Emily Blunt on Gnomeo and Juliet, Her Love of Filth, and Five-Year Engagement

Emily Blunt is used to playing thorny characters who eventually endear audiences with fragility. Her newest role — that of the lovestruck Juliet in the Shakespeare-twisting animated tale Gnomeo and Juliet — is the opposite: an easygoing gal whose determination shines as the movie progresses. Yes, she’s a computer-animated garden gnome in a movie about feuding garden gnome families (with an Elton John soundtrack), but she still bears the Capulet stubbornness that builds one scene at a time.

Movieline caught up with Blunt to discuss this weird movie, its star-studded cast, and the perks of playing “steely, yet vulnerable” characters.

Voice-acting is interesting because you often don’t meet your co-stars. The cast of Gnomeo and Juliet features James McAvoy, Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart, Dolly Parton, and Hulk Hogan. How many of them have you met?

I’ve met James [McAvoy] before, but just kind of socially. I saw no one but [Director] Kelly Asbury during the whole process.

You’re telling me you haven’t met Hulk Hogan.

I haven’t met Hulk. I haven’t met Ozzy [Osbourne]. And Stephen Merchant is a friend of mine, so I know he’s in it. So yeah, I was Han “Solo” in this process.

Were you even aware of who was playing the other characters as you performed the role?

I knew that James was doing it, and I knew that Michael Caine was doing it. As the process went along — and I did about seven or eight sessions for it, maybe even ten — you find out who else has signed on. It makes it quite exciting. You become this merry band, but you never set eyes on each other. The bonus is you can turn up sloppily in your pajamas and you don’t have to worry because no one’s going to be seeing you.

Later, did you ever think, “Oh, wait. I was supposed to be taking to Maggie Smith in that scene. I might’ve done that differently had I known.”

No, not really. You just try to make the right decision initially. Hearing all these great people have joined on is a real bonus.

Who are you most excited to meet in the cast?

Probably Maggie Smith. I haven’t met her! I’d really like to. Well, I think I met her so briefly — I did my first play with Judi Dench, and she’s close to her. She came to see the play, and I think I shook her hand. Then I scuttled away embarrassed.

Your husband has an illustrious voice-acting past. Did he psyche you up for the job? And were you surprised by the difficulty of it?

He was definitely excited for me to do it. I’d done The Simpsons before, but Kelly was fantastic during the process because I didn’t realize how much you had to accentuate your speaking voice and your facial expressions in order to get more lively, energetic voice out of yourself. You don’t realize that we all sound quite flat when you don’t look at someone’s face and see how expressive their face is. When you’ve just got the voice, you realize how much needs to go into it. It was kind of like a workout, going in and doing a voice.

Sounds exhausting.

I found it quite tiring, but I loved it because when they played it back, I could hear the difference between how I started off and how I ended up. I felt like I was playing Nintendo Wii in there or something. I was just gesturing and jumping. You do about 100,000 different line-readings of one line.

You’ve done legitimate Shakespeare before, including Romeo and Juliet. Was anything similar about this strange spin on the story?

To be honest, it did feel quite similar. Obviously I didn’t have to command the language that you have to when you do Shakespeare, and that’s a challenge in itself — trying to make it sound real and accessible, but without losing the tone of it. So it was definitely a different experience doing a contemporary version of it because it’s easier, and it’s close to home for me. I understand it a bit more. But when I met Kelly, he asked me if I’d ever done Romeo and Juliet, and I said I had. It was a play I did when I was about 19 or 20. I said, “My feeling on Juliet is she’s not a victim. She’s not a wilting rose who’s a reactionary character and just subject to whatever her father’s desire is. I think she’s actually forthright, hot-tempered, decisive, and rebellious.” That’s what I did when I played her onstage; I didn’t play her as a kind of priss. I played her as someone who is hot-blooded and very much like her dad. I pitched that to Kelly, and he said, “That’s what we want. We want a tough little Juliet.”

What Shakespearean role would you still like to play?

I’d really like to play one of the girls in King Lear. I think Regan. She’s just… so evil. And dark. It’d be a fun role to take on.

You tend to play steely characters who eventually show vulnerability. Would you ever prefer a character who’s entirely steely?

To be honest, I think there’s a vulnerable side to everyone. I think it’s a shame when someone is just steely or hard-assed. I don’t really see the appeal of that. I think often a bravado or a swagger is there to cover up something that’s dwelling underneath. I think most people have that. I certainly do. Most people I know have some kind of — something that makes them feel vulnerable. I think people are very complex; I don’t think they’re just steely or vulnerable or depressed or headstrong. It very much depends. But I have gotten to play a few of those characters. I try not to see it as divided into “steely, yet vulnerable.” i try to play someone who is many things as all of us ours.

You’ve signed on to the Jason Segel comedy Five-Year Engagement, which I’ve heard described as a bawdy comedy.

A body comedy?

No, no, bawdy.

Ah! I thought, “Am I naked the whole way through this?” [Laughs.]

The movie intrigues me because I think your sense of humor is more droll and straightforward than we’re used to seeing in your movies. Is this style more the real you?

Probably. Probably, yeah! Just filth. I think I like bawdy as much as elegant comedy. I like all of it. The movie is definitely heightened, but it’s still very much about a real relationship. It’s about the ups and downs of that. “Bawdy” is the word; I don’t who said that, but it’s a good description.

Over the past few years, you’ve had a number of movies whose release dates have been pushed back a few times. This, Wild Target, The Adjustment Bureau — do you ever worry it creates an unfair perception of your work?

No, no! I don’t really take that personally. It has nothing to do with me, as in, that’s not even my job to worry about that. That happens for numerous reasons, why movies push back. People’s schedules, needing re-shoots, that kind of stuff. Most movies I’ve worked on — and most that most people have worked on — need some kind of re-shooting. It doesn’t concern me that much, and I think it’s kind of important not to worry about things. You have no control over them, you know?

Do you notice a delayed reaction to some of your movies?

I feel like movies that people might initially not see, they end up finding them later on. I feel like movies I’ve been proud of have usually found an audience. It may just be a slow-burn effect, but I don’t mind that either. I kind of like it when people just discover a movie that they’ve heard about but haven’t gone to see it. Months and months later, they see it and they’re like, “I loved you! I just saw it last night!” I like that. I like that because I certainly do that with a lot of movies. I do that with a lot of independent movies as well. With those films, it’s pretty much a guarantee it’ll be a slow-burn effect. People won’t necessarily be rushing out in hordes to see it, but they will find it at some point.

Any of yours in particular that have produced that reaction?

I think people seem to really like The Young Victoria now. That was one that definitely did well at the box office, but, like, it’s one of those movies that people keep discovering now. I’ve had people just last week saying they just saw it. I like that about it. I’ve had that experience. It’s so fresh and new to them, and I love that.