While most know Emily Blunt as the sharp-tongued, sharp-elbowed assistant from The Devil Wears Prada, her brief career has taken her all over the map. It isn’t easy to find the commonality between the seductive upper-class bad girl of My Summer Of Love and the burned-out screw-up of Sunshine Cleaning, except that they’re both played with a level of control so refined, it seems like utter simplicity. In The Young Victoria, directed by French Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée, Blunt plays a teenage monarch whose ascension to the throne marked the beginning of the longest reign in British history. Although the most common image of Victoria is that of a stout, stern-faced widow, the story by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) imagines the young queen as a work in progress, a strong-willed but naïve ruler struggling to distinguish her desires from those around her. Blunt begins the film looking open and unformed, but her face subtly transforms throughout the course of the film, as if events altered her outside as well as in. Blunt spoke by phone from Los Angeles, where she took a break from moving furniture to talk to The A.V. Club about Victoria’s overlooked passions, the difference between Meryl Streep and Benicio Del Toro, and the frightening approach of the wide-angle lens.
The A.V. Club: How much did you know about Victoria going in?
Emily Blunt: I just knew her as this great, sad woman, the old lady, looking grim and in mourning. So I thought it was a wonderful thing, that this was a way people could discover the joy and the passion, rather than with her in black.
AVC: And was that a surprise to you, to find out what she was like before Albert’s death?
EB: I was utterly surprised. I was very, very surprised to find that out.
AVC: Playing someone like Queen Victoria can be challenging in that she needs to be portrayed as a human being, but also as someone raised in an almost incomprehensible environment to take on a position very much larger than any one individual. How did you approach it?
EB: The tendency if you’re playing someone regal and royal is to be distracted by that, and go for something too arch. So I had to almost fight against these opulent backdrops and the opulence of what she was destined to be, just to try to make her a real person. That’s what I fell in love with. I didn’t fall in love with the fact that she was the queen of England. I fell in love with who the girl was. It’s tough, because you want to capture the theater of it. You want it to be a spectacle, because it very much was. She was a wonderful actress. She had to be in performance mode most of the time, despite what might be going on with her internally. She was performing. So there was a lot to play with there. But I never wanted to hold her in too much reverence. Because I think it can become quite stiff and inaccessible to people, and I never wanted that.
AVC: It’s often easy to portray royal characters as glazed, plummy, and torpid.
EB: Plummy is such a good word for it, yes.
AVC: Did you have to worry about playing her in a way that seemed too modern?
EB: It’s a fine line, isn’t it? But I have the notion “Prove it to me that she wouldn’t have spoken in that way, or sat in that way, or laughed in that way, or loved in that way. Prove to me that she wouldn’t have done it, and I won’t do it.” No one can actually do that. There’s no record of how she spoke. There’s no record of what she did behind closed doors, other than in the diary. Obviously, there’s no photographic evidence for what she did, but in the diary, she was incredibly open and emotional and talked in great detail about how she went about her daily life. That was really helpful to me, because she did talk about lounging around with Albert. She did talk about how they laughed until food fell out of their mouths. And so it’s only people’s perception of what they thought that time was like that would limit them in taking in a more intimate portrait of all these characters.
AVC: Looking at this character and the way you play Victoria, stacking it up against some of your other performances, one of the things you seem to do very well is to portray characters who, on the outside, seem to very much have it together, but you sense that it isn’t true. Emily from The Devil Wears Prada falls into that category.
EB: Well, no one does. None of us do. [Laughs.] I always think that the most interesting characters are those that are trying to cover something or those that have some sense of bravado or composure. I love ambiguity. People are that way. People are very hard to work out. No one is just strong or just fragile, or anything like that. As much as I can find characters that have color, and as subtle as those different colors might be, I’m very interested in playing that.
AVC: Did your understanding of Victoria change as you were playing her?
EB: Yes, it did. Very much. You can read as much as you want. You can research as much as you want, but at the end of the day, you have to play her. It was my personal take on everything I had learned about her. And I was very nervous, because I wanted to do her justice as much as I could. I think I had glimpses when I was reading about her of what it must have been like, because I had no idea what it’s be like to be Queen of England. I remember reading about when Albert died, she was literally carried out of the room, crying, and the first thing she said was, “Now who will call me Victoria? I have no one to call me Victoria.” That was the first moment I went, “Oh my God.” And I got a glimpse of what that must be like, to be Queen Of England. You try and crawl into someone else’s skin, but you can never have their thoughts. It’s always going to be you. That’s my opinion. Everyone has their own opinion as to what acting is and how deep you go and all that. But I very much understood who she was. I felt I really, really knew her, more so than any other character I’ve played, just because of the wealth of material that was out there. It wasn’t just my imagination or my creation.
