Princess of peril
You know you’re doing something right when J . J . Abrams keeps hiring you. Elizabeth Mitchell is on her sec ond major series with Abrams, Revolution, which resumes its first season after a four-month hiatus on NBC. On the show, she plays Rachel Matheson, who, much like her role as Dr. Juliet Burke on Lost, possesses a moral ambiguity that keeps you guessing what she’ll do next.
What have you looked for in your business relationships over the years?
I’m huge on honesty. Honesty and integrity; those are the two things for me. The people that are in my life represent me, so I like to make sure it’s an accurate representation with everybody that I hire, for anything. I like to think that it’s all a team, basically, so I do look for honesty and integrity over pretty much everything else. I feel like when you have that, the rest is good. I like when people are excited, too. That’s thrilling. When people are as excited to do what they love as I am to do what I love, I absolutely look for that.
With that in mind, how hands-on are you in working with your business team?
Oh, that’s interesting. I guess I am somewhat hands-on. So much of my business is what I do. It involves me. And that part I keep pretty close control over. I also have no problem delegating, especially since the people I’m working with people I’ve worked with for years, not just a year, but years. Many, many years. I have an agent, a manager, a lawyer, a business manager, and an accountant. And I rely on all of them heavily, but at the same time I know what all the hands are doing, because I just feel like it’s fun. I feel like it’s fun to know what’s going on in your business and your life, even if it’s you. It’s kind of exciting.
That makes sense, because there are some many actors that would rather not deal with that aspect of it, and just focus on performance.
I do that, too. I like to have the best possible people helping me, because when I am focused, I know it’s in very capable hands, and I love that. That makes me happy.
What type of actors or directors do you feel you work best with?
Dedicated and interested. People who have a genuine creative force, an idea of what they want to accomplish, and a real joy for it; that’s my favorite. Talented is awesome because if people are really good at what they do, that’s spectacular. So I think the drive is what I’m genuinely fond of. Somebody who’s in there, and they’re working with everything they have to make something wonderful. I will absolutely work at a “10” for anybody who comes and works at a “10” as well.
When someone isn’t working at a “10,” how do you handle the creative differences either on or off set?
As long as they’re not disrespectful to the crew, it’s not going to have a negative effect on me; it’s just not going to positively influence what I do. For instance, I can act to a wall if I have to, because that’s my drive and my motivation. But I feel like if somebody doesn’t come with their A-game and their excitement, we’re going to miss that spark. You’ll get it from me, because I’ll be inventing all kinds of wonderful things, but I think that you won’t get it on their side, the thing that would make it magic. So the only way I handle it is by just upping my game. If someone drops the ball, I try to play harder. But I relax and let go. Everybody has a different way of doing things, and even doing nothing, someone’s still standing there, so it still gives you something to react to. At this level, I really do feel like people bring their A-game. I don’t see a lot of laziness or slackers. It’s just too tight a market. It’s really rare at this stage of the game. If you don’t bring you’re A-game, they are going to cut you out.
Is it difficult to work in a setting where so many details of a project have to be kept under wraps at all cost?
No, I love it! I love Christmas morning! I have no problem keeping secrets or surprises, especially when they’re someone else’s and they don’t emotionally impact anyone in my life. I’m a terrible liar, but I’m an excellent secret keeper. It works out really well.
When you were starting out, how did you keep yourself focused during those initial periods of sporadic work?
I have no idea how I stayed focused. I look back on it, and I’m amazed. I really don’t know. From a young age, everybody told me, you know, that I sucked and it would never happen and I should get a day job — this was from like seven. They hoped I enjoyed being a waitress or something along those lines. What it has come down to for me is it’s for the love of the game. I just never expected to make money at it. So I did it because I loved it. I think of real estate the same way: you don’t buy stuff because you think you’ll make money, you buy stuff because you love it. Don’t do a job that you don’t love if you can possibly help it. If you put your passion and your joy into it, if keeping it going isn’t something you have to make yourself do, and it’s not something that you have to do, It becomes impossible for you not to.
So basically, it’s just a part of who you are.
It’s just a part of who you are. It’s a part that brings you joy. It doesn’t matter what people say. It doesn’t matter where you are. As long as you keep your integrity and your joy, you’re golden.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about handling professional setbacks, provided you feel you’ve had any?
