Getting Lost with Elizabeth Mitchell
Elizabeth Mitchell loves a challenge, and in recent years she has established herself as one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses, playing everything from the fiercely determined Dr. Juliet Burke on ABC’s phenomenon, “Lost,” to “Mrs. Clause” in Disney’s “Santa Clause” trilogy. Venice recently caught up with Mitchell as she was about to get beat up and handcuffed to a chair in the tropical jungles of Hawaii while filming an upcoming episode of “Lost.”
Venice: Do people call you Liz or Elizabeth?
Elizabeth Mitchell: My dad swears that when I was eight, I said, “Dad, it’s Elizabeth. Okay?” [laughs] I don’t remember saying it, but I think he was calling me “Liz” and I was kind of a formal little kid.
You were not from a show business family.
No, I was not. Lawyers. When my mother was putting herself through law school, she’d drop me off at a theater school and I’d watch the actors and try to figure it all out. And my grandmother was an enormous movie and theater fan and would take me to everything she could. I fell in love with acting and the world of entertainment as a fan. Nobody ever thought I’d really do it, and I did it.
So you broke the family mold in a way.
Probably, yeah. But there’s definitely an artistic gene in the family. My mom and dad both paint. My grandfather painted. My sister sang in bars for years while putting herself through medical school.
You’ve been acting for about twenty years now. What advice would you impart to girls who might be considering acting as a career?
The main thing is you have to love it. If you have a man, you’ve got to love him. To have a career, you’ve got to love it. The business is not particularly kind, but the camaraderie is nice, and your fellow actors are invariably wonderful.
Can you talk about the camaraderie on the set of “Lost” with the other actors?
It’s the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. I’ve been in a lot of work situations where you meet people you love and you become a sort of family because you work so closely with them, but I’ve never worked in a place where, as a whole, you enjoy everybody so much, like I do on this show. It’s a total joy to come to work here.
If you were to write a “Lost” episode centering around your character, Juliet, how would you write it?
What a fantastic question! I would write a huge fight between Juliet and Ben only because I feel like that’s coming. I would be depressed if I didn’t see that. I feel like she and Jack should beat each other up and then do it up against a tree. And then at the end of all of that, I’d like for her to find her sister, and be reunited with her lovely nephew and be a brilliant and happy and productive scientific woman off the island … after she kills Ben. [laughs]
Would you say Juliet is an unhappy woman?
She’s a sucker for men. She never seems to find the right one, but at the same time she seems to be fairly kind and good to people, and it’s so funny because it seems to be that she actually is able to find quite a bit of happiness under extraordinary circumstances and duress.
One of the wonderful things about “Lost” is the women stand their ground on this island. They’re not weak, and they’re not necessarily reliant or dependent on men.
Yes. Very true.
Is this the first character you’ve played that’s been this kind of complex, selfless, take-no-prisoners woman?
She is complex. And I enjoy that so much about her. I have twice played women who loved other women, Linda in “Gia,” and Dr. Kim Legaspi in “E.R.,” and as a result, in those roles, I got to be very strong, and forthright.
What would being in a romantic relationship with Juliet be like?
The romance in a relationship becomes much more interesting when it’s between two all-right-by-themselves kinds of people. [laughs] I like playing women whose lives are more important to them, than who it is they love. Juliet is probably the toughest. strongest woman I’ve ever played.
You mentioned the HBO telefilm, “Gia,” where you played Angelina Jolie’s girlfriend. Would you say that that’s the first role that put you on the map, so to speak?
Yes, absolutely. I did theater for years before that, and then I did a pilot called “Comfort, Texas” which nobody saw so I guess it doesn’t really count.
And you did a daytime role that many soap fans still remember, on TV’s “Loving.”
I did “Loving” until I was fired because the fans hated me. I had been doing theater since I was like seven, but that was my first time on camera. You learn something in every job, and on “Loving,” I learned how to be emotionally accessible on camera. In the theater you have a running start. In film, you’re chatting off camera and then it’s “one-two-three action -CRY!” Or “one-two-three action -you’re ANGRY.” “Loving” was a very short, but helpful period that taught me how to get that running start as an oncamera actress which prepared me for “Gia” and everything else that followed. Theater actresses aren’t always successful on camera because it’s an entirely different medium, but it was very nice to get that training, even though I was failing. “Loving” was a good place to fail. [laughs]
You play real life women very well. You did Teresa Earnhardt in “The Dale Earnhardt Story” and Linda McCartney in “The Linda McCartney Story.” How do you prepare to play those kinds of roles?
I try to research as much as possible so I can be respectful, but at the same time I have to rely on the writer and their vision as well. I am a research queen. I love to read and I’ll read anything I can get my hands on that will help me with a role. With Linda McCartney, there was a whole accent that she had.
Did you ever get any feedback from Paul McCartney on that film?
No, I didn’t. I can’t imagine what an insanely painful thing that would be for him. Their love affair was legendary. That movie didn’t even begin to show what it was they were to each other.
You said you love to read
I do. As much as I read , I wish that could write that well. I’m a huge reader. It’s my escape.
What are you reading now?
I always have several books with me and on my bedside table. Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain is a feel-good, then cry, then smile book. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist is quirky, interesting, oddly erotic. I’m also reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and Chelsea Handler’s Are you There Vodka?, It’s Me Chelsea .
That’s quite a list! I imagine that being a mom while acting in the forests of Hawaii on a show as physically demanding as “Lost,” you don’t get much downtime. Do you ever get to explore Hawaii?
I have a three-year-old so I explore as much as a three-year-old wants to explore. [laughs] Being a working mother you have a lot of guilt, so you tend to do whatever they want to do. [laughs] There are places around our house that my family and I love to go to. There’s a secret beach. Hawaii is really stunning. The show films in incredible places that no one ever gets to see. Incredible places that people would pay thousands of dollars to have someone show you, and we get it all for free.
That’s so cool.
It is cool.
“Lost” has one season left. Any preferences on what kind of projects you might do next -life after Juliet?
Well, I’ve always been a character actress. So I’ll probably go back and forth over the three things I love: acting in film, TV, and theater.
You’ve done a nice balancing act with all three of those.
I’ve actually done all three of them much more than I ever thought. I started in plays in New York, starving as a theater actress, and then one thing led to another, and I found myself in TV, and film.
Your IMDB page says you were in the music video for Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes.” Is that true? You would’ve been awfully young in 1981, and I don’t remember children in that video.
[raucous laughter] That’s so cool , but so untrue. I wish I was in that video. According to all the rumors out there I’m older than fifty, but I’m not even forty yet! …
Check out Elizabeth Mitchell on ABC’s “Lost” which airs Wednesdays at 9PM.
BY XAQUE GRUBER PHOTOGRAPHY MARK ARBEIT HAIR/MAKEUP CHRISTINE GARDNER