They don’t come more talented or tough-minded than Emily Blunt, but even she was initially daunted by the title role in Mary Poppins Returns, out next Christmas. The 34-year-old British actress (and mother of two) talks about her spin on the iconic nanny, her social-media skepticism, and her most recent challenge, in A Quiet Place, directed by her husband and co-star, John Krasinski.
VANITY FAIR – Emily Blunt has sparred with Meryl Streep (twice), out-action-starred Tom Cruise, and ruled the British Empire on-screen. But on this blustery Brooklyn afternoon in November, the 34-year-old English-born actress—surprisingly delicate in person, given the strength she projects on film—is perched on a window seat in a Cobble Hill café, laughing about her first professional heartbreak.
Blunt was 18 and playing Judi Dench’s granddaughter in the 2001 West End production of The Royal Family. If this scenario sounds ludicrously heaven-sent, know that Blunt is the first to admit it. She never intended to act professionally (the hobby was an antidote to a childhood stutter), but there she was. Blunt, who was still living with her parents in London, had no formal training. And Dench—fresh off her Shakespeare in Love Oscar win—had kindly taken her under her wing.
“I was a kid and could have meant nothing to her, but every day after work she invited me to her dressing room,” says Blunt, giddily recalling backstage visits from Johnny Depp and Pierce Brosnan. “It was crazy to me. I was drinking champagne and pretending I knew what anyone was talking about.”
When The Royal Family came to its close, Blunt remembers “weeping on the last day, like, embarrassingly scream-crying. I was so sad it was ending. I had wrap gifts for everyone—I think I made people gift bags with whatever I could afford. And I was like, ‘We should meet up! We should have lunch!’ ”
“Poor Emily,” says Dench, chuckling when relayed the story. “It wasn’t a great play, but we had the most fun doing it. I think she was quite young and frightened and insecure when we did The Royal Family.”
Even then, though, Dench sensed in Blunt the tools to survive a notoriously brutal business. “You kind of know with somebody’s attitude,” says Dench. “She has a great sense of humor—which is more important than anything—a huge talent, and was ravishingly pretty. My grandson was about six, and he fell for Emily in such a big way. Now whenever we see Emily—he is 20 now—he jokes, ‘She’d never have gotten where she was if I hadn’t kissed her.’ It doesn’t surprise me at all where she is. I am thrilled that she is a big beautiful star.”
Bundled up in a parka and knit hat, Blunt arrived at the Brooklyn café alone—having walked from the nearby home she rents with her husband, John Krasinski, and their daughters, Hazel, three, and Violet, one. She greeted me as she might an old friend, extending her arms and saying, “Now, get in here for a nice cold hug.” Sitting down, she ordered an English tea with what felt like a touch of skepticism that the American café would get it right. (As of 2015, Blunt is a dual citizen of the U.S. and the U.K., but that doesn’t mean she has to put up with mediocre tea. After the first cup, she switches to hot water.)
Blunt speaks with patrician diction and is a gifted mimic who punctuates stories with effortless impressions. Later, when helpfully directing me to a subway station, she’ll note, in fluent Valley Girl, “Perfect, it’s right next to SoulCycle!” Blunt laughs easily and often—“She has one of the best laughs I’ve ever heard,” says friend and two-time co-star Benicio Del Toro—like while recounting the story of how, as an infant, she thrust her “practically decaying” stuffed animal under the Queen Mum’s nose “for a good smell” at a royal event to which her grandfather, a World War II major general, was invited. (Equipped with a polite response for every social circumstance, the royal replied, “Oh yes, I see that he is very well loved.”)
Blunt’s large, pale-blue eyes are watery and her cheeks are still rosy from the cold. Though her delicate facial features would look at home on an 18th-century oil painting, her casual dress (black silk blouse and skinny pants) and slight build camouflage her among the brunching Brooklyn hipsters.
Or, as she puts it, with a glint in her eye and a fleeting American accent, “I blend in real well.”