Oh sure, no, of course, I have them all the time. I think that’s part of being an actor. People say you get a thick skin; I don’t know that I ever got a thick skin. So it always hurts to have a setback. I guess I get excited about the next thing. I think I’m one of those people who can be hit down and crawling on the ground and think, “Oh wait, look, that’s so cool! Maybe I’ll jump up there!” They’ll say, “Elizabeth, you’ll fall three times as hard,” and I’m like, “That’s okay! I’m okay down here. It’s fine.” I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem getting back up again, so maybe that’s how I’ve handled it. Do I cry and scream? Sure I do. Absolutely. Terry O’Quinn said one time on “Lost,” and I absolutely love this, “It’s better to walk in gratitude than in entitlement.” If you are consistently grateful, then you don’t feel as entitled. So, as a result, if you don’t expect things to be handed to you, you’re not disappointed when they aren’t. You just work harder. That’s how it’s always been for me, but I’m in such a lucky situation because I do get to do what I love. So, a lot of that just comes naturally.
Conversely, what’s the best advice you’ve received about handling professional success?
Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t get a lot of advice about success. I don’t think anybody thought I was going to succeed except my mom, my dad and my best friend Wendy. The best advice I ever got about reviews was if you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones. I think that that’s been the best advice all the way around. The idea is that you need to be in charge of your own trajectory, your own ideas of what you want, and what you’ll settle for, and how much energy you’re willing to put down, what kind of level you’re willing to accept from yourself. I guess it’s like sports; I’m not competitive against other people, I’m competitive against myself. If I’ve done something, I want to see how much farther I can go. That’s where the challenge comes for me. It’s not against anyone because I’m not really that person, but it’s absolutely competitive with myself. I’ll up the ante all the time just to see what happens.
On the subject of competition and how awkward it is, especially when you’re dealing with creative performance, what was the Emmy experience really like?
The Emmy experience? Well, you know when I did The Santa Claus 2, I got to work with Ann-Margaret, who played my mother. She won, so I was absolutely thrilled. She sat backstage nervous and beautiful and wonderful, and I thought it was really cool. I never expected to be nominated to be honest with you, because I was on there for about five minutes, so the whole thing felt kind of like an absolute gift because I didn’t expect anything. It was fun and nervewracking and odd. Being nominated, as a special guest star, is so strange because you’re up there with people you’ve watched and admired you’re whole freaking life. I found the whole thing to be kind of great.
Overwhelming in a good way?
Oh, yeah! Absolutely overwhelming in a good way. And unexpected, I think. Entirely unexpected. Plus, I got to go to the Creative Arts Awards, which is the night before the Emmys, so I also felt kind of like, “Oh, good, okay. I get a chance to see what this is really like without it being completely freaky.”
Film, theater, and television… do you have a preference, or do you feel that they all sort of complement each other as far as the style of performance goes?
I think that I like them for different reasons. I like theater because it’s a beginning, middle and end, and at the end you’re emotionally wrung out and get to play the arc of it. I really love that. I love being in control of that; It’s my show, my doing. I do the whole thing and nobody can save me, but also nobody else is the architect. It gets to be me and the people I’m with. I love that. Now, movies and TV are really similar beasts. And maybe it’s just the shows I’ve worked on, but I’ve never worked on a movie where we’ve spent two days on a scene before. That’s just not the kind of stuff that I make.
So you’re not signing up for a David Fincher film any time soon?
I’m fascinated by it. I think it would be really intriguing, but the stuff that I’ve made really shoots very much like a TV show, so there’s not a huge difference. I think in television there’s a lot more exposition with you telling the story. In film, they more show the story because they can, because it’s a smaller snapshot, and I love that. I love having expositionfree scripts. That to me It’s like flying. Ultimately, I love them all equally for very different reasons.
What’s the strangest thing a person has asked or said to you while on a plane?
The worst one is, and I hope this persondoesn’t read this and feel terrible, but I had whatever it’s called when you’re throwing up — food poisoning. And I didn’t know I had it until I was on the plane. It was horrible. I was throwing up probably every 10 minutes. I was trying to be discreet about it, as discreet as I could. And I’m running back and forth, and this flight attendant came up to me and said, “Oh hey, I know you’re having a hard time, but would you mind taking a picture? I’m a big fan.” I think that was probably the strangest experience. Chris [Soldevilla] was like, “Seriously?!,” and I was like, “Shhhhhh. Just give me a minute.” That was probably the funniest. And I’ve signed people’s shoulders or shoes or chest or whatever. And that’s always really funny too.
What was your reaction the first time you saw a fansite dedicated to you?
