In 16 years of acting, Emily Blunt has already put together the kind of career that most actors try to build in a lifetime. She's had a role in seemingly every genre (aside from a megafranchise), continually surprising and delighting audiences with the choices she makes. Her role in The Girl on the Train follows suit, as Blunt takes on a role that's gritty, layered, and unlike any other character we've seen her play before. She's got a lot riding on the film, too, as fans across the globe have been anticipating the big-screen version of the New York Times bestseller pretty much since the adaptation was announced. I sat down with Blunt in New York for a recent press day for the film, where she discussed the challenges of the role, the appeal of the genre, and how becoming a mother has changed the evolution of both her personal life and her career.
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Blunt had her star-making turn in 2006's The Devil Wears Prada, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination along with a new legion of fans who would quote her lines from the film back to her for years to come. Since then she's starred in an impressive array of films that truly show her range: comedy (The Five-Year Engagement), action (Edge of Tomorrow), musicals (Into the Woods), drama (Sicario), and so on. Not only is Blunt's résumé a testament to her talent, but as her husband, actor John Krasinski, points out, it's also a testament to the choices she's made. "I've watched her go from being a really good actress who makes really good decisions to being the best actress who makes exceptional decisions, and it's because she can literally do anything," he said. "But I will say above all, I think her taste is what impresses me the most. She chooses roles and understands roles so specifically."
"It's very unusual to have your female heroine be a complete blackout drunk."
So what made Blunt choose The Girl on the Train? The fact that it presented yet another new challenge for her as an actress. "It was a departure for me, because I've never played, number one, an alcoholic, but somebody who is that toxic, physically, and emotionally," she said. "That was the appeal. But also, it's very unusual to have your female heroine be a complete blackout drunk. That was another draw for me."
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To Blunt's point, Rachel Watson is not exactly the most lovable protagonist. Unable to move past her failed marriage, Rachel takes the train to and from Manhattan each day, sipping alcohol from a stash in her purse and fantasizing about the lives of a young, beautiful couple whose house the train passes each day. When the woman mysteriously vanishes, Rachel finds herself overly involved in discovering what happened. Not only is Rachel an unreliable narrator because of her drinking, but she also makes a lot of cringe-worthy decisions (there are a lot of drunk dials to her ex) that make it difficult to really root for her, but Blunt made sure not to pass judgment. "I think Rachel is, and I hate this term but you hear it all the time, is ultimately maybe an unlikable character. People don't want to breathe the same air as her. She looks like sh*t, she acts like a lunatic. But yet I had such huge sympathy for her, I felt so hideous for this character and what she'd been through. And I understood why she did what she did. I think acting's the ultimate form of empathy in many ways."
"I think there's a voyeur in all of us."
In the film, we see Rachel in various stages of drunkenness, from going too hard on happy hour to blacking out entirely. Actors often talk about how difficult it is to authentically play a drunk character, and Blunt turned to both friends and reality television for preparation. "I watched a lot of Intervention, which was very, very helpful because, thank God, no one has ever documented me when I'm blackout drunk. I think how we think we are when we're really drunk is not actually what we look like, so I don't have any recollection of what I do, physically, when I've been really drunk — which is not that many times, but it's happened! [Laughs] I think I needed to be able to portray that physically, like what happens to your face? What happens to your eyes? How do people really look? How do people really behave when they're drunk? And I got some really good tips by a couple of friends of mine who used to be drunks."
"He knew. I was resistant to getting up off the ground too quickly. I was like, 'Yeah, but I might tweak something.' He took me aside and he went, 'You did Edge of Tomorrow. Are you pregnant?'"
Ironically, Blunt wasn't drinking at all at the time she filmed the movie, because she was pregnant with her second daughter, which presented its own set of challenges. "It's nice to unwind with a glass of wine, which I was unable to do, and this movie needed more unwinding than most," she said. "It was a really tough shoot. It was a fun shoot, but it was very challenging. There were physical challenges that were happening to me in my real life that I was in that first trimester of exhaustion and sort of feeling kind of nauseous." Then there's the factor of not wanting to share your pregnancy news too early, but it didn't take long for Blunt's friend and costar Justin Theroux to figure out what was happening. "He totally guessed, because he knows me really well. He knew. I was resistant to getting up off the ground too quickly. I was like, 'Yeah, but I might tweak something.' He took me aside and he went, 'You did Edge of Tomorrow. Are you pregnant?'"
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Paula Hawkins's novel debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2015 list and has become so ubiquitous that it's hard to find someone who hasn't read it or at least heard of it. That said, Blunt hadn't read the book before she got approached for the movie, but once she picked it up, she quickly related to the themes. "It's very easy to see why it became the phenomenon that it did because I think those domestic thrillers play very well these days because it feels so close to home for people, and they can imagine themselves in these characters' shoes," she said. "The underbelly of suburban life is quite a realistic thing to portray. What we think we see and don't see. I think there's a voyeur in all of us. I think all of us have done that suburban commute, and wondered about the people on the train or the people that live near the tracks, and looking into windows that aren't ours to look into. Wondering about lives we've never lived. It was a concept that I could relate to."
