“I was the most fearful child; I was scared of everything. I was scared of bees, I was scared of freshly cut grass on my feet, I was scared of balloons and I was scared of Father Christmas,” admits Emily Blunt, who also had a childhood stutter. “I was talking to my mother about it the other day, and now here I am jumping off buildings and doing crazy stunts and this movie Sicario – it’s pretty out-there and intense.
“So it’s a bit of an irony that I was this quaking child that now has become someone with a willingness to do anything.” And now she is an actress breaking the rules, and forging new ground, and this time it’s audiences that are being asked to become fearless.
Ostensibly Sicario deals with the ugliness of the drug trade across the Mexican and American border, and it’s the decision to cast 32-year-old Blunt in the lead that is the most radical component of the film.
In a film full of men, her partner is rising British star Daniel Kaluuya, her bosses are men, and so are the mysterious law enforcement agents that she is asked to help, played by Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro. She sticks out, not just because of her gender, but because of the quiet determination she gives her character. She looks for inner strength rather than brawn to play an FBI agent, a decision that came about after she began contacting law-enforcement agents by Skype to prepare for the role.
“I spoke to three or four female FBI agents, that was the most informative part of the research, more so than reading books and watching other movies,” she says.
“I asked them, ‘how does it affect your sleep, your marriage, your children, what music do you listen to, what frightens you, what do you do to relax?’ They were so open and had such normality to them; they were kind of tough girls but they were very real and very human people. So I wanted to make sure my character Kate Macer was someone who reflected them. She is not someone who acts on her femininity and, because she carries a gun, it does not mean she has to be butch. There is a frankness to these women, there was a real loneliness, and they were quite shy.”
Timidity is not an attribute that we have grown to expect from FBI agents in cinema. Blunt’s investigation led to the discovery of rituals such as one agent who would always sleep on her sofa the night before a raid.
The rituals and preparation fascinated her, yet when asked about her own preparation to movies, she sighs: “The process, it’s so boring isn’t it?” And she doesn’t have any rituals either, “What I do changes from movie to movie.”
Playing an FBI agent was a role to challenge the notion that Blunt is simply a posh English rose, like the girl Tamsin she portrayed in her breakout movie My Summer of Love in 2004. Her character rides horses and has been suspended from boarding school. It’s about the relationship between her and a working class lass played by Natalie Press and is one of the great British coming-of-age movies.
Blunt has a middle-class background, her father is a barrister and her mother a teacher and former actress. Her uncle is Conservative MP Crispin Blunt – although it was playing the troubled child of a New Labour spin-doctor in Stephen Poliakoff’s Gideon’s Daughter that saw her win a Golden Globe in 2007 as Best Supporting Actress in a Series or TV Film.
That same year she was also nominated for a Golden Globe, in the Best Supporting Actress for Feature Films category for her turn as Meryl Streep’s haughty and snide first assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, which also played up the British-superiority stereotype. The idea that she was British royalty was reinforced as she played Queen Victoria in Young Victoria, for which she was nominated for a best actress Golden Globe.
However there has been a career in evolution since Blunt moved to Los Angeles and married actor John Krasinski in July 2010, and they had a daughter, Hazel, in February 2014. She played in a series of romantic dramas, My Sister’s Sister, The Five-Year Engagement and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, before there was a move to more action-orientated affairs with Looper and then in 2014 opposite Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow.
Despite this recent shift, when Sicario debuted in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, the general consensus soon seemed to be that enjoyment of the movie depended on whether you bought Blunt as an FBI agent: an odd reaction that highlighted the conditioning that audiences have had to cinema roles, rather than any deficiencies in Blunt’s performance, which is nuanced and beguiling. It’s when she’s off-screen that the film struggles against cliche.
The film also became the focus of the issue of women in cinema, as it was at the press conference for the film around which the furore over the stipulation that women had to wear high heels on the Cannes red carpet became an issue, with the men of the film claiming they would wear high heels to their own premiere, which they didn’t.
