British actress Emily Blunt talks about her role alongside Jason Segel in the comedy The Five-Year Engagement.
What drew her to the project and what was it like working with popular producer Judd Apatow?
So how did a class act like you get involved with the Judd Apatow crew?
Jason Segel and I have been friends for a while. I did a day on the The Muppets and he came up to me and said he’d written a project and he really wanted us to do it together.
The approach was very casual and the idea seemed very organic. There wasn’t any going through agents. It was just, ‘I’ve written this thing. I’d love it if you and I can do it’.
What were your first impressions of the script?
It had been a while since I’d read something that really captured how shape-shifting relationships can be with people who are young.
There are a lot of patterns involved, and what I loved was how it dealt with the dynamic changing between two people in a relationship, and how if one is happier than the other that affects the feelings in the relationship.
I thought it was really smart to have the guy be happier at first, then seeing what happens when the girl becomes happier and how that emasculates the guy. Then it shows how her success starts to have a bad effect on him.
I just thought it was very true to life and that there was a lot in it that made sense. I’ve met couples that have been together, engaged for seven years and never been married. They seem to deal with some of the similar issues we deal with in the film.
Is this your first romantic comedy?
It is. I’d never done anything in this tone before. There was tons of improvisation and a very freewheeling atmosphere.
It’s really exciting to work like that, and with people who are just born to do comedy.
How challenging did you find the improvisation?
Well my first film was all improvised, but it was a drama. It was a little independent movie called My Summer of Love. That was terrifying because I had no idea what I was doing. Then I did an improvisation film for two weeks last year, I found that very challenging.
With this movie, the script was so fantastic. Rhys Ifans said it the best when he described each scene as being ‘so juicy’. There was so much to play with on the page. They write very much with the actor in mind, so it felt very specific.
There was nothing vague or underwritten. It was really fun to just stretch the scenes around a bit.
I don’t think we did endless takes of improvisation, it was just shifting and changing little pieces of the scenes. That made it feel incredibly safe, easy and comfortable.
What can you tell us about your character, Violet?
Violet studied social psychology at university and she’s waiting to hear if she’s got this job. She’s had no luck in San Francisco and has been getting turned down by various colleges.
She eventually gets a call from Michigan after being pretty unhappy for a while. Violet and Tom make a compromise and decide to move to Michigan together. That’s when things really hit the fan because she starts to thrive in that environment.
She’s got this amazing job at the University of Michigan with this very compelling, charismatic professor, played by Rhys Ifans. She’s a really bubbly, fun, slightly scatty person, desperate to see the best of a situation.
That’s what Tom and Violet both have in common, a desire to live positively. That’s what, hopefully, the audience will root for with the two of them. They’re innately positive people just desperately trying to make it work.
Why was the decision made to make Violet British?
These guys just preferred the fact I was British. They also thought for the improvisation it would be easier if I do not have to be slightly straight-jacketed by doing a voice that wasn’t my own.
I think there’s something really nice about Violet being from England and Tom from America. There’s something even more unlikely about the two of them meeting. It works. Plus you have my nutty British family as well.
As with a lot of Jason’s work, The Five-Year Engagement is R-rated. How does that work its way into the story?
Well, we don’t try to gross people out. There’s stuff that might be gross to some people, but it’s not with a load of guys behind a monitor going, ‘This is so gross’.
People may go, ‘Ooh, that’s disgusting’, but it’s always funny.
Nick Stoller [director] was saying there are some extraordinary sex scenes.
Did he blush when he told you that? He blushes all the time. Every time there was a weird sex scene, I could hear him squealing from behind the monitors.
Over the course of the filming, have you had much of a chance to get to know producer Judd Apatow?
I met him in the early stages when we had a big table session. They were like, ‘What are your ideas for the character? How would you improve it? Who do you think she is?’
What’s wonderful about working with these guys, and I think what Judd has really managed to capture, is the idea of collaboration. You didn’t feel like you were coming into a boys’ club and not having a voice. That, I have to say, was an initial worry for me.
Quickly, all those worries were put at ease when I got in a room with everyone and saw that they all wanted to know what I wanted and what I felt was needed. Judd was very much at the core of that and I think he’s so bloody smart.
I think everyone was wondering what he thought and I think everyone does look to Judd to see how he feels and what he’s thinking when he’s watching the monitor. He seemed relaxed and happy.
Why do you think this group of actors and the directors’ movies resonate so well with the public?
What they’ve all got is the ability to tell the story of the ‘everyman’, and it’s done with great self-deprecation and irony. There’s something incredibly unthreat-ening in that, and something very warm about the films.
The films are very grounded and realistic. That’s what people really respond to and that’s where our generation’s love of comedy is heading.
I think shows like The Office really changed people’s idea of what was funny and what people really liked to watch.
I remember when The Office first came on in the UK. We were like, ‘What is this?’ You were so cringed out because it was so true. Everyone knows David Brent. There was something incredibly truthful about it and you didn’t feel like you were being schmoozed.
You don’t feel like you’re being schmoozed with this comedy. There’s a rawness to it that’s really engaging. There’s charm to that.
Has the way they work inspired you to write your next movie?
I don’t know if I have the confidence for that right now. Something I really enjoy is development. I think I’m much better when I’m given a script and I can give notes on it.
I really enjoy it when people come to me and say, ‘Hey, I’d love you to attach yourself to this’. Collaboratively, I really enjoy that experience.
What are your future plans?
The way it’s worked for me so far is not to strategise too much. I have no idea what’s going to come along and no idea what I’m going to respond to.
That’s what I love about the job, it’s unpredictability. The precarious nature of it really keeps you on your toes.
Sometimes you feel that you don’t have much control. That’s why I love and respect what Jason has done. He’s made his own luck. He’s done it himself.
There’s something quite passive about being an actor.
You feel like you’re being summoned when someone gives you a script or casts you.
So how do you make your choices?
I’ll do it if I feel something for it. It could be a moment in the script. It could be the character or director. Something about the project has made my heart skip a beat and that’s why I’ll do it.
I really just want to keep discovering the tricks in the bag. I love the feeling of getting terrified every time you start a film because you don’t quite know how you’re going to do it.
Ultimately, it’s really exciting.