"There's just so much judgment with women," says star Blunt as she takes on a tough and not at all likable ("my least bloody favorite word in the industry") character in Universal's film adaptation of a blockbuster novel that highlights the darker urges of suburbia — but please, says author Paula Hawkins, stop comparing it to 'Gone Girl.'
"I stink terribly of onions," is the first thing Emily Blunt says, right before she leans in for the customary Hollywood air-kiss greeting on a warm September morning. "I've just been cooking at home."
We're meeting in a tiny 10-seater coffee shop in Brooklyn, and Blunt — wearing a breezy cornflower linen dress, her hair tied in a bobbing blond ponytail — looks very much like she just stepped out of a country kitchen. "My baby pulled away from me while nursing because of the smell. 'Ick,' " she jokes, referring to 12-week-old daughter Violet, who's waiting for her at the nearby townhouse Blunt has been sharing with husband John Krasinski for slightly less than a year — long enough for their 2-year-old, Hazel, to begin stretching her vowels. "She's sounding a bit American from what I see. 'Can I have some wah-ta?' " the London-born actress re-enacts, her Queen's English shifting to a nasally New York accent. "I was like, 'Wodder?' And she went, 'No, it's wah-ta.' I was like, 'Oh, for God's sake!' "
It's immediately obvious why Blunt, 33, was chosen for one of the three female leads in The Girl on the Train, Universal's much-anticipated R-rated adaptation of Paula Hawkins' best-selling thriller. She's perfect for Anna, the beautiful, happily married mother living a life of upscale bliss whose typical worry is whether her baby's pureed fruit is organic.
Except, of course, that's not the part Blunt will be playing in Girl on the Train, which opens Oct. 7. Instead, she's starring as Anna's nemesis, Rachel, a 32-year-old blackout drunk and sometime stalker who may (or may not) have witnessed (or committed) a crime while inebriated. It is by far the darkest, roughest role the British actress and soon-to-be Mary Poppins (she is about to uproot the entire family to London for eight months to start shooting the Disney musical) has yet attempted. Which, naturally, is what drew her to it.
"With so many movies, women are held to what a man considers a feminine ideal," says Blunt, sipping a soy cappuccino. "You have to be pretty. You have to be 'likable,' which is my least favorite bloody word in the industry. Rachel isn't 'likable.' What does that mean? To be witty and pretty and hold it together and be there for the guy? And he can just be a total drip?" That Blunt herself seems extremely likable as she says all this only underscores her point.
"People say, 'Oh, she's way too beautiful to play her,' " says Hawkins of the actress who'll be portraying her literary creation. "But that doesn't matter. The thing about Rachel is her self-loathing, about what she feels about herself, and Emily really brought that out in the way she carries herself. All that damage is visible."
The Girl on the Train was last year's single-biggest literary phenomenon. It sold nearly 6 million copies in the U.S. alone and more than 15 million worldwide. It spent 88 consecutive weeks on The New York Times best-seller list — debuting at No. 1 in all formats, from hardcover to e-book to movie tie-in paperback — and has been published in 50 countries in more than 40 languages.
Not surprisingly, expectations at Universal are sky-high for the $45 million film version. "As we were breaking down the marketing pieces, you could see that Emily is just mesmerizing in this role," says Universal chairman Donna Langley. "And there are also two other fantastic female parts" — played by Rebecca Ferguson and Haley Bennett — "so we celebrated the female aspect of it, to be honest with you, because you want to get that core audience. We saw from films like Gone Girl that female audiences — if you give them something great — they are going to show up."
Hawkins, 44, bristles at all the Gone Girl comparisons and instead focuses on her book's (and the film's) more topical themes — namely how technology has turned us all into voyeurs, increasingly consuming and creating fake narratives. "On social media, everyone's curating their own happy lives, presenting their happiness for everyone else to look at," explains the author, noting that she tried to channel Hitchcock in her approach to the novel by creating a palpable atmosphere of paranoia and self-doubt where characters — primarily Rachel — think they are going mad. "On Facebook, everybody's always looking great, and their children are always smiling. It's so unreal. I can understand how it makes some people feel terribly lonely, insecure and sad about their lives."
“I was intimidated to take on a role like this. It’s quite alien to how I operate and how I go about my life and how I feel about the world,” says Blunt.
Not that Hawkins has anything against social media. (Blunt, on the other hand, does — you won't find her on any social platform. It's "not really an organic sort of fit for me," she said in a December interview.)