Blunt says that she loves wearing high heels to red carpets because it’s part of the theatre of the event; otherwise she’s always in flats chasing her toddler around. Yet she also feels that the time for talking is over. “I personally feel the media exacerbate the problem, the more we talk, the more they put a stamp on the issue. We need to create more programmes for female film-makers, that’s what we need to do, we should stop having so many ceremonies about women in film and need to start creating programs.”
She has her list of female directors she wants to work with, including Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and the Australian director of The Babadook Jennifer Kent.
More recently it’s the idea of Blunt as an English rose that has created problems. There was something of a furore made over the fact that Blunt took American citizenship in August, a practical move for someone with an American family and who lives in America. The problem seems to be that she hasn’t hidden the fact that the decision was made out of financial necessity and that, despite the colour of her passport, she still feels British. When she quipped that watching the Republicans debate their presidential nomination she wondered what she had done by taking on citizenship, the public backlash saw her feel the need to apologise days later.
Her attempt at being American drew some comic frustration out of her British co-star Kaluuya on set. “When I’m doing an American accent in a film, I try to stay with it during the whole day and not go back and forth the whole day. On the first day I got there, Daniel was like: ‘For fuck’s sake, are you going to stay in that accent the whole time? I feel like I have to do it.’ After day three he was like: ‘I don’t want to do it anymore’. I was like: ‘Just because I’m doing it, you don’t have to do it.’”
The talk of citizenship did seem like a storm in a teacup. She avoided a potential backlash from Brits as she insisted that, despite the location of the highly anticipated forthcoming adaptation of Paula Hawkins’s psychological thriller The Girl on the Train being moved to New York, she will play Rachel, the alcoholic divorcee who fantasises about a couple she sees from the train, as British. It was part of the deal she made with director Tate Taylor. The tussle between nationalities seems to come up a lot.
“I have a lot of Brit friends in Los Angeles. It’s complicated because I have a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles, and I loathe that one industry emanates from every corner of it. Driving down the street and there are billboards about opening weekends and movies, movies, movies. I don’t like the lack of culture; I know there are some diehard LA people that argue with me about this but I grew up in London so it’s hard for me to accept that a couple of art galleries means you have culture.”
She copes by going away a lot. She often shoots in the United Kingdom and her family also have a home in Ojai, California, an hour and half from Los Angeles, where they spend a lot of time. It also has a lot of New Age residents, which makes her think of home. “I’m a bit of a hippie. My mum raised us all on homeopathic remedies and I went home recently and stayed the night and she put these essential-oil sticks everywhere, I love her so much, she is so sweet and these sticks will really make you sleep.”
Not that she generally needs help sleeping: “I’m a great sleeper, I have no problem sleeping.” Although she liked to stay in character and do the accent on set, she usually has no problem detaching her private life from her role. She’s not “method”. But, in Sicario, she does admit, “I was affected in a negative way and couldn’t sleep for a couple of days. It’s the fight scene where I bring a guy back to my apartment. It felt so real that I felt anxious, ‘oh this is what it would be like to be overpowered by a guy’. It was quite intense.”
The boundary between movie and reality blurred far more successfully when she introduced her literary-agent older sister Felicity to her The Devil Wears Prada co-star Stanley Tucci, and they married.
When she mentions Felicity, it’s as a conniving older sister. “My older sister, when we were growing up, would always tell me to do bad things that would get me in trouble. She told me to steal some seeds from the garden centre once and I was caught and had to take them back and apologise.” She then quips: “So illegal.”
Blunt didn’t have much of a career pause when she had her own daughter in last February and says she knows the secret. “I always say Tom Cruise is the reason I bounced back after the pregnancy,” she says. “He should be credited as the new diet pill because he asked me to do Edge of Tomorrow so I was in such good shape when I got pregnant, so after I had Hazel it was easier to bounce back.”
In addition to The Girl on the Train, on the horizon is her first out-and-out villain role. She stars in the sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman called The Huntsman, which will also feature Jessica Chastain and Charlize Theron. “It’s my first real villain role,” she gleefully states, “and it’s surprising how easy it was for evil to come to me.” Now it’s her who wants to make children scared.