Emily Blunt has been a sci-fi warrior (Edge of Tomorrow) and gun-toting mother (Looper), but Sicario director Denis Villeneuve wasn’t looking for an action heroine when he cast her as FBI.
Instead, it was her regal turn as a 19th-century British queen in The Young Victoria that landed her the drug-cartel drama (opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands nationwide Oct. 2).
“It struck me as strange, for him to see past the bonnet and see an FBI agent,” says Blunt, 32, sitting in the dingy back office of an Upper West Side movie theater with her co-star Benicio Del Toro. “I was thrilled that he did, but I was quite surprised he thought that film would be the link to this one.”
Although Villeneuve had seen her before in The Devil Wears Prada and other movies, “she showed a mixture of vulnerability and innocence” in Victoria, he says. “At the same time, there was an inner strength and drive I was looking for.”
Sicario (Spanish slang for “hitman”) spirals downward with idealistic agent Kate Macer (Blunt), whose principles are tested when she’s recruited for a black-ops mission on the U.S.-Mexico border. Josh Brolin plays her rigid task-force officer, and Del Toro is an equivocal operative of whom Kate is leery.
Having portrayed both sides of the law in drug thrillers such as Escobar: Paradise Lost and Traffic (for which he won a supporting actor Oscar in 2001), “Alejandro was a little different to me, because his motivation is revenge,” says Del Toro, 48, reuniting with Blunt after 2010’s The Wolfman.
Sicario is the third English-language film by Villeneuve, who is French Canadian, after Prisoners in 2013 and last year’s Enemy. When the script was shopped around, some financiers offered to up the budget if first-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan changed the gender of Blunt’s character to a man, which “would’ve been a weird or just boring dynamic,” Blunt says. “We’ve seen that film before.”
“It’s almost exotic nowadays to have a main character that is female. That, for me, says something — it should not be like that,” Villeneuve says. “I love to explore the reality of a woman: their struggles with power and their place in the world.”
In Sicario, “it was important to feel that her character is a stranger among others. The fact that she works in the FBI, but is a woman in a man’s world.”
In preparation, Blunt did tactical training with Delta Force soldiers and DEA agents in New Mexico, where Sicario shot last summer, learning how to carry and fire a gun and skulk around the desert for the film’s drug-raid sequences. She also talked to four women in the FBI, basing Kate off one agent in particular, who was shy and awkward, yet tough and uncompromising.
“I really discovered just how taxing the job is and the impact that will have on your personal life,” Blunt says. “They were not militant — they sounded like me. And they did very normal things to decompress, like watch Downton Abbey. One of them finally admitted that she watched The Office. She was like, ‘I didn’t want to be creepy, but I watch The Office,’ which was funny.” (Blunt’s husband, John Krasinski, starred on the NBC workplace sitcom for nine seasons.)
Blunt signed on to the bleak drama just five weeks after giving birth to their daughter, Hazel, and initially feared “that it was going to be a little more than I bargained for,” she says. But once filming started a few months later, “I felt much more prepared. I know it looks like a very intense shoot and the subject matter is very dark, but it was a really lovely experience.”
Plus, Hazel (now 19 months old) “was so perfect and pink,” Blunt smiles. “It was impossible to come home and bring the darkness with me, you know? She was so cute.”
Next up, Blunt stars opposite Charlize Theron and Jessica Chastain in Snow White prequel The Huntsman, out next spring, and shoots the highly anticipated adaptation of best seller The Girl on the Train later this fall. Del Toro, meanwhile, starts filming the unnamed Star Wars Episode VIII with Looper director Rian Johnson early next year (but neither confirms nor denies that he plays a villain).
While Sicario doesn’t have the built-in audience of those films, they hope movies about the war on drugs will continue to get made. “It’s good to do anything you can to bring awareness to it, because I don’t think it’s talked about on the news hardly at all. I was pretty naive about it,” Blunt acknowledges.
Del Toro has friends in the Drug Enforcement Administration and “found it interesting, after Traffic, to sit down and talk with them,” he says. Since that movie, “the production of drugs has not diminished, the taking of drugs has not diminished, and this violence has gotten out of hand. It’s sad to say, but in 15 years, not much has changed.”