She’s played everything from English aristocrats to Melbourne stalkers. Now Emily Blunt has joined the FBI. By Helen Barlow.

Emily Blunt among the action in crime thriller Sicario

Emily Blunt in Sicario.
Emily Blunt in Sicario.

As a child, Emily Blunt was held back by a debilitating stutter. She discovered that by doing silly voices, essentially acting, she could get her point across. Gradually freed from the shackles of her impediment, she has been talking, and laughing, ever since.

Blunt is often the life of the party and I have spoken to her many times since her mix of feistiness and fun proved so endearing when we discussed her role in The Young Victoria (2009) as the fledgling British monarch. It was a role that seemed as far from the vivacious actor as you could get. In fact, her exuberance makes her seem less like a Brit and more like an Australian. She has always taken such claims on her as a compliment – Australia’s a place she loves and has frequented. 

We are meeting in Cannes to discuss her new movie, Sicario, a darkly serious take on the war on drugs around the Mexican border. The 32-year-old is typically sharp-witted and doesn’t let me down. To get things rolling I innocently mention how Josh Brolin’s cowboy-style agent wears thongs in the film, and she is mock aghast, until I explain the Australian terminology.

“I thought, ‘Bloody hell, Helen, that’s an opener!’ ” she says. “I thought you meant like a G-string. I thought you meant my underwear. I just loved the thought of Josh wearing a thong. But I live in California – I love slapping around in flip-flops, I do.”

Blunt’s penchant for Australia goes back to 2005, when she fell in love with former partner crooner Michael Bublé at a concert in Melbourne. She was filming Irresistible alongside Susan Sarandon; he was singing jazz standards. She continued her love of travelling with the actor she would marry, John Krasinski, but now that they have four-year-old Hazel things are a little different, she admits.

“I sort of count the hours on the flight, wondering how long can I keep her entertained. Or will she sleep? So I think a trip to Australia might be out of the question at the moment. Hazel would love it. We’ve got to do it. John’s never been and he’s desperate to go.”

If they have another child they might never be able to visit.

“Then were really screwed,” she bellows.

1 . Action figure

Blunt is a hardy, lean kind of woman who loves physical activity and the outdoors. Still, she never really imagined herself as the elite soldier she played, telling Tom Cruise what to do in the 2014 sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow.

“I didn’t just dip my toes in the action water, I was thrown in head first,” she chuckles. “But I did enjoy the challenge. It keeps you vital and sort of alive.

In Sicario, Denis Villeneuve, the Québécois director who brought us the Middle Eastern woman-focused drama Incendies (2010) and Prisoners (2013), starring Hugh Jackman as a vigilante, has now cast Blunt in her most challenging role to date, as FBI agent Kate Macer. The film is essentially Villeneuve’s third instalment in a hard-hitting trilogy focusing on the politics of revenge and the value of a human life.

It’s through Kate’s eyes that we see the underhand efforts of a US taskforce charged with taking down a drug cartel, by any means. And that includes enlisting Benicio Del Toro’s former Mexican mafia hitman (or sicario) to make it happen. Villeneuve maintains his film is about America and not about the cartels. It’s a gripping, violent piece of cinema that doesn’t offer any easy answers, or take a moral stance. 

“A movie like this that is uncompromising, spare and full of nuance doesn’t come along that often,” notes Blunt.

In Cannes, Screen International commended the actor for succeeding in “the thankless task of embodying American naivety to breaking point”.

“Kate’s strong but strangely quite fragile,” Blunt says. “The environment she’s put into is so incoherent and so brutal you see somebody who is well equipped for the job being unable to fulfil anything. She’s such a human character and I had great admiration for her as well as a sort of sadness for seeing her get torn to shreds, psychologically and physically.”

Blunt met with many female FBI agents and was taken aback by how normal and slight they were. “I asked them how their work affects their marriage, how it affects their children, how they sleep at night and what frightens them,” she says. “I wanted to know everything because the movie takes place over three days and is very intense. One woman on a SWAT team said the way she decompresses is to watch Downton Abbey.” Blunt chortles as she mentions one of her own favourite shows, penned by The Young Victoria scribe Julian Fellowes. She admits she was keen to dive into meatier material here.

“It’s subject matter that needs to be explored time and time again, because it’s so complex and impossible. I hear about it more living in California, but it’s essentially about fear and power, just as what’s going on in Iraq and Syria is about fear and power. We hear about it less because there’s a sense of complicity with North America – and there’s corruption on both sides. The argument this movie presents is true to fact and it was insightful talking to Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the screenplay, as his brother is a journalist living in Mexico. A lot of what he has put in the screenplay comes directly from his brother.”

Blunt, who lives two hours’ drive north-west of Los Angeles in rural Ojai, admits the most unsettling thing about living in the United States is the widespread use of guns. She developed a keener insight when learning to shoot them for Edge of Tomorrow, and practised again for Sicario.

