestring. We all put in $150. We just said “Let’s just see what happens. Let’s try and make it and see what we think it’s going to be.” We didn’t think it was going to be a pilot. And he (the director) cut it and put it together and we were all really excited about it. That’s why we didn’t think to change our names.”
Doll isn’t the only namesake that Dolly has been portraying of late. Our talk of Luxury Comedy, on the whole can wait, but the awkwardness of this accidental naming quirk hasn’t been lost on Wells. “It was such a bummer!” she confides. “Because now it’s so embarrassing. It’s like “Is that Doll and Em? Uuuuuhhhh.” You’d think we’d totally asked for it. And I was thinking my god this is a bit confusing and massively egotistical! In Noel’s show that was sort of…” she trails off, then comes back with a vengeance. “BOTH TIMES it’s men being annoying!” she blurts out, laughing. “Noel did it to sort of piss me off almost. I was going “Couldn’t I be called Jana or, just any name would be just fine” and Noel was like “Yeah, not really, um, I was just thinking Dolly.” And I’d say “Yeah, but what about like Ivanna” … “No, that’s Nigel’s wife.” So there was just never gonna be anything but Dolly. He definitely knew I was going to be Dolly.”
“And then in Doll & Em,” she explains, “we filmed this just to see if the scene worked. At first we didn’t even think about it. The first time we didn’t even write a script at all. We just sat on the floor and Em would come back from work and we would say it again and again and work out what the scene was and what we needed, and so on. So we just called each other our names, which I think was cool in terms of acting it. But then we had lots of conversations about whether we could dub it over and be Poll and Pam!”
More laughs ring out. “We never did anything about it,” she grins, “and it just stuck! It’s fine. It’s sometimes cringy. If we’re hanging out together and someone yells “Doll and Em!” you think “Ooooooh.” (laughs). But it’s fine. It’s fine. It’s a small price.”
Thankfully, the emotional costs of making the show have done nowt to dampen the relationship between its two stars. “I think it’s genuinely made us closer,” Dolly suggests. “It’s like a couple having a baby or moving house, when you work on something together and you really care about it. And we both kept saying that the nice thing is that because we’ve been friends for so many years, it is really important. It’s really cool that we made the show together, like making each other a photo album or something. It’s not going to kill you if you don’t make it. It’s not like “We gotta make a show!”
“We were really pleased and lucky that we were given the chance,” she maintains, “and we really feel proud of what we did, which is a nice feeling. And we’re proud of each other. But because you do it together, you do try harder because you don’t want to let the other one down. Emily would never think it or say it, but it was quite cool of her to want to do that with me. I mean, she’s been at it for a lot longer, she’s got much more of a reputation. Both of us were really committed to it. That was lovely.”
Another boom was working with big name guest stars like Susan Sarandon, whom Dolly describes as ‘the sexiest person in the room by a long shot’. “She’s really bright,” Dolly enthuses. “She’s really warm. She’s beautiful. And she’s got this voice and these eyes that sort of kill you. And she’s really curious and really interested and open. She’s just really brilliant. It’s like if someone said “Right. You’re gonna play tennis with someone who’s really good at playing tennis.” And you’re so grateful that they are there. Also with all the cameos, you just felt like, “We asked you because we thought you were cool, but now you seem so much cooler because it’s not really gonna make a huge difference to any of them whether they come and spend a day. But for us it’s awesome.”
There are several guest cameos in the series (including one particular TVO favourite that some sleuthy followers have already sussed out). Rather than overshadow the titular stars, they serve to realistically flesh out the world being inhabited. The appearance of such high caliber performers like Sarandon could quite easily overwhelm, but for Wells & Mortimer what it provided was a level of professional acceptance and the chance to be around others who are genuinely and equally thrilled to be doing the work they’re doing.
“This is what I do,” explains Dolly. “And I’m really lucky to do it. I want to do things that interest me or are challenging, with people that are excited about what they are doing. I was impressed by all of them, I thought they were very open and friendly and willing and up for it, and it was really fun.”
“There was something exciting about this,” she gushes. “You feel like you’re onto a winner if you make something right from the beginning that isn’t for a producer but actually just for yourself. We all put money down for it, we weren’t commissioned, so it wasn’t for anyone. It’s a real freedom. You don’t have anything to lose. It’s not like doing your homework. And so that felt really nice; also it’s much easier for people. Like, when we wanted Chloë Sevigny, we just sent her what we shot and she really responded to it. It’s much better than reading, because you can get it across so quickly. That was something I would do again. I was really pleased that we did it like that, almost like a demo tape.”
The show airs in England first, via Sky Living HD, then arrives in America on HBO shortly afterwards, and there have been discussions of the different ways in which audiences on both sides of the Atlantic will perceive it. “Hopefully it’s quite universal,” Dolly suggests, “and what you’ll take away from it is to hold the people you really love close to you, to have respect for each other, but to also be turgid and silly, and to accept that you are going to fuck up monumentally, often, with each other, and that’s fine.
“On the one hand it’s the safest place to be, with your best friend, but also the most dangerous, because you really have a lot to lose. So take care of the people you care about, and accept their flaws, and accept that you’re jealous and imperfect. I’m really proud of Doll & Em, and I really hope people like it.” TVO is certain they will.