Emily Blunt on the pressure women actors face: ‘We’re not often given a platform to speak honestly’

Blunt, who stars in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, talks sexism, strikes and social media

Emily Blunt, who stars in Oppenheimer, says there is still a pressure on women actors to be likable. Photograph: Josefina Santos/the New York Times

When Emily Blunt was 13, she was in the chorus of the school play. Then the lead fell ill. Could she learn The Caucasian Chalk Circle overnight? No need! “She was already off-book,” says her sister, Felicity Blunt. “Em had been watching the whole time in rehearsal, not gossiping like everyone else.”

Felicity, 17 months her senior, is a literary agent. When she reads manuscripts, she says: “If I’m thinking: ‘Is it good?’ it’s not good. If it’s great, you can’t stop thinking about it.” Such was the case seeing her little sister smash Brecht in the gym that night. “It was just incredible. She made it look so easy.”

The drama teacher was also floored. “It was very, very impressive,” says Alfred Bradley, now retired, but still in touch with his former pupil. “A really mature performance for one so young.” When the curtain fell, he was mobbed by people asking why he hadn’t cast her in the first place. He should have, he says. Even then, “she had a mission, a focus and a fortitude” rare among adults, let alone children.

He can still picture her “ready, crouching in the wings”, before a crowd scene in Twelfth Night. “Those big, blue eyes incredibly alive to what was going on.” She had just turned 11.


Blunt is now 40 and the biggest British woman movie star of her generation: currently pipping Knightley and Mulligan; a natural successor to Weisz and Winslet. You can trace the lineage back further – some Dench deprecation, a little Mirren wither. A very shredded Maggie Smith.

In her new movie, she plays another early starter. Kitty Puening was a botanist and one-time US Communist Party campaigner who had four husbands before she was 30, the last of whom was J Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb.

Christopher Nolan’s huge and chewy new drama shows how Kitty sustained Robert through his development of the weapon in remotest New Mexico and during a later campaign to smear him for espionage. Yet she was far from your cookie-cutter supportive spouse (sample line: “The brat is down! Where are the martinis?”).

“There was something flighty and wild and nonconformist about her,” says Blunt. “It was a time where contortions were happening to women, as they tried to kind of mould themselves into perfect housewives. But Kitty was a terrible mother and she wasn’t a very good housewife – and had no desire to be one.”

Simmering in a pinny was a fate shared by “a lot of women with great minds – that brilliant brain gone to waste at the ironing board. I know so many women of a certain age who are angry at their lives being defined by being someone’s mummy or someone’s wife. And I have empathy for that. It’s okay that that’s not enough for them.”

Blunt is speaking over video, two miles down the road. It is the final day of the Oppenheimer press tour; in fact, it is the final day of press for actors in the Sag-AFTRA union for the foreseeable. The air is hectic, the schedule scrambled. The premiere that evening has been moved forward an hour so its cast can walk the red carpet without crossing a picket line.

Emily Blunt stars alongside Cillian Murphy and Florence Pugh in Oppenheimer. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

She is pro-strike: “I am a big believer in unions getting exactly what they want.” She is also pro-resolution: “I’m a huge believer in getting our crews back to work – the people who will suffer most.” For Blunt, the industrial action is also quite well timed. A few weeks ago, she mentioned in a podcast that she was taking a year off to spend with her daughters, Hazel (9) and Violet (6), and her husband, the actor and film‑maker John Krasinski. Actually, she says, that has been overplayed: “I’m not quitting Hollywood. It’s okay, guys. Just taking a little bit of downtime.”

But she does want to make the most of motherhood before her daughters are teenagers – “I adore babies and children” – a feeling channelled into recent hits such as the Mary Poppins sequel and two Quiet Place thrillers.

Kitty, meanwhile, according to Oppenheimer’s biography, “had absolutely no intuitive understanding of children”. There are multiple scenes of her being frosty towards inconsolable tots. Particularly stressful to shoot was one showing the couple driving home with their two-year-old, Peter. The young actor was “distraught, kicking off, screaming, so clingy with his mum, just exhausted. Snot pouring out of his nose”. As the cameras reloaded, Blunt sang him to sleep. They did four further takes, with the child conked out in her arms. Nolan chose the first version, “where I looked like the worst mother in the world”.

Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe in A Quiet Place Part II.

