Late Bloomer

Actor Dolly Wells on the benefits of coming in second in a world where everyone wants to be first

Antonia Whyatt
Jeremy Liebman

“It feels safer when you’re running along on the outside and you’re not at the front,” says actor turned writer- director Dolly Wells, talking about succeeding in her career later in life. “I think I was pretty lazy after university, and when the whistle blew, I was still faffing about, tying my shoes. Even once I started acting, it was hard to get jobs and have children at the same time. My career didn’t take off, and I didn’t exactly encourage it,” she says in her rapid-fire British speech. Wells’ career is now firmly in public view with her HBO series, Doll & Em, and a widely praised supporting role in the highly acclaimed film Can You Ever Forgive Me? And at 47, rather than putting on the brakes, she is entering the next stratosphere, having just written and directed her first film, Good Posture.

Wells married Mischa Richter, an American photographer, at age 28 and at 30, had her first baby, Elsie, followed by Ezra a couple of years later. “I hadn’t come to grips with my career at that age. It was so lovely being a mother and having a child,” she says. “But I do remember thinking those times when they were asleep were so important and I should try to get something constructive done — but mostly I just made banana bread and watched bad TV.” It wasn’t until actor Emily Mortimer, a childhood friend, found a book she felt they should adapt that Wells started writing. “Emily gave me focus. We both had little babies at the time, and we would sit in a café at Queen’s Park in London for hours, just writing. There was so much joy in it for us that it set us up in terms of writing together later.” While Wells happily pottered around in the English acting scene, Mortimer took off for Hollywood and started to become very well-known. “She’s much more disciplined than I am — she’s very clever, and a very good actress. I was much lazier, unambitious.”

Wells says she was subconsciously trying to recreate the laid-back, artistic atmosphere she was raised in. Her father, John Wells, was a British satirist and writer who became popular in the U.K. for his caricature of Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Dennis. “I grew up in a climate of fun, openness and friendliness, and I thought, ‘Oh, acting’s something I want to do,’” says Wells. She also wanted to give her children the same kind of playful, fluid, slightly glamorous upbringing she’d had. “I even brought them to work sometimes. I had a role in Star Stories [a satirical series that took a comedic look at celebrities’ lives]. There was a scene in a church, and I put Elsie and Ezra in the back and told them to be really, really silent. I was so irresponsible,” she says, laughing.

SOFA SO GOOD_ Wells relaxing on her vintage sofa from Holler and Squall.

Wells and Mortimer met through their fathers, “the Johns,” who had parallel careers — John Mortimer was an English barrister turned ultra-successful dramatist and playwright. “We met when we were four, but we were more like cousins, doing skiing lessons and family holidays and things. It wasn’t until we’d both graduated from university [Mortimer from University of Oxford, Wells from Manchester] that we bonded. We stayed up all night once, talking about how we had both been monumentally dumped by boyfriends,” laughs Wells. “Just through the recounting, the stories of the breakups became more pleasurable than the hurt of what had happened.”

Both women were extremely close to their fathers, but Wells’s relationship with hers was far from conventional. She was brought up as Dolly Gatacre, the youngest of six children from her mother’s first marriage. It wasn’t until Wells was in her late teens that her parents revealed that her stepfather, John Wells, was her biological father. She remembers saying at age 10, once her mother and John had married, that if they had children, she would get jealous. “And my mother said, ‘Well, we sort of have.’ My first thought was, ‘That might be me.’”

Wells changed her surname soon after she found out. “Knowing the truth was a relief. But it was quite a lot to carry. Before I knew he was my dad, I felt so guilty because I was crazy about him — I felt badly that it was so easy with him,” she says. Tragically, six years after she was able to start calling him “Dad,” John died at age 61 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “It was a weird, horrible, sad time,” says Wells. “There were some articles in The Guardian and other publications that suggested I could jump on his fame. I didn’t feel I had anything to be proud of, or talk about. I was quite in denial about his dying. I hid and lay low for a bit.”

It wasn’t until she was in her late teens that her parents revealed that her stepfather was her biological father.

It isn’t surprising, then, that in Good Posture, there is an uneasy father-daughter relationship. The main character, 18-year-old Lilian (Grace van Patten), has a wealthy widowed music-biz father (Norbert Leo Butz) who is headed off to Paris with his new French girlfriend. He makes up for his absence by parking Lillian at a rambling house in Brooklyn belonging to a famous novelist friend of his, Julia Price (Mortimer). Lilian acts entitled and spoiled at first, spending her time sharing spliffs and guitar sessions with Julia’s husband, Don (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and constantly FaceTiming her uncaring dad. He responds to Lilian’s texts sporadically and has clearly failed in her upbringing, as we see Lilian nonchalantly wearing Julia’s robe and using her toothbrush. Van Patten is mesmerizing, and despite Lilian’s bad behaviour and coming-of-age mistakes, you’ll find yourself incredibly empathetic to her loneliness, isolation and bewilderment at having to be- come an adult while missing some key life skills.