“I didn’t like the feeling in the gun rink of having a stranger next to you who could easily turn around and take you out.”

She admits she knows a little about crime from her father, Oliver Blunt, a defence QC who is one of Britain’s highest-profile barristers. And that’s not mentioning Uncle Crispin, a Tory MP and former prisons minister; or her grandfather, Major-General Peter Blunt.

“I think my dad will absolutely love this movie,” she says. “He will really see the complexities and the issues in trying to find a solution.

“It was exciting growing up around him, because I’d hear about these cases and try and wrap my head around how he detaches himself from defending criminals for a living, but he does. He believes everyone is entitled to a defence, though he’s very specific about the kinds of people he defends. He doesn’t do rapists or child abusers. With three daughters, I think it’s a little too close to home to expect him to do that. But he loves the job and is really quite formidable and yet he’s so kind. I don’t know if I get it from him; he’s just my dad, really. I had very confident, very intelligent parents.” 

2 . Never stifled

The second-eldest of four children, Blunt grew up in what she terms “a rowdy household with lots of laughter and people doing impersonations”. She went to “bohemian schools with an eclectic mix of people” rather than posh private colleges, and is grateful to have had forward-thinking parents. Her mum, Joanna, gave up acting in order to look after the children.

“They gave us a lot of freedom to be who we wanted to be and I never felt stifled by them or pressured to be anything other than who I was. We’re all quite different and I credit them with that. They gave us a great environment to explore who we wanted to be in life.”

Her parents helped her overcome her stutter. One of her uncles and other family members had it, too. Still, it has been the greatest challenge of her life.

“You cannot present yourself as who you want to be and I felt like I had so much to say and so much to offer and no way of putting that across. So working at getting over it was massive for me and I think that’s why I’ve always been attracted to playing a wide range of characters and different voices and the physicality of it.”

Now it seems nothing can stop her, even if she was momentarily alarmed when the stutter returned during her pregnancy. She is all about communication and has become quite the facilitator in her personal and professional realm. She should open a matchmaking service, I suggest, given that she introduced Stanley Tucci, her good friend and The Devil Wears Prada co-star, to her elder literary agent sister, Felicity. “I probably should. I think I’m good at it.”

The pair are now married with a son, Matteo, and family gatherings are all the better for it, says Blunt, as she loves to eat. She explains that Tucci, also an author of cookbooks, makes a mean “authentic bolognese”, derived partly from his mother and grandmother’s recipes. “I’m glad I’m not married to him,” she quips. “Felicity has to go to the gym and I’m not a fan of that.”

I recall how the ever-slim Blunt, who clearly has a fast metabolism, is also a fan of pizza. “Still, still, am still. Had it last night – it was so good.” In posh Cannes? “I had pizza at one of the afterparties.”

Blunt works hard at maintaining normalcy in her life, which goes back to the way she was raised. She started acting at 17 in an Edinburgh Festival play, but it was in The Royal Family with Judi Dench on London’s West End that she made her mark. Her crisp comic style has endeared her to the likes of Meryl Streep, with whom she reteamed for Into the Woods recently. And, yes, she can sing.

Blunt loves the camaraderie of her profession and is a perfect match for her equally affable husband, who made his name as the straight man to Steve Carell in The Office. “John’s from Boston, where people are very down to earth,” she notes. “He has an ability to laugh at life.” 

After appearing in The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon, Blunt introduced the socially conscious star to her husband. Krasinski and Damon went on to write, produce and co-star in the anti-fracking drama Promised Land. But that wasn’t the end of Emily’s matchmaking. When Josh Brolin, a friend of her husband’s, declared himself unavailable for Sicario, she wasn’t taking no for an answer.

“I wrote him a very persuasive email effectively saying he was an idiot, because I knew he was going to be perfect for the part,” she tells me. “He has a gravitas and a manliness and a sexiness, but he’s also kind of laconic. I think you needed someone who understood funny and how to do that.”

The rambunctious pair took over the set with the more retiring, dry-witted Del Toro, her co-star in the 2010’s The Wolfman, ultimately sitting in a corner, and watching. Del Toro calls her “a force of nature”. 

Blunt admits that “for such dark subject matter it was a strangely happy shoot”. She says it’s all about working with the right people. “It’s quite a fun industry in the way that it’s very welcoming. I think people like to talk about us all vying with each other but I never find that. People strive hard to maintain a normal existence. I do have friends who have nothing to do with the industry and that’s refreshing as well.”

In the end, all the tensions of maintaining an acting career pale into insignificance when compared with the joy and responsibility of raising a child. “John is back home on daddy duty,” she says. “I think you definitely find yourself saying, ‘Who cares?’ much more. I also think it’s a good distraction that’s always there. This business is often about me, me, me and it’s no longer that way.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 12, 2015 as "Blunt force".

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Helen Barlow is a Paris-based film writer.

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