“I adore film noir style,” says actress Emily Blunt, shown here in the role of Dorothy Vallens, the tragic femme fatale in cult auteur David Lynch’s 1986 opus Blue Velvet. The kinkfest classic turned Isabella Rossellini into an icon, while pushing noir convention into the shadows of dangerously surreal Americana. “Blue Velvet is so dark and ethereal,” says Blunt. “It’s brooding yet artistic—I love it.”
Best known for her comedic roles—like a star-making breakthrough performance in The Devil Wears Prada—Blunt had no problem channeling Rossellini’s smoky, knife-edge carnality. At the same time, the 25-year-old London native put her own wicked spin on the sexy transformation. A week later, she’s still buzzing about the results.
“The shoot was definitely glamorous,” Blunt explains by phone from her family’s home in London. “Becoming that character was incredible: it was more like acting than just doing another photo shoot.” Blunt has been plumbing emotional and psychological depths for some time, beginning with a role that first brought her fame in the U.K., a gripping turn as Tamsin, the sapphic teen antagonist at the core of the 2004 indie hit My Summer of Love.
“There’s a darker side to all of us, and people choose to explore it or not. Taboo love affairs are the most fun, aren’t they? We’ve all casually hurt someone, then looked back and regretted it. Or not, in the case of some people,” says Blunt, who recently split from singer Michael Bublé. “Playing ‘baddies’ is just more fun playing than ‘goodies.’ ”
That she even made it this far still surprises Blunt, who says she got into acting only as a last-ditch therapy for a childhood stutter. “It was an anguished disability—not fun,” she recalls. “But I overcame it.” At age 12, while playing a character from Northern England, with an accent completely different from her own, Blunt found her stutter magically disappear. “In acting, I could be someone else and escape being a child who doesn’t talk,” she recalls. “It became an out-of-body experience.”
Years later, she tapped into a similar sense of the surreal with the attention that followed her Prada breakout. “That film opened so many doors,” she says. “I wasn’t pigeonholed as the corset-bound, bonnet-wearing English period film girl. I’d rather be brave and make a choice that frightens me a bit. I don’t mind looking like a wanker: I mean, that character was on the edge of fashion—and had really keeled off it.”
On the topic of personal style, Blunt fesses up to past fashion missteps. “I’ve had so many style blunders!” she says, laughing. These days, Blunt gathers expert advice so that she’s not busted on the red carpet. “You literally have to pry the baggy sweaters off me, but I am trying to discover life away from my Converse sneakers,” she says. “I have a great stylist who’s always encouraging me to be more fashion forward, but I’m always afraid that she’ll send me down the carpet in an ice sculpture or something.”
When it comes to Blunt’s most un-forward fashion moments on film, nothing could be further from bling than her upcoming turn as a chronically depressed trailer-park pothead in the indie tragicomedy Sunshine Cleaning, due out shortly. “For The Devil Wears Prada, we had to diet like crazy,” Blunt explains. “But for Sunshine, I put on a bit of weight, and I didn’t allow myself to see any sun. We certainly look rather pale and drawn, and the clothes were shabby: no one wore anything more expensive than, like, five dollars. Amy [Adams, Blunt’s Sunshine co-star] and I were pretty tough about looking real. We couldn’t look glamorous, as it was an authentic family we were creating.”
According to Adams, she and Blunt bonded like siblings. “People always thought that we were up to something!” Adams admits. Off-set shenanigans, however, mostly involved carbohydrates, Middle-American style—so much for any actual overlap with Blunt’s Prada fashion victim who’d faint if she didn’t eat her minuscule cube of cheese. “We went to the mall a lot, where I introduced her to Aunt Annie’s pretzels,” Adams confesses. “Emily became quite addicted to those.”
The friendship between Blunt and Adams continues to this day, but not without a speed bump or two, thanks to Blunt’s lacerating wit. “That English thing where they really rip on you but you still think it’s charming? Emily’s got it in spades,” Adams claims. “I don’t have international calling on my cell phone, but I can text. So if she calls me when I’m out of the country, I’ll text her to call me back. When she does, she’s like, ‘Cheap slut!’”
Despite the fact that Blunt’s character in Sunshine Cleaning—Norah Lorkowski, an uneducated, career-averse, inarticulate American slacker—comes from a background so different from her own, Blunt still found a way in. “Norah is just yearning; those characters are always the best ones to play, because there’s a sense of turmoil in their desire for… ” Blunt pauses for a second. You can practically hear the gears whirring in her quick-moving brain until she finds the word that expresses exactly what she means: “More. They desire more.”
Life as an ascendant actor inevitably involves hanging out in Hollywood, a very different landscape from Blunt’s perennially cold, damp Britain. “English people have a faux snobbery towards L.A.,” Blunt exclaims. “It’s bullshit! Trust me, we all secretly love it!” Indeed, when in Los Angeles—which is, of course, often—Blunt loves the understated glam of the Little Door, the sexily noir-ish Mexican joint El Carmen, the foodie small bites and big wines at A.O.C. and the cool jazz sounds of the Green Door. “L.A. is a very seductive place,” she says. “If you have friends and cafés, you can survive here.” And if Blunt develops any Brit homesickness, there’s always the King’s Head Pub in Santa Monica: “It’s fantastic—they’ve recreated a true pub very well, even in the balmy tropical weather.”
Blunt’s upcoming roles prove about as incongruous as a classic British pub by the California coast. Her next two parts split the difference between her comedic and dramatic talents. She plays a neurotic publicist in The Great Buck Howard (a labor of love for Tom Hanks, with whom Blunt had a memorably naughty, Clinton-esque clinch in Charlie Wilson’s War). In The Wolf Man, she’s a mourning lover alongside Benicio del Toro in a big-budget, Gothic extravaganza. According to Blunt, she had to “resign herself to a corset” to be authentic to her Wolf Man character: “I had to run and scream while wearing it! But it helps your posture, and certainly makes your boobs look fantastic. My internal organs now loathe me, however, so it might be good to do something in jeans and T-shirts. After all, I don’t want to be typecast as the ‘English rose’—that’s boring, isn’t it?”
Nothing is more English than one of Blunt’s most anticipated upcoming projects: She stars as the youthful Queen of England herself in The Young Victoria. It’s a prize for any actor, and Blunt knows it—she calls it “one of the greatest love stories. You know you’ve made it as a British actress if you’re asked to play a British monarch.”
Photography by Patrick Fraser, styling by Shirley Kurata.