As an actress from across the pond, Emily Blunt stood the risk of falling into the period film trap. Blunt did period—earning a Golden Globe nom for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in The Young Victoria—but it’s her gutsiness and rawness that has allowed her to show off her range, playing everything from a stoner in 2008’s Sunshine Cleaning to a gun-wielding militant in last summer’s Edge of Tomorrow. This season, Blunt takes another leap with sublime ease: She shows the world that she can sing as the Baker’s Wife in Disney’s adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods.
We never knew you could sing. What is it about Rob Marshall that enabled you to roll the dice on showing this side of yourself?
Rob is amazing when it comes to casting. He wants to find actors with humanity and depth, and someone who can bring something completely individual to the role. And so in a way that’s sort of emboldening to know that he’s not necessarily looking for a world-class singer who can hit a top-three sharp—I am certainly not that person. And so when I heard that he wanted to see me, I was reluctant. I thought he was just looking for singers, and I knew it was Stephen Sondheim, so it was like, “He’s definitely looking for people who can tackle that music.” What I realized when I went in the room with him is that Stephen Sondheim’s music requires all of you emotionally, more than anything else. There’s such a complexity to it, there’s such a challenge to it. And so I think that gave Rob a lot of room to cast who he wanted, who would give the acting performance more than anything else. I mean, listen, I think it helps if you can hold a tune. If you can’t sing at all, then I don’t think he can give you the part.
Prior to Into the Woods, did you ever tell your agent to send you out for musical auditions?
No. I got approached to go and audition for all of them and I sprinted away as fast as I could. I was very daunted to go and sing for people. When I heard about the audition for Nine, my husband said, “You’ve got to go.” And I was told (by my reps) to bring my jazz shoes, which is a sentence that fills me with sheer terror. And I said, “Over my dead body.” I just loved the “bring your jazz shoes” part, as if people just have them in their closet. I was very reluctant to audition, but I felt encouraged by Rob Marshall this time. Also, there were all kinds of temptations going on with Into the Woods, such as working with (Devil Wears Prada costar) Meryl Streep again.
What was the audition like? Did you only sing for the part of the Baker’s Wife?
Yes, just her. I basically had a couple of singing lessons before I went in and I learned the music even though I was told I didn’t have to. It was probably the most prepared audition I’ve done, but because it frightened me. I think sometimes our fear leads us to the most courageous of places. I sang the big solo from “Moments in the Woods,” the song after my character has had the fling with Prince Charming and she’s in great conflict and contradicting herself. And it’s a really fantastic song and sort of a self-discovery.
How did Doug Liman know you would be up to snuff for the intense action scenes in Edge of Tomorrow? That was a big 180, even more so than Looper.
That was all Tom Cruise, to be honest. Tom sought me out for that. He saw Adjustment Bureau, which was, I guess, a physical role. There was one scene in that where he was like, “That’s the girl.” It was when my character meets Matt Damon in the bathroom. Adjustment Bureau was different from the full-metal bitch in Edge of Tomorrow. When I met them in the meeting, Tom said, “It’s going to be really, really fucking hard! I think this might be the hardest action movie that I will ever do”—of course, because of the sheer weight of those Ecto suits we were carrying and moving around in. You have to become an athlete to do a film like Tomorrow. And then I pretty much ate pizza for three months as soon as I wrapped because I was just so desperate for it. I wanted my character to look incredibly intimidating and hard-edged and not feminine and not approachable. I learned how to shoot and I did a lot of martial arts training, such as Krav Maga and wushu, because you fight with a sword. My character fights with this helicopter blade.
How have you avoided typecasting in a town that pigeonholes actors, particular after breaking out in such a successful summer romantic comedy as The Devil Wears Prada?
I’ve always made it clear to the people who represent me that I need to keep doing different things each time, because the shape-shifting element of the job is what I respond to. I’ve always made a conscious decision never to do the same thing over and over again because I’ll get bored. After Devil Wears Prada came out, I got offered every British bitch imaginable. I just can’t do that and I won’t do that. So I did Sunshine Cleaning, where I played a pothead from the U.S. And so I think I don’t want to discover my whole bag of tricks. I want to keep trying to figure out what I’ve got in there.
Emily Blunt photographed by J.R. Mankoff