The Real Deal

It is entirely possible, probable even, that Emily Blunt is the most likeable actress in Hollywood. So long is her list of accumulated friends, that she and her actor-director husband John Krasinski are likely hard pushed to find time in their schedules for all the double dates they are invited on: Matt Damon and Luciana Barroso; George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin; Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux… Hanging out with the Blunt-Krasinskis is Hollywood’s hottest ticket.

So just what is it that makes Blunt so easy to love? The phrase down-to-earth may not sound eloquent, but it fits the bill when it comes to the British actress. We meet in London, at a suburban bar of her choosing. She appears, beaming, dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved white tee and a chic sheepskin gilet, proclaiming the ridiculousness of finding herself in her 30s and still getting a lift to the pub from her mother.

The exchange of baby photographs quickly completed (the adorable 10-month-old Hazel has driven off with Grandma), talk turns to the new-parent ground Blunt and Krasinski have so recently navigated. “[Raising children] is such a fear-based industry,” says the actress. “There used to be one book that everyone read, now there’s How to Raise a Gluten-free Baby, How to Raise a Scientific Baby… It’s insanity! So I haven’t read anything, I’m just letting her do her own thing.”

When it comes to motherhood, Blunt displays the laid-back approach that, it’s easy to imagine, is one of her most endearing qualities. And it’s an attitude that extends to her career. “I started working at 18,” says the 31-year-old. “I was planning on [going to university] and then an agent who had seen me in a school play asked me if I wanted to [act]. I shrugged and said okay. I went in deciding to give the [film] business a crack and see what happened.”

Thirteen years on, business well and truly cracked, Blunt’s view of her profession is unchanged. “It’s an extraordinary job and it’s not one that I can s*** on, really, but it is a precarious one, so it is naïve to think of it as the be-all and end-all,” she reasons.

One might imagine that the actress’ head could well have been turned by the volume and weight of compliments that have come her way since Warrior Queen, her 2003 film debut. It’s not often, for example, that Meryl Streep describes someone as “the best young actress I’ve worked with in some time – perhaps ever”.

“I still die [over that compliment],” exclaims Blunt, mouth agape. “It was a little bit mind-blowing. I think my hair blew back, actually, when I read it. You do a little dance and then you realize you’ve got to try and live up to it!”

Streep was right, of course; Blunt is unusually, yet comparatively quietly, talented. Her filmography includes the acclaimed period drama The Young Victoria (for which she was Golden Globe-nominated) next to understated hits Sunshine Cleaning and My Summer of Love. Then there’s the blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow, where the actress flexed her muscles as a futuristic fighter alongside Tom Cruise, as well as those memorable comedic turns in The Devil Wears Prada and The Five Year Engagement.

Blunt can, it seems, turn her hand to anything – even a musical. This month sees her reunited with Streep and another previous co-star, James Corden, in Into the Woods, a much- anticipated Disney extravaganza that weaves together a series of fairy tales, with a cast list that rivals an Oscars’ attendance sheet. Blunt plays one of the few newly created characters, the baker’s wife at the heart of the composite story, a role that required her to test her musical skills.

“I didn’t even want to audition for it because I find the thought of singing in front of people mortifying,” she confides. “I’d never even sung in front of my husband. I’d said no to going up for Mamma Mia! and Nine… All of those. So when my agent called me about Into the Woods, I said, ‘I can’t.’ I’d only ever sung at school concerts, and those days are long gone. I’m not Annie [Hathaway] – she’s got an unbelievable voice.”

The film’s director, Rob Marshall, refused to take no for an answer though, giving Blunt’s many protestations short shrift. “He called my agent and said, ‘Just tell her to come in. I really want to see her and I don’t want singers, I want actors who can kind of sing.’”

On audition day, the actress was “beet red, just beetroot red with embarrassment. I went in and said, ‘Listen, I’m not good enough to just sit here shuffling music sheets around so I’ve learnt it and I’m just going to do it for you.’ I thought, if I don’t go all out, I’m going to look really stupid. So I did, and thank God he gave me the part because it actually ended up being one of the most life-enhancing experiences I’ve ever had.” How so? “Because it’s exhilarating to do something that previously frightens you, and to get better and better and better and end up feeling confident enough to belt a song out.”

So is this false modesty? Has Blunt been hiding a vast talent? “Well, you know, obviously I still think I could be better at the singing, but it’s the best part I’ve ever been given. It has everything in it that you could want as an actor: conflict and humor and emotion and empathy. And poignancy. All of it.”

Poignancy, yes. An extra layer of it was added to filming when the actress, whose character is cursed by Streep’s witch to remain childless, discovered that she was pregnant before filming began. “I found out I had [the role] the same week I found out I was having a baby. It was a big week,” Blunt deadpans. “I waited ten weeks, because the first trimester is so iffy and I just wanted to make sure the baby was okay before it became public. So two and a half weeks before rehearsals started, I called Rob and said, ‘I have something to tell you…’ In a way the part was the only one in Hollywood I could still have done, because it didn’t matter if I was a bit big – the baker’s wife eats a lot of buns! But by the end of the shoot I was about seven months and hiding behind every tree in the woods.”

It was a joy to work with Corden again, she says (the pair starred together in 2010’s Gulliver’s Travels). The British actor plays Blunt’s husband in the film, putting his “extreme comedic talent” to good use. Now that he is preparing to take up a new role presenting The Late Late Show, what does Blunt make of his chances of success? “I think he’s going to excel because he’s warm as well as really funny, so people are going to want to talk to him,” she says loyally.

Corden, of course, is a modern multi-hyphenate – actor, presenter, writer, producer. Krasinski, too, is diversifying, currently putting the finishing touches to his big-screen directorial debut, The Hollars, a feat that Blunt is in awe of, though in no rush to emulate, despite her husband’s encouragement. Her love for acting is obvious, but it’s a career that seems to enhance rather than consume her, perhaps because of that “this isn’t the be-all and end-all” attitude.

“This can be an industry that thrills and tortures people at the same time,” she explains. “And it depends on who you are as to what extreme that goes to. It’s such a loss that Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and Robin [Williams] aren’t here anymore. I think it is a job that can be very affecting. For me, my only experience I can speak of was in [the upcoming] Sicario, with Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. I remember doing one scene and I couldn’t sleep for four days after it. I was very affected by it and I’m a pretty even-keeled person, so I think if you aren’t naturally that way, this job can have a very big impact on you.”

Blunt appears to be the kind of person who rises above such drama easily. “I think people sometimes see [acting] as a form of therapy. It’s not cathartic or therapeutic – that’s a misconception,” she insists. “You’re not just doing a portrait of one person, there’s a lot to consider: the tone of something, what everyone else is doing… The space between people is what’s so electric to watch on film, the chemistry and the air between them. So when it’s self-indulgent, it’s not as interesting. I think there’s an awareness that you need, an interest in life and in people and in everything outside of yourself, in order to play people who are different from you, to understand them and empathize with them. You can’t necessarily find the answers within yourself.”

She may not have all of the answers, but there’s no denying that Emily Blunt is doing everything right. Those friends of hers are a lucky bunch.