Wednesday 21 March 2018

Emily Blunt's masterclass in subtlety

Emily Blunt plays a conflicted FBI agent in her latest movie Sicario. She talks to us about morality and motherhood, and being a real-life wimp

Emily Blunt at the premiere of Sicario at Leicester Square in London. Photo: Reuters.
Emily Blunt at the premiere of Sicario at Leicester Square in London. Photo: Reuters.

Anne Marie Scanlon

When I meet Emily Blunt in a posh hotel in London, the media storm about her 'un-American' comment is still lingering. Blunt only recently became a naturalised American citizen, and in the course of an interview with The Hollywood Reporter made a throwaway remark that after watching the Republican Presidential hopefuls debate, she wondered "What have I done?"

To be fair to Blunt, those running for the Republican nomination include Donald Trump, a man who seems determined to daily outdo himself with outrageous comments. However, the actress is quick to defend her adopted homeland when I put the subsequent controversy down to cultural differences (and the general inability of Americans to laugh at themselves).

"It's not a cultural thing," she says, "I think it was a small group of people who took offence and didn't see it as a joke, whereas the rest of the world did. We are in a world where opinions are polarised and you're always going to upset somebody but I certainly was astonished by the outrage - I really felt that it was an innocuous joke."

Blunt looks, and sounds, at home in the posh London hotel. She's from an affluent suburb of the British capital, is the daughter of a QC, has a naturally plummy accent and is wearing the most gorgeous pale blue Christian Louboutin shoes.

For a brief and scary moment, I think I'm meeting Emily, the bitchy fashionista from The Devil Wears Prada - Blunt's breakout 2006 role for which she was nominated for both a Golden Globe Award and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress.

When I tell her that The Devil Wears Prada (which also starred Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci, who has since married Blunt's sister Felicity) is one of my favourite films, and far superior to the book it was based on, she declares an emphatic "Thank God!" then adds, "It gets quoted to me every week so DON'T!" When she starts laughing I realise that Blunt appears to have little in common with her Prada character except sharing a name, looks and good taste in clothes.

Emily the actress is warm and funny and quite happy to swap stories about motherhood (her daughter Hazel was born in February 2014), and the US naturalisation swearing-in ceremony. Newly minted citizens must swear to "entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty".

The pair of us spend several minutes laughing about what exactly defines a "potentate", before deciding that Queen Elizabeth and Michael D don't qualify.

Emily the actress is also a far cry from law-enforcement officer Kate Macer, the heroine of Blunt's latest film Sicario, which, as the audience are informed at the start of the movie, means 'hitman' in Mexico.

The film is an action-driven thriller directed by French Canadian Denis Villeneuve, and also stars Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. The action starts straight away as Kate leads her FBI Kidnap Response Team into a seemingly innocuous house in a Phoenix, Arizona, suburb. There are no kidnap victims but scores of dead, semi-mummified bodies hidden behind the walls and under the floorboards.

Kate is nothing like the blow-dried, expertly made-up and designer-outfitted female FBI agents TV viewers are used to. While she is not untouched by being in a charnel house and the subsequent loss of two of her team in an explosion, she appears to take it all in her stride - for her it's just another day at the office.

Most noticeably, as a character, Kate is defined by her role as a law-enforcement officer, rather than by her sex. Apart from a subsequent throwaway line about needing a new bra, there is little in the script that relies on Kate's gender.

In preparation for the role, Blunt spoke to female FBI agents and found that for them, like Kate, sexism and discrimination was not an issue they faced. "When I asked them 'do you deal with sexism in your profession?' all of them said, 'It's not an issue for me', flat out, not an issue; 'Oh yeah, you just bite back and then they're fine, they're just a bunch of gorillas,' so I found that interesting, that sort of casual attitude towards it. I loved that reaction - that they are unaffected by the men around them."

To say that the film is morally ambiguous is quite the understatement and it was this that, in part, drew Blunt to the role. "I read the script and I thought that it was quite representative of the world we're in now - that line between right and wrong becomes blurred and sometimes it's erased for people.

The film deals with these cycles of violence and the question of 'does the end justify the means'? But I don't think it offers an answer. The audience confront [the film] with their own moral compass and what they believe would be the right way to deal with such an impossible situation."

The "impossible situation" that Kate, the special task force and the US government face, is the unwinnable 'war on drugs' and the growing strength of the powerful drug cartels.

Like everything else in the movie, Kate unravels in a very understated way. Blunt provides a masterclass in 'less is more' acting. But while she gives a 'quiet' performance, she is all the more powerful for that. And the film itself is full of tension and suspense. The sequence where a US convoy goes to the lawless Juarez region in Mexico, is proper edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Blunt confesses that in real life she wouldn't be up to doing Kate's job. "I'd be absolutely useless at it," she says. "I'm a bit of a wimp and I wouldn't have the courage. Having a child, you become very aware of your own mortality. I think that everything becomes more threatening, everything. Fear gets exaggerated for you and you do it to yourself, you let your mind go crazy worrying. At least I do! I've always been a worry wart [on behalf of] other people but now the other person is my heart."

However, despite the constant anxiety that accompanies motherhood, Blunt is determined not to let it determine her relationship with her daughter. "I don't want to be one of those Helicopter Mums, I want to raise a daughter who's very independent and I want her to find something that she loves to do, just as I found something I want to do."

'Sicario' (15) goes on general release nationwide on October 8.

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