From on-screen roles to real life, Emily Blunt is fearless. With a new film, a baby girl and a spot-on sense of self, the actress, it seems, can handle anything.
During her decade-long film career, Emily Blunt has achieved improbable feats. In The Young Victoria, she transformed Britain’s 19th-century monarch from the dour bulldog of popular imagination into a vivacious figure. She made Tom Hanks appear less than wholesome in Charlie Wilson’s War. In The Devil Wears Prada, Blunt’s piranha-snap insults rivaled those of Meryl Streep. But most impressive of all? In Edge of Tomorrow, a sci-fi movie about an alien invasion, the gun-toting actress makes Tom Cruise seem like a wimp.
“He really is so funny playing the damsel in distress,” laughs Blunt, sipping tea inside a small café in West Hollywood. “Tom plays Bill Cage, a major who has talked his way up to being the head of public relations for the United Defense Force. He has never fought on the battlefield a day in his life, and yet he has this title of major just through schmoozing. Through a series of unfortunate events, he ends up on the battlefield — Ruby Tuesday, the battle of all battles, which is supposed to turn the tide of war against the aliens.”
The movie’s big twist? It’s a science-fiction version of Groundhog Day. Cruise’s character discovers that he’s reliving the same day of the battle over and over. Each time the replica day loops around, he has to learn from his prior mistakes and devise new strategies to defeat the aliens. Fortunately, Blunt is on hand to assist. Clad in hydraulic exoskeleton armor, the British actress plays a soldier who looks as if she could arm-wrestle The Terminator.
“I was looking to be the action figure,” says Blunt, who’s previously starred in left-field sci-fi movies such as The Adjustment Bureau and Looper. “I wasn’t looking to be ‘the girl.’ So I thought, ‘If you’re going to do it, at least be the one with the gun.’ ”
Blunt has never played the superficial accessory to the male hero. Nor is she one of those actresses who plays endless variations of the same role. Her uncommonly diverse filmography spans just about every genre, including science fiction, romantic comedy, animation, horror, musical, period drama — even a Muppet movie. She tends to choose unconventional movies rather than chase calculated bids for stardom. (Who else would pick up a script titled Salmon Fishing in the Yemen?) Edge of Tomorrow, out this month, and the A-list actress’ next movie, Into the Woods, may be high-profile blockbusters, but they appealed to her hankering for risks.
“It’s the challenge and the discovery that I like more than anything else,” the 31-year-old says. “That’s what I look for. It’s the experience of something. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself.”
Some of Blunt’s boldest choices have paid off by becoming unlikely hits. Others, such as Gulliver’s Travels, have tanked. If the actress had a chance to relive everything, just like her character in Edge of Tomorrow, what advice would she give herself?
“Don’t worry about anything,” Blunt says, running a hand through her blond hair. “I think when you’re younger and starting out, you overthink everything. I’ve learned with this job — which is such a precarious, odd world — not to overthink or predict or strategize anything. Ride it out.”
There was a time, though, when Blunt fretted she’d be a failure.
The meanest thing anyone ever said about Emily Blunt was during her high school days in London. At the time, the teen had developed a debilitating stutter.
“I remember this one day — and we’ve probably all had days like this — when I walked into this classroom and this awful boy who I went to school with, who shall remain nameless, jumped on the desk, and in front of everyone he said, ‘Emily Blunt is the ugliest girl in the whole school.’ I went to the bathroom and cried.”
As the actress recounts the story, she throws her head back and erupts with laughter.
“There were so many mean things said at school,” says Blunt, trying to regain her composure.
The second of four children in a distinguished family — her father is one of Britain’s top Queen’s Council (QC) barristers — Blunt also put pressure upon herself. At 16, she failed to emulate the academic success of her older sister, Felicity, and was declined admission into the prestigious Westminster School. Instead, Blunt enrolled in Hurtwood House Performing Arts, which boasted a renowned theater program. Acting had already been a salvation for Blunt: Every time she had a role in a school play, she discovered that her stammer disappeared.
