Emily Blunt’s first professional acting job was at the age of 18, in a West End play called The Royal Family, directed by Peter Hall. It was 2001 and she had, until then, been labouring under the delusion she’d go to university and study languages. (Blunt wanted to be a simultaneous translator at the UN.) Instead, she found herself in a makeup chair backstage at the Haymarket theatre, being crept up on by Judi Dench, her co-star. “I just heard that voice in the room behind me,” Blunt says, “and I remember feeling the air go out of me. And she said, ‘Hello, darling. If anyone gives you any trouble in this, you come straight to me.’”
Blunt has been lucky with her mentors; after Dench came Meryl Streep, whom she played opposite in The Devil Wears Prada, the bitchy assistant to the ruthless magazine editor. It was a role that bumped her, at the age of 23, to within spitting distance of A-list casting. These women set down a template by which the now 31-year-old actor has tried to abide: roughly, that there is a way to be successful in Hollywood without being a monster.
“Judi is the perfect example, as is Meryl, of people who take the work so seriously and are meticulous about it, but never take themselves too seriously,” Blunt says. “To work with her right off the bat and see how she fronts a company and leads everybody with humour and grace: she was hugely inspiring.”
No one notices Blunt in the hotel restaurant in Manhattan. She is slight, her hair pulled back ballerina-style, the kind of woman who looks good in tiny cardigans made of fine cashmere, a fact that belies her robust attitude to living. Blunt is happy to call out those films of hers that didn’t perform as expected at the box office (most recently, the sci-fi thriller Edge Of Tomorrow, in which she appeared with Tom Cruise) and profess disdain for getting caught up in the Hollywood machine. “You just adopt the amazing phrase, ‘Who cares?’” she says. “As soon as you have a child, it becomes the phrase that goes round and round my head all the time. Really.”
Hazel, the nine-month-old Blunt has with her husband, the actor John Krasinski, is not in New York on this four-day trip. (They are at home in California, where Hazel is only just sleeping through the night. Blunt didn’t want to disrupt her routine.) The actor was pregnant while making her latest movie, Into The Woods, and spent the latter stages of the shoot getting James Corden, her co-star, to throw out an arm or an elbow in front of her mid-section. The film is an unlikely Disney adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim stage musical, in which Anna Kendrick plays Cinderella, Christine Baranski the wicked stepmother and Meryl Streep the witch. Blunt is the baker’s wife, opposite Corden’s baker, and has the funniest lines, as well as a tiny bit of singing.
“A tiny bit? Excuse me!”
You sounded great.
“You’re very nice, thank you.”
Given that she’s not known for her singing, Blunt does have a surprisingly good voice. Rob Marshall, the director, cast for actors who could sing, rather than singers who could act, to preserve against the fate of many musicals, wherein the songs sound good, but mean very little. “Sondheim and Rob Marshall and the guys in the music department said, ‘We don’t need it to sound pretty, just make it work’,” Blunt says. In any case, none of the songs is particularly portable. “It’s that famous thing that Sondheim talks about, when he said people were up in arms about his music because you can’t hum it. And he hates that.”
He’s pretty ornery.
“In the most delightful way.”
Blunt’s own appeal is rooted in a crisp, comic style that hits just the right note between realistic and arch, a sort of stylised normalcy that has made audiences warm to her since her film debut, the 2004 British drama My Summer Of Love, a coming-of-age story that won her instant recognition as a subtle and arresting actor. The Devil Wears Prada won her publicity, but it was her role in The Young Victoria, three years later, that marked her transition into a more substantial talent. It’s a modestly good film, in which Blunt depicts the young queen as by turns sombre, agonised and skittish, a performance marked by her ability to pare everything down. Hers is an approach that works well at rationalising silly material (Prada), or beefing up a thin script (Victoria). She has an ability to look all silent and trembly in a way that implies vast untapped reserves beneath the surface.
