June 9, 2007

Just One of the Others

(the cover with Elizabeth is only for the New Zeland version of the magazine)

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While some actresses merely play “the girl next door”, and others try to embody it, Elizabeth Mitchell bends the term every which way to make it her own
by Elyse Glickman

TALL, BLONDE, BEAUTIFUL, born in Los Angeles and raised in Dallas. In short, Elizabeth Mitchell aptly fits the traditional description of the all-American girl. However, if she based her career and identity on that alone, she would be selling herself short.

Instead, Mitchell picks her roles and projects carefully, taking risks that no doubt challenge this ideal. Today, she’s best known as Juliet, one of the intimidating and mysterious “Others” on the worldwide cult hit Lost. A decade ago, she unwittingly bewitched a passionate Angelina Jolie and then had to confront her own sexuality in the award-winning cable television film Gia. In between, she’s wowed the Brits as Ioan Gruffudd’s love interest on BBC’s Man and Boy, time-travelled with Dennis Quaid in Frequency, co-starred with Rénée Zellweger in Neil La Bute’s edgy comedy Nurse Betty and took a lap on man channel ESPN opposite Barry Pepper in The Dale Earnhardt Story. But let’s just say she’s found herself, or, at least, a compelling side of herself, in Lost.

“My favourite role to date is Juliet,” Mitchell muses. “Every day and with every script, I feel a certain sense of gratitude that I have a great character and story to work. What I love most [about the show] is the writing and the people. Beyond that, it is wonderful to be excited about going to work every day, and having a very compelling and meaty story. Also, the writers have kept things very consistent in terms of the overall quality of the show and the character I play on the show. Each scene and each twist in the story really surprises me and keeps me on my toes and my skills sharp as an actress.”

Perhaps its those ever-sharp acting chops that helped her build an impressive résumé that has kept her busy and helped rack up the frequent flier miles, as Lost is shot primarily in Hawai’i. And although she was born in Los Angeles and emerged as a successful working actress, she is reassuringly un-Hollywood in terms of her mindset and approach to her career.

She became an actress the old-fashioned way—earning it through education at a performing arts high school, earning a BFA at university, and honing her craft at the regional but very well respected Dallas Theater Company and through such productions as As You Like It, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Chicago. Today, by choice, she calls Washington state home, as she loves the fact that the only agenda her neighbours know about are being good neighbours.

“It’s nice to not have to get into that whole Hollywood lifestyle where everybody you meet is in the business all the time,” ponders Mitchell, who was in Los Angeles—on business, naturally, during a break from the Lost set. “I prefer being around real people, so it is nice to be surrounded by people going about their daily business and nobody’s trying to hand you a card or a script. Like the best crews I have worked with, everybody around me is happy to be where they are, comfortable in their own skin and enjoying the life they have chosen for themselves.”

While Mitchell has always enjoyed a very consistent career, it was the ground-breaking, controversial and Golden Globe-winning telefilm Gia that put Elizabeth Mitchell into the spotlight. Although star Angelina Jolie used the cautionary role of Gia Carangi (fallen supermodel and one of the first famous American women to die of Aids as a result of persistent drug abuse) to prove that her entrée into acting was not a fluke, Mitchell also garnered kudos for playing Linda, the perfect foil and counterpart to the volatile model. While it opened doors for other roles, Mitchell sees the break as going deeper than winning more auditions.

“With Gia, the breakthrough for me involved a lot of things—the complexity of the Linda character, playing off Angelina’s interpretation of Gia, Michael Christopher directing—that made it a wonderful, powerful experience for me,” Mitchell recalls. “I was intrigued about Linda herself being a woman in transition. Here is a woman who thinks she has her life and career figured out, and then comes along somebody like Gia who pushes that out of the window. As a viewer and an actress in general, I really enjoy the experience of witnessing a character undergo a major transition and transformation. Furthermore, for a while, Linda is a source of love and strength for Gia, who needed that kind of grounding. Angelina (meanwhile) was intense and engaging, and it was very fulfilling to play off of that.”

Gia is also noteworthy for a rare and strong supporting performance from Hollywood diva Faye Dunaway. Although Mitchell only worked with Dunaway on one day of the shoot (a key transition montage set on an airplane intended to depict the high-flying, fast track and ungrounded nature of Gia’s life at that time), being around the veteran actress and seeing her play off Jolie and director Christopher had a profound impact.

