Even if you didn’t know that “Doll & Em” stars Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer had been friends for decades, you’d be able to figure it out pretty fast after talking with them for just a few minutes. The two actors have a fluid natural chemistry as they speak, finishing each others’ sentences with ease.
Wells and Mortimer created the Sky/HBO series together with director Azazel Jacobs, which in its first season focused on what happens to the relationship between two long-time friends as one of them (Wells) becomes the assistant to the other, a successful actress (Mortimer). The second season, which premieres this Sunday, takes a different spin, as Wells and Mortimer explained to Indiewire at the TCA summer press tour. But one thing hasn’t changed: While there’s clearly inspiration being drawn from real life, there are a lot of big ideas behind “Doll and Em’s” construction, particularly when it comes to the relationship between the two women at its core.
I want to start off by asking– Well, I don’t want ask you guys stuff like, “How much of this is based on your real lives.” But I am really curious about what your process is in terms of writing. How does the story start for you guys?
WELLS: Well, writing “Doll & Em” together is only the second thing that we’ve written together. We’d started ideas and we’ve gotten very, very good over the last — we were realizing it’s almost 40 years of being friends — we’ve gotten very good at talking. But we didn’t really realize actually, in a way, talking was writing. So we got good at working out what made us laugh, and what we cared about and themes and all sorts of things that we cared about.
But [the first thing we wrote], we wrote something that was an adaptation of a book. So the story was there and we changed it and manipulated it and made the dentist actually American — both of our husbands are American — or started trying to make it something that we knew about.
MORTIMER: I bet it was a disaster. [laughs]
WELLS: It wasn’t a disaster because I do think we learned how to write together, and I think that the dialogue was quite good. We had a reading of it. There were things that worked about it, but we didn’t have a story. We didn’t start with a story because we just didn’t really have one. We were trying to jump on the back of somebody else’s.
MORTIMER: We were trying to make it our story, and it wasn’t.
WELLS: It wasn’t, no. Then with “Doll & Em,” the story began as — and it wasn’t really a story, it was just a idea — the relationship between two people, one working for the other. What defines one working for the other, and wouldn’t it be also awesome if it was two best friends? That we definitely know about, and one employing the other, one doing a kind thing that then turns into a sort of nightmare, and that was the idea. And then the story–
MORTIMER: The story of the first [season], I think, was this basic idea of personal assistance, and what happens when you make your best friend your personal assistant. And that came from a fascination which goes through the second season as well, just two women who are so close in age and background and–
MORTIMER: And upbringing and everything, and almost physically so close, and then putting themselves into a situation where there’s just this incredible sort of weird power dynamic. And they’re sort of playing with being so close and yet sort of so near, but so far. And we went all the way through that season playing with that, and then into the second season too. But I think that the story of the first season was easy once we had that master-servant sort of thing set up, because then we knew we wanted to shift.
And also we wanted to the sort of noir-ish element. We knew it was in Hollywood, and that feeling of paranoia and being on a film set in Hollywood and being paranoid and thinking everyone’s whispering about you and then we started thinking about “All About Eve,” and the servants and those servant-master dynamics in movies that felt a bit noir-ish and fucked up. And what happens in those films is the balance of power completely shifts, so the master becomes the servant and vice versa. So, then we had our structure in the first one, that was already there, and then everything else just fitted in. Just putting our jokes and our things and the things that made us funny or cringe or whatever, into it.
The second season was a bit more challenging because we started off with the idea that, “Okay, we don’t want to copy the first season. This one, they’re going to be equals,” and our little subtitle to ourselves as we were writing it and performing it was, as equals. Let’s start off doing something completely on an equal footing, and we’re going to forget that first idea — that was ridiculous. We’re going to start off with this other completely ridiculous idea and it’s going to be brilliant, because we’re going to be equals and we’re going to write a play together, even though we’ve never done that, and we’re going to get it put on in New York.
Of course, as with the first season, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and everything goes wrong, but the plot of the second season was less clear because of this “as equals” thing. We couldn’t play with that constant back and forth. But I think what happened was we still wanted that to go through, so we’ve got this “as equals” thing, but it still does go back and forth, and the power shift, but it’s more subtle. It’s on a less extreme scale.
