Emily Blunt is an English belle whose striking good looks, you might think, ought to have meant that she would spend her entire screen career playing the female lead in romantic dramas. In fact, however, the range of films she has played in is far wider, encompassing costume drama, horror, cartoons, low-budget ‘social realism’, and comedies such as her new film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
From the very first, Emily Blunt’s career followed a smooth path. What does a 20-year-old debutante have to do to get noticed? Ideally, she should act in a drama with just a hint of something shocking – and this was exactly the kind of role she played in Pawel Pawlikowsky’s My Summer of Love (2004) with its lesbian plot, nude scenes, and mockery of religious prudery. Subsequently, Blunt was to say in an interview that she has never been afraid of undressing for the camera if a film really requires it. But for all the explicitness of the love scenes between the two teenage girls, her bold debut looked more like a song of innocence than of experience. The difficult teenagers as played by Blunt and Nathalie Press are extraordinarily beautiful as they swim in a forest stream, their faces dappled with sunlight. For her role as a little rich girl who falls in love with a country bumpkin and then just as quickly falls out of love with her at the summer’s end, Emily Blunt won the Best Young Actress of the Year award.
But even the best possible debut in independent British film cannot secure lasting fame. The true breakthrough in Emily Blunt’s career came with the Hollywood film The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Hers was a secondary role – as PA to a patented bitch, the editor in chief of a fashion magazine. This redhaired fashion victim who dreams of accompanying her boss on a trip to the fashion shows in Paris and earns herself an ulcer through non-stop dieting is a grotesque role that would be the dream of any character actress. For her performance Emily Blunt not only won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, but proved that she can turn a supporting part into a scene-stealer.
Her success in this comic role was immediately followed by a part in the horror film Wind Chill (2007). When asked in an interview how she goes about choosing roles, Emily Blunt replied that she never thinks for long. First-class scripts with a good female part are few and far between, so any potentially interesting role has to be grabbed immediately.
“But that doesn’t at all mean that I agree to just anything!”
Emily has worked in Hollywood, but she calls independent cinema her ‘first love’ – and this is a perfectly pragmatic position given that indie films offer the freedom not to have to play the onedimensional girlfriend of the male lead in a comedy for teenagers.
“If I open a script and it says about the female character that she’s a nice, normal girl, I immediately slam it shut.”
In 2008 Emily Blunt played in the low-budget family drama Sunshine Cleaning. Her character helps her elder sister open her own specialized cleaning business – cleaning up crime scenes. They are well paid for washing the blood of suicides from walls and furniture – but only until Blunt’s character accidentally starts a fire in the house which the sisters have been given the job of cleaning. Once again, Emily was praised for her brilliant performance in a supporting role.
Her emergence into the limelight came when she returned to England to shoot Young Victoria (2009), a film about Queen Victoria’s early years. This costume drama with corsets and crinolines was almost entirely lacking in dramatic conflict, so did not seem the most promising material: the script encouraged posing, but gave little opportunity for actual acting. Nevertheless, Blunt’s unerring intuition prompted her not to resist the material, but to go along with it. The best moments in the film were the scenes of carefree happiness between the newly married Victoria and Albert. To play a ‘tempestuous passion’ is not that difficult; but to play happiness, a condition where ‘nothing happens’, is a real challenge.
When she was a small girl, the speech therapist who treated Emily for her stutter suggested that, to overcome her stress, she should pretend to be someone else. Now a star, Emily Blunt still suffers nerves before setting foot on the red carpet. She drinks a glass of Martini for courage and pretends to be playing a film actress. This helps her get to grips with her feeling of absurdity, “A small group of people pushing one another aside, all dressed up and plastered in make up – if you think about it, it’s such a funny sight.”
Actors often complain that since directors constantly offer them identical parts, they are in danger of becoming stuck for all time in a single type of role. Emily Blunt is never one to complain. She seizes the good roles, alternates blockbusters with low-budget productions, and has already left her mark in all genres apart from Westerns. But, given her fearless approach to role selection, it can’t be long before she takes up pistols and horses.