Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells exchange a quick look with each other before both yelling out, in perfect unison, "No!" and then start laughing hysterically. The two British actresses know they've probably answered a little too quickly, but given the nature of the project under discussion — the very reason that they are sitting together in the Bowery Hotel's lobby, sipping late-afternoon tea — they understand that it's natural to ask some rather personal questions.
After all, their HBO show Doll & Em (airing Wednesday nights) is all about playing with the notion of the personal and the professional on a number of levels. Mortimer plays Em, a movie star who's graced films such as Shutter Island and TV shows like The Newsroom; Wells plays Doll, Em's best friend who, after getting dumped, becomes Em's personal assistant. Mortimer really is a star, Em's L.A house really is her house, and Doll really has been her closest chum for decades (that picture of two girls grinning in a bathtub in the opening credits really is them). It's one thing to have a long-lasting friendship, however, and another to play slightly exagerrated versions of themselves in a project designed to highlight the passive-aggressiveness, emotional baggage and bruised egos of show business types. Grudges get dredged up. Lines get blurred. So when a journalist asks them, "Did you ever want to throttle the shit out of each other at the end of the day?," it doesn't surprise them in the least. They just both find it hilarious that each shouted out so fast and in sync.
In fact, Mortimer and Wells had wanted to do something together since the early aughts, and had been half-heartedly trying to adapt a short story about a ski trip they'd come across. "Then suddenly we decided, let's adapt the whole book!" says Mortimer. "Then we went from having a 60 page script to a 370 page script, and both of us were like, this may have spun out of control. All of the writing sessions very quickly turned into gossiping sessions after that."
After ten years of stops and starts, both credit a third person — filmmaker Azazel Jacobs, the shock-haired gentleman who's been quietly sitting next to them on the Bowery Hotel's couch — as being the person who helped them find their subject. Mortimer and Wells had met Jacobs through mutual friends, and Wells was involved in one of his earliest student films at AFI ("Oh, we don't need to bring that up," he says, sheepishly). They both admired his ability to tap into personal, uncomfortable situations in films like Momma's Man (2008) and Terri (2011), and started to think that a smaller indie film might be the way to go. "Essentially, we wanted to be in one of Azazel's films," Wells admits, " so the notion was we'd simply write an Azazel Jacobs movie ourselves, and then give it to him and be like, 'Right, here's you next film, now direct us. Go.' With that in mind, Em and I just started writing for the sheer sake of writing."
Mortimer jumps in: "We had the idea of doing something loosely based on us, and when we mentioned it to Azazel, he said 'You should really shoot something, just to see if you've got anything here.' So Dolly flew out to L.A., Azazel and his cameraman met us, and from this loose list of ideas, we just improvised in my trailer on The Newsroom set, in between takes. He took a look at the footage and said, this seems more episodic…this isn't a movie, it's a TV pilot. The next thing we knew, Azazel sent us this edited tape that had Doll & Em scrawled on top of it — and that was the whole first episode. No reshoots. I think we added one scene in the end, but that was it."
From that point on, they were locked into using their own names and, for better or for worse, exploring the idea that stardom can do very weird things to even the tightest of bonds. Having hired Doll as her personal assistant so the two can actually hang out, Em tries to counsel her friend over tea — and then expectantly waits for Doll to go fetch it for her. When Doll gets a part as an extra on Em's film and inadvertently steals a key scene, she starts attracting interest from Em's agent — and pushes the already fragile star's self-confidence into a downward spiral. If the show sounds like a typical Hollywood-eats-itself affair, in which real actors show up to play air-quote asshole versions of themselves and the live-or-Memorex vibe threatens to devolve into one big industry in-joke, the fact that Jacobs and his cast seem willing to push scenes deep into the cringe zone keeps things from feeling caricaturish and self-indulgent.
"The idea was never to take Hollywood to task," Mortimer says. "It just happened to be where we set it, since that's where we were. At a press conference, a French journalist asked us"—the actress affects a Pepé Le Pew-ish French accent — "'Don't you think it's fashionable to do autobiographical TV that is a mix of narcissism and masochism?' And we were like, it's closer to laziness, really. This seemed like the easiest place for all of us to do it."
Still, the fact that the two real-life friends, one of whom is undeniably more famous than the other in the same line of work, are playing out fictional scenarios yet calling each other by their real names must have been a little…rough at times, right? "Well, I mean, yeah, it felt weird using our real names," Mortimer admits. "Azazel sort of insisted we do it, and now I'm glad he did. My friend [filmmaker] Nicole Holofcener saw all six episodes, and afterward, she said 'It would have seemed more wink-wink and fake if you hadn't used your real names!' There's a scene near the end where we're arguing with each other and we both really started crying." Wells picks up the next part: "It wasn't like a cathartic, I've-been-waiting-years-to-say-this kind of thing; we just starting reacting to each other as friends who were hurt. But that was the sense of intimacy that all three of us were going for. Did using our real names help? Maybe."
Jacobs waits a beat, then simply, authoritatively says: "Yes, it did." All three of them laugh. No one seems inclined to throttle anybody.