For fairly obvious reasons, most of them to do with rhyming slang, Emily Blunt loathed her surname when she was growing up. “It was like a curse to be called that as a child,” she groans. “Names like ‘Blunt pencil’. And that led on to the unimaginable – or the imaginable – as I got older.”
We are sitting in the staff cafe at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire where Blunt is filming. It is a large, airy room just off a road called, somewhat improbably, “Goldfinger Avenue” and it looks more like a fashionable Manhattan rooftop night spot than any canteen I have ever been in. The cash tills appear to be made out of polished black marble and there is a juice and smoothie bar along one wall called “Milk & Honey”. We are perched on either side of a huge matt-black table on uncomfortably hard, oversized benches that could quite possibly double up as a modern art installation.
In contrast to the slickness of the setting, Blunt is looking decidedly unflashy in grey skinny jeans, flat-soled sandals and a leather jacket that is so artfully battered it must have been very expensive. She arrives 15 minutes early for our 9am interview and is not wearing the default movie-star dark glasses in spite of a burst of early summer sunshine that would have given her a legitimate excuse to do so.
Apart from a thin lick of eyeliner and mascara, her face is devoid of make-up, which only serves to emphasise her beauty: striking blue, wide-set eyes, perfect teeth, an irregular smile and a chin cleft that shouldn’t work on anyone other than Michael Douglas and yet somehow does. She has a sore throat today and apologises for “sounding like a man” before breaking into a fit of coughing. “Sorry, that’s so gross.”
The surname teasing eased off once Blunt left school. But then, just as she was launching herself into a career as an actress, the singer James Blunt released the single You’re Beautiful and people kept asking her for concert tickets to see her brother perform live. She rolls her eyes. “I’m like, ‘He’s absolutely not my brother’.”
Over the last few years, Emily Blunt has been markedly more successful at making her name her own. After small parts on stage and television, her breakthrough film role was as Tamsin in Pawel Pawlikowski’s cult 2004 hit, My Summer of Love, a critically-acclaimed story of a teenage lesbian infatuation.
But it was a supporting role as a forked-tongued fashion assistant in the 2006 box-office hit The Devil Wears Prada that catapulted Blunt into the Hollywood mainstream. She turned in a finely-tuned comic performance that was not so much scene-stealing as grand larceny of the entire script. The role earned her nominations for a Golden Globe and two Baftas. Meryl Streep, who starred as the acerbic magazine editor Miranda Priestly, considers that Blunt is one of the best young actresses she has ever worked with.
Further supporting roles followed – as an oversexed businessman’s daughter alongside Tom Hanks in Charlie Wilson’s War and as a lovelorn babysitter in Dan in Real Life with Steve Carell – before Blunt took on her first major starring role in The Young Victoria earlier this year.
Her versatility – she can do funny, sad or angst-ridden and lapses into a convincing American accent at the drop of a Yankees baseball cap – has earned her a place at the forefront of a new generation of British actresses who have notched up success in America. Like Kate Winslet and Rachel Weisz before her, Blunt has appeared in big-ticket Hollywood films without being pigeon-holed by casting directors as either an uptight aristocrat or a lace-bonneted period-drama heroine. Her talent is such that she is treated as an actress who happens to be British, rather than a British actress.
“She’s immensely watchable and a fine film actress,” says the casting director Susie Figgis, who worked with Blunt on The Young Victoria. “I think she had a real determination to go out and make it and that’s a big quality. She’s a pretty impressive person with great tenacity. She’s been clever with her choice of roles and slogged hard to get to where she has. I admire her hugely.”
So, at the age of 26, does Blunt feel she has made it? She recoils slightly at the question. “Eek. Um. Made it. I don’t know what that means. You still feel the challenges, you still feel the struggle, you still wonder what you’re going to do next and whether someone wants to hire you. So I just can’t say that I’ve ‘made it’.”
Is she ambitious? “Maybe quietly so, yeah.”
She squirms uncomfortably, clearly not wishing to sound self-satisfied and yet simultaneously not wanting to appear rude by refusing to answer. For someone so young, Blunt possesses an almost grandmotherly caution about expressing herself. She is a thinker and has a tendency towards pensiveness, mulling over each comment for several seconds before she commits herself to voicing it, like someone examining a suspicious package for anthrax spores before opening it.
“I usually need a bit of logical thinking to get me through something particularly hard,” she says at one point. “I usually need to talk it out and then I recover very quickly. I’m not a dweller.”
It is a thoughtfulness that translates well on screen. In her dramatic roles, Blunt specialises in a sort of calculated understatement: she will twitch her lips rather than break into a smile and deploy a single raised eyebrow to devastating effect. In The Young Victoria, her face often remained immobile in close-up and yet you could somehow see the thoughts passing over her pale blue eyes like clouds scudding across the sky.
