Down to Earth, Even When Off the Wall

For someone who broke into Hollywood playing a hysteric, Emily Blunt is remarkably hard to flap. On a cold, bright day at the Chateau Marmont hotel here, this friendly 26-year-old British actress — whose tightly wound turn as Meryl Streep’s groveling girl Friday all but stole “The Devil Wears Prada” from Anne Hathaway — shows only a mild interest that Brad Pitt has rolled up on his motorcycle. Unlike Mr. Pitt and seemingly every other guest at the funky-cool Chateau, who dress like rock stars fresh from shopping at their local Goodwill store, Ms. Blunt arrives looking somewhere between saucy and demure in a short green flowered dress over black tights and knee-high copper boots, her face blessedly free of the pounds of blinding green eye shadow she piled on for “Prada.”

The eye shadow returns under different cover in Ms. Blunt’s latest film, “Sunshine Cleaning” (opening March 13), a cheeky if sentimental minor pleasure directed by Christine Jeffs. In person Ms. Blunt gives off a distinct whiff of Kensington, but she brings a capable American accent, red and purple hair extensions and bags of trashy brio to the movie, in which she and Amy Adams play sisters traumatized by the death of their mother long ago who find salvation cleaning up bloody crime scenes. Though the meatiest role goes to Ms. Adams as the responsible elder sister, Ms. Blunt cannily underplays both the comedy and the tragedy of the vulnerable Norah, whose good intentions far exceed her life skills.

“Norah’s hopeless, like a bull in a china shop,” Ms. Blunt said fondly. “She has great potential, but she’s stuck, despite yearning for more than her situation. She wants to know what happened in the past, and no one wants to talk about it. She’s funny and heartbreaking, and I love her curiosity. I’m always drawn to people who are a little off the wall.”

That taste for the offbeat and a fetching lack of vanity when it comes to playing disagreeable women have made some of Ms. Blunt’s choices happier than others. She seductively preyed on a young woman in her first major role as a coolly enigmatic beauty in Pawel Pawlikowski’s “My Summer of Love” (2004).

But she has also, at some peril to her career, been the best thing about a few terrible movies, notably as the ominously efficient assistant of Susan Sarandon’s screen husband in the roundly panned “Irresistible” (2006), which Ms. Blunt cheerfully calls “the most resistible film in the world.” Her lithe body shows up briefly and mostly undressed in“Charlie Wilson’s War” and dressed to kill as a sexy Ms. Wrong for Steve Carell in “Dan in Real Life” (2007). She juices the comedy “The Great Buck Howard” (set to open March 20) as a publicist for a has-been magician played by John Malkovich. She won a Golden Globe for her regal dignity as the neglected daughter of a New Labor image maker played by Bill Nighy in a bloated 2005 television drama, “Gideon’s Daughter.”

On the other hand, her adventurous spirit has also allowed Ms. Blunt, despite her rosy glow and patrician diction, to avoid getting stuck in the muslin-and-bonnets period pieces that have sapped the careers of fine actors like Jennifer Ehle overseas. Ms. Blunt paid her dues early on, appearing on British television in “Boudica,” about the British warrior queen who took on the Romans, and in a two-part series as Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. She might still be endlessly reprising what she calls the “head girl demeanor” had her agent not pushed her to audition for “Prada.” She convinced the film’s director, David Frankel, that the part, though written for an American, might work better with a British accent.

Ms. Blunt brought both killer timing and a touching pathos to this fashion victim who leaps to gratify her abusive boss’s every whim while heaping scorn on Ms. Hathaway’s hapless underling. She waded into broad comedy with the character of Emily — who flounces around in Vivienne Westwood threads Ms. Blunt chose herself — with the same verve she brings to suiting up in head-to-toe fumigation gear in “Sunshine Cleaning.” That gear, she said, made her and Ms. Adams look like “a couple of blue condoms.”

Ms. Adams, who proudly laid claim to introducing Ms. Blunt to the American mall during the shoot in Albuquerque (a town Ms. Blunt describes as “very beige”), describes her as “a very strong gut actress who really trusts herself, even when she’s asked to do a lot of physicality.”

