Whether it was her time as Dr. Juliet Burke on the mysterious Lost, a performance for which she earned an Emmy nomination in 2010, or taking on the Snow Queen in Once Upon a Time or Anna in The Expanse, Elizabeth Mitchell has made a meal out of finding the humanity while playing in fantastical worlds.
Over her four-decade long career thus far, she has played in the post-apocalyptic world of Revolution, with the extraterrestrial visitors of V, and even the whimsical North Pole-inspired franchise The Santa Clause. Her most recent project, Netflix's vampire love story First Kill, also fits this bill. But she has also broken ground in other ways, too, including portraying Dr. Kim Legaspi, who was romantically involved with Laura Innes' Dr. Kerry Weaver, on ER. And now she plays Limbrey, who is facing her mortality, on Outer Banks.
While these projects may seem very different at first glance, for a veteran performer like Mitchell, there is one very important thing they have in common: They all found ways to stretch her talents.
"I do try to pick things that I'm scared of, and I also try to pick things that maybe I'm not going to be good at. Being good is not my first choice. My first choice is to grow — and to try and figure it out and to try to get into something. Sometimes I fail and sometimes I succeed, but either way, I'm challenging myself, which leads me to always love it," Mitchell tells Metacritic.
Here, Mitchell talks to Metacritic about her latest role on First Kill, as well as reflects on her time on Lost, and brings her work on The Santa Clause full circle by pulling threads from the film franchise into the upcoming limited series.
If I remember correctly, when you were first coming aboard Outer Banks, you mentioned that the character scared you. She is this very entitled woman, and I would argue that Margot in First Kill is, as well. So, did having the experience of playing a woman like that on Outer Banks make you more ready to take on Margot?
I think they're both scary in the same way. Ego-wise, nobody wants to be thought of as an entitled white lady. That is an entitled, rich, elitist, white lady. It is an awful thought for me. Those characters being that way, living life in that way, what does that feel like, what does that look like, where does the motivation come from?
Margot is 500 years old. She has dealt with all kinds of lives and people and ways of being, and this is a place she's found herself because it feels safe to her. That's fascinating to me: that she would put herself in an upper class, white suburb and think to herself, "OK now I'm safe, my family is safe." And what does that mean? Those are really interesting things to me — that feeling of safety and how we, as humans, gravitate towards wanting to feel safe, which in a way closes us off to the richness that's out in the world. If safe is people who look like you, look what you're missing; your entire world is only this big when it could be THIS big. So, definitely the two characters share that, and I do find that really interesting.
Because she's not human, she feeds off of people, and she doesn't consider humans to be on her level, I think she really is, as [her husband] says, a different breed. And that's scary. What you try to do in all your roles is try to find humanity, but in this case, I had to figure out what the "other" is.
And as, I said, ego-wise, you struggle because you want people to think that you're understanding and empathetic and seeing the world and understanding that there are all these amazing people out there and that we embrace all these differences and we have respect. You want to be that person, and these women are not. So, you say, "OK but what makes them true and what makes them real? What do they want, who do they love?" And then my work comes in.
There's also a theme of mortality here, in that Limbrey is slapped in the face with her own in Outer Banks, yet Margo is the exact opposite, as an immortal vampire. How do you think of their motivations and sense of power, in terms of, are you truer to yourself when you're dying or when you cannot be killed?
I think that for Limbrey, you know how sometimes in life we'll do something and be like, "I wouldn't do this if I didn't have to do this?"
"So I'm going to do this, but when I'm done, I'm going to give to charity, and I'm going to make sure I take care of people and I'm never going to do this again. I'll never be unkind again." I think that's the place Limbrey is in: that bargaining place where you are doing all of these things, but in your mind you're like, "No, I'm still a good person." She has an understanding that her actions are not good, but in her mind, she's like, "When I have my health back, I can be kind. When I have my health back, I'll continue to be the good woman I was before this." Is she a good woman? No. But I think that's her train of thought.