That ability has been a key to her success—she has slid through a kaleidoscope of mesmerizing characters over the past 16 years, most notably an enigmatic schoolgirl (My Summer of Love); an acerbic fashion assistant (The Devil Wears Prada); an ass-kicking combat warrior (Edge of Tomorrow); a barren, Sondheim-singing baker’s wife (Into the Woods); an in-over-her-head F.B.I. agent (Sicario); and a blackout drunk (The Girl on the Train).
It’s only after Blunt lets loose another peal of laughter that a fellow diner notices her and attempts to snap a photo—“Except for right now,” Blunt adds, moving to my side of the table and pulling a chair in close. Usually it’s Krasinski, who starred as Everyman Jim Halpert on the American version of The Office, whom strangers recognize in public.
“John is, like, six feet three, and was playing the most approachable man in the world,” she tells me. “So people will be, like, ‘Jim!’ Guys want to high-five him.” Speaking about the strangeness of acting celebrity, she says, “I am always under the impression that I have a silly job for a living. But occasionally you will run into someone who deepens your feeling about it. Sometimes people will say they had cancer and The Office was the only thing that made their family laugh during that time. You realize when you are in something that really touches people that it does offer an escape.”
Blunt recently relocated her family from Los Angeles to Brooklyn because she missed the intimacy of “brushing past strangers on the street” and being in “a vibrant, bustling city where you don’t feel isolated.” The tech age has presented her with a challenge, though, given her friendly nature.
“Social media has changed the landscape so an encounter with you is valued more as a social-media currency than a genuine interaction,” says Blunt, explaining that she has adopted a selfie-combating strategy when approached while with her young children: “Frances McDormand told us—she just makes my teeth ache I love her so much—when someone asks her for a picture, she says, ‘You know what? I’ve actually retired from that. But I would like to shake your hand and meet you.’ ”
As her star has risen, Blunt has been encouraged to establish a social-media presence herself. But she has no interest in tilting the delicate balance she has found as a movie star with character-actor range—high-profile enough to carry studio films yet low-profile enough for audiences to believe her as everything from a magical nanny to a bloated binge drinker.
Speaking about social media, Blunt says, “I don’t think it does shit, to be honest. I think a movie lives or dies on word of mouth and the trailer. I have seen people do endless social-media campaigns and the movie tanks, so I don’t see a correlation. . . . I strongly believe that my job is to persuade you that I am playing somebody else, so exposing too much personally is just something I can’t get on board with.”
Blunt is so private, in fact, that her own husband did not even know she could sing until she was filming Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony-winning musical Into the Woods.
“I had literally never heard her sing a note,” says Krasinski, who was convinced that both he and Blunt were “at the same level of singing talent, which is low mediocre.” When she signed on, Krasinski says, “I thought that was such a cool gig, but, to be honest, I was really nervous for her.”
Months later, Krasinski stopped by an Into the Woods recording session, complete with an orchestra. Marshall told Krasinski that he had arrived just in time to see Emily sing, saying, “She’s so good.”
“I don’t actually know if she is,” Krasinski responded. “I’ve never heard her sing.”
“He looked at me as if the earth had just opened up in front of him,” Krasinski remembers. “His mouth was wide open. He did not say anything. He just turned to the window, cued the song, the orchestra started playing, and Emily started singing, and I just immediately wept.
“It was really wild. It was like finding out that your wife can levitate,” he adds. “It was just like, ‘When were you going to tell me this?’ ”
Marshall first noticed Blunt—as most American moviegoers did—in the 2006 comedy The Devil Wears Prada, where she brought sensitivity to her supporting role as the tortured assistant of Meryl Streep’s fashion editrix
“She reminded me immediately of a young Maggie Smith,” recalls Marshall. “Because of the humor, the acting chops, the vulnerability. I see her having an incredibly long career because of the uniqueness of her extraordinary talent. It transcends beauty and looks and age.”
Marshall directs Blunt again in what is her most high-profile role yet—succeeding Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, out next Christmas. Marshall says Blunt was his first and only pick to play the beloved P. L. Travers character.
