This Friday sees the release of the film adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on The Train.”
The thriller, directed by Tate Taylor, tells the story of an alcoholic divorcee who becomes obsessed with solving the mystery behind a woman’s disappearance.
This week, we got to sit down at the Mandarin Oriental and hear stars Emily Blunt and Justin Theroux talk about their experience of working on a film of this kind, and the way they approached their characters.
First of all, amazing job! I saw the movie last night and your performance was amazing, and I thought it was amazing for a very specific reason. It was the best drunk person I have ever seen portrayed. (Emily Blunt: Jesus! Thank you.) (Laughter) I’m wondering how you researched that. I mean, there’s so many different ways you could research that. So I’m wondering how you prepared for that aspect?
Emily Blunt: Sure. Number one, it’s just me on a Friday night. Well, here’s the thing: I think there’s a lot of pitfalls with playing an alcoholic and portraying an alcoholic. I just wanted it to be as authentic and raw and ugly as possible. It is an ugly disease once its claws are in you. The idea of a better life is an impossible one. And her infatuation with alcohol has become the only relationship that is ongoing in her life. And how frightening that is. It’s an ugly thing when you’re around a drunk, it’s not funny. And I think the pitfalls is it’s a bit comical, and a bit lurching around like a drunk uncle, and I was nervous of portraying it in a comedic — or it seeming funny. And so I watched a lot of documentaries on it because rather than seeing other performances by actors playing alcoholics. I just needed to watch the reality of what it was. Intervention was fantastic source that I watched on a loop, and there’s a documentary that Louis Theroux did, if you haven’t seen it, it’s really fantastic. And then I read books on depression and drinking, and I know some alcoholics, and I spoke to some of them, either recovering or not, or on the verge of wanting to recover. And so all of those sources were everything to me, when it came to portraying this part because at the end of the day this is not just a portrayal of an alcoholic. This is a thriller, it’s got to move like a thriller and I felt that the main thrust was that, yeah, she suffers from this disease, but most of the film is about Rachel, less about her being some Nancy Drew character trying to work out who done it, but it’s more trying to make sure she didn’t do it. And I thought “How f–ing fantastic, you know, for a female lead, and a female protagonist, your heroine to be a blacking-out drunk!”
I was just wondering how much, I guess, you being pregnant and being a mom already had informed your ability to portray that character with such yearning to be a mom?
Emily Blunt: It was the thing that I found such empathy with the character, and I know a couple of friends who tried desperately, and that’s all they think about is being a mother, and being unable to be a mother, and what that does to you. And I think when you become a mother, certainly for me, my heart is just completely cracked open and anything to do with being a mother, children I weep instantly, you know. And it was a strange thing to be pregnant while playing this part, but I’m somebody who tries not to torture myself with any part I play particularly, I couldn’t be in that mindset all the time. And so I just find ways to unwind and the long car ride home was very helpful, but I also had a toddler at home who I didn’t care whether I was really good in the scene, or totally like, in it. So the interesting thing, you know, after hearing about women being method and mothers being method. We’re not given much of an opportunity.
You have such a huge range of movies behind you and ahead of you, what do you like to do better, though. The dark things like this, the meaty things like this, or singing and dancing?
Emily Blunt: Oh, well I mean, you need both. You can’t just do one. I need both, I love the extremes. I love to fluctuate between extremes of what’s out there and what’s on offer. So I do like to mix it up for my own enjoyment and for my own need for challenge, I guess. But I don’t have a preference, really. I have done couple of dark films recently, so I think I’m just going towards the light.
And this is a very popular novel. Had you read it before?
Emily Blunt: I was approached for the film, and then I’d seen everybody reading it. And, it was just a title you just saw absolutely everywhere, and I being was a bit contrary, so I’m thinking “I’m not going to read the book everyone was reading” … but I was approached for the part, and then I thought I’d better read it. And it’s quick; it’s easy to see why it became this runaway sensation. It just grips you in the most jarring way and it is suspenseful and confusing and just those intervening narratives and the unreliable narrator, and I think also, these domestic thrillers, they are really tantalizing audiences because they feel close to home, they feel relatable. I think those heightened realities you see in those superhero movies and the big sci-fi movies, they sometimes, anesthetize you to actually feeling anything. You don’t relate, you can’t relate to what that is. And this is so human and the underbelly to domestic life, which a lot of people experience. And the strive for perfection, the strive for “the grass is greener on the other side,” and those voyeuristic tendencies in all of us. There were so many themes that felt so accessible, you know?