The film also reflects the deep loneliness Wells felt when she moved from the cozy bosom of her all-encompassing London family to Brooklyn. But like Lilian, she needed a bit of a rude awakening: The jolt of the relocation woke Wells from her slumbering 20s, and she became more focused. “New York is more brutal than London. The weather is more intense — so hot in the summer and so cold in the winter — and the rents are so high,” she says. “It all made me more ambitious.” While living in the States, Wells left her children for the first time to do a job: “I went to L.A. to star in Blunt Talk with Patrick Stewart when Elsie was 11 and Ezra was nine. I felt that ‘mother guilt’ about leaving them, something I’d never experienced before.”

Besides her husband and children, the only “family” Wells had in New York was Mortimer. They’d started writing again while she was in London and had crafted the script that became Doll & Em, a warts-and-all portrait of female friendship. They were able to create the next season together in Brooklyn. As they wrote, they addressed topics that were a bit taboo, like jealousy between friends and the power imbalances that can happen with success. “At first we conceived it as being a bit like a play: Who’s got the power and how it changes,” says Wells. “It was brave of Emily to take it on — I didn’t have much to lose but she was the successful one. If it had flopped or been bad, it would have been no skin off my nose.”

Instead, HBO picked up the series, which was a precursor to the self-deprecating, cringe-worthy, confessional, Brit female comedy that has reached its zenith with Fleabag. Indeed, Phoebe Waller-Bridge apparently credited Doll & Em as having been one of the predecessors to her show. “I don’t think we realized it was an import- ant statement about women while we were writing,” says Wells. “We were just two women in our mid-30s going through certain stuff we thought should be talked about. There wasn’t so much attention on those things then. Someone said to Mischa, ‘I haven’t watched your wife’s show because it’s a chick flick.’ I think that’s definitely changed: People aren’t saying that about Fleabag.”

Wells had always wanted to direct but she hadn’t found the confidence. “I’d been in quite a few of producer Jamie Adams’s films, and he asked me to do it. At first I refused, as I was too scared. The next time he asked me, he told me he wouldn’t ask again if I said no. So I took the leap.” Wells wrote the script for Good Posture herself, which helped her visualize it on film. “I didn’t know the language of directing, but I knew as an actor what it’s like to be directed, which was helpful. Plus my DP Ryan Eddleston was so unpatronizing that if I didn’t know what a ‘lens slider’ was, he’d explain.” Wells shot the whole film in 12 days. “It’s incredible it’s all okay. When I watched the footage, I thought it wouldn’t make sense,” she says.

SHOWING HER STRIPES_ Dolly Wells at home in Brooklyn.

Wells’s characters are amusing, deep, cringe-producing and profoundly flawed — in other words, profoundly human. And they tend to be pot smokers. In Good Posture, Lilian smokes with Don, and they have a hilarious ukulele-playing night that Julia shuts down. In Doll & Em, Wells actually managed to get Susan Sarandon (playing herself) to smoke a joint onscreen with Doll as an icebreaker. They end up bonding. “I think I have more of a relationship with cannabis than alcohol. When I was younger, people used to get so excited about getting drunk, and I didn’t really like drinking,” says Wells. “I thought it was weird that it was so okay to behave like that, but a joint was considered horrendous! Even though the most that would happen is you’d get stoned, eat sweets and giggle.”

As we speak, Wells is looking out at the empty, off-season beach in Provincetown, Ma., her husband’s hometown, having just returned from a whirlwind press tour in Europe. Her most recent role as Sister Agatha in British must-see TV drama Dracula has led to reams of webpages and newspaper inches about the ‘hot nun’, and rumours of awards. Wells’s career, it seems, is rocketing off into the ether. “It’s funny — I came to it all so late,” says Wells. “Just last week, Elsie said she was talking to one of her teachers and telling them how cool it was that I’d started doing something later in life, how it meant I could raise my children and have a career.” Now, far from being the unfocused drifter, Wells says she is proudly ambitious: “When a woman is described as ambitious, it’s as if she’s being discussed as unhygienic, which a man never would be.” Instead of winning the sprint, Wells has stayed the distance, giving herself time to enjoy each phase of the race — leaving the rest of us clapping from the sidelines and marveling at her endurance and wry wisdom.

Wells actually managed to get Susan Sarandon (playing herself) to smoke a joint onscreen with Doll as an icebreaker

Sorry, you’re not quite old enough to know if Jonathan Adler designs dirty but lives clean.

But we will be here waiting for you.

In this light it’s hard
 to tell how old you are,
 can we ask your age flattering isn’t it?

Are you of legal age in your province?