How Emily Blunt became a Hollywood star

Emily Blunt in Fall Guy. Photo: Paramount Universal
Emily Blunt in Fall Guy. Photo: Paramount Universal
Emily Blunt  has become Britain’s biggest Hollywood star, writes Guy Lodge.

Earlier this year Emily Blunt received her first Academy Award nomination, for her sly, brittle supporting turn in Christopher Nolan’s best picture champion, Oppenheimer. It felt like an overdue achievement for the British star, who at that point already had a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors’ Guild award to her name, not to mention four Bafta nominations. At 41, she carries an established aura of prestige that sometimes stands separately from the films she makes. If they handed out Oscars not for individual performances but for thespian comportment, she would doubtless have several by now.

The wait gets less surprising, however, when you take a closer look at Blunt’s blockbuster filmography, heavy on brash commercial entertainments such as Jungle Cruise and the Quiet Place films — making the near-billion-grossing but comparatively highbrow Oppenheimer something of a recent outlier. Where Blunt’s earlier career seemed evenly pitched between English-rose arthouse refinement and mass-market Hollywood stardom, she has largely chosen the latter course since, and hasn’t looked back. Her current worth is estimated at $US80 million ($NZ135 million). Most would agree that’s worth a few trophies missing from the cabinet.

It’s 20 years since we first saw Blunt on the big screen. Produced for just over £1 million, Pawel Pawlikowski’s lucent, bittersweet My Summer of Love traced a brief, intense romance between two teenage girls from opposite sides of the class divide, making waves on the strength of its shimmery, Goldfrapp-scored cool and the crackling chemistry between its two new stars. Offbeat Londoner Natalie Press had the larger role as the gawky, besotted Yorkshire lass, cueing a career of character parts that gradually tapered off. As a callous seductress fresh out of boarding school, Blunt, with her cut-glass delivery and magazine-cover features, was fast-tracked to leading-lady status. Such are the vagaries and biases of the industry.

Only two years later, she was vaulted to Hollywood. On paper, her role as waspish fashion PA Emily in the 2006 smash The Devil Wears Prada might not have looked like much. Yet Blunt made the most of it, not merely by reeling off one-liners with vinegary aplomb — "Do you have some prior commitment? Some hideous skirt convention you have to go to?" she snarls — but by locating a seam of sadness in her character’s bitchery. Her Emily stood for a generation of hungrily interning young women in the big city, willing to accept any amount of exploitation for a step up the ladder. She was witty and poignant enough to land Bafta and Golden Globe nominations, along with the more long-term reward of enduring pop-culture quotability.

The next few years saw Blunt reaching for household-name status while spreading her bets career-wise across a range of films, from horror to romcom.

She acquitted herself respectably in a minor-key, minimally seen horror film, Wind Chill, but didn’t seem a natural scream queen. She did what needed to be done as the eponymous monarch in The Young Victoria, but couldn’t quite animate the film’s handsome heritage dullness.

She dipped into the American indie well, giving fine, careworn turns in Your Sister’s Sister and opposite Amy Adams in Sunshine Cleaning, but the films themselves never quite took off, and while she proved a game romcom lead in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and The Five-Year Engagement, they arrived just as mainstream interest in the genre was waning.

But it was 2012’s Looper that pointed a clear way forward for the actor, hitherto not an obvious fit for a high-octane action film. Rian Johnson’s ingeniously knotted sci-fi thriller cast her effectively against type as a hard-bitten Kansas farmer and single mother who can wield a shotgun with the best of them. She in turn gave the film the kind of warm human gumption that its male leads, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, didn’t provide.

It was a departure successful enough that she went straight back into the genre — complete with more time-slipping structural trickery — in Doug Liman’s nifty 2014 blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow. Playing a futuristic army sergeant opposite another cold-fish male lead (Tom Cruise, no less), she brought welcome emotional transparency to what could have been just a tough-gal cypher.

"There’s a habit in action movies with ‘strong female characters’ to flatten them by taking an overly literal approach to the ‘strong’ element while providing little depth of character elsewhere," says the film critic Hanna Flint. "What I love about Blunt in films like Edge of Tomorrow is that her characters aren’t just action-babe facsimiles of each other, or gender-swapped male characters, but multifaceted individuals."

By the time Blunt credibly anchored Denis Villeneuve’s stylish 2015 drug-cartel thriller Sicario, as an FBI agent stymied by systemic corruption, her hard-as-nails composure seemed no longer revelatory but a redefined screen persona. By this point Blunt had become a naturalised US citizen after her 2010 marriage to square-jawed American sitcom star John Krasinski. Hollywood was now her native territory, as she kept churning out commercial entertainments of variable quality. The Huntsman: Winter’s War required little of her but regal hauteur, while her turbulent emoting exceeded the intellectual requirements of the silly thriller The Girl on the Train, even if it netted her another Bafta nod. It was under Krasinski’s direction, in the taut alien-invasion nerve-jangler A Quiet Place that she delivered some unexpectedly visceral physical acting, notably in a fraught childbirth scene; a sequel two years later delivered more money but less drama.

Perhaps surprisingly, Blunt resisted getting drafted into superhero franchises, though she has served her time for Disney, reasserting her Englishness in the process: she gave an on-the-money Julie Andrews impersonation in Mary Poppins Returns, and served Edwardian-era primness opposite The Rock in the disposable Jungle Cruise. But it was a return to TV, in the terse BBC revisionist western series The English, that gave Blunt her chewiest character in ages. She carried that energy into her tart, calculating performance as Kitty Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan’s atom-bomb biopic, sealing her Oscar nomination with one extraordinary interrogation scene, raddled nerves creeping into her icy mid-Atlantic delivery.

Next is the return to action-comedy antics opposite Ryan Gosling in The Fall Guy plus a voice role in her husband’s family comedy IF. Blunt hasn’t shed her populist instincts just yet.

"That Blunt has raked in nearly $2 billion as a lead actress without starring in a superhero film goes to show her box office appeal," says Flint, "so it would be bad business to age her out of the blockbuster space. I can’t see her being sent out to pasture just yet, but there is still a dearth of big-screen stories for women to truly lead and pack a cinematic punch in." An action film without a corresponding male lead is what Flint would like to see her in next: "I’d love to see her use that star power to support female filmmakers entering the blockbuster space."

Meanwhile, one wonders if Blunt will ever again feel the pull toward cinema as small and raw as My Summer of Love, or if she will continue to reserve her dramatic chops for projects as vast as Oppenheimer, as she continues to maintain a rare and enviably profitable career balance of art and commerce. — The Observer