What a life – catapulted from the school play to the Golden Globes in the blinking of an eye, Emily Blunt, comic star of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, is a young English actress with the world at her feet. But frankly, she tells Lucy Cavendish, all she really wants is a nice hot meal.
Emily Blunt is on set at the magnificently regal Ham House in south-west London when I arrive to meet her.
“She’ll be maybe 15 minutes,” a helpful woman tells me. I then get shown to her trailer, which is packed full of Frusli bars, and I sit and wait. I stare out at the River Thames, which is shrouded in mist as the sun goes down. It is all rather beautiful and quiet and a bit eerie, and then someone sets off a banger and I jump out of my skin. I hear a voice yell, “You wanker!” and then two men appear at the door to reassure me it was all an accident. They then spend the next ten minutes telling me how wonderful Blunt is. “We’ve worked with some right miseries,” says one, while the other nods his head. “But Emily’s got something special.”
Yet when Emily Blunt appears it is obvious she is feeling rather ill. She sits in her large, plush trailer looking like a frail baby bird. She is very tiny and looks a bit bedraggled, with her straggly hair hanging over her face and her undersize body swathed in an oversize jumper, jeans and a pair of huge Ugg boots. “I’m not very well,” says Blunt sniffling slightly unhappily into a handkerchief. “I’m terribly sorry.” She looks at me with her huge oval eyes and she seems so downcast that I want to get up and hug her and then feed her a good meal because, goodness knows, she’s very thin. Maybe she wants a Frusli? “No,” she says shaking her head. “I’ve had loads of them.” But then she takes a deep breath and tries to perk up.
Emily Blunt is obviously a trouper. She is here filming The Young Victoria – in which she takes the lead part – but it’s a role that finds her up at 5am to be laced into a corset. “I hate that corset,” she says. “I’ve been in it for the past nine weeks and I am beginning to feel allergic to it.” But no matter, she says. “I think this film is going to be amazing. There is such a buzz about it and it feels fresh and different and…”
Then she stops because she remembers we are actually here to discuss not The Young Victoria but another film of hers, The Jane Austen Book Club. In it she plays Prudie, an uptight French teacher whose jock of a husband is solely interested in sport. Set in Sacramento, it is a feel-good film about how five women and one geeky man (played by Hugh Dancy) find themselves through the novels of Jane Austen. Has Blunt read Austen? Is that why she did the film? “Of course I’ve read Austen,” she says. “I’m English; I thought it was a prerequisite. Actually, I did this film because, for a start, there’s a great cast involved, and I was interested in my character. Prudie’s so messed-up, really. Her mother’s a hippy and she has reacted by being uptight and immature in many ways. She has never grown up, but she has to during the course of the film. I thought she had layers, and I like layered people.”
In disguise as Prudie, with her short black bob and nervous habit of fiddling with her designer jewellery, Blunt is barely recognisable and yet she lights up the screen, especially in the scenes where Prudie nearly commits adultery with a student. Her desire is palpable. “Well, all the characters have to change,” she says. “And Prudie has to realise that being unfaithful won’t heal her marriage. She has to take responsibility, and that’s hard for her. I found her an interesting person to play.”
It certainly seems true that Blunt goes for interesting, character-based roles. Her choices – from Tamsin in Pawel Pawlikowski’s film My Summer of Love (2004) to Natasha in Stephen Poliakoff’s 2005 television drama Gideon’s Daughter – seem designed to show her range as an actress. Poliakoff has said of Blunt, “There are only one or two girls every five years like that,” and Meryl Streep has described her as “the best young actress I’ve worked with in some time, perhaps ever”. “Oh, that’s very kind of them,” Blunt says, blushing. “Really, I try to take on many different roles. It’s interesting to do that but, at the end of filming, you have to say goodbye to the character you have become. I get so involved with my characters – some I like and some can get very tiresome, but it’s an interesting world, acting, because when you are on set everything is so intense. Then you get to the wrap party, and a drunk grip [one of the production crew], who hasn’t spoken to you for the entire time, tells you he’s in love with you, and it’s all very weird. You have to walk away, you see, and hope your roles give you up as readily as you give them up.”
There is one role, however, that has elevated her to a household name, and that is Emily, the neurotic but deeply funny assistant to the editor (played by Meryl Streep) in last year’s hit The Devil Wears Prada. “Oh, Emily,” she says. “God, imagine actually being Emily for the rest of your life. It would be awful. I had a blast making that film, though. I decided to play Emily as really over the top. I wanted her to be very neurotic but somehow likeable. She’s amazingly self-obsessed and her job has ceased to be a job – it has become her, and that is always a bad thing. But she was a marvellous character. Stanley Tucci [who played the camp fashion supremo Nigel] and I had a bet about which of us would overact the most, and I won it.”
Yet despite what she calls her overacting, it was the role of Emily with all her nerves and tics and eating disorders that really brought Blunt to the attention of the film world. “I think they call it my “breakthrough” moment,” Blunt says, rolling her eyes. “I mean, Americans don’t think I existed pre-Prada. They say, “Jeez, you just came outta nowhere!” But of course that’s not true. I had a whole other body of work behind me.”
