January 31, 2008
Stephens College graduate Elizabeth Mitchell has taken one of TV’s juiciest roles on ‘Lost’ and run with it, setting the sky as the limit
Extraordinary, isn’t it, how barriers often bring out the best in us?
For Elizabeth Mitchell, it all began on the other side of the glass. There, separated from her fellow actor by an unbreakable pane, she slowly penetrated that obstruction with her kind, compassionate eyes and knowing gestures, insinuating her way into his good graces – ours, too – before sending it all someplace completely different, an environment enigmatic yet alluring, with that sly smile.
In the process, the walls and palisades that once stood in the Stephens College graduate’s path were blasted away, revealing an open landscape rife with new opportunity.
She might not have realized it from the get-go, but this was the role she’d been waiting for, working toward, the rich, complex character most in the business can only dream of inhabiting and few can bring to life.
With the fourth season of “Lost” set to premiere tonight, Mitchell’s Juliet is now an established viewer favorite after first being introduced on the hit television series in late 2006. It’s also a common belief among fans and critics alike that her being denied an Emmy nomination was highway robbery.
That oversight aside, Mitchell’s clearly at a high-water mark in her career, one that was nurtured here in Columbia almost two decades ago before she graduated from Stephens in 1991 with a BFA in theatre arts.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in the Dallas area, Mitchell went on to study at the British American Drama Academy in London and work at the Dallas Theatre Center and its Encore Company. She began her run in television in the mid-’90s, with her breakthrough role coming in the 1998 HBO film “Gia,” in which she portrayed the lesbian love interest of Angelina Jolie’s title character.
Since then, she’s been in films such as “Frequency,” “Nurse Betty” and the last two “Santa Clause” movies. She’s also appeared on numerous television programs, most notably perhaps in a recurring guest spot on “ER.”
Mitchell, 37, now lives in the Seattle area with her 2½-year-old son, C.J., and in Hawaii while “Lost” is in production. With the writers strike ongoing, however, the family is back home, which is where I talked with Mitchell from in a phone interview earlier this week.
First off, can you talk about your days in Columbia, your memories of Stephens and the town itself?
Elizabeth Mitchell: Well, I loved being in Columbia. I was there for three years. I did tons and tons of theater there. And … what did I do there? I’d go to (By) George’s when I turned 21. I went to some sort of great, divey, listening-to-new-bands kind of bar.
The Blue Note?
EM: Yeah, The Blue Note! It was great. It was so much fun.
So, those are your memories lots of theater, going out to George’s, The Blue Note, etc.?
EM: I did more working than I did anything else. I was very concentrated, basically. I just very much wanted to be on stage, and that’s kind of what I did when I was there, but I also had a really good time.
I loved the Macklanburg Playhouse. I loved our theater at Stephens.
What a great place to go to school because it was so safe. There you are, and you’re basically surrounded by a bunch of other kids your age, and you can get wild, but not really. Come on, now. It was just a great place to be a dumb kid.
So, how did your time in Columbia help shape who you are today or your career as it is now?
EM: I think that what was really fun for me about Columbia is that I was given the opportunity to concentrate on my work pretty intensively. And being at such a small school, going to Stephens, that was encouraged. And being in such an insular community, being in such a small place, it was just a really safe place to incubate and figure out what I was all about, what I was doing.
My work ethic absolutely came from Stephens. Well, of course, my parents. But at Stephens, you needed to learn to do absolutely everything, behind the camera, behind the stage, everything, as well as writing, producing, running the lights, master electrician, building all the sets. And I think that gave me a huge amount of discipline for the work that I do now.
I’m sure the writers strike is putting the kibosh on a lot of opportunities, but what doors has the “Lost” role opened for you?
EM: It’s changed things for me tremendously. I think people now have a very clear indication of who I am. And if they don’t, then they can figure it out pretty quickly because it’s such a high-profile show. And I also think that maybe there was one way that I was looked at, and even though I’ve had a fairly diverse career, this character is so multilayered … that it’s just opened up more of a kaleidoscope of things than just a one-note … or “I’m the sweet this.” Whatever it is that you thought I might be, I feel like Juliet kind of turned that upside down. And I like that. I think that’s a nice thing to have.
When did you see that this role was something special like that?
EM: I had no idea it was gonna be something special. I thought it was kind of fun. I figured I would just be there to antagonize them.
And you probably didn’t know how long you would last?
EM: Yeah. (Laughs). They had me sign a long contract, but the way that it worked for everyone else is that they would bring someone in, or a couple people in, and it seemed like they would just kind of kill them at the end of the year. So I was just waiting. I just figured, you know, quick gunshot to the head, and it’d probably be over. And that may still happen, but I was absolutely shocked to be there this year.
I think that they did a fantastic job writing the character because they made her have so many layers and levels that she continually keeps people guessing. You don’t hate her, but you’re also really not sure if you can actually like her or not. She’s sneaky, and I think that’s nice, I think that’s enticing, I think it’s a little bit, in its own way, kind of sexy. I feel like it’s nice to have that kind of a character because then your other characters … they’re faced off against this person that we have no idea about. And I like that. It makes it kind of dangerous, which is good.
What have been some of the standout moments working on scenes with certain actors? I’m sure you’re learning all the time, bouncing things off one another.
EM: Matthew (Fox, who plays Jack) and I had a tremendously good time because we work the same way; we’re both very, very intense. So when we started working, in that particular situation, we were separated by glass.
Normally, you’ll meet, and you’ll talk and you’ll chitchat, and I really feel like sometimes that dissipates the energy. I didn’t really say anything to him, and the genius of it all is that he didn’t say anything back to me. We basically nodded to each other and were very pleasant and then didn’t talk again until we finished the bulk of that intense, intense work that we did.
As a result, our work was really intense and really good, and it’s all there on camera. And all those moments were very real and very not polluted by anything else, and I had a tremendously good time with him.
It was probably my favorite male-female relationship that I’ve had on camera in a really long time. I just loved it. That was because it was purely work, purely about the work. And how much fun to be able to play that safely with somebody who is so unbelievably proficient at hitting the ball back.
I know you’re not supposed to reveal much, but can you give us just a general glimpse of what’s ahead for Juliet in Season 4?
EM: It’s a roller coaster, this one. They’ve stood true to what it is they’re trying to do, and they’ve made it an ensemble again.
We get to see Juliet fairly humbled. Well, I think people will perceive it that way. That will be probably disconcerting for people, but I think that it might be, at the same time, interesting. …
We kind of get to see who survives and who doesn’t. And, especially in those first eight (episodes), we learn a lot.
So it picks up the pace a little as far as answering questions?
EM: It really does. I think it just goes now. There’s no more exposition. We know everything, so now the story has basically just taken off.
Do you think with the writers and producers setting that end date, that has them focused to just go for it?
EM: I do. … They knew what they wanted to do, but they weren’t really sure how long it would go on. They know exactly what they want to do now.
That just tightens it up a little more now?
EM: Yeah. I think it’s gonna be tight. I think it’s gonna be tight; I think it’s gonna be quick, I think it’s gonna be one of those things where you’re just holding on, you’re like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute.” And, you know, your heart breaks a little bit, too. I think it’s gonna be one people enjoy. It hurtles, that’s for sure.
This article was published in the Thursday, January 31, 2008 edition of the Columbia Daily Tribune with the headline “Like no Other: Stephens College graduate Elizabeth Mitchell has taken one of TV’s juiciest roles on ‘Lost’ and run with it, setting the sky as the limit.”
Liz | Theatre | Lost | Matthew Fox