But fate – and a high-school teacher – had other ideas for Emily Blunt. Jo Elvin discovers how the painfully shy schoolgirl with a debilitating stutter became one of the most celebrated actresses of her generation
Hollywood superstars are often at pains to let you know how down to earth they are. But during the course of my chat with Emily Blunt, I accidentally stumbled across the ultimate test of just that.
Picture the scene: the British actress has arrived in Spain just an hour earlier and is Zooming me from her hotel room. I’m in my London home. We’re happily chatting away – and we’ll cover a lot of ground, from her stellar career to her superstar marriage – when something mortifying happens at my end.
I hadn’t seen my dog walk into the room, but suddenly we both hear her. Throwing up.
‘Oh god, I can hear it, that’s gross,’ says Emily, covering her face in her hands, shoulders shaking with laughter.
I’m mortified. But Emily shrugs, ‘I have a dog. Who vomits a lot. If you need to go and clean it up, I can wait.’
So I ask her to make me feel better by telling me an embarrassing story and what she comes out with is a profound insight into the woman she’s become. ‘I was ten years old, it was Christmas, and everyone at school was dressed as festive characters,’ she says, between sips of water from a gigantic bottle. ‘I’d hurt my knee so at the time I was on crutches and my mother said, “Well, why don’t you go as Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol?”
I had the peasant cap, the lot. And in front of the whole school, a teacher asked me who I’d come as and I was stuttering – Ts were especially challenging for me – and I just couldn’t say it. It was awful. I remember just saying to her, “Guess, guess” because I couldn’t say it. It seemed to go on for an eternity.
‘A stutter is such a dreadful imposter in your body,’ she adds. ‘It misrepresents who you are completely, so that’s all people see. Because people sound funny, they look funny when they talk and it’s very readily bullied and made fun of. And misinterpreted. People don’t get that it’s a biological disability that’s usually hereditary.’
It’s incredible to think how life actually turned out for this terrified Tiny Tim; the traumatised seven-year-old stutterer who became one of the most celebrated actresses of her generation. She now campaigns for the American Institute for Stuttering, and as such has been known to turn up on the doorsteps of young stutterers to offer them advice and encouragement. For Emily, it was a high-school teacher who changed everything by encouraging her to try acting as a way of managing her stutter.
‘I found that one of the ways I could speak normally back then was if I did a silly voice or an accent,’ she says.
It’s a story that sounds like the plot of a film: the stuttering child saved by acting, but even though her raw talent shone through early on, Emily herself was the one person who doubted it. ‘I know that’s a good soundbite, but I really didn’t want to be an actress,’ she says. ‘I had a deliberate resistance to it because I couldn’t imagine doing a job where you had to speak all the time. I thought I wanted to be a linguist, maybe a translator for the UN. My mum’s a great linguist – I was really inspired by that. So even when I realised that when I acted, it actually gave me a fluency I wasn’t otherwise capable of, I don’t remember it being this “aha!” moment of, “Right, OK, this is what I was born to do.”’
For someone who didn’t really see acting as her destiny, she’s doing OK. A veteran of some 40 films as well as television and stage credits, her career is a tick-tick-tick list of box-office hits, awards and glowing reviews. She can serve you bullet-dodging action (Edge of Tomorrow) or frazzled alcoholism (The Girl on the Train). She can have you in stitches with an elegantly arched eyebrow (The Devil Wears Prada) or singing along in a traditional knees-up (Mary Poppins Returns). There’ll be no typecasting Ms Blunt thanks to her remarkable versatility, which she now realises was a talent she unwittingly honed as a kid.
‘It [the stutter] was the making of me in many ways,’ she nods. ‘You learn great empathy and to watch people very closely, because often you can’t speak. So you observe everything. You read every nuance of every person you’re talking to – mainly to see if they’re going to make fun of you or understand you. I think it maybe made me more empathetic and observant. I love mimicking people. I love putting an essence of someone I know into a part I’m playing. So whether it’s an abstract or an acute awareness, I think it has made a difference to how I choose to play people.’
Just to ram the versatility point home, Emily is spearheading the return to cinemas this summer with two films that couldn’t be more different. First there was A Quiet Place Part II, the sequel to the 2018 instant classic she starred in with her director husband John Krasinski (more on him soon). This time, her partner in dodging terrifying aliens with supernatural hearing is Cillian Murphy of Peaky Blinders fame. Then there’s the film we are here to discuss today – Jungle Cruise, inspired by the popular river ride at Disneyland.
