With awards fever last year homing in on English actor Emily Blunt’s breakout performance as the deliciously unhinged personal assistant to Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was working alongside Blunt on the set of Charlie Wilson’s War at the time, passed on his experience of acceptance speeches.
“You’re going to hate yourself,” he told her, to which she replied, “I think I’ll be all right.”
On the night of the Golden Globes, while an award for The Devils Wears Prada wasn’t forthcoming, Blunt, 24, scooped a best supporting actress gong for her lesser known role in the BBC TV drama Gideon’s Daughter.
“I have to say my Golden Globe speech was absolutely diabolical,” she recalls. “I hadn’t rehearsed one or written one, as I had no idea that people had even seen Gideon’s Daughter, let alone that I would win anything.”
Fittingly, as soon she came off the podium, Blunt happened to walk past Hoffman backstage. “I looked at him and said: ‘I f—ing hate myself.’ And he just replied: ‘I told you.’ ”
If Blunt was a little overwhelmed on her big night, it’s no surprise that her rise of late has been swift. When we meet in a London hotel to discuss her latest film The Jane Austen Book Club, two separate interview slots are scheduled with her in a vain attempt to fit in the five other films she has recently completed which are slated for release this year. (Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks, and the Steve Carell comedy Dan In Real Life are both coming to Australian screens this month.)
Level-headed and grounded are the usual interview descriptions trotted out to describe the more normal actors; they apply equally to the London-born actor, with her polished English accent.
In our morning slot, she had me entertained, peppering her answers with pitch-perfect impersonations of Hoffman, Hanks, John Malkovich and various neurotic Los Angeles Hollywood industry types. Now, when we meet for a second time after lunch, motioning towards my recorder, she demands: “What do you want to know now? Come on then, get your little machine out!”
With her personable self-effacing nature all wrapped up in her normal exterior shell of poise and sophistication, there’s a lot to like about Blunt. Modestly, she refuses to be drawn into saying what she thinks differentiates herself from the current crop of pretty, young acting starlets.
“I have no idea; you have to decide for yourself. I once told a journalist: ‘Well you’re like a bird watcher, you decide.’ ”
The consensus of all who cross her path is that her sly feline eyes top the list. Her Gideon’s Daughter director Stephen Poliakoff says they make her “convey thoughts without overacting and make thoughts translucent”, while her boyfriend coyly nicknames her Garfield because of them. In appearance at least, they’re the distinct focus of her unnerving air of worldly confidence.
“Why am I confident today?” she ponders, before breaking into a chuckle.
“Because I have an awesome job, a great family and it’s going very well. I haven’t got anything to complain about.”
It all seems at odds with a childhood punctuated by trips to cranial osteopaths and speech therapists, as her parents sought desperately to rid her of a stutter that plagued her childhood.
While it didn’t affect her youthful pursuits of gymnastics and playing the cello, which she excelled in, attempting acting seemed a far-fetched notion. Encouraged into a couple of school plays by her drama teacher, it soon provided an unlikely therapy.
“I can’t explain it, but it does just disappear, because you find you’re saying words that aren’t your own,” she says, adding that other actors such as Bruce Willis have experienced the same remedy. “You do remove yourself from it in a certain way. Or if I had to do a different voice it would help.”
While The Devil Wears Prada brought Blunt into the public eye and got her award nominations, she says that within the industry and among ardent cinemagoers it was her first film role as the dangerously possessive Tamsin in Pawel Pawlikowski’s resonating portrayal of adolescence, My Summer Of Love, that fast-tracked her career.
“It’s referenced a lot in meetings,” she says. “It’s proved to be a little gem. Most of the interesting work I’ve been offered has come because of it, and not because of Prada.”
The film indeed proved the reason behind director Robin Swicord casting her in the ensemble adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler’s bestselling novel The Jane Austen Book Club.
Blunt plays Prudie, an inhibited and unfulfilled French teacher who joins a book club whose members soon see the work of Austen, which they discuss, impressing on and guiding their decisions in life.
Stifled by her demanding mother and feeling superfluous to the needs of her regulation handsome and steadfast boyfriend, Prudie, enraptured by Austen’s prose, soon begins to experience emotional enlightenment and desires transcendence.
In coming to terms with Prudie’s plight, Blunt identified with her character by recalling her teenage years.
“I was shy and a bit of a geek, and I never felt quite accepted into the cool gang,” she admits. “I remembered what that was – those girls in your class who had this light around them, and you desperately wanted to ingratiate yourself with them.”
