Created, written and starring real-life best friends Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells as somewhat fictionalized versions of themselves, the six-episode behind-the-scenes comedy Doll & Em is back on HBO for Season 2. After the first season explored what happens when a Hollywood actress (Mortimer) hires her childhood friend (Wells) as a personal assistant while making a film in Los Angeles, Season 2 will see them write an off-Broadway play together, in an effort to do something creative on equal footing, and they even manage to get Olivia Wilde and Evan Rachel Wood to appear in it, as them.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, co-stars Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer talked about how this show evolved into what it is now, what their writing partnership is like, shooting the entire season in 18 days, getting their own families involved, and how they got Olivia Wilde and Evan Rachel Wood to sign on.
Collider: How did this originally come about?
DOLLY WELLS: We started writing together about 15 years ago. Em had a book that she thought we could adapt together. We spent about 11 years on it and did about 64 drafts. There was a producer that would pay for me to fly to wherever she was to keep writing. We were like, “It shouldn’t just be one of the stories. It should be the whole book.” We would stay up and write this crazy thing, and then change our minds. So, we learned to write together on that, and we really enjoyed writing together. This, in a completely different way, happened really fast. In the first season, we are best friends, but I become Em’s assistant, and there was something really awesome about that. We were really inspired by things by All About Eve and The Servant. We wanted to have these two strong, sweet, cool women friends who were also completely hopeless and lost and who didn’t know what they were doing. It actually came about quite quickly.
EMILY MORTIMER: What we realized, in the first ten years of trying to write something but not, we actually hadn’t really had an idea.
WELLS: We kept trying to pitch the film, but we couldn’t say it. We realized that was quite difficult. And then, suddenly we had an idea that you could say in a sentence.
MORTIMER: “What happens when you make your best friend your personal assistant?” It was just immediately something that we understood. We spent a lot of time thinking we were going to write something that we weren’t going to be in, which is very grand of us. It was just too embarrassing and exposing. And then, we thought, life is too short to be spending all this time writing something that we’re not going to actually give ourselves a part in. So, once we had the idea and then realized that we could be in it, it was just so easy and quick. After ten years of doing nothing in coffee shops, and being flown around the world to produce this script, from the minute we had the idea for the first season to it being on the television was like a year. It went so quickly. We got the idea, and then we shot a practice run. Dolly flew to L.A. while I was doing The Newsroom, and our director, Azazel Jacobs, who was the director for both seasons and is a filmmaker who has been such an important part of the look and feel of the show, shot this thing. We’d gone to him before with all of our other ideas and he was like, “No,” but then this came up.
WELLS: It was his idea for it to be television. I told him the idea and that Em and I might write it as a play. And then, we thought maybe it would be a film. He said, “I can’t stop thinking about your idea. It’s really good. Have you thought about it as television?”
MORTIMER: So, we shot the first 20 minutes as a practice jumble of scenes and little ideas, just to see if it was something that worked, with the dynamic between us and the idea. And then, he cut it together and said, “I think this is a pilot.” We watched it and it was, so we sent it off to Sky in England. I was on The Newsroom, at the time, and I didn’t think I was allowed to be on television in something else, at the same time, so we were fixed on getting it sold in England. And Sky really liked it, even though it was this practice that we never really thought was going to be anything. And that ended up being the first episode. We just put in a few extra scenes. They commissioned us to write five more and shoot them, and that’s how it started. And then, we thought we were never going to do it again, and that was it.
Along the way, had you thought of other possible ideas, or did you never think about this like that?
WELLS: We made it like a film and I think we just thought, “This is the story we’re telling.” We didn’t even consider anything else.
MORTIMER: I remember having that conversation where we were on the phone with my husband (Alessandro Nivola), who produced it, and Aza, after we’d shot the first 20 minutes, and we were talking about what it was going to be. Aza was trying to persuade us that it should be on TV because it felt episodic, and we said, “Yes, okay.” We wanted it to be like an indie movie, shot over six episodes. There’s something confusing about episodic television, especially for people like us, who were first inspired by watching movies with a beginning, middle and end. So, we weren’t thinking beyond the end of the first season. We thought it was too weird to keep exploiting our friendship, but then we just thought, “Fuck it!”
WELLS: This show is not us, but they are two female friends who are similar to us. Anything that makes us both laugh, it’s not really hard to find a way to get that in there. That’s also why you play the characters yourself. The second season was shot in 18 days, for the whole thing. That’s three days an episode. If you were the writers or producers on set, having chats with the actresses to explain something, it would just take too much time, and we didn’t have time or money for that. When we’d send scripts out to guest stars, until you heard either way, you’d be like, “They’re not going to want to do this. Why would they want to do this? They’re going to think it’s just awful.” It’s much easier with you doing it because you both know who the other character is, as well. It makes it much quicker.
Is it totally confusing to play yourself but not really, with all of these other people from your lives who are also in it but not really playing themselves either?
MORTIMER: We have our entire families playing all of the incidental parts. Dolly’s husband is playing my bearded husband. My real husband is my fake husband in the play. My real son is my fake husband in the play. Dolly’s real children are my children. Our mothers are in it. That all added to the chaos and confusion.
WELLS: For the play, the poor extras had to sit for hours, watching it. And some of the extras were my real husband and real children, and they were getting so fed up. We were doing this play that our characters think is terrible, but we thought maybe it was actually terrible.
WELLS: That’s the maddest day I think I’ve had.
MORTIMER: And they don’t have any respect for what we do now. They were just like, “It’s so easy. Why do you ever complain about acting?” They’re all brilliant in it. You can’t believe how authentic and realistic they all are.
What was it like to add Olivia Wilde and Evan Rachel Wood into the mix?
MORTIMER: The reason we felt brave enough to ask Olivia is that she’d already treated about Season 1. We were so excited! Someone had told Alessandro that she was in a bar in Brooklyn with her cousin, who is one of Alessandro’s friends. We had this information that she was ten minutes away, so he got on his Vespa and went over there and was just like, “Please be on our show!” And she said yes, amazingly. Both of them were amazing. They were so up for it, even though they were both probably deeply confused.
WELLS: Also, they are very cool, intelligent, political, bright feminists who do really cool work. It was a dream to have them, and they really got it. They were really pleased, and I felt quite proud. When we were doing the scenes with all four woman, I was thinking, “I can’t really remember seeing this. I don’t watch television and see four women going through something like this.” I was excited. We were so lucky that it was them because they are really cool, intelligent, talented, bright, brave women.
MORTIMER: And they never questioned it. They never once made us feel shy, or like we were idiots.
WELLS: No, they totally got it. They were awesome!
MORTIMER: We really put them through it, and they were really amazing.
Doll & Em returns for Season 2 on HBO on September 13th.