Rich girl, poor girl

The English class drama My Summer of Love marks the feature debut of Emily Blunt and Nathalie Press … and it won’t be the last you’ll see of them.

There’s nothing like a northern accent to add comic value to a performance, but for young English actors Emily Blunt and Nathalie Press, talking like they’ve just been down t’pit has been a life-altering act.

For 22-year-old Blunt, bunging on a northern voice helped overcome a debilitating speech defect. And for Press, 23, coming over all Coronation Street helped her land a lead film role despite an overwhelming lack of experience.

Press and Blunt are sharing a couch in a Melbourne hotel room, talking about My Summer of Love, the small but perfectly formed English film that has brought them here. It’s a dark coming-of-age tale set in Yorkshire, about two lonely girls from opposite ends of the social heap who forge an unlikely, intense and dangerous friendship.

Blunt plays wealthy 16-year-old Tamsin, expelled from her exclusive public school for sustained naughtiness. Press plays Mona, a rebellious working-class teen whose parents are dead and whose former jailbird brother has found God and turned the family pub into a Christian revivalist centre.

Both are utterly convincing. So it comes as quite a surprise when “Mona” opens her mouth in Melbourne to reveal the sort of generically middle-class London voice you associate with nice girls in publishing rather than tough girls in pubs.

Press, it turns out, has a way with accents. “Pawel (Pawlikowski, the director) put me working in a cafe for about three days before we started shooting,” she says, recalling how she fine-tuned Mona’s voice. “And that was really fun because I could bounce my accent around and just make sure everyone believed it.”

Everyone did. Except, that is, for one or two German interviewers, who were a little confused. Press adopts another accent, German this time, to explain. “They’re like, ‘In ze beginning of ze film you say you vant to be a liar when you grow up, and actually it’s Tamsin who does the lying’. And I’m like, ‘No, um, ah, Mona’s actually saying she wants to be a lawyer’. And they’re completely undone.”

That Press even got the chance to confuse the Germans is something of a miracle. Prior to landing the role, she hadn’t exactly been flat out. “I’d done, like, a day here and a day there,” she says. Mostly, she’d done temp work, sneaking out to auditions in the middle of the day by claiming she had a doctor’s appointment, then scurrying into the office toilet to strip off her make-up before heading back to work. “It was a nightmare,” she says.

But when she read for Mona she was confident she wouldn’t have to temp for a while. “It was one of those auditions where you come out and you feel like you’re flying. The excitement in the room was just amazing. I was right for it and they knew I was and it felt magic. It was incredible.”

Still, she wasn’t the obvious choice. She was five years older than her character, she had little experience other than a five-day stint on a short film, and she was from a middle-class Jewish family in north London. And, though she’d done kiddie theatre from the age of six to 10 (“I had a lot of energy,” she says, “and my mum would drop me off there so she’d have some peace for the day”), she hadn’t followed the traditional route through drama school.

So, why her? “She has Mona’s spirit, you know,” says Emily Blunt, who’s sitting beside her on the couch, politely waiting her turn, but occasionally jumping in to boost her co-star and friend.

“I had a yearning for the acting life as much as Mona has a yearning for some excitement in her life,” Press adds. “So I made the adjustment. And they could see that, you know. Because it’s quite hard to get into acting if you don’t have anything on your CV or know anybody.”

By comparison, casting Blunt was a cinch. She’d done a year of drama studies, acted on stage alongside Judi Dench, had roles in a couple of drama series on TV (Foyle’s War, Henry VIII, Empire). “I did a lot of period drama, and I was getting a bit bored of this kind of rigid, static way of doing it,” Blunt says. “I mean, you try to make it as real as possible but when you have lines like …”

“You were amazing in Henry VIII,” Press says.

“Oh, that’s nice,” says Blunt. “That was a better drama, but some of the lines you get given.”

Go on, then. “I had one in Empire … ‘The fallen eagle is Caesar; the vulture Octavius, and there is one, yet to be decided, who will betray them all’. And you’re just like, ‘Great, how am I going to make that work?’.”

So, how did you make it work? “I didn’t,” she laughs. “I didn’t.”

So when her agent suggested she might want to audition for My Summer of Love, Blunt was ready for a change. At the same time, she says: “I was a real wuss about it. I was really scared about working in a different way, a modern, gritty, unique way of working. But I went and I met Pawel and I really liked him immensely and then I met Nathalie and I really liked her immensely. And the whole way the process was unfolding before my eyes, I could suddenly see it and see myself in it, and felt that we could go there together, because the chemistry was great. And I wasn’t scared any more.”