Into The Woods, perhaps, then looks like a freeing exercise, a larky role in which she can break from the usual constraints, and which reunites her with her old buddy, Streep. Blunt suspects that, for Streep, who has been a great encourager over the years and whom she characterises as “a real broad – great fun”, it is a relief to work with former colleagues. “I feel like Meryl walks through life in a constant state of needing to defuse people’s intimidation of her. A weird way to exist. Maybe it helped that at least she didn’t have to worry about me.” Although, she adds, “It doesn’t mean I’m any less in awe of her.”
The real virtue of Into The Woods is in its subversion of everything Disney has come to stand for. The sudden turn it takes from a neat happy ending into something nastier and messier is, of course, classic Sondheim, but unusual in the context of a Disney movie. (At the end of the first half, one of the characters gets her eyes pecked out by vengeful crows, a moment so unexpectedly violent, the whole cinema I was in burst out laughing with the surprise of it.)
It is a return, Blunt says, to the good old days, when children weren’t cosseted. “Chris Pine [who plays the prince] was telling me that most schools in America only do the first act of the play, where everything is happy ever after. And it’s just sad that we’re choosing to coddle our children that way, because no one’s more perceptive than a child.”
It wasn’t always so, Blunt adds. Look at the classic Disney tales: “Bambi loses his mother, Dumbo is wrenched away from his mother, who is chained up and tormented and bullied. It used to be darker and more challenging. Nobody goes through life unscathed. If you want to fairytale the shit out of everything, you’re doing everyone a disservice.”
Blunt’s desire to act was an anomaly in her family. She grew up in London, the second of four children, and although her mother, Janice, is a former actor and her father, Oliver, a QC (not a job exactly light on theatrics), it was assumed that she and her siblings would go to university as a matter of course. The others have (one sister, Felicity, is a literary agent who is married to the actor Stanley Tucci); her youngest sister is still studying, to be a vet, and couldn’t be less interested in Blunt’s line of work. “Absolutely zero interest. She said to me – she’s 23 – ‘Listen, I’m really proud of you, and it’s great, I just don’t want to talk about it all the time.’ The whole family loves movies and she was like, ugh.” She gives an approving laugh.
The enthusiasm for acting started out partly as an effort to correct an early stammer. After joining various drama groups as a child, Blunt discovered that being in role made her fluent and gradually she outgrew the stammer. And it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch, she says, to say that she learned something about dramatic tension from watching her dad perform in court. “My dad, as a criminal defence lawyer, is in a perpetual state of pretending.”
“That these men didn’t do what they did! Usually, they did. I’ve been there when the verdict comes in, and it is so dramatic and intense. An atmosphere you could cut with a knife.”
What kind of defence lawyer is he?
“He hasn’t defended any child molesters in a long time – early on in his career, he had to do that. But he hasn’t done anything related to young girls, because he has three daughters. He doesn’t like working with rapists. So he prefers, if you can you use that word, murder, drugs and fraud.”
His jolliest case, she says, was defending some of the Millennium Dome robbers. “One diamond robber was a lovely old boy Dad said he felt bad for. They planned it so meticulously, and someone in their team tipped off the cops and they were waiting for them. And the guy said to my dad – they all call him “Olly”, which is bizarre – ‘Ah, Olly.’” Blunt puts on a Ray Winstone-like voice. “If I could just have touched it. I was so close!’ Dad was like, ‘I kind of wish he had!’”
The oddness of Blunt’s career trajectory is that she became a professional actor before she’d even made the decision that acting was what she wanted to do. While studying in the sixth form at Hurtwood House, a boarding school in Surrey, she took part in a student production that went up to the Edinburgh festival fringe. It was a rock musical called Bliss and there were, she says, “eight people in the audience every night”.
She was lucky; one of the drama teachers at the school was Adrian Rawlins, a professional actor (he plays Harry Potter’s dad in the movie franchise), who persuaded his agent, Roger Charteris, to attend the school performance in Edinburgh. Rawlins told him to look out for Blunt, and Charteris signed the teenager shortly afterwards. “He’s still my agent. I love continuity. I’ve worked with the same makeup artists for years. You create your own little family.”
After being cast in the West End play with Judi Dench, Blunt could have gone to drama school. “I was so green. I knew nothing. I don’t think I knew what I was doing for the first few years.” She had no particular expectations, which is “probably the best way to go into this. It’s not a business you want to rely upon. You’re not going to get promoted each year.”