And as far as Margot goes, it's an interesting thing because I'm 52 and living in a somewhat traditional patriarchal culture where fertility can be a prize beyond all things, especially in our particular world. And how fascinating to be a woman who is 500 years old and fertility is not an issue for her? Which means that her standard of beauty, of her walking through the world, of how she sees herself is completely different. And that part fascinates me about her. And I think that she is herself, but I also think she's playing a part here. She's very different at home than she is in the world. She's playing a society woman because it's camouflage, and I liked that because she's trying it on. It's my theory that in the '40s and the '50s and the '60s and the '70s, that she and Sebastian played through all of those worlds in different ways before they had kids. But now she's a mother, so she has centered herself and is creating, in her mind, a safe world for her children, where they can all stay camouflaged. But I feel that she has had many incarnations, and she wasn't always this, and I find that fascinating.
And that also allows for an interesting shift once her mother is out of the picture.
Yeah, who is she going to be? She's been the dutiful daughter for 500 years, except for that one thing she did by marrying her human. We don't even know yet who Margot is or what she's capable of.
You've done a number of genre shows through the years, from Lost, of course, to V, Revolution, Once Upon a Time, and now First Kill, which seems like it's making a point to further inclusion in the space. How have you observed those kinds of changes over the years; is there something you can point to as a major example or turning point you noticed?
Vampires are so fun because of their powers, but when you boil it down, it just helps us with our fear of mortality. I do think what Felicia [D. Henderson] has done beautifully here is, in many ways, in my mind, forwarding the genre a little bit in that it is a matriarchal family. The women hold the power, and what does the dynamic look like then? I think that is incredibly fascinating. What do we do with that power as women, and how does that world go forward that way, given that we can live indefinitely? I think that's what struck me.
How much of that was because of the environment on set, as well? You have a show led by a woman, whereas even if you were leading the show or part of a balanced ensemble in the past, those at the helm were men?
We were also incredibly lucky with our men. I had Will Swenson, who is obviously married to one of the greatest women of all time [Audra McDonald]. He's such a lover of women and a lover of strong women, that the environment that Sarah Catherine [Hook] and Imani [Lewis] and Gracie [Dzienny] and Aubin [Wise] and I were able to create because we were so heavily featured, was only loved and backed up by the amazing men that we worked with. I loved being all women on set a lot of the time. It was very much like my family is: We're all women except for my dad, who is a lot like Will in, "A matriarchy seems smart to me." [Laughs] That's my dad — my Texas dad. I found it to be a very supportive environment. You always go to your showrunner with, "And I do this here and then what do you think about this?" And she took it in with such strength and joy. She would listen and be very attentive and make sure that everyone was working together as a group, but very firm [in, "This is the show. This is what we're doing." You always felt safe, like you were with a really good mom. Not a mom who lets you get away with stuff. She's in charge, you do not cross her, but everyone is treated with respect and love and dignity, and your thoughts are considered. I found our little matriarchal culture to be really quite wonderful.
So then looking back on a show like Lost, that was such an ensemble and because of that, each character, and each actor, had their own special moments and episodes. Obviously "The Incident" and "The End" were big ones for Juliet, but how do you think of the show now, with so much distance? Do the moments you thought were most pivotal at the time still feel the most pivotal to you?
That experience was so unique, and from the get go, here was this woman who wasn't very strong to begin with. She's incredibly smart and incredibly loving and empathetic, but she hadn't found her way. And I think the island turned her into a formidable person — through her actions, through love, through all of those things. So. I have to think that the journey that I felt it was at that time still feels like the journey that it is now — for her.
