Emily Blunt is laughing.
She laughs a lot, actually – at premieres, in interviews, at restaurants – and it’s a great laugh. The first time we met I thought it was a nervous tic, just something an actor does to cover the pauses in conversation. But after subsequent interviews I’ve come to understand that she just finds lots of things funny.
This may surprise some people, as Blunt’s best-known roles haven’t let her laugh very much. Her breakout role, as Meryl Streep’s officious right hand in The Devil Wears Prada, didn’t even let her crack a smile; her deadpan severity was the joke. And in the movies she’s brought to the Toronto Film Festival – 2004’s My Summer Of Love, 2009’s The Young Victoria and last year’s double bill of Salmon Fishing In The Yemen and Your Sister’s Sister – she’s demonstrated a knack for getting under the skin of complex, enigmatic characters.
She’s also been entirely delightful opposite Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau and Jason Segel in The Five-Year Engagement; those are the performances that come closest to the Blunt I’ve met – quick-witted, open and wickedly self-deprecating. Not coincidentally, everyone I’ve interviewed who’s worked with her has praised her to the skies, which makes her incredibly uncomfortable.
“They’ve all been paid!” she laughs over an uncertain cellphone connection from L.A. “They’ve been paid handsomely!”
This year, she’s returning to Toronto with another pair of premieres. In the festival’s opening night gala, Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller Looper, Blunt plays a flinty, capable single parent whose fate is somehow intertwined with a nihilistic assassin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his renegade future self (Bruce Willis).
“The whole time I read the script, what I remember is patting myself on the back for keeping up with it,” she says – and there’s that laugh again. “It just races; it’s always three steps ahead of you.”
The experience of watching the finished film was similarly involving, she says. “You’re sort of having to adjust your brain to watching a different sort of movie, because I guess we’re so programmed to these rather formulaic stories, and there’s something about Looper that carves out a completely new space for itself.”
Looper isn’t the first time Blunt has played an American – she played Amy Adams’s sister in Sunshine Cleaning a few years ago – but this character’s harder edges gave her the chance to try something a little different when it came to developing her accent.
“What I did was I listened to guys from Kansas, not girls,” she confesses. “I listened to Chris Cooper a lot. I listened to him giving interviews; I wanted to hear him in a naturalistic sense. It was really helpful. I have more Chris Cooper interviews on my iPod than any stalker he has.”
Blunt had a cameo in last year’s Muppet movie, in which Cooper played the heel, so I ask if she approached the actor on set.
“I’ve never met Chris Cooper in my life,” she laughs. “He would have no idea that I’ve done this, listened to his voice like a freak.”
Her other picture at TIFF 2012 is Dante Ariola’s Arthur Newman, which hadn’t been screened at press time, so I’m flying blind.
“What do you want to know?” she asks brightly. “Arthur Newman is a very strange, very beautiful little film; it plays like a 70s movie. It feels European.”
Arthur, played by Colin Firth, is a lost soul who abandons his former life to adopt a new identity; Blunt plays a woman with a similar story who joins him on his journey.
“It’s a very intimate story about these two social outcasts,” she says. “Really, it’s a statement about people trying to find their place in the world. I don’t think it’s like anything people have seen, but I love how uncompromising it is. It never once turned into a jaunty kind of road movie; it’s a very quiet, intimate portrayal of these two characters. It’s really cool.”
Once she’s fulfilled her TIFF duties, Blunt will get back to preparing for her next project, Doug Liman’s sci-fi actioner All You Need Is Kill, where she and Tom Cruise play soldiers battling an alien invasion.
It’s the kind of large-scale production Blunt doesn’t often take on – possibly because her previous experience with a would-be blockbuster was Joe Johnston’s toothless update of The Wolfman. Blunt got to co-star with Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, but the result was, shall we say, unworthy of their talents.
“I think with those big movies, the script has to come first,” she says. “And that’s what I feel might have gone wrong with The Wolfman. That’s what I really admire about this movie we’re about to start; the script is very much first and foremost in people’s minds. You feel supported and protected.”
Not that there isn’t a downside, mind you.
“I actually just pulled up to the UCLA track,” she says. “I should be leaping painfully up sets of stairs right now – so I’d much prefer to talk to you.”
Aggressive training isn’t new for Blunt – she did a month of dance boot camp for her role as Matt Damon’s true love in The Adjustment Bureau three years ago – but I remember how incredulous she was back then about the idea that she could be cast in a physical role. Turns out she’s still having trouble with it.
“I don’t know what I’m doing! Why am I taking on these incredibly active roles?” she laughs. “I would love to do one where there’s a pie-eating competition. I wanna play that chick. Please write it, write it immediately.”