Part of “Old Info And News”
December 3, 2008
If you’re not among the millions of viewers tuning in to watch Elizabeth Mitchell on ABC’s “Lost,” then you may as well be stranded on a desert island. Fierce, relentless, and complicated, Mitchell’s character, Juliet Burke, has women applauding their TV sets and men shaking their heads. But for Mitchell herself, the greatest glory derives from her personal reaction to the role. The free-spirited, Texas-bred actress forgoes the weekly fanfare to wax philosophical with Brilliant on fame, family, and the forces of “Lost.”
Elizabeth Mitchell has just flown from Los Angeles, where she ruled the red carpet at the Emmy Awards, to Hawaii, practically walking off the plane and onto the “Lost” set. The hectic nature of her schedule leaves this writer anticipating a more jetlag-induced languid tone from the actress. Instead, she greets me with an invigorated voice characteristic of a spa regular or at least, a person who has managed a miraculous nine hours of sleep. “You’ll never guess what I’ve been doing today,” Mitchell announces, setting the suspense. “I spent the whole morning with my little boy and we made pancakes and went to the aquarium.” Now that’s a balancing act.
Tall, lean, and fair-haired with soft gray-blue eyes, Mitchell appears more of an angelic presence than an oversexed blonde bombshell. Her lack of vanity and pretension makes her that much more appealing. While many silver and small screen queens grow so accustomed to reading from scripts that it spills over to their normal lives, Mitchell seems natural and unaffected by the business. “I think Hollywood is a lot like high school,” she confesses. “But, a lot of times actors are outcasts in their own lives, so when you get a bunch of us together, we’re nice to each other,especially when people are secure in their success and talents.”
Indeed, Mitchell has fashioned a career brimming with accomplishments. Hit roles in films such as Frequency and The Santa Clause made her a familiar, likable face, while her edgy TV performances have caused audiences to cringe and cheer simultaneously. She chooses roles that compel you to cover your eyes—yet, like when watching a train wreck, you can’t help peeking out at her from between your fingers. In the 1998 HBO TV movie “Gia,” she played Linda, the lesbian lover of the title character, portayed by Angelina Jolie. Both were virtually unknown actresses at the time. The gritty award-winning drama about fashion models, drug abuse, and sexual experimentation established both leading ladies as serious, diverse talents. “Everybody told me not to do ‘Gia,’” Mitchell reveals. “But, I had so much fun meeting Angelina. I love the idea of finding love where you don’t expect it. That was the fun for me. It was like jumping off a cliff.”
From jumping off cliffs to being mysteriously sequestered on a tropical island, and every adventure and hardship in between, Mitchell welcomes each challenge with a voracious appetite. “It’s all about the roles for me, not the audience,” she professes. “That may make me an oddity in the business. I really like playing complicated women—they’re the most enticing to me. It doesn’t matter what they do or what others’ perceptions of them are, I have to go for the ones who look difficult. [My husband] jokes that if there was an unbalanced woman in the room at a party, I’d run to her.” While her deep fascination with troubled characters may spell real life drama, her actual enthusiastic pancake-making, aquarium-going family persona indicates that opposites often do attract.
Mitchell’s familial instincts developed while growing up in a close-knit household. Though born in Los Angeles, Mitchell was raised in the tony Highland Park area of Dallas where her parents’ law firm was based. Involved in theater programs, including those at the Dallas Theater Center, she shined in various plays. After graduating Stephens College with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, she worked for the center for six years before pursuing a career in TV and film. Because her parents still reside in Highland Park, Mitchell happily makes a point of visiting a few times a year. Her undying love of Tex-Mex cuisine is just an added bonus. “I loved growing up a Texan,” she enthuses. “My father’s belief is that if you’re born in Texas, you’re probably pretty friendly with nice values, a nice work ethic, and a nice way of treating people. If I walk into a grocery store, it’s nice to have that initial smile from people.”
