Dolly Wells on her father, John: ‘Why didn’t he tell me? I’d like to tap on his grave and ask’
May 31, 2015
“I think my mother wasn’t very comfortable with being in the wrong. And she wasn’t in the wrong, it was just something that happened. Everyone fucks up all the time. You get different moments to be good and bad, and making up for what you did is a long road.”
The writer and actor Dolly Wells is speaking earnestly about parenting – how she admires non-parents, how her children (Elsie, 13, and Ezra, 10) are her most acute critics – while we sit in a Brooklyn restaurant near her home. “I had expected to have children quite young,” she is saying.
Our intense interview – which has included the 43-year-old Londoner talking for the first time about discovering, in her late teens, that her stepfather, the satirist and actor John Wells, was actually her biological father – has been accompanied throughout by a relentless battery of 80s power ballads. We are currently immersed in Foreigner at their most plaintive:
“I’ve travelled so far / To change this lonely life…”
“I want to know what love is / I want you to show me…”
“It’s like we’re on a terrible date,” laughs Wells.
Wells is here without partner-in-comedy and best friend Emily Mortimer, her co-star in the comedy they created, Doll & Em. The show – the second series starts this week on Sky Atlantic – features the women as kind-of-themselves, and kind-of-not: best friends called Doll and Em, who are actors, one more famous than the other. This season continues to study the contours of a friendship, and guests include Ewan McGregor, Evan Rachel Wood and Mikhail Baryshnikov To add to the real-life/fictional confusion, Wells’s children play Em’s, while her husband, photographer Mischa Richter, plays Em’s husband. Mortimer’s real husband, actor Alessandro Nivola, is a producer on the show.
The husbands are not as close as their wives, but talk equably about football, and “do everything they can to help us. They’re totally down with equal childcare.”
Wells’s mother plays her screen mother, and steals every scene she is in with her purse-lipped criticism of her daughter. “She’s not nearly as disapproving in real life,” assures Wells.
The show’s darker side – Doll became Em’s assistant in the first season, jealousy and resentment blossomed, their friendship fell to pieces – is not present in real life, Wells insists. They both loved The Servant and All About Eve, with the junior partner in a relationship undermining the senior, and they are both “fascinated with jealousy”, says Wells, “and how the people you really adore, you get jealous of. But it hasn’t happened yet with us. There has never been jealousy. I have a really loyal, devoted, sweet, funny, clever friend who completely has my back.” She goes on: “If we had that sort of relationship, we couldn’t write a show about it.”
Wells has appeared in The IT Crowd, Star Stories and Free Agents, and has a role in the American comedy Blunt Talk. But Mortimer is (just as on Doll & Em) the better-known actor, having played the producer in the HBO drama The Newsroom. Wells says she does not feel competitive with Mortimer. “Like Doll, I have a slightly questionable confidence. When I was 19 a friend said, ‘You’re not that pretty, you’re not that clever, but you’re really confident, aren’t you?’ That’s not totally true but there’s a moment of truth about it.”
Doll and Em’s closeness leads some viewers to assume the screen characters are a couple. They’re not, but “it’s so loving, it’s a proper relationship apart from it not being sexual, and so it would be weird not to question that,” says Wells.
The women live near each other in Brooklyn and both had much-loved, well-known fathers called John. (They were born four days apart in 1971, Mortimer being the elder.) They met aged four, and at 11 they sat the exam to get into the same secondary school: Mortimer succeeded, Wells did not. “I was colouring in my name tag. I didn’t have focus.”
It was only aged 20 that they “fell in love”, as Wells put it, when sharing a room one night, and telling each other how they had both been “monumentally dumped” by boyfriends. “Something happened –just through the recounting, it became more enjoyable and pleasurable than the sadness of what happened.”
Mortimer has always been “a step ahead”. She went to university a year before Wells, and “the minute she left university went into acting. I was much lazier, very unambitious. I didn’t wake up till I was 30.”
Instead, Wells visited Mortimer on film sets. “I could listen to Bruce Willis on the phone, I could enjoy all she was doing but without the scrutiny, the learning lines, or waking up early.”
Just as on the show, the women are intensely intertwined. They sit for hours “talking everything through to such a degree”.
Their fathers knew each other but were not close. “John Mortimer was the more successful and revered. I think my dad felt he did a million jobs not that well, which wasn’t true,” says Wells. “He was an absolute sweetheart. We were both fantastically lucky. We really adored them.”