A nice one? I was just grateful. One site [www.elizabeth-mitchell.org/] is incredibly sweet. I’ll go on there anytime I want to see if there’s nice things being said, because it’s run by a bunch of really lovely people. I don’t really search around too much, because I find, when you do, it’s like sticking your hand under the couch cushion without checking with your eyes first. You’re gonna get bit by something. I don’t really do it that often. I think if I did, it would hurt my acting a little, so I try to protect it a little bit.
Yeah, I think that’s probably the smart move for anyone, even if you’re just watching YouTube.
Yeah, that thing about wanting to know what people think of you, I don’t know if we necessarily do. I think that what people think changes on a dime, so people need to have the privacy and the freedom to say what they want. That’s pretty much how I feel.
That’s an excellent point. Especially with the interconnectivity of celebrities or stars with ‘common people,’ which is a horrible way to put it, but we’ll say with the fans, it seems like that distance has shrunk, especially over the last 10 years.
Yeah, it’s a funny thing. I meet people in person, and people are invariably lovely. I have the most incredible encounters, because people are basically pretty wonderful, and they have all kinds of interesting, amazing things to say, and I love it. But you’re given the license to say all these things, but without confronting someone directly, you’re going to probably say something negative. You’re going to work out your feelings. Or as my friends and I like to say, your first thought. Not your second thought, or your third thought. Your first thought. So I tend to let people have those in private. It’s probably for the best.
Some people aren’t as good an editor as others.
Right. Face-to-face is okay with me, because I love having conversations, but there’s a genuine ease about the Internet, about negativity and putting out some really dreary, nasty stuff, and I just don’t want to do it. I wouldn’t do it to anybody, and I certainly don’t want to read about it when it’s done to me. So I just let it go. It’s that pin under the couch cushion.
These next few questions come from BRINK readers via social media. Olivia Thompson asks “Did Elizabeth agree with how the story ended for her character?” I’m assuming she’s asking about “Lost.”
Did I agree with it? Yeah, I thought it was, at the time, heartbreaking, but then it became great, and they wrote such wonderful things for me. They wrote such a wonderful death scene and a reemerging scene. It was so romantic and exciting and vibrant. I have nothing but gratitude for those guys.
Now, when you were on “Lost,” what was the hardest scene to film?
Oh, gosh. I don’t know. They were all so much fun. I wish I could say that, but “Lost” was not a hard thing. “Lost” was great stuff and great work. And reaching the emotional heights that they wanted us to reach was a fun thing to do, not a trial. So it just wasn’t hard. Hard is when you have bad stuff. Hard is making bad stuff seem like it’s not and that was not the case. This was just a joy, so I wish I could say something was hard, but It wasn’t. I had great people to work with, great words to say, and I had an incredible character to play. That sounds very Pollyannaish, but that’s definitely the memory of it two years later.
Do you still keep in touch with your co-stars from the shows and movies that you’ve worked on?
Sometimes I do. I think once the bond is there, that we all know we could if we needed to. I parted on great terms with everybody and would love at any time to work with all of them. Some of them I’m closer to than others, just because we were closer when were shooting. I’m kind of a hermit, so to have people that I stay in contact with is hard on a daily basis, but as far as them knowing that I love them, I think that’s absolutely a done deal, so to speak.
Who are some of your biggest acting influences?
Emma Thompson, Fiona Shaw, Juliette Stevenson. Those are the ones that I love. Those are the women that I love. Smart, funny, emotionally raw and honest, and they don’t seem to give a fig what they look like. And I love that. I think that I find all of their faces incredibly comforting and joyous to watch. Those are the people who have done it for me. And I really have always loved watching Michelle Pfeiffer. I guess it’s because it’s like watching an orchid perform. She’s such a dazzling, beautiful creature, and she’s also so good. So, her, Jessica Lange… those beautiful women who are also so breathtaking definitely formed a lot of my choices…the vulnerability combined with the strength in all of them, I absolutely loved; thought they were captivating.
Lastly, and I think you might get a kick out of this one, what role do you secretly want to play in J.J. Abram’s “Star Wars” film?
I want to be a Jedi so bad! Man, you have no idea! I always wanted that. That would be amazing. I feel like I could absolutely do it. So yeah, please, put that out there. I’m for it.
I’ll have to see if I can get in touch with J.J. Abrams and make that happen for you.
Fantastic! Good! Excellent! “If you don’t expect things to be handed to you, you’re not disappointed when they aren’t. You just work harder. That’s how it’s always been for me.”
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