Her first job, which won her an Evening Standard Award for best newcomer in theatre, was in 2001, appearing alongside Dame Judi Dench in the Peter Hall-directed play The Royal Family. After that Blunt appeared in various television dramas such as Boudica and Henry VIII. Then in 2004 she made the film My Summer of Love, which brought her to the attention of a much wider audience – and won her and her co-star Nathalie Press another Evening Standard Award, this time for most promising newcomers in the film category. In it she played Tamsin, the well-bred, well-educated rich girl who is adored by Mona, the local working-class girl, as played by Natalie Press. “It was the most amazing experience,” she says. “We shot it in Yorkshire and it was a long hot summer. I thought the film was about a relatively innocent love between two girls at that stage when you do have crushes on other girls. All girls do that, don’t they? And Tamsin was exactly the type of girl other schoolgirls desire. She is very compelling but self-centred, and when her gaze alights on you… it makes you feel the best you have ever felt.”
Blunt went on to win a Golden Globe for her role in Gideon’s Daughter, yet she accepts the fact that the success of Prada – and her nomination for a whole slew of awards including a Bafta and a Golden Globe for best supporting actress, as well as an MTV Movie Award for best comedic performance – probably changed her career. “It has to be said that there is a point in your career when you suddenly become hot and doors begin to open,” she says. “One minute you’re the girl who starred in the “lesbian flick” – which is how Americans saw My Summer of Love – the next you are invited to Los Angeles and fêted to the skies.” She goes on to describe all the meetings she went to. “Oh, I think I was touted for every role going,” she says. “I’d go into a meeting and everyone would tell me how marvellous I was, and I’d come out thinking, “God, I’m the best actress in the entire world!” But then you come to realise that as soon as you close the door they’re saying things like, “Eeuch, did you see her hair? There’s no way we’re casting her.” It’s like everyone says, you never have a bad meeting in LA.”
Emily Blunt is so down-to-earth it is almost impossible to believe she is only 24 years old. She actually looks even younger, which may be something to do with her pale, porcelain skin, but she seems to have a maturity far beyond her years. For the past two and a half years she has been in a relationship with the Canadian singer Michael Bublé who, at the age of 32, is often referred to as ‘the young Sinatra’. Ever since they met backstage at an Australian television awards show, the couple have had a pretty peripatetic lifestyle. “We get on planes a lot,” she says. They seem to be going backwards and forwards almost constantly. Bublé has a house in Vancouver, where he is from, and Blunt is working on location nearly all year round. How do they manage to see each other? “We are very in love and very committed, so you just make it work,” she says. “You have to organise time for each other and make that important. Michael was here last week to sing on Strictly Come Dancing, and I went to be in the audience. It was really funny because, as he was singing, all these dancers came out and danced. I saw this look flash across his face as if to say, “What on earth am I doing here?” I know him so well.”
They’re a pretty glamorous couple – he a top-selling easy-listening star, she an award-winning actress. Doesn’t it all go to her head, being a power couple ? “No,” she says slowly. “Like most actresses, I wake up in the morning and feel I am a fraud. I hope to have a long career but… it may all go horribly wrong.”
This healthy dose of realism surely comes from her family background. She grew up one of four children in Roehampton. Her father is a barrister and her mother a teacher. “My father’s a great actor,” says Blunt. “He has to do it in court all the time.” Her elder sister, Felicity, is a literary agent and her two younger siblings, 17-year-old Sebastian and 16-year-old Susannah, are still at school. Blunt calls them a ‘noisy, raucous bunch’, but says they are ‘each other’s biggest protectors’.
Nothing, however, could protect her when she went to the independent school Ibstock Place in Roehampton. “That was a tough place,” she says. “But it’s good to be toughened up.” In The Jane Austen Book Club Prudie’s husband says to her, in the middle of a row, “You’re not at high school now.” “You’re never over high school,” she shoots back. Is that how Blunt feels about her life? “I had a stammer, which was hard, but I used to act with a northern accent in school plays to help me escape from what I saw as a disabling difficulty. Really, I think I retreated into myself a bit so as not to stand out,” she says. “I never really fitted into a set. I wasn’t cool enough to be accepted into the cool gang yet I wasn’t a nerd.” She says she spent a lot of time just wandering around and thinking. “Maybe that gets you in a good place to be an actress. I like to think roles through and research them. I am happy with my own company.”
After Ibstock Place, Blunt attended the rather bohemian Hurtwood House sixth-form college in Surrey, where she brushed shoulders with Camilla Fayed and starred in a school play that went to the Edinburgh Festival. “I hadn’t thought of acting as a career before then,” she says. “It sounds awful, but I sort of fell into it.”
By the time she left school she had an agent, and the ball hasn’t stopped rolling since. She is relatively experienced in walking down the red carpet dressed in a designer gown on the arm of her boyfriend and/or family. “Those red-carpet moments are easier for Michael than they are for my family,” she says. “I think they find it hard to see me in this public light. You know, for them I am their daughter or sister, not a film star or whatever. When you are walking down the red carpet and paparazzi photographers are shouting, “Look over here, you f—ing c—,” well, that’s hard for my parents. My mother was especially appalled. She turned round to them and said, in this really English haughty accent, “Who said that? How rude!” But I think it upset her.”
She says that she and Bublé are used to the attention. “We get papped more in Canada, actually, because he is so famous there, but we don’t court it. We have our own private life when we are together. We go to local cafés and stuff. Most people who are papped all the time must want it that way, because I’ve found it pretty easy to avoid.”
She says that what she dreams of most is going home and cooking a hot dinner. “I’m always moving around,” she says. “On film shoots by the time you get your food it’s lukewarm, and then in hotels it’s room service, and that’s lukewarm. I just want a steaming-hot meal sometimes.”
But now we can hear lorries revving up outside her trailer. “We’re moving location tonight,” she says apologetically. She wants to go but is too polite to say, so I make my excuses and leave. The last thing I see is Emily Blunt tucked up in the back of a huge people-carrier driving off the set. Those men were right. She is something really rather special.