Wells is the youngest of six, and John Wells’s only child. When she was eight, her father – best known for his contributions to Private Eye –performed Anyone For Denis?, and she remembers watching him, inspired and thinking how fantastic being on the stage was. She and Mortimer write just as her dad wrote with Richard Ingrams – facing one another; one speaking, the other typing. She recalls Peter Cook and Spike Milligan at her father’s 50th birthday, and him, sitting watching her, mouthing lines as she played Portia in a school production of The Merchant of Venice. She says she had “a dark soul”, born of being “very religious”. She attended a Catholic convent school and was full of “awful scruples”, which she puts down to being terrified of the vision of hell evoked by James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
“A lot of my childhood was about feeling guilty about things not worth feeling guilty about,” Wells says. “I felt God was watching me all the time. I didn’t find life easy, but I found it fun. I also got quite depressed.”
When I ask why, she talks about the tangled story of her parenthood. “When my mother got pregnant with me with my real dad, John, she was married to her first husband, so it was a secret,” Wells says plainly. “I was bought up to be her husband’s child.”
Wells – charming, extremely funny, choppy curtain of red hair, white shirt, skinny trousers – talks in winding sentences, thoughts tumbling into one another. But she is precise and careful when talking about her father.
She remembers, aged 10, saying to her mother, Teresa Gatacre, when she and John Wells eventually got married, “that if they had children, I would get jealous. And she said, ‘Well, we sort of have.’ My first thought was, ‘That might be me.’ I remember going to school the next day, pushing it away but thinking, ‘If that is true, what does it mean?’”
She didn’t know for certain that John was her father until she was “18 or 19, and he died when I was 24. Everything is fine now, and it doesn’t make a difference. I have amazing siblings. 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 guilty about it being so easy with him.”
Did Wells know he was her father?
Why did he go along with the lie of not being known as that for so long?
“That’s a very good question – I’d like to tap his coffin,” says Wells.
She emphasises that she had a great father in her mother’s first husband, and so had “basically two dads”.
Why did her mother keep it a secret?
“Because she was married,” says Wells.
So why not tell Dolly the truth when she and John Wells finally married?
“A very good question. I think my mother wasn’t very comfortable with being in the wrong. And she wasn’t in the wrong, it was just something that happened. Everyone fucks up all the time. You get different moments to be good and bad, and making up for what you did is a long road. My mum might have got things wrong when I was a child, but I can’t be cross with her.”
Finding out the truth was a relief, Wells says. She changed her surname to his, and remembers the “cute and adorable” look of joy on his face when she called him Dad in front of a university friend.
Her father never apologised for keeping the truth from Dolly, but her mother has, throughout Dolly’s life. “She is very loving, sweet, funny, infuriating, generous, ridiculous, really fun and funny, and wildly positive. I see her in my daughter. She can drive me crazy but I think she’s brilliant.”
John Wells died in 1998, aged 61. He had been first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when Dolly was 14. “It started in his neck, then it went away. When it came back it went everywhere – his lung, and finally the brain [she makes a crackling noise] “like a forest fire. I interviewed him about his life – it was so sweet. I lost that bloody tape. I listened to it the day after he died to see how much it would hurt. It was self-harming. In one bit he recorded when I wasn’t there, he said, ‘If you’re listening, don’t worry, it’s great’.”
Wells’s son has the same smile as her father, “so you’ve got him there,” she says. “That’s what I feel sad about – my dad would have been the most brilliant grandfather. He would have got such pleasure out of them. I think I still am grieving for him. I think this show is grieving for him in a way.”
Suddenly we’re hearing Phil Collins’s Against All Odds. We laugh.
“So take a look at me now / Well there’s just an empty space…”
Wells doesn’t know if there will be more Doll & Em: she is now working on a film with Mortimer, and comedy material. She is encouraged by the “fempire” as exemplified by the success of performers like Kristen Wiig, and comedies like Girls (which she has auditioned for) and Broad City. “I remember my agent saying when I was 23, ‘I think you’ll get work in your 30s and 40s’, and I remember thinking, ‘Fuck, what am I going to do for the next 15 years?’ But he was right. If you’re a character actor it doesn’t matter if you’re getting older and no longer the pretty ingenue.”
Now, far from the unfocused drifter, Wells says she is ambitious and proudly so. “When a woman is described as ambitious it’s as if she’s being discussed as unhygienic, which a man never would be. It’s OK to be ambitious as long as you’re not an arsehole.”
Wells registers the time, and says she needs to get home. Bags slung over shoulders, Phil Collins’s Easy Lover blasts out, and we’re laughing again.