There are few performers capable of gliding, without the slightest hint of camp, between a bleak Stephen Sondheim musical (Into the Woods) and an action-packed Tom Cruise thriller (The Edge of Tomorrow) in the same calendar year. Emily Blunt can, and did so in 2014, and then then followed them up with the darkest and most critically acclaimed performance of her career in Denis Villenueve’s chilling Mexican-border thriller Sicario.
In her role as Kate Macer, an FBI agent who is tricked by a government task force into helping bring down the leader of a Mexican drug cartel, Blunt, 32, has officially entered the second phase of a career she says was once heavy on “ingenue” roles. Talking with Vulture this awards season, the Best Actress hopeful reveals why she avoids social media, the movies that influenced her as a young actress, and how she was dying for a “corset and a silver wig” role after Sicario.
In Sicario, you and director Denis Villeneuve found a nice balance for Kate, who exists in a macho world but remains believably feminine. How difficult was it to calibrate the character in that way?
First you need a director who’s going to support your creation of a character, and Denis was so empowering in that sense. I told him in the beginning, “She can’t be in this masculine world trying to act like a man.” The appeal of playing the part was that in the beginning, you have a character who’s highly skilled but then disintegrates at an accelerated rate over the course of three days. It had to be a delicate balance. I based her on one of the FBI agents I met while doing research. She was really shy, but also an incredibly resilient, steely individual.
We know very little about Kate’s backstory beyond that she is divorced. Did you create any other biographical details for her to help shade your performance?
She’s recently divorced, and the lonely apartment you see her in is her new existence. I decided that she’s someone who defines herself solely by her job, and so it’s very hard for her to hold down a relationship. I don’t think she has many friends. She’s kind of a loner. Reggie, her work partner, is the only person she lets in. You see a convivial relationship there. We actually improvised a lot of the stuff between them.
The scene where he tells her she really needs a new bra was a rare moment of levity in the film.
[Laughs.] That was in the script! But the conversation we have in the bar before the cowboy comes up to us was entirely improvised. It was so great working like that because you were able to see Kate literally and figuratively letting her hair down for a second — and then you see the consequences of it.
Is there a common thread among all the characters you’ve played? Something they each possess that compels you to say to yourself, I have to be this woman.
I actually strive to not find a common thread. I like all different genres. Drama, comedy, thrillers, fantasy. I don’t like to strategize about what my next move might be because I’m starting to really enjoy the unknown of it all. I work best when I have no idea how I’m going to do it. If that’s my feeling when I first read a script, it’s usually why I want to do it.
Can you pinpoint the film performance or movie that first inspired you to act?
I saw Gone With the Wind and absolutely loved Vivien Leigh. She was incredible. I wanted to be Scarlett O’Hara. And then, rather inappropriately, my dad brought home Jaws for me to watch when I was 12. It had a huge impact on me because not only was I terrified by it — I’m a victim of Steven Spielberg in the sense I’m still scared to swim in the ocean — but I remember being very moved and frightened, even at that age, by the scene when Robert Shaw talks about the USS Indianapolis going down. Later on, when I started to really appreciate acting as an art form, I fell in love with Meryl Streep and then with Cate Blanchett. I remember seeing Cate in Elizabeth and thinking, Who is that? What is she doing? Oh my God. How does she do it? I love watching actresses and asking myself those questions. The biggest trick to acting is hiding the trick, you know?
What do you consider your big break in Hollywood? The obvious guess would be The Devil Wears Prada, but you’d done a few smaller films before that.
Definitely The Devil Wears Prada, but there was a film before that called My Summer of Love, which I think brought me into the conversation. It was such a weird little film, but the one where I learned the most because I hadn’t trained at all. Then Devil was the film everyone loved and saw, so it had a huge impact on my career. It helped reveal a certain part of me; I wasn’t just the ingenue or the English rose. It helped me be seen as a character actor, which is what I’d always wanted.
Your character wasn’t overtly comedic, but she had a few genuinely funny moments. “I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight” remains one of the best movie lines from the last decade.
[Laughs.] Yes. The film still has such legs to it. And men love it, too. I don’t think any of us realized what it was going to be when we were shooting it. Now there’s a new wave of these films. This is the time for the chicks!
I have to say, you project an air of normalcy that can be hard to find in actors. Where does it come from?
[Laughs.] I have good parents? It’s about a balance. I really am in love with this job, but I’m also in love with my life outside of it. One of them very much feeds the other.
You also don’t engage in social media, which probably helps.
It’s true. I’m like a dinosaur with that stuff, No. 1. But it’s also not really an organic sort of fit for me. I can barely remember to text people back! I also feel that my job is to persuade people that I’m somebody else, so if I reveal too much, then I’m doing my job a disservice, in a way.
You probably can’t tell us anything about your upcoming role in The Girl on the Train, but I’ll ask anyway: What can you tell us about The Girl on the Train?
Well, I can say that it’s really beautiful. It’s crazy and fun and beautiful. I’m excited about it.
Huntsman fans are also excited about the sequel, Winter’s War, in which you and Charlize Theron play evil sisters Ravenna and Freya opposite Jessica Chastain and Chris Hemsworth. It must have been a relief to have so many fellow females on set after doing Sicario.
Exactly! It was definitely time for a corset and silver wig by the time I finished with that one. We had a blast. It was effortless, like the kind of job where I wanted to run to work every day. I loved working with those women. They are such chameleons. It was fun feeding off of them, basically. That’s not to say I didn’t love working with Chris. I would have thought he’d want to take a break from working with women after that [laughs], but then he did Ghostbusters! He’s glutton for punishment, basically.