“I found that it was the only way I could speak fluently,” she says. “It took me by surprise.”
Blunt’s ability to speak perfectly onstage gave her confidence to conquer the disorder. And Blunt, who now has flawless speech, is on the board of directors of the American Institute for Stuttering.
At Hurtwood, word of Blunt’s talent spread, and a powerful agent attended one of her performances. He quickly signed her.
“I didn’t have the ambition to act, not the burning ambition people talk about,” the actress says. “I got an agent while I was still at school, and he said, ‘Do you want to try this? I think you’re good.’ I said, ‘OOOOOK.’ I was rather unsure about the whole thing. But that might have stood me in good stead for rejection, because I wasn’t desperate.”
“Yeah,” she laughs. “I remember that first night, stepping out in front of an audience and feeling as if I were five paces behind myself. It was so frightening. I remember putting my hand on the handrail and it was shaking. It was never that bad again.”
In the role of the family matriarch, Dench played a vinegary prima donna every night. But not after the curtain call.
“She was so kind to me. I was so incredibly green, and she gave me little pointers, but only if I asked her. She’d invite me into her dressing room every night after the show for champagne. I was 18, and Pierce Brosnan was in there, and Johnny Depp. It was so crazy,” she giggles.
Blunt’s porcelain cheeks pleat into dimples whenever she laughs, which is often. Her Cupid’s-bow lips, a symmetrical counterpart to her cleft chin, part to reveal perfect teeth that would impress even Julia Roberts’ dentist. Blunt’s fern-green eyes exude playfulness and warmth. She is so striking that one can only conclude that the schoolboy who taunted her was delusional.
Perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said about Emily Blunt comes from none other than her legendary Edge of Tomorrow co-star.
“I wanted to work with her for a long time, and this character she created is so compelling,” Tom Cruise says in an email. “She is so much fun; she made me laugh every day. I admire her dedication to her craft and have such respect for the enormity of her talent. Her range as an actress from comedy to drama is wonderful, and she holds the screen in a very romantic way.”
But Blunt has received plaudits of this sort ever since her first Hollywood movie. In The Devil Wears Prada, she plays a neurotic assistant to a fashion-magazine editor (Meryl Streep) who handles her staff the way Cruella De Vil treats Dalmatians. Streep called Blunt “one of the best actresses I’ve ever worked with.”
It would have been easy for Blunt to capitalize on her glowing reviews by pursuing ingénue roles as the love interest. Instead, Blunt miniaturized herself for Gulliver’s Travels, killed a werewolf in The Wolfman and took a crime-scene cleanup job in Sunshine Cleaning.
“There are now a lot of scripts that are like a lot of movies we’ve all seen, so you’ve got to dig through until you find something that has a fresh take,” she says.
Case in point: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. “The sheer cockiness of the title was enough to make me read it,” says the actress, who teamed up with Ewan McGregor for the drama about an attempt to introduce fly-fishing into the Middle East.
“That’s what I mean about how you can’t strategize,” Blunt says. “It’s always the ones that you think no one will see. It’s [Salmon Fishing in the Yemen] and Your Sister’s Sister that everybody comes up to me and talks to me about. … Salmon Fishing was the one where Ewan and I would laugh and say, ‘Well, we love it, but nobody will see it.’ And everyone saw it!”
Another out-of-left-field crowd-pleaser was The Young Victoria, a period drama in which Blunt’s queen navigates the politics of love during her courtship with her future husband, Albert.
“When I was reading all her diaries and books on her, I figured out how it must be like to be the queen of England,” Blunt says. “After Albert died, she was carried out of the room and she was crying. The first thing she said was, ‘Now who will call me Victoria? I have no one to call me Victoria.’ I read that, and it hit me suddenly what that must be like.”