Emily calls it ‘a joy bomb of a film’ – an adventure comedy that channels the spirit of Indiana Jones and The African Queen. Jack Whitehall plays her brother and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is their dodgy riverboat captain.
The trio formed a tight bond, and Emily feels sorry for the director who often had to scold them into stopping mucking about. ‘Jack and I liked sending Dwayne videos of ourselves on set doing stunts, pretending that we were helping him learn how to do an action sequence,’ she says about the veteran of many action films who is renowned for doing his own stunts. ‘We’d send these really patronising videos of us being like, “OK, Dwayne, this is called… a stunt sequence.” Jack’s name for me was “Stunty Blunty”. He was “Jacktion Man”. Our preparations for stunts involved eating a fried chicken takeaway. Every time we had an action sequence, that’s what we’d eat. So we’d send Dwayne videos saying, “You don’t need to go to the gym so much, you actually just need to eat fried chicken.”’
Emily leapt at the chance to do this rather old-fashioned romp because ‘it was just so emblematic of the kinds of films I worshipped as a kid, like Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone, The African Queen. I mainlined them into my body. Here was exactly the kind of film I want to watch.’
Such movies were a Friday-night staple for the Blunt family. Wandsworth-born Emily is one of four children born to mum Joanna, a former actress and teacher, and dad Oliver, a barrister.
‘But do you think kids have gone a bit soft?’ she asks. ‘Because I think I was watching Pretty Woman when I was ten! I actually have this lasting memory of the moment where Julia Roberts fans out the condoms. Remember that? Fans them out. I remember turning to my dad and asking, “What are those?” “Sweeties,” he said. But then I was like, “What’s a hooker?”’
No such fears with Jungle Cruise. Kids will love it. Well, except Emily’s. ‘My seven-year-old said to me two days ago – and I laughed so hard as she suddenly sounded very adult – “Mamma, it’s so embarrassing that you’re in movies.” Embarrassing. She’s seven and doesn’t want to watch me in movies. I don’t think she cares. She doesn’t know who Dwayne Johnson is. I remember being backstage on a TV show and she met Bruno Mars and she was just, “Hi”, all nonchalant. But it’s how I’d like to keep it, just really casual. And I keep saying, “My favourite job in the world is to be your mummy.”
‘I don’t know if we’re navigating it right,’ she says about raising kids with famous parents. ‘We’ll just do our best not to f*** anyone up, you know?’
Jungle Cruise sees Emily channelling real Indiana Jones energy. One scene features her eluding villains by jumping nimbly between moving ladders. She’s involved in a lot of the action, but admits that her stunt double tends to do more of the heavy lifting these days.
‘I was a bit more gung-ho about that before I had kids’ – not least because her husband inadvertently screwed her knees up during the filming of A Quiet Place Part II.
‘There’s so much running in that film!’ she laughs. ‘Cillian and I would laugh about that a lot. I’m running from a creature constantly. And I haven’t got any shoes on! I remember running barefoot on the most uneven terrain with a baby in a box, and carrying things like oxygen tanks, and John going, “Em, can you do a fake stumble?” And I did and botched up my knee. I had one good knee. Now I have two s*** knees.’
And, I joke, it’s not like you can complain to HR, because that’s your husband.
‘I can’t, no!’ she laughs. ‘At the time I remember saying, “Um, John, this ground is a bit uneven.”’
Emily and John met in a Los Angeles restaurant in 2008. Emily had split from Canadian crooner Michael Bublé and on this particular night she was dining with a friend, who spotted his friend at another table. That was John. At the time he was most famous for his role in the US version of the TV sitcom The Office. Emily’s star was on the rise thanks to her breakout role as the bitchy assistant in The Devil Wears Prada – a film, it turns out, that John watched on repeat, because he already had a crush on Emily.
She tells me today, as she tells everyone, that for both of them ‘that was pretty much it’. John abandoned his table mate (who happened to be Justin Theroux) to flirt with Emily, and in 2010 they married on George Clooney’s Lake Como estate. They now have two daughters, Hazel, seven, and Violet, five. (‘We like old-lady names,’ John has joked.)
In 2018, they starred together in the blockbuster horror A Quiet Place (directed by John), which meant the couple toured the world promoting the film. Their ribbing of each other on chat-show sofas cemented their popularity.