Thousands of miles from Texas on “Lost,” Mitchell seamlessly sheds the proud daughter/wife/mother image for a darker, more uncertain identity. The fifth season, premiering January 21, may shed more light on her character’s (Dr.Juliet Burke) motives, but will likely raise even more questions in the process. Last season Juliet had viewers guessing whether she was a wolf in sheep’s clothing or vice-versa. An adversary turned romantic interest for Jack, played by Matthew Fox, Juliet and her erratic, often violent behavior sent shockwaves through the island. Once again, Mitchell’s cheerful personality contrasts starkly with the role. “I can’t relate to the complete betrayal from Juliet because I don’t think women do that,” she says referring to her character’s backstabbing of another female on the show. “I’ve killed people, I’ve knocked them out, but that’s the one thing where I say, ‘Oh come on; really?’ [Juliet] uses her femininity in a powerful way.” However, the two may have more in common than Mitchell initially thought. “My little boy is three years old and as a mother you have a lot of empathy, so being ferocious and having empathy are the two traits I have learned that I share with her. I like her in the show. She’s a bit of an antagonist and also insanely heroic…but I still don’t trust her.”
Regardless of Mitchell’s skepticism toward her character, audiences and show producers believe in her tremendous talent. “Elizabeth radiates a visceral intelligence as an actor, not surprisingly, given how smart she is as a person,” executive producers Damon Lindelof and Cartion Cuse of “Lost” agree. “Her mix of beauty, smarts, and mystery makes her always beguiling and always very watchable.” It is this balance of mystery and beauty that strikes a chord with viewers each episode. Plot and premise aside—you just cannot tear your eyes off of her.
Presumably on the island to exercise her special gift as a fertility scientist, Juliet’s motives teeter between valiant and hazy—much like the indiscernible theme of the show itself. Internet message boards riddled with notes from loyal fans contain countless theories on the show’s meaning. From the characters trapped in limbo to the whole premise being part of someone’s comatose dream, no conclusions have been confirmed. Immersed in the enigma on a near daily basis, Mitchell offers some ideas of her own. “[‘Lost’] seems to be a wonderful battle of the gray,” she suggests. “It’s not black and white, and I love that. You have your protagonists and antagonists and they shift. It’s a meditation on the gray and on good and evil.” For Mitchell, some of the only real certainty and comfort on the island stems from the relationships she forged with her co-stars. Entering the show in its successful third season, she undertook the potentially nervewracking role of the new kid. “The people on the show are so extraordinarily kind,” she enthuses. “At first it felt like I was stepping on toes, because the writers set my character up so strong. But really, it was like walking into a lovely family.” While the island in real life provides home to thousands of Hawaiians and transplants, Mitchell remains a long way from her friends and family. Fortunately, the “Lost” cast shares great chemistry off screen as well and she relies on the support of her co-stars. Like in high school, the beautiful girls flock together—but the women of the show also exhibit brains and wit. “I spend a lot of time with Evangeline [Lilly] because she’s absolutely hilarious,” Mitchell notes.
Humor proves much more of an integral role in Mitchell’s life than one may imagine: her husband keeps her entertained on location while filming the show. While many couples may tempt the fates with long distance when working separately, Mitchell’s days begin and end with her family. “It’s fun to be really quick-witted with someone,” she divulges. “We have a continual one-up system in a very sweet, endearing way. We’re a good team.” Three year old son, Christopher Joseph., keeps the team on track. After long, tiring days on the set, Mitchell returns home for a few hours of sleep, before awaking to cook breakfast for him. “He’s only three and he already has the vocabulary of a college student, and he’s a slapstick comedian with all the pretty little girls,” she laughs. “I had him when I was 35, so I had a whole life before him and now he is my whole life. The longest I’ve ever gone without seeing him is three days.” With all the time they spend together, Mitchell hopes to impart some of the lasting wisdom she has gained. “I want him to be someone who goes out into the world and does what he loves and has a passion. I want him to know that he can grab for anything.”
Mitchell’s personal passions center more on the cerebral than the celebrity. Rather than succumbing to occupational demands and parading her beauty down red carpets and into exclusive parties, she prefers to satiate her mind. “I’m more apt to sit at home with a book, newspaper, or scientific magazine,” she explains. “I spent the whole flight with Jorge [García] (Hurley on “Lost”) coming back from the Emmys. We were listening to Steven Hawking talking about quantum physics.” While the critically-acclaimed actress won’t be trading in a steady flow of scripts for beakers and test tubes any time soon, she, like the castaways on “Lost,” understands that life should not be confined to one space—be it the world of a TV show or even that of a career. More meaning must exist and Mitchell’s mission is to mine it. “I’m about having a worldview that is bigger than yourself,” she asserts. “I’m drawn to people who live their own lives on their terms and don’t follow the odd rules we have in this high schooltype society.”