Lonely and Amazing: Grace Van Patten and Emily Mortimer on Acting
At the height of the pandemic, Grace Van Patten was told that she’d be leaving Brooklyn, where she lives, and heading to Australia for eight months. The reason was Nine Perfect Strangers, the Hulu limited series about a mysterious wellness retreat that was slated to shoot in Los Angeles but was moved Down Under amidst the COVID of it all. For the 24-year-old actor, the hardship of traveling across the world during such an uncertain time was softened by the fact that, as the grief-stricken Zoe Marconi, she would be acting alongside actors like Michael Shannon, Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, and Nicole Kidman. Those names come with a built-in intimidation factor, but Van Patten has also been acting since 2006, when she made her debut on The Sopranos, and also grew up around the industry (her parents are the filmmaker Tim Van Patten and the actor Wendy Rossmeyer). Even her neighbor back in Brooklyn is a show business veteran. That would be the actor and director Emily Mortimer, who recently called up Van Patten to discuss the life-changing experience of working on Nine Perfect Strangers, her upcoming fantasy film Mayday, and the emotional mindfuck of their chosen profession.
GRACE VAN PATTEN: Emily, I’m so excited to do this with you! I wish it were in person. I’m in your hometown.
EMILY MORTIMER: I’m so jealous. I wish I was in England.
VAN PATTEN: Are you in Ohio?
MORTIMER: I’m in Cleveland. The whole reason I’m here is because I’m chaperoning my kids on a Noah Baumbach movie. It’s interesting to suddenly have the point of view of a mom who’s wanting them to be happy, but also being anxious about this whole crazy universe of what it is to be a performer. So, I have millions of questions for you. Your dad is this incredible actor and director and pretty much everyone you’re related to is a performer of some kind. Growing up in a house like that must’ve been a similar experience to the one my kids are having, a very social place where there’s all this talk about projects and acting. Looking back, do you feel acting was inevitable for you?
VAN PATTEN: It’s something that I didn’t think about when I was young because it was all I knew. It was exciting being around all these characters and personalities. Actors are hilarious and they’re entertaining. I’m an introverted extrovert. I’m very shy and anxious and I admire people who are 100 percent themselves. Being exposed to that was exciting to me. Being on sets at a young age and seeing people I knew in real life transform into characters and become unrecognizable was a fascinating concept to me and definitely lit the fire. I went through a phase of wanting to get as far away from it as I could, just because everyone else did it, but I was lying to myself at that point in time. It took me until I graduated high school to decide I wanted to go for it. But, I didn’t have the confidence that I could make a career out of it, even though I loved it and wanted to do it. It took until I got a manager who believed in me.
MORTIMER: That’s so interesting that it took an outside person, because I’m sure everyone around you loved you so much, but sometimes you need someone to see you for who you are separate from everything you’ve come from. That’s part of growing up no matter what you’re doing, being able to be who you are in the world separate from your parents.
VAN PATTEN: Absolutely. In other fields, there’s a path, steps, promotions. With this industry, it’s a free-for-all. There’s no direct path or steps to follow. It’s all luck, time, and place. It can be depleting and scary and make you feel like you don’t have your feet on the ground. You have to really love it.
MORTIMER: Did you know what you were getting into? Did anyone say, “Listen, this can be really hard”?
VAN PATTEN: I wasn’t prepared for the loneliness of it. That’s something I discovered on my own and it was really strange. I never associated that with being on set and acting until I did my first shoot on location. I was like, “Woah, where are my people that I actually know and love?” Those moments are tests. When you get through those and you still want to do it after that, it only solidifies the passion. I just did a job in Australia for eight months and I was really lonely. It was also the most immersed I’ve felt in a job and group of people, which was beautiful.
MORTIMER: I totally agree. If your real world is full of people who are in the same line of work, everyone understands. Tell me about Nine Perfect Strangers. It must have been incredibly hard during COVID, where there was no going back and forth. Once you were there, you were stuck in a similar way to the characters on the show, really. How was it being with that group of incredible actors? The degree of talent is mind-blowing.
VAN PATTEN: I could not compare the experience to anything else in my life. It was so new for me in every way, starting with going that far away from home and spending that long away from my family. The lead-up to going was scary for me. Once I got there, it was an experience like no other because it was everyone’s first time working in months. Everyone was so eager to connect. We didn’t have our support systems with us so it forced us to hang out. It really felt like a family by the end.
MORTIMER: You can feel that vibe in watching it. It’s an interesting study of group dynamics. Do you get that where you look at this group of people at first and you’re like, “I have nothing in common with anyone here, how is this going to work out?” But by the end they’re your brothers and sisters and you’re crying saying goodbye to each other. You become so close partly because you know the experience is coming to an end. It’s finite and that makes you let your guard down in a way that you don’t in other situations.
