When Emily Blunt was cast as the lead in The Girl on the Train there was concern that she wasn’t right for the job. Paula Hawkins’s bestselling thriller, on which the film is based, features an overweight, addled alcoholic protagonist called Rachel whose life is falling apart after a marital breakdown.
Blunt, who doesn’t exactly have a face like the back end of a bus (or, indeed, a train) was described by Hawkins as simply “too beautiful” to play the role. Luckily, the wardrobe and make-up departments were on hand. Blunt, 33, had prosthetic under-eye bags applied every day, along with a smattering of rosacea colouring and fake varicose veins.
“I had a full contact lens that covered my whole eye to give that look as though your eyes are bloodshot,” she says, when we meet in a London hotel. “There was a pink one and there was the incredibly raging red eye for a drunk look and the hungover, yellow, sallowed sort of eye.”
Today Blunt’s eyes are free of lenses and sparkling blue. Her hair is blonde and shiny. She is wearing an impeccably tailored blue and maroon dress. There’s not a varicose vein in sight. As Rachel, Blunt spends much of the movie wearing a baggy tweed coat.
“Isn’t that the ugliest coat you’ve ever seen in your life?” she asks me. Yes, I say, without hesitation. “When [costume designer] Ann Roth handed it to me, I just thought, ‘It’s over. It’s over. I’ll never get a beauty campaign after this.’” She also had to wear an ill-fitting trouser suit, although when Blunt talks about it she says “pant suit” without flinching.
She grew up as the second of four children in Roehampton, south west London. Her father, Oliver, is a QC and her mother, Joanna, a former actress, but Blunt took US citizenship last year. It made sense, she says, because her husband, the actor and director John Krasinski, is American and she needs to be there a lot for career reasons.
Emily Blunt and John Krasinski on the red carpet of The Girl On The Train
The couple have two daughters, Hazel, two, and Violet, almost four months. “Old lady names,” she says. “They should have a bridge club or something.” Blunt still feels British but her daughter Hazel recently asked for water by softening the central consonant in a decidedly American fashion. “It was rather uncomfortable,” Blunt says, doing an impression of a scolding mother, “No, it’s war-tah.
Krasinski, who became famous in the US version of The Office, is, she says, “my greatest confidant… His opinion means more to me than anybody else’s. He’s very honest. I mean, he delivers information in a very straightforward, loving way. I can always rely on John to give honest feedback on something. Always.”
Luckily, he enjoyed The Girl on the Train (in cinemas now), although at one point while watching it he turned to his wife and said, “Oh my God, you look like a ghoul.”
Blunt says it was liberating looking so unlike her normal self. As someone who merited a spot in FHM’s 100 Sexiest Women of 2015 (number 90), it came as something of a relief not to worry about what other people thought of her appearance.
“It can truly just be about the internal understanding of the character, as opposed to trying to keep a peripheral awareness of how you might be looking,” she says.
But Blunt has never been the kind of actress who relies on her looks. Since her breakout performance as Tamsin, the gay schoolgirl in 2004’s My Summer of Love, Blunt has become one of our most versatile and interesting film stars.
She seems just as comfortable portraying a queen in period drama The Young Victoria as she is playing a futuristic, kick-ass, allaction heroine opposite Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow. To say she has range is an understatement.
Later this year, she starts rehearsing for the lead role in the Disney remake of Mary Poppins. On screen, Blunt is a compelling mix of vulnerability and impenetrability: you might not know what she’s thinking, but she’s thinking something that makes you want to keep watching.
The Girl on the Train appealed to her because it challenges expectations in a way that she found refreshing. “There’s this façade, because we want women to be likeable – my least favourite word in Hollywood right now. She’s got to be relateable and likeable and pretty and held in some sort of feminine ideal that we strive for. Actually, I want to play people who are less about being likeable, more about being credible.”
Blunt is grateful that she is at a point in her career where she can pick and choose. “I heard someone say the other day, ‘I can’t believe all those girls on Game of Thrones who just get their tits out.’
“Well, they want to work and that, maybe, is all they’ve been offered and they’re happy to get a job and pay the rent.”
She is still sent scripts, however, where the description for a female character is all about her appearance. “‘She’s blonde and vivacious and very attractive.’ And I’m like, ‘Cool. What’s she like?’ That always irritates me.”
She notes that the leading man, by contrast, often “gets a rather insightful introduction as to his deeper being”.
Blunt and her husband recently moved from Ojai, outside Los Angeles, to New York, partly to give her daughters “a chance at not being surrounded by a superficial ideal”.
She goes on to say that, “I’m aware of the physical pressures on women for sure, especially now with two girls.” But that pressure is not just about body image.
In The Girl on the Train, Blunt plays a woman depressed by her infertility. Ironically, she discovered she was pregnant with Violet while filming and she explains that she had to tap into the “deeply heart-wrenching” experience of friends who have been unable to conceive.
“There’s such societal pressure on women,” she says. “From whether you breastfeed or not, how long you breastfeed for, to whether you can have a kid or want a kid, whether you can keep a husband.
“‘Keeping’ a man is a phrase I hate hearing. And women are seen as ‘less than’ if they don’t have children and that is wildly wrong.”
I mention recent comments made by Tory MP Andrea Leadsom, who questioned whether the now Prime Minister Theresa May would have a sufficient stake in the future of the country given that she has no children of her own.
“I think that’s unfair,” says Blunt, cautiously, before adding that, “I always get myself in trouble talking about politics.”
Still, debate runs in the blood: her uncle is the Conservative politician Crispin Blunt and I wonder if, as a child, she was influenced by the theatrics of her father’s work as a barrister? “I’m sure he likes to think of himself as the biggest actor in our family,” she laughs. “It is the ultimate performance, especially for my father who is usually defending guilty people.”
Blunt has been to see him in court a couple of times. “He’s so articulate and so eloquent, and he also sounds and looks rather like Richard Burton.
“A lot of people talked about his speech at our wedding as being the one that you remember and I do get very proud watching him do his thing. You know, lying through his teeth.”
A few years ago, he started being introduced as “Emily Blunt’s dad”. Understandably, that doesn’t go down very well. “He likes to say he’s the real star in the family, so it’s a bit of a slight.”
Her sister, Felicity, a literary agent, is married to actor Stanley Tucci (Blunt introduced them after meeting him on The Devil Wears Prada). So presumably Oliver Blunt QC also gets called Stanley Tucci’s father-in-law?
“Exactly! My sister – she’s a really fantastic literary agent, she made the top 1,000 list in London or something – and she said that it was so annoying because they talked about her as known by association. Like, ‘Stanley Tucci’s wife and Emily Blunt’s sister’. That really p***es me off. People should be known in their own right.”
Indeed, they should. And, despite her ability to play such a wide range of nuanced characters on screen, there’s no doubt that Emily Blunt will still be known very much as herself.
The Girl on the Train is out in cinemas now