“There is a certain amount of trust that all of them had with each other and with their work,’ she says. ‘I had to trust them in terms of how they did their work and approached their roles in this film, and that was really nice. It opened things up for me to really delve into the Linda character and my experience with the film’s story in ways I hadn’t done before on other projects. Other than some of my stage roles where I had some meaty characters, to date, that was the first role that really enabled me to work in such a deep thoughtful way.”

On the big screen, the major studio release Frequency brought her even greater visibility, especially in the presence of strong performances from Dennis Quaid, Jim Caviezel and André Braugher. While the time-travel drama won over critics and audiences, Mitchell found that her work in touching family scenes also added depth to the experience. She was also heavily influenced by Braugher’s attitude and professionalism.

“I love all of that stuff (time travel, the notion of changing one’s destiny) a lot, and beyond that I had a life-long crush on Dennis Quaid,” she admits. “However, working with Andrè was a revelation to me. He had a very special, professional way he approached his work, and how he specifically brought his character in Frequency to life. There’s no drama about him except in what comes out in his character, and I like that. Besides being an incredible actor, he is also a really nice person and really brought a lot to his role in the film. Additionally, I liked the fact that my character was a bit of sanity in a world gone crazy, beyond being just a loving mother and wife. She was also smart on top of things.”

Mitchell also notes that although her part was small, she genuinely enjoyed working on Nurse Betty. “I played this soap-opera actress portraying a nurse,” she says. “Neil (La Bute), the crew and the actors were laughing so hard throughout the entire shoot. It was one of those experiences, where although the film was a dark and edgy comedy, the work environment was loving and supportive. I haven’t had an experience like that in comedy since then, but I certainly hope to in the future.”

Her journey as an actress also brought her to London and the BBC, where she had the rare opportunity to play an American on a well received romantic series, and have the critics embrace her as the warm, intelligent love interest for proper London businessman and father abruptly abandoned by his wife. That experience, however, taught her a great crew and skilled writers are

key to the success of a show and its actors, no matter where the story takes place.
“I loved the experience of working in London, being on an intelligent show and then going for a  pint at a pub after the shoot. Ioan [Gruffudd] was absolutely gorgeous in the lead, as well as stunning as an actor,” she says, taking on the real flavour of that setting. “The crew, meanwhile, had a great attitude and spirit that reminds me a lot of the Lost crew and what they put into their work. They had a wonderful enthusiasm and channelled it into their work. Working with the BBC was also great, as the production of each episode was like working on an independent film with the fast and furious pace and compelling stories. However, beyond that, there is not a huge amount of difference between working on that show and some of the better shows on American television. No matter where you go (to work), what makes a production satisfying and memorable is good writing and a good crew that puts everything into it and really, really happy to be doing what they are doing.”

While Hawaii is worlds away from London, Mitchell notes that a good, meaty role is worth going after, even if you have to put effort into adjusting to a new living environment and fitting yourself into an existing show where writing can make or break the emergence of a new character.
While bringing in new people is often a challenge to both the production and the audience – and often does not work in the long term – she feels fortunate that Juliet and her presence make total sense to the viewers as well as her co-stars and the very open-minded people behind the scenes.

“I was drawn into it at first because the producers said Juliet would be an interesting character, and different from other roles I had played prior to the show,” she says. “After I went in to audition for the show and then landed the role, the real thrill was reading my sides [script pages] for the first time. What was nice about how I got into the show was that I had worked with many of the other actors and the producers trusted me in allowing me to use my own instincts to bring Juliet to life – the black, the white and all the shades of grey in between that define her. It so happened that what I was thinking [in terms of how Juliet would act or react to certain situations] was what the writers and producers were thinking too. It was an incredible fit.”

While Mitchell personally finds Hawaii to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth, especially as her husband and young son are enjoying the surroundings, she also notes that it is an amazing backdrop for the kind of intense acting work required for Lost.  “The landscape has a volatile quality to it, and yet there are rainbows everywhere. That is really inspiring. My little boy also really loves it here, especially with discovering all the hidden little places not far from our home, and seeing the ocean and exotic spiders and insects. As a mother, it’s great to be there as he is finding all these wonderful hidden treasures and seeing how it perks his imagination. We’re fortunate that our house is not far from all these beautiful little beaches and other nice little spots.”