WELLS: And also, it was harder– not harder, but the first one was quite easy to write in a way because it was just like playing chess. And in the second one, the world became bigger because you open the lens, see Emily’s family, and see the actors playing us in the show.
MORTIMER: It was like a hall of mirrors, the second one. It was less of a narrative of this balance of power that then shifts, it was more like: we’re going to write a play, we’re going to have two characters that are basically us in the play. We’re going to cast other people in those roles, and then we’re going to play about where, at the same time, art imitating life in the show, as well as the show being an example of art imitating life, but having our families in the play.
And it became such a fucked-up hall of mirrors because her husband plays my husband, my husband in real life plays my husband in the play, my son in real life plays my son in the play. Her children play my children, and our mothers are in it. Our real mothers are in it, and then we have fake mothers in the play, so that became the challenge.
I love everything you just said about “All About Eve,” especially taking that same sort of idea and then putting it between two women of the same age–
MORTIMER: Yes, yes.
WELLS: That’s what, in a way, was a challenge to not fall into making one really beautiful and one not. Just to make two sort of similar women, who are the same age. Like, things could go either way of either of them. It’s just you make choices and things happen at a different time, and therefore you might, you’ll get jealous, you’ll go through all of these things. But it’s not sort of — although in Season 2, I suppose we get jealous of the younger ones — but they are quite similar women because that’s what you think about everything. There are incredibly talented actors who didn’t get a chance to show how great they were just because they didn’t have enough money to keep going, or chefs, or anything. There are different things that take you a different way in life.
And with “All About Eve,” you have a really strong female friendship, between the playwright’s wife and Margo, on top of the relationship between Margo and Eve.
MORTIMER: Well, I think in a way, something that’s kind of interesting about the play between our two characters in the show is it goes between those two things. It goes between really this tight bond that is very supportive and loving, like Margo’s with her best friend, and kind. And then at moments, there are really jangly moments like, really threatening moments between her and Eve. There’s both in one rapport, where this thing can tip over into something sort of dark and almost quite dangerous.
But I think that’s less so in the second one. I feel like the second is more about us collaborating and the nightmare that ensues as a result of that, and the effect that it has on the people we love. But the chaos that we bring with us as a couple, as a friendship couple, the sort of chaos that ensues around us rather than– Well, the first season was an exploration of how loving relationships between two people, either of friendship or marriage or anything, can go between things that feel very, very safe and loving and embracing and also at the same time kind of dark and threatening and fucked up and jealous. I think we were both really interested in exploring the idea of the theme of jealousy, because that’s something that’s so under-written about.
WELLS: Without making the person just a terrible baddie.
MORTIMER: It’s such a universal emotion that everybody has, I think, especially towards the people that they love the most and they want the most for. Ironically, those people can also be the people whose success threatens you the most, because you’re constantly comparing yourself to your husband or your best friend or your this, or your that. And your significant others are the people that you are measuring yourself against as you go through life, and so very often those loving supportive feelings can quickly turn into feeling threatened and jealous. I think we all feel so ashamed of those feelings, that we don’t really explore them enough, or talk about them enough.
Especially when it involves a loved one because in theory it’s like, “This is fantastic!” You can’t feel shitty about yourself if your friend is doing well in life.
WELLS: No, no, no you’re certainly not allowed to. You become so weird.
MORTIMER: A part of the pleasure of doing this together is outing the sort of slightly shameful thoughts and feelings that you might [laughs] feel you would do better to keep quiet about it in front of other company. But, with each other, it’s such a relief to be able to say these weird things that you think and feel, and have the other person not just forgive you, but also quite love you for having had those thoughts, and then find them funny. And so I feel like, on a macro scale, this whole enterprise feels like outing things a little bit. As a lot of writing is, I guess.
So the season’s already premiered in the U.K. How has the reception been?