On the day we meet for her THR interview at an industrial space in Bushwick — Hawkins is wearing a pair of well-worn Birkenstock-esque sandals that stand out from her black silk shirt and gray tweed trousers — I notice that she has tweeted a picture of a glass of white wine with the following very Rachel-like missive: "Yes it's 8.30 am but I've been up since 4 so it's pretty much lunchtime really." So, naturally, I ask her if Girl on the Train is at all autobiographical.
"No," she laughs, shifting uncomfortably on a couch. "There are always aspects of yourself in a character. I lived in Africa when I was a child. [She grew up in Zimbabwe, the daughter of an economics professor and financial journalist.] I moved to England when I was 17, and I didn't know anyone. I was really lonely, and I used to take the train in and out of town. I was a very lonely little person looking out at the houses that I passed and looking at all the people living there, their lives and having a good time and feeling that desperation, that wanting to connect that is in Rachel. That is definitely me from a certain time in my life, but like 20 years ago, not now."
More recently — until 2012 — Hawkins was working as a financial journalist for publications including The Times of London, covering such unsexy topics as taxes, pensions and mortgages. On the side, she wrote four throw-away romantic comedy novels under the pen name Amy Silver ("I don't recommend," she deadpans). Though she found her beat dull, it helped shape her understanding of the underlying psychology of Girl on the Train's six main characters: three strong women (each flawed in her own way) and the three men in their lives (played by Justin Theroux, Luke Evans and Edgar Ramirez), who fall on the spectrum from weak to loathsome.
"You spend a lot of time talking to real people asking them about their lives, people whose finances have gone horribly wrong, people who've gotten themselves into debt, people who've lost money on the stock market," says Hawkins of her reporting days. "Those stories were always interesting to tease out. It was very much about human life and coping. That kind of stuff always interests me because I'm kind of nosy."
In the novel, Rachel is financially destitute. Infertility and a failed marriage have catapulted her into a self-destructive spiral — she's crashing in the guest room of a tolerant friend, swilling vodka on the train from a gym water bottle. In real life, Hawkins, who is single and lives in south London, had reached her own point of desperation before finishing Girl on the Train, which took a year to write. "I put myself into a bit of a mess and had to borrow money from my dad, which is very embarrassing when you were my age to ask your parents to pay your mortgage for a couple months," she says. "I'd written half, and I said to my agent: 'Can we go to publishers with it? Because I need money.' And she agreed, even though it's not really usual to go out with a half-finished book, especially if you're a new writer, which I kind of was because I was unknown. My agent made me rewrite it a few times, and then she took it to publishers and there was immediately a good response."
Hawkins and Blunt were photographed Sept. 17 at The 1896 in Brooklyn.
Even before publication, Hollywood came knocking. Not surprisingly, it was DreamWorks, largely run by women at the time — with Stacey Snider, who since has departed for Fox, at the helm and Holly Bario overseeing production — that was first to pounce. DreamWorks book scout Marcy Drogin gave the manuscript to Bario, who read it in one sitting. "Every executive in town post-Gone Girl was looking for this kind of unreliable narrator with a hook," says Bario. "We all thought, 'This is it.' But when we bought it, we had no idea that it would explode the way it did." (Now, all of Hollywood is eagerly awaiting Hawkins' follow-up, expected to publish in spring 2017. Once again, the plot hinges on foggy memories. Set in a fictional village in the North of England near the Scottish border, the story revolves around the relationship between estranged sisters. "I love this idea that we all treat our memories as gospel," says Hawkins. "The truth is, there are points in your life when you realize that something you believed about yourself actually didn't happen.")
Langley, too, read The Girl on the Train early and loved it — but had little opportunity to go after it because DreamWorks made a pre-emptive move. "When Steven Spielberg wants something and puts his hand up for it, that's pretty hard to argue with," she says. But in the end, Universal still is getting its crack at the material. In a seismic deal struck in December, Spielberg and Participant Media founder Jeff Skoll formed Amblin Partners and inked a deal with Universal to be its new distribution partner (DreamWorks previously had funneled its movies through Disney, which couldn't be a less appropriate match for Hawkins' dark and violent material). Girl on the Train marks the first film under that Amblin-Universal union.
With Hawkins uninterested in adapting her own novel a la Gone Girl's Gillian Flynn ("I would have no idea where to start, actually"), DreamWorks enlisted Erin Cressida Wilson, a writer whose credits — the pre-Fifty Shades bondage romance Secretary and Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus — demonstrated a strong female point of view.
Tasked with this dark, moody material, Wilson found the idea of an alcoholic protagonist to be a powerful tool. "Alcoholism is often about secrets — even from oneself," she says. "I wanted to use the drinking for what was most important and dramatic in the film — the device for amnesia and blackout — and to focus the story more on Rachel's longing, desire, loneliness and voyeurism, and ultimately her utter terror of herself."