Since the family relocated to the island in August 2006, Mitchell has found many wonderful ways to make herself at home and do it in style. She says that she’s eaten some of the best Thai food of her entire life, and found the most incredible and affordable locally produced beauty products lining the shelves at the local pharmacies. While she does find herself going to Neiman-Marcus and Sephora at the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu for mainland staples, she’s picked up some of her favourite fashion finds at the local chain Cinnamon Girl as well as some of the charming one-off stores that line local malls in the residential section of town. And then there’s the surprise indulgence one just cannot buy.
In one instance, a crew member on the Lost set gallantly scaled a coconut tree so Mitchell could savour the experience of eating the insides of a young coconut fruit.

In terms of acting and personal style, it should not be a surprise that Mitchell has looked up to Jessica Lang, Emma Thompson and Katharine Hepburn. “I like the fact that they play tall, confident women,” she affirms. “It’s an inspiration as I am a tall woman myself, and like the fact that they aren’t portraying conventional characters. [In terms of fashion,] you can’t go wrong with their kind of style.”

Mitchell’s other fashion favourites include Dolce & Gabbana (“I am curvy and they design for curvy women. Their cuts come in in the waist, go out in the hips in all the right places”), Giorgio Armani, and some of Ralph Lauren’s eveningwear pieces. “Some things are so beautifully tailored and lined that when you put them on you simply feel like a princess. On the casual side, I love finding great hand-embroidered tops and sweaters, especially as we’re in Washington state and hand-knits are obviously big up here – local funky clothing. Just put one of those hand-knit sweaters on with your favourite jeans and a little tank top and you’re good to go.”

Although television shows and feature films come and go, Elizabeth Mitchell has the wisdom to know that building a successful body of work can last forever if it is nurtured and cared for  intelligently. Still, she is hardly one to take success for granted. While some rumours have swirled around about Lost’s appeal and future, she feels the rumour mill is far less important than focusing on the day-to-day challenges Juliet offers her.

“I can only take a certain perspective on it, and that’s the fact that Lost is a highly innovative, creative and original show, even with whatever else the media is reporting,” Mitchell points out. “I really enjoyed working on the past season, and I think every show goes through growth phases where some episodes may be stronger than others. While some viewers may prefer the show better the way it was (in the previous season), our producers and writers have made some choices that were necessary to move the story forward and more interesting. I do not take anything directed at this show personally as it is so far out of my hands, and my responsibility is to bring Juliet to life the best I can.”

She waits a beat, and before she heads off to her next line of Lost-related professional business in Los Angeles, she realizes that throughout her career, she’s been anything but lost. While she didn’t  always know where she would be headed, she knew a focused work ethic and an open mind would keep her going in the right direction.

“When I got into this, I really only thought I would be doing theatre,” she recalls. “After 10 years of my working life in theatre, I did a bit of television and moved into film. Everything you do extends into everything else you do, and expands on what skill set you started out with. The journey I have taken has been a fantastic one, even surprising me as I had turned out performances I didn’t realize I was capable of. If you know what you’re doing and open to learning, you will become more of the person you want to be.”

photographed by Andrew Matusik
styled by Kevin Watroba/Exclusive Artists
Elizabeth Mitchell appears courtesy of Craig Schneider/Pinnacle Public Relations

Main image credits: Lace Me Up Scottie dress by Kelly Nishimoto, $649, available at Bleu, Los Angeles 1 323-939-2228; 18 ct yellow gold E initial oval ring by Erica Courtney, Los Angeles, US$2,160; green beryl and imperial topaz 18 ct gold necklace by Erica Courtney, Los Angeles, US$52,800; Goddess yellow beryl earrings by Erica Courtney, Los Angeles, US$35,760; shoes by Charles David, Top: Zambesi Bellini Dress in Old Gold Lace, US$469 and Zambesi Bellini Dress in Pearl Silk, US$359, available at Courtesy of Elizabeth Charles, 639½ Hudson Street, New York, 1 212 243-3201; 25-inch Peridot necklace in 18 ct gold by Erica Courtney, Los Angeles, US$13,440; yellow gold bar bracelet by Erica Courtney, Los Angeles, US$10,320; 18 ct gold heart earrings with green tourmaline by Erica Courtney, Los Angeles, US$12,156; shoes by Christian Louboutin.

Lucire (issue 23)

Photoshoots & Portraits > 2007 > Lucire #23

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Liz | CJ | Career | Lost | Nurse Betty | Man And Boy | Frequency | x