MORTIMER: It’s been really good. It got really good reviews, and it was nerve wracking. The first one, we just didn’t know what, it was the feeling that you’ve got nothing to lose. And so everything was a bonus, but the stakes didn’t feel so high, until then it got sold to HBO, and suddenly it really did feel quite like, “Oh my gosh, this is happening.”
WELLS: The first one, it was so exciting, you don’t even really think about it, you just think, “Okay, let’s just get on with it.” It’s so exciting in every way, it’s so exciting just, this is work, and you’re doing it together and it’s going alright and you enjoy it, it’s making you laugh and feel moved. But then also you feel a bit of responsibility because people responded quite personally to it, or people were very nice about it. And also I can remember it passing the Bechdel Test. Being told that and feeling quite chuffed, that wasn’t in our heads.
MORTIMER: We didn’t even know what that was, and we looked it up and were like, “Oh my God.”
WELLS: So then with the second, you’re thinking, “We don’t want to let them down.” You don’t want to let Doll and Em down because you care about them, you love them. And you don’t let the people that are responding to them down and feel like you really made your biggest effort with the first season, so you really want it to be as good.
MORTIMER: But as is always the case in life, within the second it’s upon you, you don’t have enough time. And we had less time with the second one than we did with the first one. I don’t really understand the ins and outs of it, but it was partly due to filming in New York, that was really expensive and so it was like doing a Spanish soap opera or something, it was like 17 pages a day, and we were just having to talk really fast to get it done in time and it was just like, “Oh, fuck this is great. Now it’s going to be shit because we don’t have enough time.”
And there was one point where we were meant to be writing and handing in our finished episodes, and there was a production office with costume designers and DPs and all these people waiting for these scripts and Dolly was up a mountain in Wales doing a short film. I was in Budapest doing a science fiction film. And we were ringing each other up. We’d have phone calls where we would just literally laugh on the phone to each other with fear and terror and admit that we just stayed out too late the night before and hadn’t really done it.
WELLS: And I couldn’t get any reception.
MORTIMER: And people were just furious with us, and there were moments a bit like that which we then put into the show. You’ve got this far and you’ve managed to get this thing going to a point where there’s a production office and we’re still just drinking too much the night before and not really handing it in and it was just like, “Come on, you’ve really got to take this seriously.” In a way I think it was in some ways a defense against the sort of feeling of “Oh my God there is a sort of audience now for this thing, and we’ve got to come up with another one and we don’t want it to be shit.” And it does feel a little bit more scary the second time around, so we were dealing with it just by being in denial. [laughs]
I want to ask quickly about your collaborator–
MORTIMER & WELLS: Azazel [Jacobs].
WELLS: Yes. Our director and collaborator and producer.
Yeah, so how did that come together?
WELLS: I met him in, I think it was about 2000. He was at AFI and a very good friend of mine who was at school with him introduced me to him at a party, and then we were both in a film of his–
MORTIMER: Because I was living in Echo Park at the time.
WELLS: And that’s where he lived.
MORTIMER: And Doll would come a lot to California because her in-laws are here and so we’d all be in LA hanging out in Echo Park and then he asks us both to be in his– Was it his first film?
WELLS: “Nobody Needs to Know,” yeah.
MORTIMER: And we were both playing actresses auditioning for the part of somebody who died.
WELLS: And we had to be willing to die.
MORTIMER: And we both had to die.
MORTIMER: I know.
WELLS: And we were very good friends, and I really felt excited by his work and so did Em.
MORTIMER: And we were really determined to make [the first season] feel as much like a film as possible, as much like an indie kind of film, set over six episodes, as possible. Those were the things we’ve loved in our lives and been inspired by. And he is a brilliant filmmaker. He’s made two or three films that have been incredibly well received, New York Film Festival and Sundance and he’s very admired and respected and loved. And so, we wanted to really keep a sort of feeling, an homogenous style and vibe to the whole thing, and he used his DP that he always uses for all of the episodes, and he shot all of the episodes. And if we were lucky enough to do a third one, it would be with him.
WELLS: If he wanted to, we’d love it.
“Doll & Em” Season 2 premieres Sunday on HBO.