Over the phone, he grins at the memory: “It was hard. Emily is an amazing mother and made this child feel immediately so comfortable and loved. I’m not sure Kitty shared that.” In fact, his film blunts Kitty’s claws. According to the book, she left both babies with friends for months. Robert died alone because his wife found his final-hours regression to infancy “pitiful”.

A lot of women tend to try to dance around things because we’re not often given a platform to speak honestly

“Just horrific,” says Blunt. “She was pretty ruthless in so many ways. She worshipped Robert, but also really called him on all his sh*t.” Still, Blunt gamely attempts empathy. Perhaps some people are just allergic to weakness? And don’t label Kitty an alcoholic: surviving on cigarettes and martinis at Los Alamos was understandable, she says. Plus, Robert’s genius got him a free pass denied to his wife. His gender, too? “Yes, I think so. I wonder what the world would feel if it was Kitty Oppenheimer who created this bomb.”

Speaking about writing the film, Nolan says: “I thought about running away from Kitty. She is a frightening character.” He recruited Blunt to “humanise” her, then was surprised how keenly she embraced Kitty’s worst angles: “No vanity, no fear of humiliation, no wanting to control the way she would appear.”

Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns. Photograph: Disney

In her mid-20s, Blunt told the Guardian that “bitchy gets boring” – a line, she says today, from a time when she was “still working out how to talk to journalists”. It is a good one. Back then, fresh from breakthroughs in My Summer of Love and The Devil Wears Prada (“Such a cow, but terribly funny and likable,” says Bradley), Blunt was worried about typecasting. But over the past 15-odd years, she has leant into women with acid tongues and hearts of flint: the bruised FBI agent in Sicario; Tom Cruise’s relentless survival trainer in Edge of Tomorrow; the vengeful mother in The English. Even softer outings, such as The Girl on the Train (gaslit drinker) and The Young Victoria (rare corset), climax in shows of steel. In this autumn’s Pain Hustlers, she plays a hardscrabble single mother who shuts her eyes to the effects of the fentanyl she is helping to distribute. Maybe bitchy is just richer?

For women actors, she says, “I think there is still a pressure to be likable, and sort of warm and understood, and men are not held to that same standard. No one cared if Leonardo DiCaprio was likable in The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train

In Oppenheimer, Kitty attacks Robert for being “so f**king gentlemanly”. Are women, broadly speaking, more forthright? Yes, says Blunt, “but I could equally generalise and say a lot of women tend to try to dance around things because we’re not often given a platform to speak honestly. Or you’re considered too ambitious or emotional if someone appears to be speaking their mind with spirited opinion.”

Kitty was revolted by her husband’s desperation to atone for his sins. “She just wanted him to own it. You see that explosion of frustration and rage start to build. I remember Chris saying to me: ‘She’s wild, she’s unpredictable, the drinking is now out of control, but she’s right!’ And she was always right, and she knew it.’”

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Blunt likes righteous anger. She is great at flashing eyes and squashed small talk. “I’m always really awestruck by people who are so completely comfortable in their own skin and uncompromisingly own who they are,” she says. “People for whom there’s nothing blurry about their conviction of themselves.”

Cillian Murphy as J Robert Oppenheimer and Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan's new film. Photograph: Universal Pictures/Melinda Sue Gordon

Kitty’s husband may have been the flakier half of the marriage, yet it was he who was elevated to role of quasi-messiah, with acolytes to wow and, sometimes, exploit. Has anyone ever captivated Blunt like that? She thinks for a few seconds. Nolan, she says – inevitably, but convincingly: “I’ve never met anyone as authoritative. When he walks in, the air changes in the room.” (He is duly flattered: “You want to be held in high regard by Emily. Her opinion matters.”)

Who else? Malala Yousafzai, she says. This also feels genuine, if a no-brainer. “I was blown away by her serenity and sweetness after so much trauma.” (Yousafzai, too, is touched to make the cut and emails to say she was struck by Blunt’s calmness: “The first time we met we had tea and talked for a long time. She just puts you at ease.”)

Anybody else? Her sister Felicity. “So devastatingly brilliant and funny. She continues to be such a vital presence in my life. A source of such comfort and ease.”

Such choices suggest Blunt is not someone easily swayed by false prophets. They are also one of the reasons I ring her sister (plus, because of the strike, no actors are available). I read the quote back to her. Felicity splutters. “That is probably the most extraordinary compliment anybody will ever manage to pay me,” she says. “That’s really more moving than I was expecting from this call. I’m gonna kill her! How dare she embarrass me like that?”

