The Americanization of Emily

What was your first acting role?
I stuttered as a child, and one of my teachers thought it might help if I was in a school play. Stuttering is all in your mind, and acting really helped me. There are some famous stutterers who are actors — James Earl Jones and Bruce Willis both had a stutter — but you do grow out of it. My first real non-school play was The Royal Family, opposite Judi Dench. I was 18, and I remember the audition well: there was a plush red couch in the room. [Laughs] I thought, Welcome to the acting world! But the director, Sir Peter Hall, was completely proper. He told me later that he knew after two minutes that I was right for the part, but, of course, it took him a lot longer than that to let me know. As an actress, I’ve had to learn patience.

But it would seem that you quickly burst into prominence in The Devil Wears Prada. You stole the movie with your performance as Emily, the assistant to Miranda Priestly, the queen of the fashion world, played by Meryl Streep.
Originally, the character was supposed to be American, but I felt she should be British. British people in America always sound so desperate and clipped. In the fashion world, there was a slightly snobby reaction to my character. They felt the hair, the makeup and the clothes were wrong. Well, it’s not the History Channel! I didn’t base Emily on anyone in the fashion business. She was meant to be a depiction of a certain kind of girl who has always frightened me. I was never good with the gaggle of girls in school, and the fashion world is a haven for those kinds of females. In general, I still get intimidated by a group of 16-year-old girls. They can be scary. And mean.

Was Meryl Streep in character on the set?
She was pretty icy. She wasn’t herself. She wasn’t too happy with all the bags and clothes and shoes. The high heels especially bothered her and me. We were all in agony the whole time. The heels do give you a nice swagger, but there is a price.

And yet you just finished playing the young Queen Victoria, where you had to wear a corset. That must have been even more uncomfortable.
It is painful to wear a corset for 15 hours a day. They only loosen you up for lunch, and you would think that you would lose weight, but somehow you don’t. Movie sets are like 30 people grazing all day, eating sandwiches.

Does the corset help you to get in character?
Absolutely. You immediately feel regal. In this movie, we tried to combat the stuffy costume-drama approach. We see the private side of Victoria, when she was young and rebellious. She had a very overprotected childhood — she wasn’t allowed to walk down stairs without someone holding her hand. But she had a great sense of her position: at 10, she told her governess, “I will be good.”

Did you have to learn proper royal manners?
We had an etiquette coach on the set at all times. He is very close to the royal family, and he watched everything we did and said. He wanted us to be correct but vivid: after all, the royals go to the toilet, they have sex, they are human beings.

In your last film, Charlie Wilson’s War, you have only two scenes, and one of them is pretty much in the nude. Was that difficult?
Oh, my poor father blushed when he saw the film. Mike Nichols asked me to do the movie, and when Mike Nichols asks you, you nod your head excitedly and then you realize what you have said yes to! The scene was with Tom Hanks, and the whole time I was distracted by images of him in Splash. It was a bizarre thing to be crawling around him nearly naked. I should have gotten stoned to do it. But Tom was the best guy — a complete gentleman. He got some flak from his friends for playing such a sexed-up character at his age and stature, but I think everyone is entitled to be sexy in movies at any age. The movie was an ironic look at America at war, and if there are some naked Jacuzzi scenes along the way, all the better.

Did you have any interaction with Julia Roberts, who was also in the film?
Sadly, no. When I was around 10, rather inappropriately, I watched Pretty Woman. I remember asking my grandmother what Julia Roberts was showing Richard Gere. They were brightly colored, and I thought they were sweets. “That’s a condom,” my grandmother said. I went, “Oh right, oh right.” I had no idea what she was talking about.

Movies can be so educational.
Oh, yes. As actors, we know a little about a lot. For The Young Victoria, I had to learn to ride sidesaddle, and for the film I’m making now — a werewolf movie — I also had to learn how to waltz. But I can’t stand it when I hear actors talk about their “process.” It always sounds like they’re trying to justify their paychecks. And I don’t believe actors who say they don’t watch themselves. We’re self-indulgent people — of course I watch myself.

Is it true that all British actors want to conquer America?
Yes and no. They want to conquer America and dismiss America at the same time. It’s O.K. to step out of the circle as long as you come back. I love working in both places, but I always want to come back to England. Acting feels like more of a craft here, like you are acting for the right reasons.

Why do the Americans hold the British in such high esteem?
Because they think we’re all related to Shakespeare.