The Emily Blunt who tells this story is so fresh-faced and straight-backed and strong-voiced and clear-eyed it’s hard to imagine her ever being anything like scared. But, as she tells it, there was a time when she wasn’t so together, and this is where her own northern accent story comes in.

Until the age of 16 or so, she was rather dreamy, very internal. “My head was occupied all the time. I was confused about what I wanted to do or who I was; I didn’t really feel I had an identity growing up.” And there was one other thing. “I had a terrible stammer as a kid.”

Really? “Shocking. Shocking, I couldn’t speak.”

Can you demonstrate it now? “Oh,” she says, slightly afluster. “I hate it when I hear people doing impressions, because they’re always ‘d-d-d-d-d’, and it wasn’t like that. It was” – and here she picks up a magazine and gives a sharp intake of breath as she makes like she’s struggling to read the name on the cover – ” ‘Um’ (intake of breath) ‘Vince, um’ (intake of breath) ‘Colosimo … um’ (a big breath out). It was literally like that.”

It’s exhausting just to watch. So how does someone go from that to, well, this?

“My mum took me to relaxation classes, which didn’t do anything, and she bought me tapes of dolphins, which did nothing. But then I had this wonderful teacher who asked me to be in the class play and I just said, ‘I can’t, I can’t do it’, and he said, ‘I really believe in you, I really want you to do it’, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t’, and he said, ‘You can, and you’re going to do it in a different voice’.”

Blunt ended up using a northern accent, and it did the trick. “It was like a light went on inside of me. I did the play, I didn’t stammer, Mum was in tears, it was amazing. It was like a rev-ev-ev …”

A revelation?

“It was a revelation. Thank you very much. Oh, that got me all nervous, just talking about it. It all came back to me. Reading out the poem in class …”

There’s a touch of the Victorian tragedy about My Summer of Love. Mona suspects she’s destined for greater things, but her home life is a ball and chain. She has her first glimpse of Tamsin as she’s lying in the grass on her back; the rich girl is riding a white horse, the sun flaring about her head like a halo. Mona senses she’s about to be rescued from the life of bitterness and boredom she sees stretching out in front of her.

Tamsin, though, is no white knight. She offers Mona a glimpse of a life she might share – the manor, the wealth, the freedom – but there’s a sense she doesn’t really mean it. She’s just out for a lark, filling in time between schools. At root, she’s just a rich liar, exploiting the gullible poor.

But the film stops just short of tragedy; its heroine learns from her mistakes. “At the end her expectations are so much higher because she has a completely different sense of self-worth,” Press says of Mona. “Because she was worthy of this rich girl’s jealousy, she was worthy of being competed with by this girl who had everything, who lowered herself by lying in order to keep up with the sense of tragedy that Mona naturally had in her life. For a bored, disaffected, privileged person like Tamsin, the kudos of having struggled in life is something they can’t ever have.”

The kudos of struggle? It’s an interesting idea, but not one that has an obvious relevance to Nathalie Press and Emily Blunt. In the two years since they made My Summer of Love, Blunt says, “we haven’t really stopped”. They’ve just been to America to spruik the movie, and they’ve flown to Australia in first-class seats.

Among Blunt’s more recent jobs was a role in Irresistible, which she shot in Melbourne over 10 weeks earlier this year, alongside Susan Sarandon. “She’s just a force of nature,” she says of the American. “Amazing to work with. We just had such a laugh. And she’s frighteningly smart.”

You sense Blunt is no dummy, either. She’s smart enough to know she’s ended up exactly where she wants to be without having to try terribly hard. School dramas led to a show in Edinburgh that led to her getting an agent that led to the West End and the BBC, and never once did she say to herself, “I really want this”; it just happened. Yet by the age of 18, she knew she could ditch the babysitting and part-time catering work and start to think of herself as a professional actor. “It was just crazy,” she admits. “It just sort of fell into my lap.”

Perhaps she’s aware, as she says this, of just how much this contrast with her co-star and friend Nathalie Press echoes the differing fortunes of their characters in My Summer of Love. Or perhaps she’s just slightly embarrassed at how well things have gone for her. Either way, Emily Blunt feels compelled to apologise for her good luck.

“It’s an awful story for people who’ve struggled and waited,” she says. “It’s a horrible thing to hear. It was just incredibly fortunate. And now I can’t believe I was so casual about it, because I really wouldn’t want to do anything else.”