As an English actress, you have to don a bonnet at some point. This was my time,” says Emily Blunt. Queen Victoria is a long way from the scene-stealing bitchery and Louboutins of The Devil Wears Prada. Yet Blunt, 26, is equally at home in corsets, crinoline, and starchy repression. In The Young Victoria, she plays the queen from her teenage years—she assumed Britain’s throne at 18—through the first years of her marriage to Prince Albert, played dashingly by Rupert Friend, another rising British star. “There was a tsunami of women behind me wanting the role, so I sort of bullied myself in,” says Blunt. “Many period films are very arch and stiff, and I don’t respond to the characters. If I see ‘the rebellious English rose’ in stage directions, I’m already bored,” she adds. “But this was a girl who was willing to expose herself to the world. That was what was different for me.”
In doing research for the part, Blunt—who knew of Victoria only from “a paragraph in a history textbook and the movie Mrs. Brown”—was delighted to find that she’d been given the role of a protofeminist. “Victoria was an absolute person, fiery, rebellious, and passionate.”
When I suggest that her Victoria is perhaps easier on the eye than the original, Blunt shrieks. “How dare you!” Then she laughs. “Maybe in her later years. Victoria started to turn to the food. The food and the drink and the opium. She was definitely known for her appetite.”
The movie features a rain-soaked kiss and a fabulous ball, among other period clichés, but Blunt’s strongest scenes are those in which she’s negotiating her new role as queen. In one, she greets her advisers for the first time: Victoria has struggled against her mother to reach the throne, and though still girlish, she addresses them with compelling authority. As the camera holds on Victoria’s face, Blunt manages a slight nervous twitch in her upper lip. It’s the sort of nuanced moment that has kept Blunt working steadily—that and an attainability that eludes Keira Knightley, her obvious rival for parts.
Perhaps it’s just the storied British talent for slipping effortlessly between period and contemporary roles (most memorably as a devious lesbian in 2004’s My Summer of Love), or drama and comedy. Maybe, though, as Blunt claims, such breadth is owed to a stutter that lasted through her early teens. “Because I couldn’t talk very much, I watched the world go by more closely,” says the actress, who found a remarkable cure in the concentration needed to master accents in acting class. “I’ve always been fascinated by accents, and the way people speak, and the intonations of it, and that was because I found it so hard to speak in my own voice. I tend to home in very closely on the way the character might move, or the vocal quality, or what they would wear.”
Blunt’s in corsets again for the upcoming The Wolfman, opposite Benicio Del Toro, and is currently shooting a political thriller in New York with Matt Damon. In June, she’ll marry fiancé John Krasinski (The Office), but before then she might be sitting tensely at the Oscars. The whispering has begun for this performance, but here, too, Blunt is quintessentially British, even queenly: “Ambition is something that should be quietly applied.”