In Sicario, Emily Blunt plays an overwhelmed FBI agent led into the dark, blood-soaked corners of the Mexican drug trade, guided by a sandal-wearing Josh Brolin and a brooding, highly lethal Benicio Del Toro. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose Prisoners and Enemy are two of the scarier, weirder, and brooding-ier films of the past couple of years, Sicario may not be the most profound movie on the subject of the war on drugs. But it is definitely profound on the subject of people doing violent, horrible, atmospherically menacing things to one another in places like Juárez. Zach Baron called Blunt in London to talk about the film, and the insomnia it gave her.
GQ: What are you doing in London right now?
Emily Blunt: I’m playing an evil queen in The Huntsman. I just come in and out and cast spells and generally harm people. It’s been great.
Is that a new experience for you, being evil?
I don’t think I have played evil before, which is why it’s been so rewarding. I’m surprised how much I enjoy it.
Is that a weird moment, realizing, “Oh, actually, the villain is easier to access than the heroine”?
[laughs] It is a strange moment, yes. A time for self-reflection, maybe.
Did you discover anything interesting in that moment of self-reflection?
I’m still trying to figure out why I enjoy it as much as I do. I’m someone’s mother now. I should be more concerned.
Last year you took a bunch of time off after you had your daughter. What was it about Sicario (2) that made you want to leave the house?
I read it and I thought, “I can’t do this film. This is so dark. I’ve just become a mother, and this is not what I want to do.” And Denis Villeneuve came to our house, and my daughter was 4 weeks old, and I was just sitting there, like, in my pajamas, with no makeup on, just breast-feeding, and he was pitching me this movie! And I just said, “Denis, you’re sure you want me to do it? Like, are you sure?” And he went, [in a French accent] “Non, madame, I feel you’re going to be great!” He’s like a quiet assassin. He lures you in with this smile and this lovely humor, and suddenly you’re in fucking Mexico, speeding down the street.
Denis seems like a very charming man who makes some very fucked-up movies.
He is the sweetest man, with the darkest soul. He has a very interesting relationship with violence. I think he’s able to find beauty in the darkest of places.
You’ve said you couldn’t sleep for four days after you shot a particular scene in the film. I’m curious which scene it was.
It was the massive fight scene with Jon Bernthal. He’s a boxer, so he was like, “Just smack me. I’m fine. I’m not even gonna feel it.” I mean, we kicked the shit out of each other. I think it was just that feeling of being overpowered by a guy. I’d never experienced that before. But I really like that you don’t have this sort of cheesy action sequence where I’m kicking someone’s ass who could blatantly overpower me any day of the week. So that scene was quite jarring. Every time I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep.
What’s Denis’s vibe when you’re shooting these dark scenes?
He has this sort of shtick where he shows up and he goes, [in a French accent] “I don’t know, I’m so fucked-up today, I have not had enough coffee, I don’t know what to do with this thing, madame, what do you think?” He sort of leads you into thinking that you are desperately needed, that the world would fall apart without you. And really, he knows exactly what he wants to do.
He has said he faced pressure to rewrite your character as a male role.
Yeah, it’s just silly. And thank God he had the conviction to fight against something like that, because women have proven themselves time and time again to be worthy of box office and worthy of interesting three-dimensional characters and stories. People crunch numbers on everything these days, and I think they crunch numbers on an actor-driven film versus an actress-driven film. So he was told, “If you do it with a guy, you’ll get more money for your film.”
Does someone look you in the eye and actually say that, or do you only hear it secondhand?
I’ve heard it from producers. And my husband produces and has directed two films, so he hears all of this. You get sent a list of the five guys who will bring you certain amounts.
Your husband is very tall and very large, but you’re the action-movie hero in the family. That must be fun.
You should see him right now. He’s playing a former Navy Seal for Michael Bay. I might be dethroned.
Still, ten years ago, when you were shooting The Devil Wears Prada, did you picture yourself ending up as a super-badass action hero?
It is a slightly strange thing. But this part in Sicario was very different in many ways from the part in Edge of Tomorrow, because that was an all-out action heroine sort of role, and this is a quiet, shy, restrained person. I think the mistake people make is that just because I’m carrying a gun and because I’m working in a male-driven world in this film, that doesn’t necessarily make my character a really tough person.
I get your point about the Sicario role being different from your role in Edge of Tomorrow, or whatever it’s called now?
I don’t know. [laughs] You tell me.
Has anyone smart ever told you why Edge of Tomorrow—which is a really good movie—wasn’t an enormous box-office success?
Uh, yes. [laughs] And I have my own opinion on it as well. But I think it’s too complicated and probably not something I should talk about. I’ll probably get in trouble. But I do feel that people got the wrong end of the stick when they saw the trailer for that film. That much I’ll say.
But do you feel like you’re particularly good at these action-movie roles? Or are you just the rare actress who gets chances to do that stuff?
I think that it’s mainly the latter. Nobody thought that I’d be good in Edge of Tomorrow, and Tom Cruise was the one who saw me in something and said, “Her. She’d be great.” But predominantly it’s about being given the opportunity. You’re only as good as the parts you’re given.
My sense is, you’ve turned down more passive roles in action films.
If I’m gonna do an action film, I want to see some action. If I’m, like, tied to a tree somewhere, saying, “Help me!”—that’s never been of interest.