Emily Blunt is set to surprise audiences this summer with her action-hero role in the sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow. Here, the actress talks to Ajesh Patalay about the romance of marriage, toughening up for Tom Cruise and the surprising strength of new motherhood…
Originally the plan was to meet in Ojai, about an hour and a half’s drive up from Los Angeles. Emily Blunt and her actor husband John Krasinski, best known for his role in the US version of The Office, bought a house there in 2012, though judging from pictures online, it’s more of a manor, in five acres, with hiking and equestrian trails and a view of the mountains. Their weekend getaway has since become practically a permanent residence, particularly now that Krasinski no longer shoots five days a week on The Office, the final season of which aired last year. ‘The weekend became three days a week, then four,’ Blunt tells me. ‘Then we were there the whole time and were like, “Why would we go back to LA?” I love it up there. It’s amazing how many friends you have when you have a place in Ojai. We need to stop inviting people because everyone who comes ends up buying a house.’ Even her father, Oliver Blunt QC, a high-profile criminal barrister in London, was impressed. ‘He’s still a bit snobby about America,’ Blunt explains. ‘His experiences were Disney World, Florida, when I was about four, so I think that would turn anyone off.’ But Ojai? He was so smitten he didn’t want to leave. ‘It’s a paradise,’ Blunt says. ‘One of the last old California towns, with one main street and all these little “mom and pop” shops, a population of only 6,000 and still the way it was in the 1960s. I was going to take you to this really weird little vegan Mexican restaurant – not that I’m vegan, I just like the food there. I wish you’d come.’
It’s a missed opportunity for sure, but not one we can mourn for long, sitting by the pool of the Sunset Tower Hotel, looking out over the twinkly basin of West Hollywood and downtown LA. Blunt was called back to the city at the last minute because her husband had a meeting. ‘He’s got a production company,’ the 31-year-old actress explains. ‘He’s developing five TV shows and is going to direct a movie this summer, so he’s kind of full-on at the moment.’ She isn’t exactly short of things to do herself. Our meeting has been scheduled for three o’clock, a point in the afternoon when her then-two-month-old daughter Hazel is taking her nap. ‘That’s why I was a bit late,’ Blunt says. ‘My boobs belong to somebody else now.’ That’s the best excuse I’ve ever heard, I say, and she laughs. ‘They are mine no longer. I had to kind of prise them off her.’ Is Hazel nearby? ‘Yes, at our house [in the Hollywood Hills]. Don’t worry,’ she says, seeing her chance for mischief, ‘she’s not in the car.’
By this point Blunt has ordered herself a cranberry juice with soda and lime and set her phone squarely on the table. ‘I never used to be one of these people who leave their phone out,’ she says, apologetically. ‘That’s my pet peeve, people on their phones during lunch. But as soon as you have a child, it’s that strange feeling that you’ve got something in your peripheral [vision] at all times, an awareness of this other little person who needs me. The focus is never quite as it was. Though,’ she says, ‘she’s pretty hang-loose, our kid. Pretty easygoing. Very cute and very smiley.’ The Mail Online, whose paparazzi catch her leaving the hotel an hour and a half later, will duly report on her ‘enviably toned figure’ just two months after giving birth, saying how she looks ‘a million dollars’. And she does, dressed in a floaty cream Isabel Marant top, blue distressed skinny jeans (‘I think they might be Citizens of Humanity; I’d ask you to look at my crack to check…’) and gleaming bronze stilettos, worn for only the second time and not the kind of footwear Blunt has been used to lately. But her trim figure, the result of regular Pilates and yoga, belies some other telltale signs of new motherhood: a slight pallor beneath her rouged cheeks, a periodic glaze to her expression (presumably from fatigue) and an occasional fumbling for words, the casualty of what Blunt calls her ‘baby brain’. ‘Everything takes its toll,’ she says. ‘From when I eat to what I talk about to if I can make sense of what I’m saying. There’s just a sense of distraction in general, which is joyous in itself.’
The truth is that even in her post-natal daze, Blunt comes across as quick-witted and knowing. But then, isn’t that her calling card? Her breakthrough came as the catty assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, in her hands a masterclass in comic timing and how to issue a withering putdown. Whatever other qualities she brings to the screen – the cool, enigmatic poise of her early roles in My Summer of Love and Gideon’s Daughter, or the more down-to-earth warmth and zest for life of The Young Victoria, The Adjustment Bureau and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – there is always a playful side, a spontaneity and a commanding intelligence at work. Grace and beauty may be her birthright, thanks to those regal looks, limpid blue eyes and a certain dewiness to her complexion, but she cuts a much happier figure slipping those serene restraints, cracking a joke and letting loose one of her great big, honking laughs.