AVC: Along the lines of how deep you go, I’m curious about some of the people you’ve played opposite, like Meryl Streep, who is very precise and technical in her performances, and your Wolfman co-star Benicio Del Toro, who seems very much an instinctive actor.
EB: Meryl is incredibly instinctive. She’s one of the most beautifully perceptive people you’ll ever meet. She catches every detail of the world as it goes by. She’s very instinctual. Benicio is like a wild animal; there’s something altogether different about the way he works. I don’t think he knows how it’s going to come out of his mouth. I don’t think he quite knows what he’s going to do in a moment. But he also can be very precise. He has great precision.
AVC: Do you adapt yourself to those different styles?
EB: You have to. That’s a great part of the job. The scene can only be really great if both people are working with each other. I always find it really fascinating, working with people and seeing how differently they all work. You know, chemistry is like a strange thing. It’s a rather ethereal thing that I don’t think anyone can really pin down. I remember going through auditions and they want to do a chemistry test, and I just cringe, because I’m like, “Oh God, I don’t even know what that is.” I don’t know if you can really pin it down. Maybe that’s the thing. Maybe you can’t pin it down. But you can feel it, when two characters or two actors work really well together. I actually really love seeing the air change in a room, depending on who you’re working with.
AVC: They say that about directors as well. It’s not about knowing how to work with actors, so much as knowing how to work with each actor individually.
EB: That’s exactly what it is. As long as everyone is playing for the scene or the movie, rather than themselves, then you’re going to have something really good.
AVC: The Young Victoria definitely has a stylized feel. How much, as an actor, do you take responsibility for that, and how much do you just look after your own character?
EB: It’s funny, because I could see Jean-Marc was aesthetically so dynamic, and he dreamt of these shots. You could tell. He was so prepared. I felt in very safe hands. I rarely feel I have anything to do with the look of a shot, or where the camera is placed. I don’t know what it looks like. I only know what I’m doing. I think maybe that comes from experience. Hopefully, the more experience I get, the more I will learn more about how it would be interesting to shoot it.
Learning more and more… I do find that side of it very interesting. Because I think a shot can actually influence a scene in a huge way. For example, comedy is always better in a two-shot. What’s between the characters is what’s funny. So you learn about these things as you go along. But I’m very interested in the aesthetic and what they want to go for, because I think that can also make or break a film. Jean-Marc has all these ideas. Like, he wanted to shoot a lot of it through mirrors, which I thought was so interesting. And it was, for two reasons: One, because that was a time when women could change up to four times a day. It was all about the hair and the look and how long it took to get ready and the dressing, which was a laborious task. It took a long time. And the other reason he did that was because he wanted it to be all eyes on her. All the reflections were so interesting, because you feel like she was always surrounded.
AVC: In the film, the camera intensely focuses on your character, much as Queen Victoria herself was subject to great scrutiny. Did you have any worries about that when you began shooting?
EB: It’s funny, because when you work on a set, everyone is watching you. You are being observed by everyone. And that was the whole deal with Queen Victoria. She was under so much scrutiny. I think it was very helpful to have that feeling of being watched all the time. In this case, being surrounded by a crew was very helpful. For certain scenes, of course, it wasn’t helpful. The love story with Albert. [Laughs.] I certainly don’t need 20 pairs of eyes on me for that. For the coronation and all those scenes, there were so many people and so many extras, so I felt very much watched. And I think that must have been her whole existence.
AVC: There are a lot of shots in this film where the camera is very tight in on your face.
EB: [Laughs.] Yeah, don’t you just kind of love those? When I see them slamming on that lens, I’m like, “Jean-Marc, that is really close.” And he’s like [French accent.], “It will be fine. Don’t worry.”
AVC: How do you prepare for those kind of shots?
EB: Nothing. You do absolutely nothing. They’ll see every nuance that flashes across your eyes. Do absolutely nothing. That’s always my rule with close-ups.
AVC: You played Lisa’s best friend on an episode of The Simpsons last year. What was that process like?
EB: It was a lot of fun. I find it very strange doing voiceover stuff, because you find you have to enunciate and make stupid faces in order for the point to make sense, because it’s playing against the deadpan Simpson face. If you’re just speaking in the regular way you speak, it will sound really boring. They kept saying, “Go bigger. Go bigger. Go bigger.” So I felt like I was chewing up the scenery in that studio, but it was so much fun. And it’s hard to play a child.