Anyone who saw her performance in The Young Victoria could see that Emily Blunt was already a star.
But if her segue into the visceral, all-action world of Mexican drug cartels in Sicario has taken some of her admirers by surprise the 32-year-old actress at the heart of this testosterone-fuelled thriller deals with it in her customary casual way.
“I always feel the need to explore the diversity,” she explains.
“This was a very stripped-down, raw, gritty part and one that would require a certain shedding of skin. She’s a reserved person, quite shy and yet really tough and put in a really vulnerable position. She’s highly skilled and yet she’s thrust into a world that’s frightening and abhorrent to her.
“It was a multi-faceted character and so that was a major draw for me. It was a role and a world that I hadn’t walked before, so it was exciting.”
Blunt has become a “go-to” girl for some of America’s biggest stars. She backed Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and nearly stole the film.
In Charlie Wilson’s War she played support to Tom Hanks. She was partnered with Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau. And in Edge of Tomorrow she was the equal of Tom Cruise in a loud and brash sci-fi actioner.
“I experienced the word of action first in Edge of Tomorrow, which was a far more physically challenging job in comparison – a classic action heroine, like a lethal human being,” she recalls.
“Sicario was quite different. I was portraying more of the reality of a female cop and all the vulnerabilities that would come with that when she’s thrust into this violent world. So two different takes on the action role, I guess.”
At first glance Kate Macer in Sicario is a tough cookie. A gun-toting cop heading a team that flushing out the murderous drug smuggling operations in Arizona, she is in there at the sharp end. In many ways she needs to be tougher than her male counterparts.
But, says Blunt, that’s taking a far too simplistic view.
“I get told, ‘You play a lot of tough female roles’ but I don’t see them as tough. I think there are plenty of strong women out there. You can’t be compartmentalised as one thing: you’re tough – what, because I have a gun?
“I found this character strangely quite damaged and vulnerable. She’s struggling within this realm of being a female cop and certainly with the morally questionable things that she’s having to experience with these guys.
“And it’s not safe, so you see this girl going through pretty much the worst three days of her life. So she’s trying to maintain face for most of it.”
Londoner Blunt researched the role by meeting with American women who did the job for real. She was largely unprepared for what she discovered.
“The FBI agents that I spoke to sound like me – they sound like normal girls. They go home and they watch Downton Abbey and all this stuff. They’re great girls and you definitely want to have a beer with them.
“I found that interesting: to get under the skin of what it is to be a female cop and what that costs you, how it affects your marriage, how you sleep at night and how you cope with the men working alongside you. It was interesting and quite humbling hearing their point of view.”
Seeing women in a predominantly male environment is not a new Hollywood trope. However, Blunt found it edifying. Her approach was less about posturing and more about efficiency and professionalism. She wanted to paint an accurate portrait and do right by the people that had helped her.
“I only spoke to them on the phone so there wasn’t this physical interaction where they showed me how to stand and how to hold a gun. I’d worked with guns before so I felt pretty competent with them.
“And then once I got to Mexico where we shot it, I worked with the DEA guys just to learn the choreography of a SWAT team, how that works and how incredibly choreographed it is. It’s very intricate, almost like a dance.”
She adds: “The FBI are incredibly efficient. It was good to see how they worked and the restraints of being in that job.
“That’s part of why the character [of Kate Macer] struggles so much with these guys because she’s held accountable for every bullet she fires and these guys just spray them.
“This is the world that she’s in and so that was useful for me as well, to learn the restraints and composure that officers have.”
Given the stature and gravitas of co-stars Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin it would be natural to assume that 5ft 7ins Blunt would be overwhelmed.
Not a bit. In fact she emerges as the star of Sicario, equal in all ways to her macho compadres.
“Kate is trying to maintain face for most of it. I didn’t think about adjusting it to make it more masculine [but] she’s definitely trying to survive in a predominantly male-driven industry or profession.
“[Performers like Benicio and Josh] are very exciting actors, visceral and courageous.
“They surprise you and a scene can go to a place you never imagine when you’re working with people like that.”
• Sicario (15) is on saturation release.