VAN PATTEN: If you were to meet anybody else outside of a job, you would never tell them the things you tell your costars the first week of shooting. You get ripped open and show your organs to everybody and they do the same. You create this insane bond, and then it’s over. It’s a crazy concept.
MORTIMER: I just saw the fifth episode and you feel so lost and in such pain with grief. Was that difficult to access?
VAN PATTEN: Just by reading the script, I would start crying. Speaking with Asher and Michael, who play my parents, helped in deciphering the family dynamic. And reading Standing on my Brother’s Shoulders: Making Peace with Grief and Suicide, a memoir by Tara J. Lal, really helped. It’s beautifully written and she speaks about her mother passing away from cancer and then her brother dying by suicide. It was really similar to Zoe’s story. The author goes deep into the reconstruction of someone after a traumatic event and learning to live beyond a loss. I wanted to be sensitive about it because it’s such an intense subject.
MORTIMER: Seeing people dealing with death and accepting that it’s a universal experience is something we haven’t seen in our culture. It’s like we’re convinced it won’t happen if you go to your shrink, take your pill, drink your wheatgrass, do your yoga. But we’ve had to face it in the last year in a way we haven’t had to in a while. It’s helpful to see stories of people managing their grief. I really felt that watching your character.
VAN PATTEN: Very nice. Thank you.
MORTIMER: Was everybody acquainted with each other in some way before you all got there? Or was it like a group of very different people all having to get to know each other very quickly?
VAN PATTEN: Bobby [Cannavale] and Melissa [McCarthy] have worked together many times and they created such a great vibe for everyone else on the set because they’re so hilarious and open and comfortable. I had met Bobby and Michael [Shannon] before because they’ve both worked with my dad, and they live around the corner from us. It felt like I had a family unit there. They really took care of me in that way. I had never met anybody else, but they were so funny, which was amazing because we had to go deep into these emotional, intense characters.
MORTIMER: It wasn’t nerve-wracking? There wasn’t a feeling of, here’s Nicole Kidman just being brilliant?
VAN PATTEN: Of course, I was so nervous on my first day. I could not believe I was going to act with these amazing people, but they made it so comfortable and safe. It doesn’t feel like performing when you’re acting with the best actors ever.
MORTIMER: Tell me about Mayday, which is coming out imminently, and which I have also just watched.
VAN PATTEN: Oh, it’s crazy.
MORTIMER: Crazy? I need to know who this filmmaker is. I need a description of her immediately because I’m fascinated by her. She’s created such a specific world that is totally original and mad.
VAN PATTEN: Her name is Karen [Cinorre], and she is as magical as the movie is. She is so original and had such a specific vision for this movie from day one. I had to read the script maybe five times to grasp all of it. Every time I read it, I felt like there was more I discovered. Also, doing a movie with all women was so empowering and inspiring.
MORTIMER: I hear you. I had an experience like that a year or so ago making Relic with just me and two other women. I’m much older than you, and hopefully, with your generation it’s a different thing, but I have been so used to feeling like there has to be someone to put your lipstick on for in the morning, otherwise what’s the point? If someone had told me I was going to do a movie with all women I would have thought, “That sounds really boring.” Then I got there and realized it’s much more interesting when it’s just women. When you take out the dynamic of trying to be appealing to a guy who’s there, it feels deeper. There was something about having that getting taken away.
VAN PATTEN: That release.
MORTIMER: Right. It’s all about the work and it makes it really challenging and fun. It turned out to be the least boring job I’ve ever done.
VAN PATTEN: Oh my gosh, same. It’s such a deeper experience and you become completely immersed. I felt less self-conscious, and I wanted to experiment and have deeper discussions. All the girls have stayed so close and it’s the strongest bond I’ve felt on a movie.
MORTIMER: That was off in Croatia or somewhere?
VAN PATTEN: Yeah.
MORTIMER: Again, far on the other side of the world. It felt very specific in a way Nine Perfect Strangers did, too. I feel safest when I’m acting when I know what the world is. The best filmmakers are the ones that know what their world is. They can communicate it to you and once you know what it is, you can do anything with it.
VAN PATTEN: You can live in it.
MORTIMER: Exactly. That felt very true of that movie. It was a mad world, but a definite one.
VAN PATTEN: The set helps so much. When you’re in costume and you walk on set, it all clicks.
MORTIMER: You’re relying on the filmmaker to provide you with the right sets and the right clothes, then you suddenly know what the fuck it is you’re meant to do.
VAN PATTEN: That’s the goal: to feel as one with the character as possible. You get to inhabit this person and live these moments, not as yourself, but still, feel like you’re experiencing it.
