Elizabeth Mitchell is the sort of actress whose statuesque beauty (she’s 5’9?) has allowed her to be cast both by and against type. She made out with Angelina Jolie in the HBO movie “Gia,” made a much more unsettling impression in Wayne Kramer’s creepy “Running Scared,” and then enjoyed a healthy run as Juliet Burke on the small screen smash hit “Lost.” She’s now moved on to “V,” and is also part of the ensemble cast of writer-director Matthew Leutwyler’s “Answers To Nothing,” in which she plays a woman trying to get pregnant with a husband (Dane Cook) that she doesn’t know is cheating on her. ShockYa recently had a chance to chat with Mitchell, one-on-one and in person, about the film (which is in theaters and also currently available on VOD), her necessarily quick connection with costar Julie Benz, life in small town Washington and more. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: I would imagine that a lot of material you receive is pretty rigidly defined —
Elizabeth Mitchell: Yes, that’s a perfect way to put it! Yes.
ShockYa: — and ”Answers To Nothing” draws upon a lot of disparate narrative strands, but also emotional feelings. When it first came to you, what was the pitch or logline and, more broadly speaking, was it a difficult read, just in the sense that you’re trying to put your head around a lot of different characters and their stories?
EM: When I got the offer, it was quick; they said, “You need to read this now.” I love to read scripts, but the first time I read it was for my character, to see if I wanted to do it or not. So I read it and immediately said yes, because my first impression was that it would be interesting and… easy isn’t the right word, but it felt fluid to me. I felt like I knew how to get there and how to do it, and I like that feeling of [knowing] I can make this a good situation for them rather than them hiring me and there’s problems. (laughs) Because I feel that way sometimes! I’ll read something and say, “Oh, I feel really bad about this.” I’ve talked people out of hiring me before. (laughs) And I’ve been doing so much exposition, because with “V” I told the story most times rather than just being in the story, and I think really needed to do something where that wasn’t the case — where I was just listening, experiencing and responding. I needed that in my life and work, I needed to go back to that. And I had such fun, and a lovely time with everybody.
ShockYa: Your costar, Julie Benz, mentioned that she had a very short on-ramp to the project, so when you’re trying to establish what I found to be a pretty convincing rapport as best friends on a movie, and you don’t have a lot of time, what is the most necessary ingredient?
EM: I think trust. And then with another woman you need to make sure that they know that you’re on their side. (laughs) Because it’s a funny business, and not everybody is as nice as they could be. I’ve worked with a lot of beautiful women, and I find that they get so beat up that if you come in and are just like (affecting a friendly drawl), “Hi,” they’re like (assuming uncertainty), “Really?” So Julie and I just talked about our lives, and were honest off-camera, and then that honesty came across on camera. We were both having crazy, tumultuous things happen in our own lives, and sharing that with each other was good. It was really nice. She was easy to talk to. And with the characters, (the way it was written helped it make) sense that they would be old, old friends, because my character can’t even look at her when she’s lying, and that’s how I am with my girlfriends that I love.
ShockYa: What was the thematic shorthand that Matthew used in describing the film to you?
EM: Well, he described it as “inches,” the small, little steps that we take in our lives. And he was so flippin’ open with me, I loved it. He talked about his thoughts about all the characters, and then just let us run free and do our thing. I had some thoughts about who my character was and why she was doing the things that she was, and every time I brought them up he was like, “Yeah, yeah.” So we didn’t sit down and have a concrete discussion about everything. It was more that we just worked it, and if it didn’t work then we did it again. And Dane’s character and mine are so split, and not even talking to one another really. And Dane had this wonderful way of really holding himself back. So consequently she’s so tentative, and doesn’t know how to (reach) him, or maybe if she even wants to reach him. We didn’t really talk about the theme of it, because I think we were so busy playing.
ShockYa: One would expect in a movie with a missing child for that plot strand to suck up all the oxygen, narratively speaking, but one of the film’s more memorable scenes for me was when your character has that cathartic breakdown on the phone, and Dane’s character just looks at you and leaves.
EM: We did that scene probably 15 different ways. In one of them I’m really screaming and fully crying, because she knows she can’t win, and he does nothing. What I love that we came up with is that he kind of inches closer and she looks at him, and there’s a moment where you feel that if either of them took a few more steps things might be OK. But of course they don’t. It’s like that moment in “American Beauty,” which is so friggin’ brilliant and unbelievably sad, where they have that moment where they’re flirting and kind of re-connecting and then he does something and instantly they’re completely separate again.
ShockYa: Not with your character, but there is a bit of thematic overlap between “Answers To Nothing” and another one of your films in which you give a very striking and unsettling performance, “Running Scared.”
EM: That was so hard for me. I had to make her an addict and not think about what she was addicted to, because otherwise I think I was just too sickened by the whole thing. But by doing that it was fascinating what came out. It was really freaky! (laughs) I don’t hate — that’s not a word I use very often — but I hate that character, I do. (laughs)
ShockYa: Aren’t actors supposed to say, “I don’t judge my character”?
EM: No, I do judge her as a person. I didn’t when I was doing it, because I thought of her as an addict, and I think on some level she had to deeply loathe herself, so it worked out all right.
ShockYa: The film seems to have an unfortunate currency, with these allegations of child molestation and several missing children in the news.
EM: It does, and there’s such a dark undercurrent to that where I’m not sure why we don’t get completely swept up. I just played a horribly abused woman on “Law & Order,” which was fascinating. And it’s so important to stop [those] cycles of violence. That you are hurt and then grow up to hurt makes so much sense, and it’s horrifying.
ShockYa: Were you struck by a performance instinct at a very young age?
EM: No, I was very shy. But I was a singer. So I did musical theater for like years. But the fact that I’ve played all these dark women is hilarious to me, because I’m not that person. I’m introspective. I read. (laughs) It’s not as though I don’t have a mind that goes there, but it’s not where I live. So I guess there’s a freedom in it, and it’s fascinating to play miserable people. (laughs)
ShockYa: Miserable people more specifically?
EM: [Yes], because I feel like they’re trying to get out of [their situation], so I like watching them try to climb out of things. That’s what’s interesting to me, not the dwelling and the misery.
ShockYa: Wrapping up, what kinds of things do you enjoy in your free time?
EM: I do all kinds of things because I live in a small town, Bainbridge Island, Washington. I run, like a crazy person. (laughs) And I have a six-year-old, so that keeps me busy. I read like a crazy person too, everything I can get my hands on. And then I make things — jewelry, glasses out of wine bottles, and lip balm. I’m one of those people that’s doing stuff all the time. I like my community, it’s an easy place to be. And I don’t think anyone cares that I’m an actress. There’s a ton of insanely intelligent people there, and they just don’t care. It’s fun, and nice. I’ve been there for six years. I felt like it would be better for me and my acting if I didn’t live in L.A. I love it here, but I think if you’re always thinking about work and obsessing about the business parts then you can easily forget to be a human being, and that’s actually what we all want to see.
Written by: Brent Simon