Meryl Streep, during the filming of The Devil Wears Prada, took note of her ‘clear, confident comic instincts’ at such a young age (Blunt was barely 21 at the time). ‘Her antic humour and effortlessly feminine charm recall Carole Lombard,’ Streep writes in an email. Bill Nighy recalls her roguish wit aged 19 on the set of Gideon’s Daughter, in which he played her father. (A few years later he would be cast as her boyfriend in Wild Target.) ‘She treats me with a refreshing lack of respect and teases me relentlessly,’ he says. ‘I think it means she likes me. Her favourite thing is to mimic nausea if I say anything that suggests I ever had a romantic contact with anyone.’ The pair clearly share a very British sense of humour. ‘Oh, Bill,’ Blunt coos, when I bring him up. ‘He’s so bright. He’s got that facility for language that is so brilliant to be around.’ Does she possess that too? ‘Not like him. I search more. He’s got that thing that Colin Firth has, it sort of falls out of his mouth. When you talk to him, you feel, “Oh God, you’ve read a lot.” Language is so facile. There’s no hesitation. My older sister has that. I’m around a lot of people who have it. I find it very exciting. I have that with the man I’m married to. He’s very quick and very funny and a great communicator.’ Yes, I say. Isn’t repartee the ultimate… ‘Turn on?’ Blunt interjects, crisply. ‘I just love it.’
Given what we know of her, Blunt’s new film, shot over five months towards the end of 2012 and start of 2013, looks like an odd fit. Edge of Tomorrow is a full-throttle action movie about an alien invasion, starring Tom Cruise as a soldier who relives the same day over and again; a sort of sci-fi Groundhog Day. Blunt plays the so-called ‘Full Metal Bitch’ Rita Vrataski, a special-forces officer who teams up with him to battle the enemy race. ‘She certainly isn’t the doe-eyed maiden holding Tom Cruise’s hand,’ Blunt says. In casting the role, Doug Liman, who also directed The Bourne Identity and Mr and Mrs Smith, was looking for an actress with strength of character and humour; but for what is essentially ‘a love story behind enemy lines’, he also drew on The African Queen and Katharine Hepburn for inspiration. Suddenly Blunt doesn’t seem such an unlikely choice.
With its action sequences, the film ‘was physically the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,’ says Blunt. ‘Tom said it was the hardest action movie he’s worked on, and he’s no wuss.’ Before the shoot, Blunt underwent three months of martial-arts training with running, weights, yoga and gymnastics. ‘For the first two weeks you’re in so much pain, you’re walking around like your grandma,’ she says. Having to wear a heavy, weaponised suit of armour for much of the filming added to the strain. The first day, Blunt recalls ‘being overcome by panic because of the sheer weight of it and the claustrophobia’. She was down to an all-time low of under 120 pounds and the suit weighed 85 pounds. ‘Imagine carrying a teenager on your back all day,’ she says. ‘Though you almost become anaesthetised. Like the first time I wore a bra: really uncomfortable, and then you get used to it.’ There were physiotherapists to ‘crack us back into shape’ and ice baths for plunging into. She and Cruise also laughed a lot. ‘We’d just take the piss out of each other. It was sometimes the only way to get through how hard the days were.’
On the upside, the film was being shot in London, near Blunt’s family. ‘That was really lovely,’ she says. They saw a lot of her, including over Christmas when she ate ‘like a truck driver’ and spent the next two weeks shedding weight. Her parents came on set and even her father ‘was like, “Wow.” He thought the explosions were just the greatest thing’. Did Mr and Mrs Blunt meet Tom Cruise? ‘Yes. He’s the kind of person you could introduce to anybody. Everyone gets a bit giddy and pink around him because he’s so nice. I could see my mother melting slowly in front of him.’ And her father? ‘He was like, “Hi Tom. Yep. Nice to meet you,”’ she says, capturing his recognisably British response to celebrity.
As it happens, her next film, Into the Woods, adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s musical about fairy tales, was also shot in London, though by this point Blunt was into her second trimester. ‘Well, I auditioned, got it, and found out in the same week I was pregnant,’ she says. ‘I told [the director] Rob [Marshall] two weeks before rehearsals and said, “I completely understand if you need to recast.” But he was awesome. He said, “As a director, I’m like, ‘Oh fuck.’ But as your friend, I’m overjoyed, and we’ll make it work.” By the end of the shoot’ – when Blunt was seven months pregnant – ‘I was hiding behind trees and using bags and aprons as disguise.’ A month later she ‘ballooned’ and found herself with cankles. ‘Doesn’t everyone? I hope everyone does. Probably Gisele doesn’t. But I definitely did.’ But apart from the fat ankles and slight queasiness and the stutter (an affliction from childhood that resurfaced because of pressure on her solar plexus), the nine months were a joy. ‘I loved being pregnant,’ Blunt says. ‘I think people don’t like hearing that because some women have a terrible time, but I really liked it.’ It was nine months of people telling her she looked amazing and touching her bump: ‘It’s an instant conversation starter, your stomach.’ Though of course there were also (here she takes a deep breath) ‘the books – don’t take any advice’ and everyone sharing their ‘horrific birth stories’ a week before her due date. But this she laughs off. The high point, apart from the baby arriving, obviously, was ‘when you find out. That’s really wonderful and completely surreal. I don’t know if you can compute it at the time. Not until you’re holding that little body, which is just so incredible. It cracks you in half. I cry a lot now. There’s something about the purity of these little things that is really cool’.
