Q & A: Elizabeth Mitchell – “I spent 15 years doing theater before I ever got in front of the camera”

Elizabeth Mitchell talks about her guest starring role on Law & Order: SVU, her advice to actors and if V is coming back!

Law & Order: SVU is continuing the show’s tradition of great guest stars with tonight’s episode. Both Elizabeth Mitchell and Jeremy Irons appear on the show.

She plays a piano teacher accused of killing a little girl after raping her with a kitchen device. Yup, a ‘kitchen device.’ So, this isn’t usual role she’s known for. She even said that the role was, “toxic.”

I joined Elizabeth and Executive Producer Neal Baer on a conference call where she talked about the challenges of her role, her advice to actors and if V is coming back.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download from iTunes

Law & Order: SVU airs at 10/9c on NBC

Was it intimidating for you to join the cast of SVU?

Elizabeth Mitchell: Intimidating, yes, I had done it once before and, yes, of course it always is when you’re going to be working with people that you admire and respect but I never really see it as an intimidation. It’s more just a challenge and an excitement I guess. So it’s always an honor, that’s for sure.

What was the challenge of it?

Elizabeth Mitchell: The challenge is that you want to make sure that you keep your work to the high quality that they’ve already set really and that’s the fun of it really. I’ve been doing this, you know, probably, like, 30 years and I always like going into new places. It’s fun.

Neal, you’ve been writing great story lines for these amazing actors. What is the process that you go through in selecting these guests? And do you have the sort of waiting list of people trying to get on?

Neal Baer: Well, for this show – this is Jeremy Iron’s second episode. We knew we were doing two with Jeremy. So I knew that we’d been holding a story for about – ever since I started on the show 11 years ago. We just didn’t feel that we were able to tell it right. And when we had Jeremy – because it was a show about a psychiatrist who works with a woman who’s accused of a terrible, terrible crime. And so when we had Jeremy already because he was slated to do two shows, we thought about whom we should cast to play this woman.

And I’d worked with Elizabeth twice before, once in ER when I introduced her character when she came on ER and some years ago on SVU in a very different role. So she immediately came to mind because she’s such a wonderful actor. And so we have – we’re very lucky that we have so many great actors who come on our show. And we don’t really have a waiting list. We go out to people we think would be right for different episodes.

And we just always from the beginning thought of Elizabeth for this role. And we wanted somebody who could, you know, really be right with Jeremy Irons. And I’ve got to tell you that Elizabeth gives a brilliant performance, one of the best I’ve seen on SVU.

How did this role affect you? I mean when you’re going through the process and realizing what your character could possibly be involved in, if you could elaborate on that a little bit?

Elizabeth Mitchell: No, absolutely, that’s a great question. You know, I’m not someone who easily sheds things but I do kind of have to otherwise, you know, I go home to my family and I’m impossible. So I think that I felt like it was very sad. I felt like it was very toxic but I also felt intrigued by the idea of giving victims somewhat of a voice because in some ways this woman – in many ways this woman is an incredible victim. So that was intriguing to me.

So I would let it go by the end of the day but I found it very weighty. I normally am a big flirt and I walk around set and I joke with everybody and I don’t think I made one joke. I was very serious and it was very important to me to be as honorable with the subject matter as I possibly could. And we all felt that way.

Elizabeth, we know that you are obviously a big fan of sci-fi and you’ve been doing quite a lot of that lately. How easy is it to switch back and forth between something so fantastic and other worldly to something like this which is, obviously, much more real life, much heavier in terms of subject matter?

Elizabeth Mitchell: I find sci-fi to be wonderful because it is fanciful and much easier to not go home with the fact that I had to kill an alien that day, you know, but I find that beautiful words, well-written words, which has been the case for both of my times on Law & Order and also working for Neal on ER, are why I wanted to be an actor, why I love being an actor, what I studied when I was a kid, what I hoped for.

What’s your advice to actors?

Elizabeth Mitchell: My advice, you know what, I’m that really horrible person that you think I’m going to say something brilliant and unique and I’m not. I’m such a big fan of studying. I’m such a big fan of really learning your craft. I spent 15 years doing theater before I ever got in front of the camera and I’m so grateful for that. It’s helped me in every step of the way, especially going in on auditions where, you know, I should be petrified but I’ve been doing it for so long I just kind of do it.

So I believe in study. I believe in finding something that works for you and continuing with it. And the people I know who are successful, the people I know who love what they do seem to do a lot of work. And it doesn’t have to be intellectual always. It’s more just kind of immersing yourself in the love of your craft. But I – that’s as I said, it’s not an exciting answer but it is what I believe.

Is there going to be another season of V?

Elizabeth Mitchell: I have no idea.

That must be so excruciating.

Elizabeth Mitchell: You know, it’s okay. You know, what’s funny? I think if I were a young, single actress it would be different but, you know, I have a family so I tend to, you know, go back and have the myriad of duties associated with that. And I tend to be, like, God, of course, yes, I should be frustrated but I’m pretty good about it.

Elizabeth, do you prefer playing good guys, bad guys?

Elizabeth Mitchell: You know, I’m funny and I always have been. I really kind of like playing heroes. I have a definite streak of wanting to be really good – a really good person and a really good sister and a really good mother. So – but I have found that – maybe it’s how I look. I don’t know what it is. I get offered a lot of really complicated women and I actually like complicated. Complicated is interesting to me.

So I don’t know if I could say good or bad because it’s my feeling that everyone in their life, and maybe that’s just how I am, searches to be the best they can be. It’s just at what so you have to be a little cautious. So I like both I think. I think there is something incredibly unique about going far outside of yourself. It enables you a kind of freedom that you don’t have if I were just playing myself. I’d be a little bit more guarded I think.

Well, we heard a little bit about how you like to be kind of funny and goofy on set but you don’t get to do many of those roles and I’m wondering, you know, are these roles attracted to you that are more serious? Are you more attracted to these roles that are serious? Are you not getting offered too many of the lighthearted comedies?

Elizabeth Mitchell: I don’t get – I get offered every once in a while a lighthearted comedy but for some reason with scheduling it never seems to work out. I’d love it. It would be really fun for me. I am a goofball. As such I don’t know if I’m a gifted comedian. I most definitely am a goofball and I make people laugh but I don’t know if it’s with pity or because I actually have a degree of talent. But no, I – of course, I would love to do a comedy. I think every serious actor will tell you that comedy, I think, is so much harder. You know, with drama you access yourself and with comedy you do too but it’s just a bit of a higher truth. It’s hard.

Elizabeth, you’ve been a series regular on several shows. Is there any different approach you take to a role in a guest starring situation?

Elizabeth Mitchell: I don’t know if the difference of an approach – I do feel like being a guest star on a show for me is like doing a mini-movie. You get to be a little bit more selfish. You get to do a little bit more – it’s exciting in a way. I don’t set the tone on set. I’m a guest and the other people’s shows and their lives, all of that and I treat it accordingly.

I’m incredibly respectful about what world I’m in, what house I’m in, who’s family I’m in. And it’s fun. But – so there is a tremendous amount of freedom because I’m not the backbone. I simply get to come in and be the foliage and I seriously like that. It’s fun.

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