Looking back, Blunt is glad she went straight into professional work. “Drama school gives you a place to screw up and fuck up, and it gives you room for self-discovery and technique. I’ve also seen how it crushes people’s natural ability, and how it creates a space where you just overthink everything and become this neurotic performer. I’ve seen it both ways with friends, so I don’t know how it would have affected me. I just tried to sponge it up, to learn from everybody I was around. Acting is strange – it’s the ultimate expression of empathy. So if you’re interested in people and curious about life, and curious about everything other than this business, then you’ll probably get better.”
After that first stage role, Blunt put in a few years popping up in TV shows such as Foyle’s War and Poirot. In 2005, she was cast in Empire, a blockbuster miniseries set in ancient Rome, and the following year starred in the Stephen Poliakoff TV drama Gideon’s Daughter, with Bill Nighy and Miranda Richardson, a role for which she won a Golden Globe. Then came The Devil Wears Prada. Since then, Blunt has been reliably good in movies as diverse as the romcom Salmon Fishing In The Yemen and Looper, the futuristic thriller that was somehow less than the sum of its parts. Her best role in recent years has been in Your Sister’s Sister, with Rosemary DeWitt and Mark Duplass, in which she hardly seems to be acting, and I mean that as a compliment.
Blunt loves the variable nature of her job, the “fresh injection of people” every six months that “keeps you vital”, although since having Hazel she has tweaked her schedule to allow for at least four or five months at home between projects. There is so much of a premium on an actor’s physical fitness that she was lucky her pregnancy came during a shoot where she could easily disguise it. For example, Blunt says, she couldn’t have made Edge Of Tomorrow while pregnant, given the amount of “clanging into each other in metal suits”. Despite disappointing returns at the box office – “And I was like, er, surely making $100m is doing well? But in this day and age it’s not” – Edge Of Tomorrow is having an afterlife. It is, Blunt says, the film she is most often approached about, by nerds wanting to discuss the metaphysical nature of its breach in the space/time continuum. Meanwhile, she says, she wouldn’t wish on anyone Cruise’s “absurd fame. You’ll never, ever be able to walk down a street without it being a meat market.”
Into The Woods was a perfect vehicle, perhaps the one role in Hollywood for “an overweight and sort of happy-looking baker’s wife”. She finished filming in London, at Shepperton Studios, two months before giving birth, an odd conflation of life and art – much of Sondheim’s musical concerns the baker’s wife’s ravenous and eventually successful desire to have a baby, something Blunt sympathised with. “I have so many friends who are frenzied to have a baby, and it’s ruined their marriages and tormented them, and it becomes all they see in front of them.”
“You see it particularly in actors – the precariousness of the job is what makes you suffer in the end, because you’re looking out for the next thing and the next thing and the next thing, and there’s never a good time. Same with every job, but I know a couple of actors who are in their 50s now and are really sad.”
The night before we meet, Blunt was at an event with her Into The Woods co-star Christine Baranski, who gave her a reassuring pep talk about working mothers. “She was talking about being an actor and having kids, and she said the mothers who just want to be with their children all the time, I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing. Whereas the kids who are raised by a community of four or five people – your mum, his mum, a babysitter – they’re the kids who run through the door of the classroom and don’t look back. And that was so helpful for me to hear.”
Krasinski is pretty reliable, she says, although since the baby is now on a schedule, “he just has to keep it all going and wash the bottles”. And does he? “He does! Which becomes the biggest turn-on in the world – just having the bottles done and the food ready for the next day.”
While they’re at home in Ojai, a town about two hours north by car from Los Angeles, the couple live a determinedly low-key life – Blunt’s husband “is from Boston and the Bostonians are quite British in some ways” – something they disrupt now and then to, for example, attend George Clooney’s wedding. “In your mind, you’re just going to see your friends get married. But with the high possibility of it being documented by… everybody. It’s odd. It’s odd.”
Existentially, it’s all a bit odd, the fairytale aspect of wealth and fame, and the darker side, too. But what are you going to do? Or, as Blunt would say, who cares?