I have just emerged from the roof of a building on a very hot day while I was accidentally locked outside, and actress Emily Blunt has literally come straight from the airport for our interview and is slightly jetlagged following a flight from England to Toronto. She apologizes and I apologize back and immediately we begin joking about how we ended up in our current situations. The charm, grace, and wit that have made Blunt a rising star are immediately apparent. We banter almost like we’re going to start work on a buddy cop comedy called Sunstroke and Delirious.
Falling somewhere between a megastar and a character actress, Blunt has appeared in a wide range of films that find her rarely pegged to the same basic material more than once. She’s played Queen Victoria (The Young Victoria), Amy Adams’ sister and business partner in an indie comedy (Sunshine Cleaning), Jason Segel’s long term fiancée (The Five Year Engagement), Matt Damon’s fate crossed love interest (The Adjustment Bureau), and now she finds herself dipping her toes into the action and science fiction genres by appearing as a shotgun toting caregiver to a young child in director Rian Johnson’s long awaited Looper.
On the night of the film’s opening at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, Blunt talked to us about working within the action genre, the vision of director Rian Johnson, working with kids and accents, and her own thoughts on time travel.
Dork Shelf: You aren’t really known for action movies/sci-fi…
Emily Blunt: What do you mean?!? The Young Victoria?!? That shit is an action movie. (laughs)
DS: I think she might have had a shotgun at some point.
EB: I think I did have a bow and arrow at one point…
DS: (laughs) I might have been drinking when I watched it…
EB: …and you probably had sunstroke. You’re prone to it. (laughs)
DS: Have you received a lot of action scripts in the past?
EB: I have, actually. It just hasn’t been the right time, or the right thing, or I just didn’t invest enough in it. When I read Looper, to be honest, I didn’t picture it as an action movie and I didn’t categorize it as such. I don’t tend to categorize most of the choices I make. I think I’m just struck by a script and how original or unique it is, so I think people are talking about Looper as sort of carving out a space for itself as part of a new genre, but I’m actually not quite sure what genre it is. It’s actions, it’s thriller, it’s sci-fi. It’s all of those things, but it’s also very moving and poignant, so I find it kind of hard to box it in. I think that’s why I reacted so passionately to it when I first read it, and I begged to meet Rian about it.
DS: Your character also has a different storyline from the characters played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis because it’s a very maternal storyline that’s going on. Was that also a draw or a bit more of a challenge with this kind of a film?
EB: Well, there was definitely less gadgetry in my storyline. (laughs) Yeah, I think I could see that the second act where the character comes in – or even in the third act, really – as being this emotional grounding for the movie, and that’s what Rian wanted. He and I talked in that meeting about how he drew a lot of inspiration from the movie Witness, which is one of my favourite films. I think when you see Looper and you see us out in the fields and in this remote area, it does sort of remind you of that movie, and the tension and longing that’s echoed in our movie when Joe’s character goes to stay with them.
As for the maternal side, I think I’ve always wanted to play that in a film. I don’t think I ever really had the chance to explore that side of a mother/child relationship. It’s so complex and loaded that I was really excited to work with that little boy, Pierce (Gagon). I’ve worked with kids before, and I remember Sunshine Cleaning to be a great experience with that, but Pierce was so young. He was 5 when we worked together, and we read a few different kids for it. I flew to New Orleans early to read with some of the boys, but this little dude just walks in and it’s like the air just shifted in the room. It was really extraordinary, and you needed that kind of presence for this part. He needed to be a little bit spooky and a little intense, and I will say this about him in relation to the other kids. Pierce understood the character. He didn’t just know the lines. He knew that he was playing a part. I have to credit his mother with a lot of how he was so prepared for it. He was pretty extraordinary, so a lot of it was just basically keeping up with him, to be honest. Then it was all about trying to persuade him to stick around for your close-up. (laughs) He was just done after his and I had to be, like, “Look, dude, I sat around for yours and now you have to sit around for mine.” And he was just sitting there, like, (makes puppy dog-like sad face and uses child’s voice) “But I’ve done my part.” That was the time when the actual kid came out.
DS: Your character, without spoiling anything, turns out to be pretty complex. What was it like trying to prepare to play a character where the audience keeps finding out new information about them over time?
EB: It was really exciting and challenging, because she’s such a guarded character until one particular scene where she gives that monologue about who she is and why she’s the way she is and why she’s so shut down and guilt ridden. It’s quite a challenge to get in there and find out who this person is because the script protects the character in a way and who she really is. I spoke to Rian about where she was from. She seems to be a bit Midwestern and he said to just think Kansas, so I had this fantastic dialect coach, Liz Himelstein, who works with a lot of Brits in LA. She works with people like Gary Oldman, who can do pretty great accents, but even he goes to Liz. She makes you do these ludicrous vocal warm ups. Which I did. Surreptitiously in my trailer every day.
But I decided early on that I wanted to listen to guys talking to prepare for this character because she’s so tough. I don’t know why I gravitated towards listening to men from Kansas. Chris Cooper was someone I listened to many times since he was from there.