Is it fun to play a character who has a villainous turn. Is it really satisfying?
Justin Theroux: Definitely, only in that it is more interesting than the alternative, you know? Whenever I’ve had parts … romantic comedy type parts, or something like that, you’re kind of like “Oh, this is just a pretty boring story that has a couple of romantic turns” or something. You know, that kind of a role I find less interesting only because villains in the traditional sense usually have a much more interesting psychology behind them. If you look at Marvel movies, the villains always have the best backstories. You know, Tony Stark’s father screwed over X, Y, and Z persons … and that then guy. They usually have a good reason for being crazy, and how that manifests itself as being evil. Or, you know a Scorsese movies with the mob; they’re all kind of these dark characters. So they’re usually just more interesting to play. Cape Fear, I would imagine Robert DeNiro had a ball putting that guy together just because of how psycho he is and fun. There’s something satisfying about playing that complexity, I guess.
How much of a sense of your character’s backstory did you have? Did you conceptualize a history?
Justin Theroux: I sort of conceptualized a history. A lot of it’s sort of in the book. We know that he was at one point in love with this woman. We know that that they were having problems conceiving. We knew that she was starting to drink more heavily as a result of maybe her depression. And so, in that sense, all I needed to know was that at one point, he did love her, and then he made a series of bad choices and continued to. But I didn’t need to know where he went to elementary school or anything like that, but I sort of had a bead on what that guy’s life probably looked life, where he was working and which brokerage firm he probably got fired from or that kind of stuff. And a lot of it was built into the script and book as well.
Each of the characters in this film is going through their own struggles. What purpose do you think there is to a struggle in life? They say to be an artist, you need to struggle. Can you imagine a life without struggle?
Justin Theroux: No, I mean, I think you have to have a life with struggle, because it’s inevitable. You know, like, if you’re living, you’re going to struggle. Obviously in movies like this, the struggles are maybe heightened or we’re picking them up at a particular point in time where the struggle is very real and I think that is why we watch those movies, because it helps us cope with our own struggles and makes us feel better about them … I think that’s just the human condition, is to have that. That’s why we watch movies in general, for the most part. Movies like this, or movies that are dramatic.
Haley mentioned that you guys kept everything very light on set (Justin Theroux: Yeah) to kind of balance out the darkness of the story, and I’m just wondering when you’re filming a scene where you’re having sex with somebody or you’re bashing her head in, or something really really intense, what is it like between scenes? Do you need to stay in character, do you need to stay away from each other and stay hostile?
Justin Theroux: Yes and no. It depends on what the scene is … I think you intuitively know when someone has some difficult work ahead of them, and you don’t want to disrespect that. So, if it’s a scene where … a lot of them I’m doing scenes where it’s like “Okay, we’re just doing a quick shot of you walking down a hallway and looking for something.” And so, we were all on set, and there are long, long days and there’s a lot of time between setups. So you can’t really stay quiet for that long, and Emily is just one of the funniest women I know as is Rebecca Ferguson. And so would Haley, we would laugh a lot, just because we were A, killing time, but also because we enjoyed each other’s company a lot. And then, other times when we’re doing this really dramatic scene work it settles fifteen minutes before we start shooting, and then we shoot the scene, and then once it’s done we go back to laughing a lot because we can.
Your character has such a really sudden shift in personality, or sudden revelation at the end. Is it difficult to make that kind of quick character shift without making it obvious or cartoonish?
Justin Theroux: I don’t know. I think if the writing is good, the writer has protected you and the director of course, protects you from making it seem cartoonish or there was one line where she tells him, he thinks he is going out to the woods to have sex and then she says, “I’m pregnant.” And is perhaps expecting a reaction that’s like “Oh my God!” … “This is great!” or something like that. And his line, I remember reading it in the script was just “Get rid of it!” And it was just such a gutting line A, to say and you don’t have to put much topspin on that line, you know. You can throw it away, almost, and then it’s on Haley to have a reaction to it. I mean of course there is a way of doing it badly, which is like “(acting sinister)”, but when the writing is good and the direction is good, they protect you, they hopefully protect you from doing something that would not work in the film.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.