“I learned very early on to reel everything in,” she explains. “Sometimes you just shouldn’t do anything because the camera sees everything – like the smallest flick of your eye and it catches it and it reads as something. The performances I enjoy are the ones that are hard to read or ambiguous or left-of-centre because it makes you look closer and that’s what humans are like – quite mysterious creatures, hard to pinpoint.”
One of her favourite films is the 1979 courtroom drama Kramer vs. Kramer, starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep as parents going through a divorce. “It’s a film where human behaviour is so fascinating that I could watch someone making pancakes with their child all day because of everything that’s going on between them. That little boy – I want to cry thinking about it [and at this point, it should be noted that her eyes do indeed moisten prettily] – he was just magical in it. It’s the best performance by a kid I’ve ever seen.”
Ironically for an actress who seeks to convey the subtle inner machinations of her characters, Blunt claims never to think too much about what she does. “I don’t really take it that seriously. Maybe I’m supposed to but I don’t. I can’t define what the method is. I don’t really think you know what you’re going to do until you do it.” Anne Hathaway, Blunt’s co-star in The Devil Wears Prada and a close friend, puts it more brusquely: “She [Blunt] just fucking got on with it. She’d just jump off the diving board. I’d stop, look at the water and then jump. And suddenly I just thought, her way looks so much more fun.”
Blunt does have a sceptical disregard for luvvie pretensions. The mere mention of a “craft” is enough to induce a contemptuous lip curl. “I think it’s embarrassing to hear people talk about their process because you always sound a bit wanky. You always imagine people are reading the article going: ‘Oh, get a real job.'”
Her diffidence is probably partly due to her impeccably middle-class upbringing in the leafy district of Roehampton, south-west London. Blunt grew up in a family with a strong work ethic: her mother, Joanna, is a former theatre actress who now teaches English as a foreign language, while her father, Oliver, is a criminal barrister. Her uncle, Crispin, is a Tory MP (Does she vote? “I do.” For the Conservatives? “I’m not going to tell you.”)
The second of four children, Blunt has an older sister, Felicity, 29, who is a literary agent. Her brother Sebastian, 20, is at university doing a film and drama degree and her 18-year-old sister, Susannah, is studying for her A-levels.
Her family remain gently unimpressed by her fame. “I think they’re very proud of me but in the way you’d sort of expect, not in the gushing, obsequious way, but just because I’m their child and I think they’re relieved their child is doing well in a business that is known for crushing people.” Recently, her father left a message on her answering machine saying that he was taken aback to have been introduced in court as “Emily Blunt’s father”. “He said to me: ‘Where have the days gone where you were known as my daughter?’ I was like: ‘Those days are long gone, Dad.'”
Set against this family background of professional success and personal sacrifice (her mother gave up acting to be a full-time mother), Blunt still has qualms about whether what she does can actually be said to constitute real work. “I guess it’s not really a job, is it?” she says disarmingly. “I was speaking to Billy Connolly the other day [her co-star in Gulliver’s Travels, out next year] and we were talking about the work he’s done for Comic Relief and all that he’s done in Africa and I was saying ‘Gosh, sometimes I just wonder if I have a worthwhile job’, and he said: ‘I’m going to stop you there. You have an incredibly important job. You offer people an escape, you offer people a way out and some relief from anything they might be going through and it’s a very important job.'” She pauses and stares thoughtfully into space. “Because he was so adamant about it and spoke very passionately about why it was an important job, it’s the first time I’ve realised that it might be that.”
Blunt cannot remember ever wanting to be an actress but she suffered from a debilitating stammer as a child and an enterprising teacher suggested that she should take part in a school play. “That was liberating for me because I think if you distance yourself from being yourself, it sort of flicks a switch. It’s like a record that’s skipping and you can put it back on.”
She appeared in a play at the Edinburgh Fringe during her A-levels and was promptly snapped up by an agent. The stammer comes back occasionally – mostly when Blunt is on the phone or when she is particularly stressed – but she remains grateful that the difficulty she had in expressing herself as a child made her more aware of the nuances of human behaviour: “I watched people more closely because my life was a bit quieter.”
Her insight into what makes characters tick and her facility for accents are both evident in her latest film, Sunshine Cleaning. The offbeat comedy set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, tells the story of a cash-strapped single mother (Amy Adams) who sets up a business clearing crime scenes with her sister (played by Blunt). Independently produced by the same team behind Little Miss Sunshine, the film also co-stars the veteran character actor Alan Arkin.