DS: Is the accent something you hang onto or is it something that kind of just goes away?
EB: I probably still have it. I’m not going to do it now, though. (laughs) It’s not that long to get an accent down, though. I’ve always loved doing voices, and I always did that as a kid. I loved to mimic people and I love impersonating people. Also, I live with an American and I live in America, so I’m just surrounded by the sounds of it all the time, which is probably an advantage if you’re just absorbing it all the time. It didn’t take too long to pick it up. Once I was in it, I sort of just stayed in it throughout the day. Mainly, so as not to confuse Pierce.
(laughs) I saw him actually months later. I was working in Wilmington, North Carolina and he was working there, and I was speaking in my regular voice and he was, like, (makes sad, confused, distant look). He just didn’t know and almost felt really sad. He couldn’t understand why I was speaking this way. It was actually really interesting.
DS: Bruce Willis has a great line in the movie where he talks about the film’s time travel aspect, and he just talks about how he doesn’t want to start making graphs and charts to explain how it all works.
EB: (laughs) Yeah, that’s one of my favourite parts.
DS: It’s something I always think about whenever I watch any movie with time travel…
EB: I know…
DS: Was that something that you also sort of had to overcome?
EB: To be honest, I felt that the time travel was always used as a tool and a backdrop for creating this mayhem for the characters to react to. It never really bothered me, probably because I’m not a very technologically interested person. So, I think I really saw it as a tool as opposed to anything else. (pause, fake seriously) But it bothered you, didn’t it? You want to make a fucking graph! (laughs)
DS: To be honest, this was one of the few times in a time travel movie where someone can say something like that and I just go along with it.
EB: (raises arms in victory) Oh, good! I love that!
DS: I very honestly don’t like a lot of time travel movies because I think it relies to heavily on those sort of devices and convenience. Looper definitely isn’t a lazy movie, but so many time travel movies seem like they almost use the very concept as a crutch for lazy writing.
EB: Yeah! I think a lot of those movies just get too hung up on gadgets and things. This movie is all feeling. It’s all about emotion. The script here was excellent, and Rian Johnson – and I think everyone who works with him agrees with me – that he’s quite an extraordinary talent. He has a really singular voice that you don’t really hear very much. I found that I often had to check myself while reading the script because it doesn’t often follow any formula that you get so used to reading that are formulaic and derivative. He just manages to create this completely unique point of view.
DS: How did your vision of the future before going into the film compare to what it looked like on set?
EB: It was actually very loyal to what the script was and what I had in mind as a result of reading it. The script was just a kind of frighteningly accessible step ahead of where we are now. I found that quite disconcerting in a way. Maybe that kind of is where we’re heading. I don’t know. Who knows how long it will take to get to where this movie is and what it embodies. It’s a slightly post-Apocalyptic styled dog-eat-dog world where the world hasn’t actually ended. I think I quite liked and was excited by the darkness that Rian captured with just sort of hints as to what the future might hold as opposed to making it look like everyone was driving around in spaceships. There’s just little pushes here and there, which makes it more exciting and unexpected.
DS: Did it take you a long time to get used to working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt after meeting him first and then seeing him in his Bruce Willis styled make-up?
EB: I’ll say this, and that’s that I think I met two people on that job. The Joe that’s now my friend is the Joe you would meet in real life. And the guy that I worked with on these scenes was someone altogether very different. Not only was he very much in the make-up. He very much was that guy. Not to say that that stopped us from having a laugh, but he was very committed to that character, and that kind of bouncy, goofy guy that I knew at the end of the day when we went and had a meal was very different from the guy I did scenes with during the day. I do think I met two different guys on that movie. He really embodied Bruce. He really managed to find a sort of essence without it being a cheap impersonation. I think that’s really a gift. He looked so different in the flesh, and I never looked it him like it was Joe with prosthetics on, but as a completely different face. I really felt that.
DS: What do you hope people take away from the film?
EB: I hope more than anything… You know, I don’t really know what I wanted them to take away from it. I never really think about what people might react to in general, and this movie’s just too complex to come up with a sound bit about how people might react to it. I hope people are flabbergasted by it, actually. (laughs) Maybe they get a little stunned. Because I think that’s exciting in a lot of ways; to stir people up in ways that they didn’t expect. I don’t think anyone going in knows quite what to expect from Looper.
DS: Hypothetically, if someone offered you the chance to travel back in time, would you do it?
EB: Oh God! (laughs) I don’t know if I could. I would be sort of a nervous traveller in that sense. (pauses) Would I be able to come back?
DS: Sure, but what would you come back to? Also, we would have to do this all over again.
EB: (laughs) It depends. If I were able to go for maybe, like, a week, and then come back, then yes. There’s a part of me that would love to go back to the 20s, and a part of me that would love to go back to caveman time and really see what that was like because no one really has an concrete tap on that or any idea of how people used to live, really. I think that would be pretty cool. I would also look super smart as a result. (laughs)