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Emily Mortimer talks 'The Bookshop,' 'Mary Poppins' and more

Emily Mortimer, who lives in Amagansett, stars in

Emily Mortimer, who lives in Amagansett, stars in the new movie "The Bookshop." Credit: Invision/Andy Kropa

Emily Mortimer loves books. The real thing — paper, ink, binding. No electronic readers, thank you very much.

Which makes her perfectly suited to star in “The Bookshop,” a new film based on Penelope Fitzgerald’s bestselling novel, directed by Isabel Coixet and hitting cinemas Aug. 24. The English actress, known for films (“Shutter Island”) and television (“The Newsroom”) stars as Florence Green, a reserved yet determined widow who stuns a sleepy English town by opening the aforementioned shop. She finds support from a mysterious and lonely customer (Bill Nighy) while fending off the schemes of the domineering town matriarch (Patricia Clarkson), who has other plans for that particular piece of real estate.

The quiet film is a stark contrast to Disney’s big-budget sequel, “Mary Poppins Returns,” starring Emily Blunt (as Poppins) and Mortimer (as a grown-up Jane Banks) due out in December.

Mortimer, 46, daughter of writer John Mortimer, attended Oxford University and is married to actor Alessandro Nivola. They have two children. She spoke to Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio by phone from her home in Amagansett.

How’d you end up in Amagansett?

Alessandro’s grandparents fled the Nazis. They were art students in Milan, then came to New York and ended up out here. His grandfather was an abstract expressionist painter and sculptor, part of the community here with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Sandro and I bought a tiny cottage to be near his family.

“The Bookshop” is a film for people who love books.

Yes. Any film that tries to explore another art form, whether it’s a hymn to books or art or music, is difficult to pull off. How do you capture a woman’s love of books and reading? But [our director loves both] — she’s read everything you could think of. And has seen every movie. She’s voracious.

You, too?

I grew up in the house my father grew up in. There were books everywhere, on every wall. There was a rocking horse behind the sofa that’s still there, actually — my kids still sit on it — and you can see all the books on the bookshelf and wonder about them. Each book has been a part of my father’s life or my grandfather’s, and was with them on a particular step of their journey. There’s something fascinating and mysterious about that. I always felt that each book on the shelf . . . was like a sort of . . . memory. We’ve got books everywhere in our house, too. They mark the moments of your life.

I love the film’s shots of all those vintage book covers — “Fahrenheit 451,” “Lolita,” and so on. What book made a real impact on you?

Well, my favorite is “Great Expectations.” My father was a big Dickens fan. I remember reading it when I was 14 . . . and being so taken by it. And crying and crying and crying when [she names a key character] dies. I can remember where I was when that happened. I later studied Dickens in school.

You also studied Russian. “Zdravstvuyte, menya zovut Yosif.”

Very good!

I took Russian in college, but it was at 9 a.m., and I am not a morning person, so I only lasted a semester, and only remember that one phrase: “Hello, my name is Joseph.”

That’s awesome!

Why Russian, for you? It’s not the most obvious choice.

In high school, I was good at languages. I considered Latin, but the Latin teacher was a sweet old lady with a bun and glasses — not like the Russian teacher, who’d just escaped from the Soviet Union in the hold of a ship. She was about 22, with bright red stockings, curly blond hair and gold teeth. I thought, “Whatever she’s teaching, I’ll take.” [Later] I went to Russia, and had a romance with a Russian poet. I realized I wanted to learn more, so I studied both Russian and English at Oxford.

Hmm . . . what would Mary Poppins say about that? I’ve been thinking about your next film, actually. What is it about Poppins that makes her so beloved?

She’s magical. In a way, she‘s the perfect parent. Strict, nothing gets past her. But she’s a firm believer in the power of the imagination. We lose that — as adults, we become cynical, jaded. I think Coleridge said the definition of genius was somebody who can think like a child, as a grown-up. It’s a rare thing. If only all our parents could be like Mary Poppins, giving us boundaries, yet allowing our imaginations to soar.

Kids need both, as I’m sure you’ve discovered in your own journey as a mom.

Yes . . . yes. But it’s very difficult as a parent to . . . to not, um . . . to not be crap. [She bursts out laughing.] 

Oh, I’m sure you’re not so bad.

Well, I’m trying.  I’m trying.

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