Offscreen, Blunt found her own prince charming. John Krasinski, best known for playing Jim on NBC’s The Office, married her in Italy in 2011. In Krasinski, Blunt found someone who shares her proclivity for taking risks.
“John said, ‘Why don’t we do kind of an adventure thing on our honeymoon?’ ” Blunt recalls. “Diving came up, and I said, ‘Oh, that sounds so frightening.’ ”
Even scarier: The couple decided to dive with sharks in Bora Bora.
“The initial jump into the water was a bit rough for me,” she admits. “I’d had a sleepless night before, knowing we were doing the shark dive. By the end of it, I was completely engrossed in them. It’s a really magical experience.”
The married couple divide their time between the small Southern California town of Ojai and Hollywood, where Krasinski oversees a production company.
Blunt reveals that her husband has been working on a secret screen project for the two of them. In the meantime, their first collaboration arrived in February — a baby girl named Hazel. Among other changes, motherhood has made Blunt reassess her future film choices.
“What’s worth going back to work for? That’s a big question rather than, ‘Oh, that could be fun,’ ” she says.
Blunt starts shooting this summer for Sicario, a film co-starring Benicio Del Toro (Blunt’s co-star in The Wolfman). She has finished filming Into the Woods, a big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical mash-up of classic fairy tales. It also stars Johnny Depp as the wolf, Meryl Streep as the witch and Anna Kendrick as Cinderella. Once upon a time, Blunt was terrified of singing in front of anyone, so director Rob Marshall had to coax her into auditioning. As usual, she rose to the challenge.
“One of the coolest days ever was when I got to sing with a 70-piece orchestra,” Blunt says. “Stephen Sondheim was in the next room giving me some pointers. I can’t even describe what that did. Your heart races. It was one of those moments when you thank God you get to do this job.”
Before Blunt leaves the café, a man at a nearby table approaches her to tell her how much he liked Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Her response is characteristically gracious.
After he leaves, Blunt meditates on her unpremeditated career. “I’m in a happy place,” she says. “I feel grateful for all the experiences, good and bad. They led me here.”
When she’s not taking over the big screen, here’s what the actress is reading, listening to and watching:
Books: “I’m someone who reads a few books at a time. I don’t know why. I read Tom Rob Smith’s new book, The Farm, which I really liked. My sister represents him. She’s a literary agent. So I got a sneak, early read. It’s about an only child who is now in his 30s, and his mother turns up at his house. She’s claiming that, after previously making him think they had a perfect marriage, the father is conspiring against her. That she’s in mortal danger. So it’s an eerie, strange thriller in which you really put yourself in this man’s position. It would be like if your parents were super happy and then one of them comes to you one day and says, ‘Your mother’s doing this to me,’ and it’s a very plausible case. You don’t know whom to believe. It’s frightening. I couldn’t read it before I went to bed. I liked Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s book about Thomas Cromwell. It’s an epic read, so you have to persevere, but it was amazing. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is an extraordinary book. It reads like a thriller, but it’s an epic discovery of India. You can smell it; literally smell it. It’s a story about the Bombay mafia, and it’s so exciting.”
Music: “The song that I love and can’t get out of my head is that Rihanna song, ‘Stay.’ It kills me. I love The Lumineers. Their album is perfect. I’m a big Radiohead fan. I don’t know why I’ve been working out to Radiohead every day. I’ve never seen them live, but people who have say it’s extraordinary and it makes you want to weep. In Rainbows is a great album, and Kid A’s great. I would say those two are the most popular.”
Movies and TV: “I love Game of Thrones, House of Cards and Homeland. I love the actors in Homeland. Mandy Patinkin just crushes it. The first season was perfect. I thought the third season was even better than the second. Breaking Bad, I’d like to finish. I’ve only done four seasons.”
L.A.-based author Stephen Humphries also writes for Filter, Under the Radar, Prog and Classic Rock. He and Emily bonded over how they each overcame the terror of Steven Spielberg's Jaws by diving with sharks.