Emily Blunt: An Englishwoman in New York
February 3, 2020
Article taken from Harper’s Bazaar.
Whether swooping through the skies in Mary Poppins or earning her fashion stripes in The Devil Wears Prada, Emily Blunt has triumphed in almost every cinematic genre, becoming a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. Now, as the actress joins her husband John Krasinski for the second chapter of A Quiet Place, she talks to Jane Mulkerrins about trusting her instincts and loving life in Brooklyn.
There is, according to Emily Blunt, a widespread misconception that playing the most beloved and magical nanny in fiction must have made her a veritable heroine at home with her two young daughters, Hazel and Violet. Not so, apparently.
“The other night, I overheard Violet telling John [Krasinski, Blunt’s husband of 10 years] that she wanted to watch Mary Poppins. He said: ‘Do you want to watch Mummy’s one?’ She said: ‘No, Julie Andrews.'” Blunt shrugs, resignedly. “Julie Andrews reigns supreme in our house.”
Sometimes, she concedes, the girls will ask her to do the clipped, throwback Poppins voice, and Hazel is wide eyed that her mother can produce it “without her costume on”. But the absence of costume is sometimes awkward for Blunt herself. “I walk around Brooklyn in a baseball cap and tracksuit bottoms most of the time,” she confesses. “So there’s an embarrassing moment when parents will say to their kid, ‘This is Mary Poppins,’ and the kid will look at me, like: ‘No, it fucking is not.'”
It’s a dark, dank winter’s afternoon in Manhattan, where the sleet has been falling sideways all day. Blunt arrives, dressed somewhere halfway between her Brooklyn sweatpants and her character’s Edwardian bustles, in a ruffled Isabel Marant blouse, jeans and wedge trainers, her very blonde shoulder length hair tucked into a red chequered deerstalker hat with furry earflaps. Fresh from the Bazaar shoot around the corner, she slides into the green leather booth beside me and offers: ‘Should we get a drink?’ She gamely enquires about the tequila list, then reconsiders and orders a crisp Austrian white instead.
Though this is the first time we’ve met, I feel the need to tell her from the outset that we are, in fact, neighbours; since the family moved in a year ago, we live on the same street in Brooklyn Heights, where I’ve often seen her and Krasinski, who is himself an actor, director and screenwriter, walking their Labrador, Finn. “Isn’t it the best area?” enthuses Blunt, once she’s over the coincidence of us living so close. “It’s idyllic, with all the history, and the great figures of literature who lived here.”
Famed for its elegant brownstones and notable former residents, including Truman Capote, Arthur Miller and WH Auden, the picturesque neighbourhood is today home to Matthew Rhys, Adam Driver and Matt Damon, for whom its unspoken code of ambivalence is appealing. “People there couldn’t care less about celebrities,” says Blunt. “No one has the time or inclination to stop and stare.”
“You can walk everywhere too, which I love – to a supermarket, to a dry cleaner, with the kids to school – you don’t need a car,” she continues. The family, in fact, never use one, unless they’re heading upstate for a weekend. “It’s leafy and villagey, and you can see the sky. I would love to live in London, but this is the next best thing,” she says. “And I adore Brits, so I gravitate towards them over here, because I miss the irreverence and the silliness and the cavalier attitude.”
To that end, she has gathered a close group of fellow British actresses, including her Mary Poppins Returns co-star Emily Mortimer (‘one of my favourite people on Earth’), who lives close by, and Sienna Miller (‘she’s not in Brooklyn, but I’m trying to lure her over’). “We get together for roasts and rotate who does it,” says Blunt. Boston raised Krasinski is now an aficionado of the tradition too. “We invited some Americans recently, and they left too early for his liking,” she says, laughing. “He loves the whole ceremony of it – that it’s a four, five hour affair, and the wine gets popped at 11.30am when you start cooking.” She looks, briefly, stern. “It’s not brunch. So those people are uninvited now.”
On screen too, the pair are about to serve up a much anticipated collaboration with their forthcoming film, A Quiet Place: Part II, the second chapter to their hugely successful 2018 horror hit in which they starred as a married couple with young children (the eldest, Regan, is played magnificently by the 16-year-old deaf actress Millicent Simmonds). The narrative unfolds in a post apocalyptic world decimated by blind, bloodthirsty alien creatures with an acute sense of hearing, where making any sound – even speaking in whispers – could mean sudden death. Krasinski’s character, Lee, is an enterprising MacGyver sort, focused on ensuring his family’s survival, while Evelyn, who is forced to give birth silently and alone, is “trying to actually thrive in this terrible environment,” says Blunt.
The critically acclaimed film was nominated for a raft of awards and performed far better at the box office than even its creators were expecting. This time around – for reasons obvious to those who’ve seen the first instalment – Krasinski will not star alongside his wife, who reprises her role as Evelyn, but he has, once again, written and directed it.
“If the original film was a metaphor for parenthood, and how far you’d go to protect your children, in an exaggerated version of a world where you feel you can’t (which I feel, every second of everyday in this one), the metaphor is that fractured sense of community that I think we all feel too,” continues Blunt. “The idea of not extending your hand to your neighbour, the question of who is “worth” saving; those are big ideas that I think we’re experiencing, globally, and John saw A Quiet Place as a magnified version of that – that loss of hope, that sense of desperation and isolation, loneliness and despair.”