MORTIMER: To me, that is the feeling that keeps you coming back as well as these experiences that we described of being far away from home in a way that makes you very vulnerable and lonely but also makes you connect with the people that you’re with in a way that you would never otherwise do. That’s an extraordinary thing in exercising empathy and connection. When people talk about being in the moment, I’m like, “I got through about 10 years of being an actor and I’ve never been in the moment. What does that even mean?” Then, I did Lovely & Amazing and had to stand stark naked in front of someone while they told me everything that was wrong and everything that was right about my body. I had to write this speech with Nicole Holofcener curated to my own body.
VAN PATTEN: Oh my gosh.
MORTIMER: Then she wrote the speech and I remember getting out of bed naked and walking through the room, about to stand there for three solid minutes with the camera pointed at my naked body. I was like, “This better fucking be good.” Otherwise, it’s just terribly embarrassing.
VAN PATTEN: Oh my god, I didn’t know that you made it personal to your own insecurity.
MORTIMER: As I stood there, I was as foolish and idiotic and vulnerable and brave as the person that I was playing. It would be very odd if I hadn’t been in the moment. I was her and she was me. As well as being the most awkward feeling in the world, it was also the most amazing feeling in the world. That feeling has come since, but not all the time. I think you’re lucky if you get it once or twice in a job. I don’t know why it feels so good, but it does.
VAN PATTEN: Out-of-body, but the most in-your-body, as well. It’s removed but connected at the same time.
MORTIMER: I have a neurotic relationship with acting where I feel like I should have done something else with my life. I had this very expensive education. I should’ve worked for the UN or something. I had been down on myself about it a lot, but then I directed The Pursuit of Love. I fell in love with the whole thing and felt really in awe and respectful of it. I would watch the girls [Lily James and Emily Beecham] do their thing and it was really exciting. I’m so happy I directed, even just to see acting in a different way
VAN PATTEN: Do you feel like you’ve approached acting in a different way since then?
MORTIMER: I actually haven’t acted since then. I was worried I wouldn’t know how to direct because I had never done it before. When I started doing it, I realized it’s actually a form of acting and a form of writing. It’s all the same thing, really. It’s storytelling. That’s another thing that I think actors don’t get enough credit for. You are storytelling as a performer and having to pace your performance, judge when to make all sorts of creative decisions, about when to hold back and when to emote, and how to chart the arc of your character’s journey. It’s a skill I see in your performances. Would you ever like to write or direct?
VAN PATTEN: I would love to. I can’t imagine doing it right now, but it’s something I absolutely want to try.
MORTIMER: Well, if I’ve learned anything from my experience, it’s all the same thing. It’s not a different skill set. You’re constructing a story when you’re giving a performance like the one that you did in Mayday or Nine Perfect Strangers. We need to hear about the new show that is happening on Hulu.
VAN PATTEN: Tell Me Lies. It’s based on a book written by Carola Lovering and it’s really juicy. It’s about a toxic relationship over the span of eight years. It’s everything: heartbreaking, sexy, funny. It’s life. I think everyone is going to be able to relate to it and enjoy it.
MORTIMER: It sounds like a fucked up Normal People.
VAN PATTEN: Exactly.
MORTIMER: I’m there for those relationships that aren’t the one, but the formative one. The one that turns you from a kid into a grownup. I think everybody has those. Do you know who the guy is?
VAN PATTEN: Not yet. We’re on the hunt for him.
MORTIMER: Where is the shoot? Is it going to be a heartbreak again? Is it going to be far from all the people you love?
VAN PATTEN: I don’t know. Knowing my luck, I’ll be shipped off to the other side of the world, but I think we’re aiming to not go too far away because it takes place in New York City. That would be a dream, but who knows.
MORTIMER: Oh my god, please. Is there a director for the pilot, at least?
VAN PATTEN: Not yet, but Megan Oppenheimer, who’s the showrunner and writer, is amazing. I trust her with everything. She has such a great vision for it and feels really connected to it. Right now, it’s just the phase of talking everything out with her.
MORTIMER: How great.
VAN PATTEN: I’ve never been attached to a project this early and been the first one on board. It’s a whole different experience, having so much preparation. I feel like it’s always so sudden, so it’s nice to be able to settle in and really think about it.
MORTIMER: Alessandro [Nivola, Mortimer’s husband] always says the difference between a good performance and a really great performance is time. Having the time to sit with something and let it be part of your consciousness for a while. That’s a huge luxury and they’re lucky to have you. It sounds like an incredible role and something that is going to be really juicy and delicious to watch. I can’t wait. It makes me miss you.
VAN PATTEN: I know. I could talk to you for hours.
Hair: David Von Cannon
Makeup: Tyron Machhausen
Special Thanks: Polaroid