Q&A by Brad Balfour
One of the great things about English actress Emily Blunt is that she carries no vestige of her characters beyond the set -- especially since she played the British Queen Victoria.
At her roundtables for The Young Victoria, she showed no royal imperiousness, no contempt of the masses, no unwillingness to answer questions that didn't please her. But her characterization of the youthful Victoria was so dead-on in the award-worthy The Young Victoria that you’d have expected her to be a royal pain.
It takes a fine actress to make interesting the story of a young princess who has basically been a prisoner in her own home, trapped by her mother, the Duchess of Kent and lover/consort, Sir John Conroy. When they try to force her to give control of the crown to her mother, she resists. On her 18th birthday, she becomes the Queen -- but the power really shifts to her once King William, her uncle, dies shortly after her birthday.
Of course, Blunt’s on-screen intensity is what makes the 26-year-old actor such a hit in the films she's made from her breakout role in The Summer of Love as a well-educated, cynical and deceptive 16-year-old beauty, Tamsin. She went on to have key parts in such films as The Devil Wears Prada, The Jane Austen Book Club, Charlie Wilson's War and Sunshine Cleaning but nothing has brought her to such public attention as this film about the English monarch who reigned the longest and changed her country's culture. Blunt's already been nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award for Best Actress -- and she's expected to garner a few more award noms including one for an Oscar.
Q: How aware were you of the Victorian period? What were your prior impressions, and how did they change?
EB: I actually had a rather limited knowledge of Victoria and Victoriana -- how they created that -- and of her and Albert together. I had the image of her as the old lady who’s mourning and dressed in black.
I had no idea about the antithesis of that, when she was young, rebellious, spunky and bright, and she partied all night. It was these elements of her that I never imagined possible, so when I started reading about all of that, I was very surprised to hear about the character traits I never thought were there.
Q: What did the director Jean-Marc Vallée or the producers do to inform you? Was it just what you got from school?
EB: I had no idea, because I took geography, which I thought was the easiest subject compared to history. I took geography and can’t remember any of it. It was probably a stupid thing to take because I think history would have been a better way to go. It certainly would have helped me more with this. But maybe not; we have a whole lot of kings and queens, so I think that I probably would have only known a paragraph about her anyway beforehand.
It was really fascinating to read about what they did together, really mainly under Albert’s influence, because he was very educated in all these departments -- social reform, architecture and the arts and the sciences -- and what they did for [curing] poverty. They were very progressive in what they wanted to do for the country.
Q: How did the producers help you?
EB: [Screenwriter] Julian Fellowes is a historian really; you can’t try out history on Julian Fellowes because he will nail you every time. So it was very helpful talking to him and then reading books that he had encouraged me to read: biographies, diaries of hers and letters. The diaries were most helpful to me, because you can learn as much as you want about this history, you can read about it out of your own interest, but it doesn’t necessarily help me with trying to play this person.
At some point, you have to drop that and make it your own. Another actress would have read the same diaries and had a different take, so it was just my personal take on her, what I felt I could identify with, what I thought was important to bring across.
Q: Was it hard to keep that balance to make her relatable?
EB: It’s interesting... I wanted it to be accessible because I feel period dramas can be quite staged almost, and stiff and arch, and I think that that stops people from actually getting in and identifying with what’s going on. At the same time, you don’t want to risk losing those constraints because then you lose the whole nature of the implications of what happens if you do a certain thing in that period. And if you’ve lost any of those constraints and any of the world then it doesn’t become relevant.
It is a tough balance but Rupert [Friend, who played her husband Albert] and I approached it very similarly. I was very lucky with him because he is such a natural actor, so we fed off each other trying to make those moments incredibly real. Love is this thing that is all about emotions and instinct, and so you can have this flowery dialogue, but at the end of the day, instinctually, it’s about love.
Love is timeless and I think that we really strive for that, to fight against the dialogue, fight against the costumes, to try not to be swallowed up by the sets and the opulence of it. I thought this was a love story, but I also thought it was a film about a dysfunctional family and about a young girl who’s in a job where she’s in way over her head. So I tried to approach it in a way that I could understand. I have no idea what it’s like to be Queen of England.
Q: Did you feel the chemistry was there between you and Rupert or did you only see it when you saw the film?
EB: I think you know it [from the start]. Rupert and I met and we just got on so well and that really helps. When you have a genuine liking for that person it gives you a freedom within the scene to try stuff.
There’s a lot of trust there so you can improvise moments and they come alive, and sometimes you strike gold and sometimes it’s like watching paint dry, but at least you can try it because you have the trust there with that person.
Rupert was wonderful, and it’s just because he was the only guy to play that job because he was so perfect as Albert. He was the last person that came in to read and I was like, "Thank God," because he just blew it out of the water; he was so fantastic.
Q: Lord Melbourne -- her early advisor and friend who helped before she got involved with Albert -- was the other major male relationship in Victoria's life. He is so incredible -- what a dynamic between the two of you.
EB: It’s a really interesting relationship because Melbourne was sort of everything to her. He was a father figure, she was infatuated with him in a slightly teenage way, but she didn’t have those romantic feelings towards him. It was more sort of a teenage crush that developed into very much a real friendship.
She had a real love for him but at the same time he was manipulating her and was toying with that, but he actually ended up having a huge amount of respect for her when he realized he couldn’t do that anymore, the tables turned.
So it was an interesting dynamic to get because you wanted to see that there was a threat to Albert, but at the same time that nothing shady was going on. So he was great with that pull because he’d add elements of being vaguely flirtatious but not seedy, and you could see he really liked her but it wasn’t that he was completely trying to sabotage, or use her as a pawn.