Their obvious enjoyment in working together does beg the question: what took them so long? “We were a bit scared,” she says. “But I read the script on a plane, and realised I would be really sad if someone else played this part. I said to John, would you ever want to do it with me?” She laughs, self-deprecatingly. “He said, ‘I thought you’d never ask.’ He wrote it with me in mind. But he has never been one to involve himself in my decisions.” In fact, she admits: “I don’t really tend to ask anyone their opinion on what I want to do.”
It’s a very hard thing for a British person to start discovering their own worth
That Blunt has always trusted her instincts may have something to do with the fact that, as she freely admits: “I didn’t have any burning ambition for this. I do find the whole thing quite serendipitous.”
In spite of the now rather transatlantic accent – her Ts have noticeably softened and she pronounces it ‘serendipitous’ – Blunt was raised in crisp-consonant, upper-middle-class Roehampton, the daughter of a QC (Oliver Blunt, brother to a Conservative MP) and a former actress. “I think that’s part of the reason I wasn’t terribly ambitious, because my mother was brilliant, and had too many children, a really busy husband, and didn’t know how to juggle it all,” reflects Blunt, who is the second of four siblings.
“I’d seen within my own family that the business can be really cruel, so why would I want to do that?” But her parents immersed them in theatre and film, with her father heading off to the video shop every Friday night, “and coming back with something wildly inappropriate,” she says, chuckling. “I’ll never forget that scene in Pretty Woman where
she fans out all the condoms. I remember saying to Dad, ‘What are those?’ Parenting was really different in the Seventies and Eighties,” she observes.
The creativity this environment fostered is apparent in the four siblings: her older sister, Felicity, is a literary agent and married to the actor Stanley Tucci, Blunt’s co-star in The Devil Wears Prada; her brother Sebastian is an actor and writer; and while her younger sister Suzie is a vet, she is also “an incredible opera singer”. The two sisters sang at Felicity’s wedding to Tucci, whom she met through Emily.
As a child, Blunt developed a serious stutter, which was “fully implanted” by the age of six. “It’s such a misunderstood disability,” she says. “It is neurological, it’s biological, it’s very often hereditary.” She now works on behalf of young stutterers, and sits on the board of directors of the American Institute for Stuttering. “Their therapy is more emotional these days, about how you can connect with your stutter and make sure that it doesn’t define who you are.”
“It was not an easy thing to have as a kid, and I still get it,” she admits. “I’ll struggle a little bit on the phone, because there’s such a pressure to talk – all pressurised environments are hard.” Somewhat counter intuitively, acting helped. “If you’re able to do a different voice or accent, it’s like you access a different part of your brain, and it allows a fluency you didn’t have before,” she says. “It may be the reason, subconsciously, that I’m very interested in changing my voice or my appearance, in the physical shift of playing different people.”
She attended Hurtwood House in Surrey, a private sixth-form college with a strong performing-arts programme, where she was cast in a play that went to the Edinburgh Fringe. Signed by an agent who saw the festival performance, Blunt was soon making her professional debut on the West End stage, opposite Judi Dench in Peter Hall’s production of The Royal Family. Television and film followed, including parts in Stephen Poliakoff ’s Gideon’s Daughter and the indie hit My Summer of Love, but it was her role as Emily Charlton, the brittle, acerbic assistant to Meryl Streep’s demanding editor, Miranda Priestly, in the much-loved comedy The Devil Wears Prada, that sent her career stellar. “It was like night and day,” she recalls of the ramped-up attention she suddenly received at the age of 22.
Fearful of being pigeonholed, she then made deliberately diverse choices such as The Young Victoria, the romantic comedy The Jane Austen Book Club and, later, action films such as Edge of Tomorrow and the psychological drama The Girl on the Train. Her gilded career thus far has been notably free of missteps or compromises. Has she said no to a lot of projects? “Oh, yeah.” And is she ever scared about turning them down? “No, no no no,” she says, emphatically. “Never.”
She and Krasinski met in a restaurant in LA in 2008. “I’d just bought a place in London and was going to live there with my sister,” she recalls. “I didn’t ever see it as a move to the US, but gradually more and more of my stuff just accumulated at his house, and then suddenly I was living in LA. I think it’s the best way to do it – just to sneak-attack them, rather than turn up with trunks.” They stayed in the city for seven years, “but I never really felt at home until we moved to the East Coast,” she says. “We’ve found our place in the world.”
Behind the camera, Blunt is also making moves into producing. “You get to the point where you’ve been doing something long enough and you do have an opinion,” she says. “It’s a very hard thing for a British person to start discovering their own worth, but at some point you’ve got to.”
The Time’s Up movement, and the conversations it has kick-started regarding equal pay, has been a huge help in moving that needle. “It has, at least, created a platform for you to say: that’s not OK, actually. And to be a bit more willing to go into the fray and maybe not be seen as likeable or easy.”
As she pulls on her deerstalker to head out into today’s sleety fray, she reflects on this rapid and recent redrawing of attitudes. “Ambition in men is seen as something quite heroic and cool, and in women it is seen as cold and self-serving and unlikeable,” she notes. “So everything that has happened in the last few years has been really vital. Because I want nothing more than for my daughters to be really ambitious about something that they love and want to do.”