“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.”
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.