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Emily Blunt leaves her gin-soaked ‘Girl on the Train’ role behind and looks ahead to ‘Mary Poppins’

Emily Blunt
Actress Emily Blunt was attracted to the idea that her character in “The Girl on the Train” is gin-soaked, given to blackouts and prone to drunk dialing her ex-husband.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Early last year, when the search was on for an actress to star in the screen adaptation of  “The Girl on the Train,” one of the first names that DreamWorks Pictures and producer Marc Platt came up with was Emily Blunt. Then Platt found out that Blunt was maybe the only person who hadn’t yet discovered that Paula Hawkins’ novel was a frantic page-turner. “He said, ‘Have you read it?’” says Blunt recalling their phone conversation. “And I said, ‘I haven’t. But I think I’m missing out on something – it seems to be everywhere.’”

Indeed, when Blunt finally cracked open the book, she found a domestic noir plot-twister set in the familiar backdrop of southwest London, roughly two miles from Roehampton, the suburb where she grew up (for the film, the location would move to New York). As for the action, Blunt loved that it was driven by a trio of slightly unhinged female characters, each of whom narrates the unfolding events from her own perspective.

“That’s certainly a rarity in mainstream cinema,” says Blunt who was also attracted to the idea that the protagonist she would play, Rachel, is gin-soaked, given to blackouts and prone to drunk dialing her ex-husband. “That alcoholism is used as a device for a thriller? I just found that so unique.”

Blunt is one of those shape-shifting actors – since first turning heads in 2004 as a teenage manipulator in “My Summer of Love,” she’s shown up as everything from a bristlingly haughty assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada” to a secretly lovelorn 20something in the improvisation-heavy indie “Your Sister’s Sister” to an ab-flashing commando in the sci-fi blockbuster “Edge of Tomorrow.”

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Still, initially she found the thought of the emotions that accompany inhabiting such a role “intimidating and a little bit jarring.” She adds, “I didn’t have a frame of reference. That terrible shame, self-loathing and regret. How does that manifest itself?”

On the path to becoming Rachel, Blunt marathon-watched A&E’s “Intervention,” pored over books on addiction and asked herself questions like, “How does a drunk really move? How do they really walk?” “There’s pitfalls – like you don’t want to look like the drunk uncle lurching about the place,” says Blunt as she offers up an armchair imitation of a well-oiled souse.

The actress toyed with the idea of staging a sort of home movie version of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” where she’d enlist her husband, John Krasinski (“The Office”) to film her after some determined cocktail-guzzling. Then, a week before shooting, she scrapped the plan after learning she was pregnant with their second child.

“I had to use sources other than my own drunken abilities,” says the blue-eyed, ivory-skinned Blunt, who staggers through “The Girl on the Train” often aided by one of three sets of contact lenses, each calibrated to Rachel’s level of glassy-eyed inebriation. “There was the buzzed contact lens and the ones that made my eyes red for raging drunk,” says Blunt. “The hangover contact lenses were slightly yellow.”           

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 When it was announced that Blunt was cast, there was a contingent who complained she was too attractive to play the broken-down mess that is Hawkins’ Rachel. But Holly Bario, president of production at DreamWorks, remembers the consensus at the studio was that what made Blunt perfect was that she isn’t someone who looms too large in the public’s consciousness. “[We didn’t want to cast someone who’d] bring any baggage because [the audience] needs to believe this woman really is a drunk,” says Bario.

Years will pass before Blunt’s offspring are ready for the violence, gas-lighting and R-rated sex scenes that is “Girl on the Train.” But being pregnant on the shoot with her youngest, Violet, now four months, served  a purpose, she realized. “She was with me throughout the experience, in a sort of sweet comforting way,” says Blunt. “She was that slice of purity in my life in the toxic life that this movie was.”

Next month, she’ll start rehearsing to play the lead in a Depression-era sequel of Disney’s “Mary Poppins.” “It’s intimidating – she’s pretty iconic,” acknowledges Blunt of the character made famous by Julie Andrews. But isn’t Blunt consoled by the fact that at least she’s sung onscreen before?

“I sang in ‘Into the Woods’ and in a film called ‘Gideon’s Daughter.’”  What about the a cappella version of “Angel of the Morning” she warbled to Tom Hanks in the 2007 political drama “Charlie Wilson’s War”? Blunt bursts out laughing.

“Oh, my God. I blanked that out,” she says, burying her face in her hands. “I was in my underpants. I’d have done anything for [director] Mike Nichols – as is evident from that scene.”

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