The role required her to undergo dance training with her co-stars. When filming began, Blunt—who “doesn’t see fear” when it comes to challenges, according to Marshall—shot the most difficult number first: a 15-minute choreographed song-and-dance sequence alongside co-star Lin-Manuel Miranda, children, and “small male dancers in green-screen costumes.” (Blunt teases with a smile: “Penguins might make an appearance.”)
“Rob’s just so incredibly kind and sweet,” says Blunt. “He creates such a joyful atmosphere that you think, Oh, fuck it. I’ll try to dance.”
Blunt seems to be devoid of ego and neurosis, a trait helped by her happy upbringing as the second of four children in a tight-knit family. Her father, a criminal-defense lawyer (who represented some of the robbers in the Millennium Dome raid), and her mother, a former theater actress who teaches English as a second language, raised the family in the leafy London suburb of Roehampton. (Older sister Felicity, who is married to Blunt’s Devil Wears Prada co-star Stanley Tucci, is a literary agent. Younger sister Susannah is a veterinarian, and younger brother Sebastian is an actor and writer.) Blunt remembers growing up as an imaginative tomboy who eschewed pink clothing, played “football,” and delighted in playacting elaborate hamster rescues. It was only after Blunt developed a stutter as a child that a teacher suggested acting as an exercise. Years later, during a summer off from boarding school in Surrey, Blunt was discovered by an agent who saw her perform at the Edinburgh International Festival—derailing her plans to go off to university.
Speaking about her experience navigating Hollywood’s learning curve as a fresh-faced hopeful, Blunt explains, “It is a business that you enter into, especially as I did, and it appears to be made of rainbows and sunbeams. Then you realize it’s called show business because it is a business . . . I am not cynical in my personal life. I actually feel quite hopeful. But with the business itself, you have to approach it in a harder way. I think you have to wear a helmet.”
Asked what moment spurred this realization, Blunt chooses her words carefully: “It was just an accumulation over the years. . . . You are part of a machine that is moving and will overwhelm you and drown you if you are not tough in it. It’s a very precarious industry that can often be quite crushing, so any advice I have for anyone going into it is to do something else.”
There are other reasons to be wary of Hollywood, as attested by recent headlines about the gender wage gap and the deluge of sexual-assault allegations. Asked whether she has been the victim of such harassment, Blunt says, “Everyone has had their bum pinched, but I would not put me having my bum pinched on the same side of the street as women who have been raped or sexually assaulted or abused or harassed.”
Later, she clarifies: “The bum-pinch statement was more of a euphemism for any kind of minor behavior that I have experienced that has been very easy for me to shut down. . . . I think it is something that everyone has experienced. That comment was meant in no way to disparage the people who have actually been brave enough to come forward. I think it is a really vital, remarkable time, and I really hope that it will translate to other social injustices because I think this is a time when people are finding their voice and using it.”
As for negotiations in a wage-gap-conscious world, Blunt says, “I took it on as my personal responsibility to make sure that I don’t feel shortchanged or less than. . . . Especially in this new climate, I think that it’s O.K. to reclaim the words ‘making an aggressive deal’ as a positive. Usually people are making so much money off your back that it comes down to a sort of justice thing for me. I make it a point to not be too concerned with ‘I hope they think I’m a team player.’ The people who are calling and making the deals are business affairs. It’s not the producer. It’s people who are billed to fuck you up. To shortchange you. . . . In a way, because we are inundated with those types of stories now, it has created a much safer climate to ask for what you want.”
Before filming Mary Poppins Returns last year, Blunt had a brief moment of cold-sweat dread about succeeding “an iconic person playing an iconic character.” She quickly realized she needed her own spin to survive: “No one can out-Julie Julie Andrews, so I had to do something that felt organic and representative of what I had taken from the books.”
Blunt says her interpretation of Mary is “a bit more eccentric and frickin’ weird. She is incredibly rude, vain, and batty. She really made me laugh.” The actress also took a cue from Rosalind Russell’s fast-talking, wisecracking reporter in Howard Hawks’s 1940 comedy, His Girl Friday, which helped Blunt find her entry point into the character. Says Marshall of Blunt’s Mary, “She’s like a hurricane when she arrives. Everybody’s trying to catch up with her.”
