At one point, potential backers of the movie “Sicario” encouraged its screenwriter to rewrite the lead character as a man in order to attract a big-name male star.
But Taylor Sheridan didn’t find that to be a compelling enough reason to shift his story’s focus.
Instead, the character, a devoted FBI field agent drawn into a shadowy drug-war operation on the U.S.-Mexico border, is played by one of Hollywood’s most mutable actresses, Emily Blunt.
“There was some initial pressure there for the rather gross fact that you could up the budget by another third if you make it a guy,” Blunt said of early discussions about rewriting her character. “That’s so gross. You completely alter the dynamic of the piece. The interesting fact for the audience is that she is a woman. There’s something unusual about that.”
An action-driven thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve, “Sicario” kicks off when FBI agent Kate Macer discovers a cartel house stuffed with dead bodies. Though Blunt believably embodies a steely lawwoman, the British actress said she was drawn into the film by what happens when Kate removes her bulletproof vest.
Explaining what intrigued her when she first read the script for “Sicario,” Blunt said, “the reveal of those bodies, and then all the images of Kate’s apartment and the loneliness of her life. To go from that dynamic, crazy, traumatic experience to what happens in the aftermath, when people go home and they have to go to bed, that was what interested me.”
“Sicario” surrounds Blunt with enigmatic men — Josh Brolin is a laconic government task-force official and Benicio Del Toro a consultant with a mysterious past. As Kate, she is the audience’s proxy in attempting to tease out their murky motives.
It’s a role that relies heavily on Blunt’s relatability, a quality, along with her sense of humor, that unites the mostly disparate performances on her résumé. There’s the tart-tongued fashion magazine assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada,” the fierce future warrior battling beside Tom Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow,” the barren, singing Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods.”
For “Sicario,” Blunt relied on the stories of female FBI agents to inform her performance, taking from them both a sense of toughness and an everyday loneliness.
“They were remarkably honest with me,” Blunt said. “You’re given no back story in the film or the script. All you know about my character is that I’m divorced and I could do with a new bra. That’s about it. These women, I asked them everything, if their job affects their sleep, their relationships, what do their parents feel? What frightens them? What’s it like working with all the guys? One girl I really zeroed in on, she was quite shy.... I’d ask her things like, ‘What do you do to decompress after a hard day?’ She said, ‘I come home and watch “Downton Abbey.”’ The women are so normal.”
In real life, Blunt, 32, is smart and self-deprecating, with a girlfriend-tell-me-about-it warmth. Aware, like most actors, that promoting a film is a performance in itself, she isn’t afraid to acknowledge that it is often an unnatural one for her.
“When I’m feeling low or uncomfortable, I assume a virtue I haven’t got at that moment, which is to be upbeat, so it’s almost like I’m faking it till I make it,” Blunt said. “That’s how I tend to walk through life.”
Much of Blunt’s appeal is her candor, but that quality recently came back to bite her when a joke she made about the Republican debate and reconsidering her new U.S. citizenship offended some people. Blunt apologized for the comment on the “Today” show, saying she would leave political joking to the late-night comics.
In this interview, which took place before that dust-up, Blunt described her experience of becoming a U.S. citizen as “strangely bittersweet.”
“In the room you have to, in a rather chest-beating way, say, ‘I don’t acknowledge any other power,’” Blunt said. “I felt really sad about renouncing my queen.”
Despite being married to a fellow actor, John Krasinski, Blunt leads a largely private existence with their 19-month-old daughter, Hazel. She avoids social media and doesn’t share readily about their lives, toggling between a home in the Hollywood Hills and film sets around the world.
“It’s quite seductive, this job, because it starts to make you feel that this is normal,” Blunt said. “When I take a step back and assess whether I think it is normal or not, that’s when I get a bit overwhelmed. I do feel that with what I do for a living, it’s important not to reveal so much about my everyday life and inner thinking, because my job is to get people to believe I’m somebody else and I take that quite seriously.”
She has turned down roles in comic-book films, for reasons to do with timing and the size and scope of the parts. “The reason was to wait until I could be the one doing the action,” Blunt said. “And I’m happy I waited because I got to play a part like in ‘Edge of Tomorrow.’”
The 2014 science-fiction film was, Blunt believes, a pivotal moment in her understanding of her own authority on a film set.
“I was brought into the fold in a very intimate way,” Blunt said, crediting Tom Cruise, her costar and a producer on the film. “I was in every script meeting and I was asked my opinion on women and how they might react.... I realized it was important to have a voice and not feel shy about having an opinion. I’m at a point in my career where I can actually say, ‘I’ve been doing this a long time.’ I’ve been doing this since I was 18 and I’m 32. Most of the time I have more experience than the director I’m working with when it comes to being on film sets.”
Blunt’s next film will be an adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestselling novel “The Girl on the Train,” a psychological thriller in which she plays a blackout alcoholic who may have witnessed a murder. A deeply flawed woman, Blunt’s “Girl on the Train” role will test her, she believes.
“A lot of female characters are being protected by a middle-aged male writer’s ideal of what women are like and what they would say and how they’d react in a situation,” Blunt said. “What I love is that that protection has been completely decimated by this book. You really see women at their most damaged and complicated.... It’s the role I’m the most nervous to play. I haven’t played a big hot mess before. I can’t fall back on any tricks.”