"Kids just ground you instantly, it doesn't matter what you do for a living or who you are."
Of course, as an actress and celebrity, Blunt herself is living the kind of life that many would love to know more about. She's been married to Krasinski for over six years, and the couple have two daughters together. In addition to the fact that Blunt and Krasinski have amassed tons of fans from The Devil Wears Prada and The Office alone, the couple also have an A-List social life that includes an annual Christmas prank war with Jimmy Kimmel, tropical vacations with Jennifer Aniston, and trips to George Clooney's vacation home in Lake Como, Italy (they even got married there). Though Blunt asserts that her life is a lot more boring than it seems, she understands why people are curious. "I get why people want to come up with preconceptions of what you're like, or misconceptions, I guess, of what you're like, and what your life might be like. I understand that, because I understood it before I became known. I used to wonder about people, from famous people to not. I think it is that sort of need to know what we don't, that need to know behind closed doors. I understand the obsession. I feel like I have two lives — one where I'm in my house, and one where we're outside in public. I think also what people usually see, because it's just broadcast everywhere, is that it's such a spectacle. Because you see the red carpets and you see the premieres and all that. [Laughs] That's so alien to how we normally live our lives. So that in itself is like a character that you play."
"When we first met, I felt like we used to have these amazing stories to tell of our spontaneous adventures, and now we're like, 'Well, I got thrown up on today.' It's not as interesting."
Blunt jokes her life with Krasinski used to be a lot more exciting before they became parents, especially when it comes to finding the right stories to tell on press tours when they're promoting a project. "When we first met, I felt like we used to have these amazing stories to tell of our spontaneous adventures, and now we're like, 'Well, I got thrown up on today.' It's not as interesting." Beyond the stories she tells on talk shows, motherhood has also had a profound effect on how Blunt sees herself — and how she chooses her projects. "It's become my main identity. That's how I see myself at the forefront of things. That's my first priority in how I see myself now. And you wonder how superficially you lived your life before. Kids just ground you instantly, it doesn't matter what you do for a living or who you are. It's a universal grounding that goes on, when that mirror's held up to you and that kid's like, 'Let's see what you got.' It's just a really interesting time. It definitely has changed when I work, and how often I work, and the specificity of what I do now, because my kids are very, very young, and so I need to be there. This is a tender age, and so I need big chunks of time off, and that's sort of how I'm seeing things. I'm very, very specific about when I work and what it is. I have to really want to do it now. It has to be really worth it."
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"I might be the actress that's worked with Meryl Streep the most. She stalks me. It's embarrassing."
Not surprisingly, when you take a look at Blunt's upcoming projects, you'll exclusively find kid-friendly fare: three animated movies and Mary Poppins Returns. Blunt lights up when discussing the latter, saying, "What a gift to my girls! I would've done Mary Poppins whether I was a mother or not, but the fact that I'm a mother and to a mother of girls is just so awesome to be able to play Mary Poppins. It's a real gift. Because they're just gonna find it joyous." The film will mark the third time she's worked with Meryl Streep, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. "Am I the actor that's worked with Meryl the most? I might be the actress that's worked with Meryl Streep the most. How lucky am I? She just stalks me. It's embarrassing," Blunt joked. But along with that excitement comes an understandable dose of nerves: "When Rob Marshall called me I felt simultaneously thrilled and frozen with fear. Nobody's Julie Andrews, so I know that much. So I'm just gonna do my own thing. But Mary Poppins is sort of emblematic of people's nostalgia, in many ways. They're some big shoes to fill. When I said I was taking it on, my friend said to me, 'Wow. You've got balls of steel.' I was like, 'Don't say that! It makes it scarier.'"
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I ask Blunt what she'll remember most about making The Girl on the Train, and she speaks to the collaborative environment and how that instilled confidence in her. "I think this is the most uninhibited I've had to be in a film, and so I realize more than anything on a film like this, the value in collaboration and the value in a director not straight-jacketing you and just letting you go for it. Acting is so much about confidence, and I think this was a set that was infused with a lot confidence. I just know more and more with every project I do that, my work is always about how confident someone's allowed me to feel." Perhaps now the secret to Blunt's success should be a little more apparent to the rest of us. As Krasinski noted, she has a huge talent but also great taste in choosing her roles. As she mentioned, the confidence imbued in her elevates her performances. And as her friend pointed out — she's undeniably got balls of steel.
Photo of Emily Blunt and John Krasinski courtesy of Getty Images