“The Devil Wears Prada” may be no more than a well-turned piece of Hollywood fluff, but Ms. Blunt’s fearless embrace of her prickly character nimbly skewers the way abuse of corporate power at the top filters down into petty bullying at the bottom.

A gifted mimic who never went to drama school and plunders the quirks of people she knows (“I’m combining, so it’s not stealing, it’s research,” she said gleefully), Ms. Blunt was raised in the stockbroker-belt London suburb of Roehampton, which provided her with an abundance of Sloane Rangers on whom to base Emily. She also drew on her encounters with Hollywood workaholics.

“You meet a lot of people in this world who are defined by the job they do,” she said. “It’s sad, because they cease to develop on a human level, they’re so fear-driven. So I’ve had to sever the two existences.”

For someone whose résumé is stacked with unhinged women, Ms. Blunt seems serenely well prepared for life, not to mention Hollywood life, which she enjoys without taking it too seriously. One of four children, she comes from a loving family and is very close to her elder sister, a literary agent who lives around the corner from her new apartment in Notting Hill Gate. Her mother, Joanna Mackie, is a former theater actress turned teacher, and her younger brother is a film student, but Ms. Blunt had little acting ambition until she started performing in school plays, where the shelter of “pretending to be someone else” incidentally helped rid her of a powerful stammer.

Still, she was “drifting around, shrugging my shoulders like every other 16-year-old” when her future agent noticed her in the musical “Bliss” at the Edinburgh International Festival. Instead of going to college to study languages and become a translator, she went straight into West End theater, then into television before landing “My Summer of Love” when she was 20.

“Acting became something I grew accustomed to doing rather than something I’d always desired,” Ms. Blunt insisted.
Spend time with her, and you discover at least two Emily Blunts. One is the self-deprecating young woman who calls herself lazy, snorts at the idea that she can sing (an Internet rumor based on backup vocals she did for an album by her former boyfriend, the Canadian musician Michael Bublé) and laments that the cello she plays rather beautifully in “My Summer of Love” mostly sits in her apartment “staring balefully at me.”

The paparazzi can’t seem to catch her doing anything worse than running errands at a Los Angeles supermarket with her current beau, John Krasinski of “The Office.” A self-described homebody, Ms. Blunt rarely hangs out on the Hollywood scene. After filming “Prada,” she moved into the guest house of Wendy Finerman, the producer of “Prada,” where she lived for six months and “became part of my family,” Ms. Finerman said. “I couldn’t wait to keep passing her along.”

Ms. Blunt said: “I have level-headed friends separate from the business, people I grew up with. I look to those to find sanctuary.” Polishing off a great slab of chicken sandwich, she leaned back and said: “Great. I inhaled that.”

Then there’s the other Emily Blunt, the one who is always looking for new roles and fresh ways to layer her characters and make them harder to read, the quick study who, according to Mr. Frankel, came to the “Prada” set every day even if she wasn’t working and gave notes about the blocking. This fall Ms. Blunt will appear as Benicio Del Toro’s love interest in a remake of the horror movie “The Wolfman,” which, she said, “veers away from the slasher movies back to the classic ghost stories.”

She added with a touch of defiance, “I don’t care if people think I sold out doing ‘The Wolfman.’ It’s a great movie.”

Ms. Blunt is frank about having to pay off her apartment, but she meets the suggestion that her career might bog down in supporting roles if she’s not more selective with forceful asperity. “You’ve got to see ‘The Young Victoria,’ ” she said, in which she plays the queen as, of all things, an irrepressible rebel madly in love with Albert.

“Emily has the potential to become one of the great actresses,” Mr. Frankel said. “She’s beautiful and sexy. She’s a great mimic.” And, he said, in a business full of slick talkers, she sees through phoniness.

Ask Ms. Blunt for role models, and she reels off the usual suspects: Streep, Sarandon, Mirren, Dench. Ask her whom she wants to be like, and she interrupts you midsentence with one crisply enunciated word: Blanchett.