Felicity Blunt, John Krasinski, A Quiet Place actor Noah Jupe, Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci in 2018. Photograph: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

The sisters grew up in Roehampton, a leafy south London suburb, and attended Ibstock Place, then a small private school that promoted learning through play. Their parents – Oliver, a QC, and Joanna, a former actor – had the girls and then, a decade later, two more children.

The timing cemented their bond. “We were fellow travellers through all the big moments,” says Felicity. “New school, puberty, first boyfriends, no boyfriends, first jobs, no money, first hangovers. She’s always been there.” Their dependency is mutual, she says. At Emily’s 40th this year, Felicity said in her speech: “I wouldn’t know how to be me without you.”

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In their late teens, they rented a flat in Edinburgh, “which is where we really fell in love with one another”. Emily was in a school play they had taken to the festival. It got her an agent, then the agent got her a role in a Peter Hall production in the West End as Judi Dench’s granddaughter. Film roles swiftly followed. Looking back, says Felicity, it was very swift: no drama-school buffer, solo in Los Angeles at 19. “She had to be so independent from such a young age,” she says. “At the time, it seemed fine. Now, I look back and think: ‘Jesus Christ!’ And she’s sane! That’s amazing.”

The sisters separately tell me they share a secret language. Felicity clarifies: mostly, it is just knowing what the other is thinking. But they do also call each other “Slothy” and converse in cod-Mrs Doubtfire accents: “Deeply irritating for other people. But our husbands are incredibly indulgent about it because thankfully they happen to love both of us.”

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Felicity met her husband, Stanley Tucci, at Emily’s wedding in 2010 (at George Clooney’s place on Lake Como in Italy). That two of the main people in her life are very famous gives her unusual authority on how it can affect people: “I’m endlessly glad I get to go to the bathroom and not be followed.”

She talks of “bodyguarding” Tucci when they are out with their children; of the ways social media is “such a strange and murky part of being a public figure”; and of “watching and learning from Em. She’s so careful and dexterous about how she manages the personal versus the private.”

Officially, Blunt is not on social media. “But,” she says, groaning lightly, “I have been prone to getting occasionally pulled into lurking on Instagram, and it just makes you feel terrible. I don’t feel good after doing it. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything beneficial to myself.”

There is a great line in the film, in which J Robert Oppenheimer tells a friend that only a fool or an adolescent would presume to understand someone else’s relationship. Today, you could add to that number every consumer of celebrity news. Blunt’s relationships – with her husband and with her ex-boyfriend Michael Bublé – have been picked over by strangers for two decades. “I have always tried to see speculation as white noise,” she says. “I’m not always successful. Sometimes it’s going to permeate.” Her policy now is resignation. “I remember someone saying to me years ago: how you relate to the issue is the issue.”

Things beyond her control are less reconcilable. “I am very easily overwhelmed by the idea of the vastness of the never-ending universe,” she says. Contemplating black holes “would be the depths of hell”. She is shaky on the nuclear physics casually strewn through the movie – and uneasy about more recent technological advances: “AI unnerves me. It’s human nature to propulsively want to keep inventing new things. But do we have to put into action everything that we create? Does it better us? Or does it really start to eviscerate what it is to be human?”

She leans back on the bed in her hotel room. “Sometimes I’m like: oh my God, I’m such a dusty old fart about this stuff. But I can’t wrap my head around how beneficial it will be to us, as people, in our souls.”

As the strikes have highlighted, actors hate AI – Blunt, perhaps, even more than most. Her business is built on a gift for reading people; AI would make a nonsense of that.

Back at school, acting boosted her confidence so much that it cured a stammer. Yet the stammer helped the drama, too. Had she been chatting, she would never have committed that Brecht epic to memory. “It might have been formative, because she learned early to observe and soak it in,” says Felicity. “My husband always tells me: ‘When a scene doesn’t work, it’s because the other person isn’t listening. They’re just waiting to say their line.’”

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Her sister’s trump card, she thinks, is that she pays attention: “I think she’s highly attuned and sensitive to people’s behaviour. And I also feel she knows herself and, in the best sense, likes herself. Emily goes to bed happy. She works really hard. Her children and her husband are at the centre of everything. She’s a good friend. She’s a brilliant actress. She’s loving. She doesn’t have anything to prove.” She pauses. “I think she’s the best person I know.” – Guardian

Oppenheimer is in cinemas now