When I mention Arkin’s name, Blunt’s face melts into a blissful smile and she clasps her hands in front of her like a small child contemplating a new-born puppy. “He is infectious and wise and impossible not to follow around,” she says. “Amy and I loved him. I think we kind of vied for his attention. We were trying to have a competition as to who could irritate Alan more. I think we both did profoundly irritate him because he’s just so delicious we couldn’t leave him alone.”
How did they irritate him? “Just by following him around and staring at him and stuff. He’d be like – ” she breaks off and puts on a surprisingly convincing Arkin voice – “‘Leave me alone, I wanna eat my lunch’. ‘But Alan, I really need for you to like me!'”
She got on well with Adams too – “she’s perceived as being sweet and persecuted [but] she’s dirty. She tells the filthiest jokes” – and picked up a certain amount of esoteric knowledge about how to tidy away a crime scene after someone has been shot or hideously maimed. “We had a guy come in and teach us how to do it. We were trying to draw from him emotional starting points and we were asking ‘Well, how do you feel when you see the blood?’ and he’s like: ‘I don’t know. You just gotta clear it up.'” She laughs. “He was just very scientific about it.”
Does she worry that independent, offbeat films like this will struggle to get made because of the economic climate? “Yes. I heard a conversation with a studio head who said that they’re willing to make an Adam Sandler film or a Will Smith film and maybe one $20m film a year and that’s it. That’s quite worrying that the studios are only going to be willing to spend money on films that are no risk, with the big stars that everyone is going to flock to see. So unfortunately there’s a lot of films with a very human heartbeat that aren’t getting seen or made. I think there’s a great sadness in that.”
Sunshine Cleaning, out this week, is a classic of the indie genre: funny, affecting and featuring the requisite whimsical child drop-out who thinks he can speak to heaven through a car radio. The storyline also sees Blunt’s character, Norah, becoming emotionally entangled with a lesbian. I point out that this is the second time, after My Summer of Love, that Blunt has played the focus of same-sex adulation.
“Yes, I’m going to become a gay icon,” she says self-mockingly. “Have I ever flirted with that side? No, never [but] I do remember girl crushes on other girls in your year group [at school]. There are these girls who are magnetic and beautiful and sooo cool. You just feel yourself shrink in their presence. I absolutely remember how powerful 16-, 17-year-old girls can be. I look at them now – my little sister is 18 – and they do seem very grown-up. And taller – I mean what is that? My brother is 6ft 4ins now. They all seem to be that tall.”
She is noticeably less open about her private life. For three years, Blunt dated the Canadian jazz singer Michael Bublé after meeting him backstage at a concert. The couple shared a home in Vancouver but split up last year amid rumours that Bublé had cheated on her. Now she divides her time between Los Angeles and a home in London shared with her sister, Felicity. She has recently been romantically linked with John Krasinski, the star of the American version of The Office
This is dangerous territory. When I mention Bublé’s name, I am treated to a stare that is so glacial it could freeze an ant at 500 paces. Is she seeing anyone at the moment? “Weirdly enough, I’m going to pass on that. You know, apparently I’m seeing everyone. I think someone said I was dating Anne Hathaway in a story recently.”
In Blunt’s early interviews, she spoke openly and affectionately about her love for Bublé (“I even get tears in my eyes when I see him onstage,” was a fairly typical statement) and one gets the impression that she now regrets that candour; that she feels a bit foolish for it. After a few years in the Hollywood limelight, she is understandably wary of revealing too much, yet this seems to sit uneasily with her natural intelligence and inclination to express herself. Occasionally she draws herself back from a question, reining herself in before she says something that might be misinterpreted. When I ask whether she is happy with how she looks, she replies: “Relatively. There’s always things I want to change. Everyone has that.”
Like what? “Oh, I can’t reveal that. That’s saying far too much.”
But do you think you’re beautiful? “You can’t ask those things. You just can’t! I absolutely can’t answer that.”
In spite of her youth and the relative novelty of her success, Blunt is already adept at the business of fame and seems remarkably unfazed by it. When we walk out of the canteen, blinking into the sunlight, there is a giant poster of The Young Victoria hanging on the wall outside the studio opposite with Blunt’s face magnified to several hundred times its normal size. She dismisses it embarrassedly when I point it out: “I don’t know why they haven’t taken it down.”
It must be a curious way to see yourself every morning as you go to work – 100ft high and trussed up in a tiara and Victorian period dress. Where does she imagine she will be when all this – the photoshoots, the premieres, the pretty dresses – has fallen by the wayside? What will she be like when she is 80?
“I wonder if I’ll be alive?” she asks cheerily. “God knows. I’m not very good at looking that far ahead. I’d love to not have a walker at 80. I’d love to still be upright. And children and grandchildren, I’d love that. I’d love not to be a cantankerous old bat. I’d love to be a fun-loving nana.”