Blunt can pinpoint her own transformation to the practicality of changing schools. At 16 she enrolled at Hurtwood House, and was quickly encouraged by the school’s enlightened regime that “allows pupils to embrace who they are, without needing to conform”.
While she admits she had to get over an early delusional desire of becoming “the next Kate Moss”, after being approached by a model talent scout during her first year, the school’s excellent theatrical department solidified her acting aspirations.
After performing in a play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival she secured a London agent.
A year later, in 2001, aged 18, she received acclaim for her West End performance opposite Dame Judy Dench in The Royal Family.
Now herself very much the girl with the light around her, Blunt has stealthily sidestepped the many temptations of her burgeoning fame.
The only annoyance she notes has been a seemingly constant shower of requests for tickets for the concerts of musician James Blunt, whom people mistake for her brother.
“James and I met a couple of times,” she muses. “We decided it would be funny to actually confess that we are brother and sister and we really hate each other and the family lawyers are involved.”
The actor, no doubt, is also inundated with ticket requests for her beau of over two years, the much touted “Young Sinatra”, Canadian jazz singer Michael Buble. The couple met at the Logies in Melbourne in 2005, while Blunt was filming her role as a marriage-wrecking temptress opposite Susan Sarandon and Sam Neill in the Australian thriller Irresistible.
After moving to Buble’s Vancouver home, she’s avoided the snapping tabloid hounds of her native country to such as extent that she admits her agent and publicist scratch their heads as to why their bright Hollywood star isn’t hogging the headlines as frequently as they’d like.
Blunt, who is more than happy with the arrangement, also adds that it helps her work.
“If you’re caught wearing no knickers in public, that’s what people see when they see you on screen,” she says.
Flying under the media radar, her presence wasn’t even mentioned in reports of James Packer’s wedding reception on the French Riviera last year.
“I didn’t know about the Packers,” says Blunt, admitting she didn’t fully realise she was attending the Australian wedding of the year. “Yes, it was a little bizarre with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes there. Michael had his full band there and he was meant to do a half-an-hour set, but he ended up doing an hour-and-a-half, because he felt they’d been nice to him. I felt a bit like a third wheel, but it was just a normal fun night. I think we got drunk, from what I remember.”
While the perks of celebrity coupledom can reach giddy heights, three weeks after we meet, Blunt would receive a poisoned dose of the side effects of high-profile romance.
A Canadian tabloid published a story of an ex-flame of Buble, who allegedly confessed that she had continued a 10-year fling with him into the period of his relationship with Blunt.
While Blunt has admitted in the past that Buble “is a guy who drinks Scotch and plays poker” when toying with the clean-cut image adored by his legions of fanatical fans, the spicy confession that “we made mad, passionate love” is standard editorial spin used to misconstrue events into salacious headlines. Add to that some dubious and dated photographs, and the validity of the story is questionable.
With the couple offering no comment at the time of press, whether the story harms the relationship will be seen if Blunt accompanies Buble on his Australian tour in May.
In the meantime, it’s Blunt’s work that will be providing the headlines.
Topping her vamp-like dirty dancing with Steve Carell in Dan In Real Life, there is, in her own words, “certainly a raunchy scene” with Hanks, as she falls prey to his unapologetic, womanising, political playboy in Charlie Wilson’s War, which satirically recalls America’s involvement in the Afghan-Soviet Union conflict in the 1980s.
“I was a bit distracted on that set,” confesses Blunt of her intimate scenes with Hanks.
“Being surrounded by the crew, while I’m prancing around not wearing much in front of him was a bit unnerving. He’s easy to work with, but when you’ve grown up watching his movies it is bizarre.”
The Jane Austen Book Club and Blunt’s slew of “impactive cameos” are simply the tempting starter to the main course that will be served this year in the shape of her portrayal of Britain’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, in The Young Victoria, which marks her first lead film role. “It is a big opportunity for me,” she says.
“It was very frightening and daunting leading up to it.” With the actor playing Victoria between the ages of 17 and 24, the film hopes to capture the rebellious and spirited monarch, long lost under the marbled-faced dispassionate mask of her later reign.
“I saw her as the young girl with a feisty temper who used to dance and enjoy opera, but was in the servitude of a job that was way over her head,” she says.
If early expectations bear fruit, further award nominations won’t be far off. The thought, even at this stage, makes her shudder.