Highlights included John telling of a London airport customs officer who couldn’t believe he was married to Emily, while she revealed he jumps in terror any time she walks in while he’s having a shower. Their affectionate nickname ‘The Krunts’ – Krasinski/Blunt – has kind of stuck. ‘It’s terrible, isn’t it?!’ she laughs.
It’s more usual, I tell her, for celebrities to insist they will not talk about their relationships.
‘I just don’t feel like there is anything to hide,’ she says with a shrug. ‘There probably are certain things we won’t share, but I can’t even be specific right now about what they are. We’ve been together for 13 years so, you know… we live together, we talk about each other! And when you do a movie together and then two movies together, how can you avoid talking about each other?’
While she jokes that John would have been in really big trouble if he hadn’t cast her in A Quiet Place, doesn’t it add tension at work – and at home – when a husband and wife work together? Especially when one of them is the boss?
‘We were bricking it at first,’ she laughs. ‘Now we’ve figured out a good process for us. When he’s writing a script I need to let other people be his sounding boards, because I’m too honest. I don’t have the… diplomacy that other people do,’ she laughs again.
‘But it’s also good because you can cut the s*** with each other. I know how much we value each other’s opinion – like, massively. It would be different if we had different tastes and if we didn’t like the same thing.
‘Ultimately, though, I really think he’s amazing, what can I say? I think he’s rather extraordinary. He’s like this creative hurricane, so any little jibes or gripes I have are sort of irrelevant. We drank a lot of whiskey and sort of ironed out any creases on our journeys home.’
Emily’s daughters have American accents and love it when she calls them ‘weird’ British words like ‘wallies’. John’s American friends are no longer allowed to attend the Krunt Sunday roasts because ‘they don’t understand that you’re supposed to behave like Henry VIII and just spend hours on end eating. Like, people should be sick and then keep going. That’s a roast. I mean, that’s how I grew up, anyway.’
Emily and John’s love story has a fascinating twist in that her Devil Wears Prada co-star Stanley Tucci was a guest at their wedding, where he met Emily’s sister Felicity. And now they, too, are married with young children. ‘I know, he weaseled his way in there,’ she laughs. ‘It’s just mad – they fell in love at my wedding.’
She laughs out loud when I tell her that Stanley has been dubbed ‘the internet’s new boyfriend’ – which basically means he’s an Instagram sensation, who, thanks to his cocktail videos, has become the go-to crush for women aged 18 to 80.
‘I cannot believe what’s happened with him!’ she says. ‘Everyone wants to talk to me about Stan’s Instagram show. He should be a professional dinner guest. He’s just heaven, he truly is. He always looks amazing, smells amazing, he makes an amazing cocktail, he’s a brilliant chef. He’s a great raconteur. He is that sophisticated. But it was breathtakingly unintentional on his part. He doesn’t even know what it means when we tell him he’s trending.’
Since last August, both families have ‘bubbled up’ together living in London. And, as it turns out, through all the smiles and gracious good humour of chatting to a journalist, Emily will admit she’s a bit wobbly today because it’s the first time in more than a year that she’s been away from her family for any stretch of time.
‘After Covid, if I even put on make-up to leave the house, they’re like, “Where are you going?” They’re so unused to me being away. And this is the first time. I’m going to go back every weekend and they’re going to come out for a break and then for summer. But it was a tough morning, I will tell you that.’
Emily is in Spain to begin work on a new six-part Western drama The English, a joint Amazon and BBC production. But unlike the swashbuckling fun of Jungle Cruise, this one, Emily says, ‘is as violent and witty as it is poignant and moving. It’s set in 1890 and I play this aristocratic woman who is coming to America in search of revenge for her little boy’s death.’
Not only is Emily missing her family, she’s also at what she finds the worst point of any work project: the beginning. Tomorrow she will start rehearsals, meet her co-stars (who include Rafe Spall and Toby Jones) and so tonight she will be anxious. Ultimately, her experiences as a kid have turned her into a fearless creature – ‘stutterers are some of the most courageous people because it’s such a minefield every time you open your mouth’ – but it doesn’t stop first-day nerves.
‘I still get butterflies in my tummy about going to work,’ she says. ‘The first few days I’ll feel a bit wobbly and I don’t sleep very well.’
It’s this particular anxiety that makes Emily averse to social media. ‘Yeah, I’m someone who gets really overwhelmed by being too in-the-know on whether people like me or loathe me,’ she says. If anyone out there loathes Emily, I’m yet to meet them.
Jungle Cruise will be in cinemas and on Disney+ with premier access on 30 July