Mary Poppins Returns is set 25 years after the original, when Mary returns to Cherry Tree Lane to help Michael (Ben Whishaw), his children, and his sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), after a family death. The film, featuring a score by Tony-winning composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, also stars Lin-Manuel Miranda, Colin Firth, and Meryl Streep, marking Blunt’s third collaboration with Streep following The Devil Wears Prada and Into the Woods.
While filming in London, Blunt and her daughters lived a short drive from the actress’s parents, who visited the set to cheer her on while she was filming big dance numbers. Julie Andrews, meanwhile, cheered Blunt on from afar—even politely turning down the possibility of a cameo. “This is Emily’s show and I don’t want to step on it in any way. I want her to run with it,” Marshall remembers Andrews telling him.
Blunt only recently showed the original to three-year-old Hazel. “She is besotted with this movie,” says Blunt, “to the point where I have a deep dread she is simply going to reject my version and be, like, ‘You are not Mary Poppins,’ because she is so in love with Julie Andrews and she knows every single song. . . . At first she was kind of confused because I said, ‘Remember how Mummy was pretending to be Mary Poppins for a while? Well, there was another lady who played Mary Poppins. Would you like to see another Mary Poppins film?’ ”
After wrapping Mary Poppins Returns, Blunt embarked on something entirely different—a supernatural thriller. A Quiet Place, which comes out in April, marks the first professional collaboration between Blunt and Krasinski, who directed, co-wrote, and co-stars in the film.
“I had concerns that we might kill each other, just gently throttle the life out of each other during the process,” Blunt admits with a laugh.
Krasinski received the script (from Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) as a spec shortly after bringing Violet home from the hospital, and was struck by an idea to transform the story, with its minimal dialogue, into a “metaphor for parenthood.” Explains Krasinski, “Much of the sort of real-life roller coaster that is parenthood is unspoken. The first time you bring your kid home from the hospital, there’s no talking. You just pray they’re going to be O.K. When you drop your kid off at school for the first time, there’s no talking. You just pray they’re going to be O.K. So there’s a familiar poignance and power to watching a family live in silence . . . that actually speaks volumes.”
Seeing Krasinski’s excitement, Blunt encouraged him to direct the project—but neither party envisioned it being a marital collaboration. Blunt even suggested actresses she thought might be well suited for the female lead. Later, while reading Krasinski’s draft, Blunt stopped cold.
“I had this overwhelming feeling of ‘I don’t want anybody else to play this part,’ ” recalls Blunt. “I said, ‘Would you feel weird if I did the movie with you?’ And he broke out into this sort of ecstatic smile. I felt completely sure about it in a way I hadn’t before. It was a film that represented some of my deepest fears—of not being able to protect my children.”
Krasinski says that witnessing his wife act in person was a totally different experience from watching her on-screen. “The air changes in the room when she starts doing what she does,” he says. “It’s so honest and so pure and so powerful. It’s like a superpower that she can just unlock and do so specifically with not many attempts. For me, I love acting, and I’m so lucky to be doing it. But she’s on another plane. This weird intersection happened while filming where I totally forgot I was her husband. I was just watching her performance and was lucky enough to be in the front row.”
While Krasinski spends his days editing A Quiet Place, Blunt enjoys “mommy duty”—taking the girls to children’s concerts in Brooklyn and teaching Hazel how to ride a scooter on the promenade. Making Mary Poppins Returns meant filming more than 12 hours a day, and, while still bittersweet, wraps have come to signify something greater than anything Blunt could have ever imagined 17 years ago—returning to her family.
Good humor intact, Blunt even jokes about a fantasy career that wouldn’t take her so far from home. “It would be my dream just to flip houses,” Blunt says. “I adore renovating. I love working with different materials and coming up with a different story for each room. I am Pinterest-mad.”
Another split second, then with a glint in her eye and a laugh, Blunt announces, “Once I begin playing everyone’s mother, then I’ll just start flipping houses instead.”