Inevitably, becoming a parent has changed things. ‘Everything has slowed down,’ she says. ‘You realise that nothing else really matters. This industry, this town especially, can make you feel that all this stuff matters; this rather transient world and the gush and the work and the success and the competition. You can get drawn into that bubble, of thinking it all matters. Having a baby has made me realise that it doesn’t. None of it. It really doesn’t.’
That said, Blunt is heading back to work in a few weeks to promote Edge of Tomorrow (‘Redcarpets? Terror!’) and then in July (when Hazel will be five months old) to start a new film. She didn’t plan to – September would have been ideal, after return to acting so soon seven or eight months off – but a good script with ‘a great female role driving the movie’ was too exciting an opportunity to turn down. The film, Sicario, co-starring Benicio Del Toro and directed by Denis Villeneuve (whose Prisoners was a hit last year), is a violent tale of CIA corruption and drug cartels. Blunt was ‘a little tentative’ at first. ‘Do I want to be in New Mexico for 10 weeks shooting something with this subject matter when my house, my whole world, has become very pink and sweet and pure? But actually,’ she goes on, ‘I was talking to my friend and she said, “It’s exactly what you should do right now, because you’re a lioness. You’re a mama bear.” I think when you become a mother, you inherit a strength you’re not even aware of. I know it’s something John’s mentioned to me. He thinks I’m so much stronger now.’
On acting and motherhood, she later elaborates: ‘Some of my actor friends who are mothers have said it actually enhances your experience of everything. You experience love in a way that you never have, panic in a way that you never have, and fear and concern… So then you can pop that in the bank and you can access it.’ Sicario is being shot in Albuquerque. ‘I feel very aware of the juggling act with a baby so young. We’ll have some help,’ she says. ‘I think John might be busy, so…’
In her last interview for Bazaar in January 2011, a few months after she married Krasinski, Blunt talked about their promise never to spend more than two weeks apart. I ask if they have kept to that. ‘Yes. Well, I think we’ve done three weeks a couple of times, which was horrible. Two weeks is about our limit. We really do try. Edge of Tomorrow was tough. We did longer with that movie. LA to London is just so far, and he was on The Office at that point. Now that he’s not on that show, it’s a lot easier. Albuquerque and LA, it’s an hour and a half by plane.’ But why make that promise? ‘Because we miss the hell out of each other. It just becomes a sort of rule that you try and keep. Not even something you have to endure, something you want to do. Even if you see each other for 24 hours, I think it’s important. It’s everything, really. Time together. It’s not a nice thing to get good at being on your own.’ Besides, she adds: ‘I’m with someone who makes me incredibly happy. I’m not one of those people who subscribe to the idea that marriage takes the romance out of things. I think it gets better, it deepens. I love being a wife. We have a blast.’
Blunt’s parents are still together (as are Krasinski’s) and her family has always been close. When she was growing up in Roehampton, the six of them (including her parents, two sisters and brother) would come together every single night for dinner. ‘We still do when I go home. It’s made me realise how much you appreciate tradition and consistency when you’re a kid.’ The family, including Blunt’s literary-agent older sister Felicity and her actor husband Stanley Tucci, gathered for Christmas in Ojai this year. Blunt and her younger sister Susannah prepared slow-cooked pork with roast potatoes, cabbage, apple sauce and gravy. (Cooking is a passion of Blunt’s. She loves watching the Food Network and has even contributed a recipe for chicken soup to Tucci’s upcoming cookery book.) ‘My mum was a bit cross because she wanted me to sit down and put my feet up. But it was fun having everyone there.’
Having two American husbands in the family now is itself cause for amusement. ‘At my sister’s wedding,’ Blunt recalls, ‘my dad said in his father-of-the-bride speech, “I really hope another American doesn’t come through my door, sling my last daughter over his shoulder and take off into the night screaming Geronimo.”’ For the sake of Anglo-American relations, the two sons-in-law feign a regard for cricket, which in fact ‘neither of them has any interest in or understands’. As for Blunt, California may be home, but she hasn’t lost her taste for some quintessentially British things. Like pub culture. And never taking life too seriously. Two things that LA sorely lacks. Oh, and Marmite too, which seems to have divided opinion in Blunt’s otherwise harmonious household. ‘I gave it to John once,’ she says, dryly. ‘I think he almost divorced me.’