Emily Blunt practices what she preaches. As cinema is under increasing pressure to acknowledge and deliver work that appeals to more than white teenage males, so Blunt is using the profile she’s developed through roles like The Devil Wears Prada, The Young Victoria and Sicario to bring to the screen fully-rounded female characters. They’re present in everything she’s done lately, whether that’s Rian Johnson’s Looper, the Tom Cruise actioner Edge of Tomorrow, or Universal’s fairy tale The Huntsman: Winter’s War. The Girl on the Train, based on the publishing phenomenon of the same name, is the latest, demanding that Blunt lay bare the flaws of a deeply troubled and unreliable narrator.
Did you follow the book phenomenon with The Girl on the Train when it was first published?
I hadn’t read it, but I saw everyone reading it. I suppose I was being a bit contrary; I didn’t want to read the book that everyone was reading. Then, [producer] Marc Platt called me and said, “You probably should read it, because we’re really interested in you for it.” It’s easy to see why it became such a hit; that tantalizing idea of the danger being so close to home for people, and the underbelly of domestic life. These characters—these women—are flawed, and they are relatable. Finally there are women you can identify with to varying degrees. And how cool to have your protagonist be a black-out drunk?
Is there a thin line between getting that right and becoming some awful caricature of a drunken person?
Well, I was nervous, and I think there are pitfalls; that sort of drunken uncle act, and lurching about all over the place. I didn’t want it to be comical in any way; it has to be upsetting and embarrassing to be around her, and she has to appear dangerous in some capacity. When you’re around a true alcoholic, it’s ugly. It stops being funny.
I did have to do a huge amount of research and I found the most helpful thing was to watch documentaries about alcoholism. Louis Theroux did one recently, and there was a bit where this guy turns to him and goes, “Do you hate me, Louis?” I got goose bumps. Just the idea that you loathe yourself and you think others must loathe you too, and how lonely that must be.
But you also have to remember that this is a thriller and not just a portrait of alcoholism. You want to misdirect with it. The ambiguity of it is interesting to play with.
You mentioned the complexity of the women in this movie. Why do we still have to make a point of that? Shouldn’t we be there by now, across the board?
It is such a rarity, and you do still hear, batted around a lot about women, that they be likeable and approachable, because that equals bankable. I feel this movie is women’s right to be bad. It was so liberating and exciting to be able to dive headfirst into the reality, which is that women are flawed. We mess up every day, just like men. We can be aggressive and unfaithful and cruel, and it’s OK to present that to an audience.
It must still come down to the fact that most screenwriters are men.
That’s my feeling, and I think because this book was written by a woman, and adapted by a woman, there is just a different sensibility. I think it’s important we all talk about that, and how we can inject this industry with more respect for well-rounded characters for women. It really does start on the page, because inevitably a male screenwriter will have a different sensibility. I often find myself saying to male screenwriters, when I’m developing a script with them, “Just write me as you would write a guy and I’ll do the girl stuff.”
It’s crazy that you have to say that.
But it’s the easiest shorthand to getting to where I want to be. This change is very slow, but I do feel it’s moving. I feel like we’ve got a new wave coming in. And it’s not quite a tsunami, but it’s happening. I feel it starting to churn. I have faith.
I truly believe we’re so inundated and anesthetized by comic book movies and big blockbusters. They’re designed just to assault your senses and be entertaining. And they’re entertaining for sure. I like popcorn as much as I like steak, but I feel like people are yearning for a connection; to feel something. You just want people to walk out of the cinema and talk about what they’ve just seen. Not, “Where do you want to go for dinner?”
You’ve done popcorn films, but they’re films like Edge of Tomorrow, which is much more complex and cerebral than most aspire to.
I really love doing popcorn movies. I think that film in particular might be the movie I’m most proud of, actually. It was such an impossible feat. The mileage Doug Liman got out of the repeating day was insane. It was human, and funny, and not at all earnest. The stunts were in service to the story, and the story was rock solid. That’s why Tom [Cruise] is really smart. He makes sure his films are injected with a deeper meaning. We’re all so proud of how it turned out.
You’re next doing Mary Poppins. Isn’t that a little intimidating?
I’m aware she’s so iconic and emblematic of people’s childhood nostalgia. I’m just trying to allow all of that to be white noise and to do my version of her. I’ve been reading the books a lot, and that’s given me a different angle on it in some way. We start rehearsals this month.