Marc Platt, already collaborating with Spielberg at the time on Bridge of Spies, was enlisted to produce. When it came to a director, DreamWorks wanted someone who could elicit strong performances from actresses. That person was Tate Taylor, who helmed the studio's best picture Academy Award contender The Help (that film saw three actresses earn Oscar nominations, with Octavia Spencer winning in the supporting category). Before casting the lead, DreamWorks moved the narrative from London to New York for budgetary reasons and to broaden its appeal. Platt wanted Blunt, with whom he worked on the musical Into the Woods; he considers the actress "instantly accessible." So did Taylor, who had courted her unsuccessfully for The Help. Though Blunt can do a reliable American accent, Taylor decided that her character should remain British. "I thought that also made it a deeper story of isolation, for her to be away from her homeland going through [a divorce and alcoholism]," says Taylor. "The audience might gather that she moved here for a man."
Ask any studio head, and you'll hear there's a dearth of actresses in their 30s who can carry a movie. Most female protagonist roles go to over-40 women who established their box-office power back when a star system still existed (think Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron and Sandra Bullock). Among the handful of 30-something exceptions, Blunt might have the widest range, from biting comedy (The Devil Wears Prada) to sexpot (Charlie Wilson's War) to ass-kicker (outshining Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow). Last year, she pulled off that Hollywood rarity: female action protagonist in Sicario (as a testament to that feat, try to envision other A-listers her age — think Natalie Portman or Anne Hathaway — in the role). And, of course, she can sing, as evidenced by Into the Woods. Still, Blunt is downplaying expectations about her rendition of "Jolly Holiday" in the new Mary Poppins film: "I can't sing like Julie Andrews," she says. "I mean, no one can out-Julie Julie Andrews. But I'm going to have to do my version of it."
Admittedly not much of a drinker ("I grew up being allowed like a half-glass of wine at 14 at the Sunday roast"), Blunt couldn't wrap her head around the sensation of being blind drunk — nor the shame that ensues. But she says she understood Rachel's feelings of inadequacy.
"I've experienced those moments of feeling less than, where I was just trying to figure how to be a strong person and own who I want to be, but not for a while now, not since I met my husband," she says (she and Krasinski met through friends in 2008 and married in 2010 at George Clooney's Lake Como estate in Italy). "When I met John, everything changed for me, truly. And I really was emboldened to discover who I really am."
“If you feel your choices are constantly being questioned or attacked, it does make you defensive,” says Hawkins. “And when you’re defensive, you start to attack other women’s choices.”
She toyed with the idea of drinking heavily and having Krasinski videotape her as a way of understanding Rachel. But the couple learned that she was pregnant about a week before she began shooting, scuttling her binge plan. As an alternative, she binge-watched the reality show Intervention. "Fascinating. Heart-wrenching. It makes you weep," she says. For most of the production on Girl on the Train, she hid her pregnancy from the cast and crew, but playing an out-of-control alcoholic made the subterfuge difficult.
"It turned out to be a much more physical role than I had anticipated," says Blunt. "She gets in a fair few tussles and gets knocked around a bit by various characters. Justin guessed because we're very good friends. We were going over the final sequence, and I was being a bit wussy about some of the stunts. He pulled me aside and was, 'What is with you? Are you pregnant?' And I was like, 'Yes.' "
Still, Blunt's first trimester exhaustion and queasiness ended up aiding her performance as a woman either drunk or hung over for much of the film. "John said to me, 'Oh my God, you look like a ghoul,' " she says with a laugh. Wilson praises Blunt's ability "to act totally shit-faced drunk and still be charming, compelling and even funny — she also knows how to perfectly place a line, a gesture, a piece of vulnerable ugliness in a way that slides right into our place of total watchability and empathy."
As the decibel of the music in the cafe rises and afternoon customers begin to stream in, Blunt locks on that one subject that makes her soothing British inflection rise: what exactly Girl on the Train has to say about gender roles and expectations.
For her, the novel and film offer a needed rebuke to long-embedded double standards that shape the way we talk about women. "A woman is a drunk, a whore, whereas the guy's like a partyer, a player," the actress says. "I've been around both women who drink too much and guys who drink too much and it's just as ugly on the guys. It makes me crazy. I don't think that women should be seen as any less sexual than a guy. And maybe she doesn't want to settle down, and that's OK. And maybe she doesn't want a kid, and that's OK. And she's just happy playing the field. There's so much judgment with women."
This story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.