And for me, that whole thing was an amazing experience. I just had my son, I was absolutely exhausted all the time, I was working on a show that I loved. The scripts to this day, I am still amazed at. I would get those envelopes delivered because they would send someone to our home, and for the next 45 minutes, all I could think about was reading the script. I would do all my mom things, take care of everything, and that script would be sitting there, and I would just be like, "I have to open it and read it and see!" It was an extraordinary thing to look forward to something so much, to have my artistic ideals met, to find so much joy in what was happening next, and to know I was a part of it was a game changer for me. It taught me what we can hope for in our lives. When we work at peak creativity, we work with people we admire, we always stretch up.
I just had this vision of you reading the scripts to your son as bedtime stories. Did that actually happen?
I wish it had! But there was so much language in them, just in the parentheses. Of course, now my son would flippin' love it, but I do feel like at that age, there were just too many well-placed swear words. He was a really smart kid. He copied everything that I said, and I was like, "I don't really want" — forgive my language but — " f--- sticks" to be his first word.
That's fair. I feel like you also said the Lost audition initially scared you, and hearing you talk about how much you had on your plate at the time, it makes sense, but I am also sensing a pattern, so what makes you say, "Even though I'm scared of this, I'm doing it anyway"?
I do try to only do things that I am scared of. There's an easy path in this world, which is to just simply just do things that you're good at. I have a lot of characters that are quite like me and boy, are they fun and easy and lovely. You know, I'm playing Carol [Newman-Calvin of The Santa Clause franchise] right now.
But she's magical now!
She is, but she's funny and self deprecating and lovely, and I love her. But I find her to be pretty easy. She loves her family above above everything else, she loves her community; I don't have to dig so deep to find my Carol. So for me, that's really just a joy, but I think the characters that I gravitate towards when I reach for something are the ones where I'm like, "What!?"
Is there a big challenge in stepping back into Carol's shoes this many years after The Santa Clause 3, which was more than 15 years ago?
It's such a smart and funny show, and I have loved that luxury of having a writer who sits behind the camera and if your line isn't landing or isn't funny, gives you another one. But I think the challenge for me has been that I haven't done comedy in forever even though I started in it. I will always feel like I am stretching to find that, but I do know that when something lands, boy that feeling! I remember it when I was a kid doing comedy on stage, where you do get immediate feedback, there really is the most extraordinary feeling about it. So, to be given such a high level of good comedy and great things to say, and wondering if I'm going to be able to rise to the occasion with that. But you do it, and getting Tim's laugh, you can see in his eyes, he's like, "Heh."
For as long ago as I pointed out the last in the film trilogy was, there are people who still watch them every holiday season, and new kids are experiencing them all the time, so are you actively throwing back to any memorable or beloved moments in the new series?
Carol did come back to me like that. She was a school administrator, so she sometimes can snap into a little bit of like, "Hey." And she does it a little with her husband and a little with the kids, and she's not always the most patient, but I do feel like she's pretty true in trying to navigate her way and trying to find the best things for everybody. She definitely has one Principal Newman moment, or maybe two, where she's just done, and then all of a sudden, she's like, "Oh sorry."
The Santa Clause series is obviously a very exciting project to look forward to at the end of this year, and another fun thing you have on the horizon is the continuation of Limbrey's involvement with the Pogues and now Big John in Outer Banks Season 3. What can you say about her relationships going forward — with him, with Ward, et cetera — and how much backstory on how she knew Big John were you given, in order to help play that final scene in Season 2?
I do get to hang out with Big John quite a bit, which is lovely, because he's terrific. She hangs with him for the most part. I don't know if you'd call it "teaming up," but they are indeed together a great deal of the time, especially in the first part. I don't know that Limbrey is really a team player, let's just say that.
We have seen what she's done with her brother.
I adlibbed that line, "Don't worry, he wasn't a good person." I remember Jonas [Pate] being like, "Oh I love that, do that! Say that!" But I do feel like that's how she felt. But we do get to know a little bit more about Limbrey as the season goes on, which we haven't shot yet. I have heard all the theories, which are interesting, but I know some things and then have to wonder about other things. That's one of those things where they say, "It's a little bit of this, it might be this, and we should play this." And I'm like, "OK, let's see what happens!"