It was a very complicated dynamic to get [right] and it was mainly on [Paul Bettany] to create that. He created it because it should always have been ambiguous as to what that relationship really was. I thought he was great; it was very delicately done.
Q: Did the corset help you find your character?
EB: It's very good in that it transports you to moving a different way, holding yourself differently. You do have to kind of glide with it, so I think it does help me. I usually try and approach characters in that way, I mean everyone’s very different, but I find the physical aspects of creating that person very helpful, like the costumes, the clothes, the way they move, the voice, and everything like that. I usually start from that point.
Q: Did you ever faint wearing those corsets?
EB: I got close to it. Miranda Richardson [who played Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent] was the one who had the closest call, after claiming she was amazing in the corset and that she could take it as tight as anyone wanted. We call it in the UK, she “pulled a whitey;” she literarily went white. She was sitting at the table and she was talking and she suddenly just went… and she was like, “Get me out of it!” and had a panic attack.
I was alright; I got very used to it and by about four o’clock, that’s when it starts to hurt. But they look beautiful so you’ve got to just suck it up, really. Or suck it in, as they say.
Q: One of the most powerful scenes was between her and King William. Was he as entertaining in real life?
EB: Oh he’s so entertaining. She did adore her uncle; he was always wonderful to her and very much a father figure. She was kept back from seeing him and that was always very sad for her. She was kept from seeing anyone. It was really an oppressive, lonely childhood.
There was one story I read about that she was walking with her mother in the gardens -- and her mother was reluctant about being there with King William -- and he came past in his carriage and just picked her up and they went on this crazy ride around the gardens in his carriage. So that was her outlet, going to see him. But Jim Broadbent [as King William] is absolutely as fun as you can imagine. He’s really wonderful. That’s my favorite scene in the film, that dinner scene.
Q: What do you think you'd do if you lived in that time?
EB: It’s almost an impossible question because I have no idea. I would hope that I could be as forward-thinking as she was. She went against protocol and she was determined to make things better and she overrode tradition. I thought that that was a really wonderful quality for her, and surprising that she had the guts to do it.
It probably helped her not growing up at court amongst those stately manners, from the mannerisms to the etiquette, and I think that she was kind of a loose cannon in a room like that. She had a horrible temper, which correlated as well to how passionate she was as a character. I think that she was a modern girl and that she was independent, so I would hope I wouldn’t be manipulated and controlled in a way that a lot of women were in those days.
Q: What about handling fame and wanting to be a young person?
EB: It’s funny because I think it is all about choices, from the choices you make as to where you want to go and eat dinner, like don’t go to the scenes, don’t go to where you know people are going to take your picture. Just find a dive bar. Why do you have to go to a scene?
Are you talking about me or Victoria? It’s a similar thing.
It’s interesting. You have to develop quite a thick skin because people are going to trash you. Not everyone’s going to think you’re great. I think that that’s important to remember… You’ve got to relinquish that and just let it go, because you have no control over that side of it – of people’s opinions – but I do have control over how much I put myself out there.
I feel that in a way I now lead a similar existence to what Victoria led, although certainly not under the amount of pressure that she was under. I have a good life. It’s not compared to the ridicule that she was put under, but I think it’s that sort of element of a dual existence. You have yourself at home behind closed doors and then you have an awareness [of something else] when you step outside the house. For me, it’s only an awareness. It’s no more than that.
Q: Celebrities are always complaining about the downside of dealing with fame and attention and paparazzi.
EB: It’s a really magical job, so the side effect of what comes with that can be good and bad. But what I get out of it is the work. It’s not whatever people think of me because with that comes bad and that willingness to see you fall as well.
A lot of people like to see a fall from grace. There’s a real hunger for that. I’m aware of that, so I try not to buy too much into what people think. But as long as I keep getting the parts that I’ve been lucky enough to play… The variety is what I really strive for, because that’s what I love about the work.
It’s a wonderful job in that everything you go through in life can come out in it somehow. You can have a visceral reaction to so much in life and then put it into your work.
Q: What was your impression of Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York [former sister-in-law of Britain's Prince Charles], and did you get to meet any other real-life royals?
EB: Sarah was a great support system because she came up with the initial idea, but then she very much took a back step and said, “What do I know about making a film? I know nothing about that.”
But she’d come on set and make tea for everyone. She was always so open and down-to-earth; I think that you were able to see the humanity in the royal family through her because she would talk quite openly. In a way, she identified more with Albert because Albert was the guest in the house and the outsider, and she actually understood his character more.
Q: I want to know more about Fergie. She actually came on set and made tea?
EB: She only came on set twice. She really wasn’t around once we started filming. She was very tenacious with Graham [King, producer of the film] in getting it off the ground, but once we started making it, she was just thrilled to be a part of it. I only got to know her after, when we started doing press.
Q: How do you think the royals will react to this movie?
EB: The Queen saw it; she liked it. She said she wants to know what happens next. So that was good.
Q: Did you get to meet her?
EB: No I’ve never met her.
Q: Though you haven’t met the Queen, what is your imaginary scenario of getting to meet her Majesty.
EB: I’m sure I would botch it up somehow. I’m sure I’d forget to curtsy, or I don’t know what I would do. I’d probably say the wrong thing; I might drop an F-bomb, it could all go wrong. I think it would be nice to meet her in this context because I’ve played a queen and I think I’d feel more at ease meeting her in this context.
Q: Did you hear that Lady Gaga met The Queen?
EB: Did she meet the Queen? She did not! What was she wearing? Are you serious? Unbelievable. Unbelievable.