NEW YORK — In The Girl on the Train, Emily Blunt plays a raging alcoholic who drowns herself in martinis and misery. But shooting the psychological thriller last fall, the actress made for one lousy drinking buddy.
"I kept trying to get her to have a drink with me and she just wouldn't," director Tate Taylor says. "She made up this (spiel) about how, 'If I'm going to play an addict, I need to be completely sober to (focus).' And I was like, 'That's so boring.' "
As she would later tell him, Blunt discovered she was pregnant with her second child, Violet, just as production started last November, meaning that method acting was off the table. "The truth was, I could've really done with a glass of wine playing this role," she says with a grin. "I would've loved to have unwound, but that wasn't going to happen."
Train (in theaters Friday) is adapted from Paula Hawkins' 2015 suspense novel of the same name, which currently tops USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list and has sold more than 11 million copies worldwide. The pulpy page-turner follows a resentful, unhinged divorcee named Rachel (Blunt), who lost her job because of heavy drinking but continues to make her daily commute on the train so she can spy on her old house, where her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), lives with his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).
Things take a sinister turn when Rachel witnesses a beguiling young woman, Megan (Haley Bennett), cheating on her spouse (Luke Evans) from the train window. Waking up from a bender with blood on her hands and the news that Megan has disappeared, Rachel fears the worst and sets out to unravel the twisted truth.
Before signing on, "I had seen everybody and their aunt read the book on various trains and airplanes," says Blunt, 33, perched at a table at the Mandarin Oriental hotel and sipping an early-morning Diet Coke. "I was being a bit contrary because everyone was reading it, and I was like, 'Well, I'm not going to.' " But when Taylor flew to London to discuss the role over lunch, the Brit found herself drawn to how frightening and alien Rachel was to her.
"I don't have an addictive personality. I don't feel like I ever live in those lonely depths of despair that she does, so I just had to try to understand her," Blunt says. Transplanting the action to New York from the novel's original London location only "adds to the isolation: that idea that she's going through this a long way from home and she's a fish out of water."
Although Blunt bears little physical resemblance to the frumpy, overweight Rachel of the book, Hawkins says it was the actress's empathy for the hammered heroine that made her an ideal fit.
"She brings a tenderness to Rachel that isn't as easy to see on the page; there's a sadness that's very obvious," Hawkins says. Plus, "it's such a tough thing to play drunk without becoming ridiculous or laughable, and she really has all the shame and self-loathing that was core to the character."
Playing drunk, Blunt says, was "one of the hardest things I've had to do." To capture how someone speaks and moves while heavily intoxicated, she closely studied A&E's reality series Intervention and other documentaries about addiction.
"The mistake you can make is that they're all over the place and falling around," Blunt says. "A real drunk is trying to bring everything into focus. There's something a bit dangerous about how still they are, because they're trying to keep it together. So that was the key, to appear like I had it together and could walk straight."
Filming during the first trimester of her pregnancy also came with its own set of challenges. Most of the train scenes were shot on a three-carriage rig with green screens on a Yonkers, N.Y., soundstage, which was "suffocatingly hot," Blunt remembers. Fortunately, she was spared any motion sickness. ("I'm not really a pregnant puker," she jokes.)
Later in the three-month shoot, she became more prudent filming scenes of Rachel descending a steep hill and tussling with Tom (Theroux), which eventually clued her co-star in on baby No. 2.
"We were doing a stunt, which was essentially just picking yourself up off the floor and running a few steps," Theroux says. "Keep in mind, this is the girl who did Edge of Tomorrow and Sicario. She was like, 'Yeah, I just don't want to jump off the floor and run, maybe I should just stand? I don't want to twist my hip.' And I was like, 'Yeah, OK.' Later that day, I said, 'What's going on? I think you're pregnant.' She was like, 'How did you know?' "
Blunt is expected to drive Train to roughly $30 million its first weekend. It would be a similar start to the $37.5 million opening for Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl — another twisty domestic thriller that hit the big screen in fall 2014.
It should generate "a lot of interest from readers and those who are intrigued by the trailer, who maybe loved Gone Girl," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore. "The brand of the book is bigger than Emily Blunt's brand, but what this could do is elevate her to a whole new level. If her performance and the movie are well-reviewed, it puts her on the path as a force to be reckoned with."
Train's box-office receipts also could be a wake-up call to Hollywood after Bridesmaids and Mad Max: Fury Road, which Blunt credits for ushering in more complex female roles into multiplexes.
"It's gradually — and I mean 'gradually,' it's certainly not coming in a big wave — but it's gradually becoming less of a shock horror when a film centered around women makes money," Blunt says. Train is unusual in that it has "three great roles for women in a (mainstream) movie. They're complicated, they're damaged, and not 'likable.' I loathe hearing that word in association with a female character. You never hear that with a male character — the concern as to whether they'll be likable or not."
But likability shouldn't be a concern for many of Blunt's upcoming characters. The actress goes into rehearsal this fall for Disney's Mary Poppins Returns, in which she'll sing as the magical nanny made famous by Julie Andrews in the 1964 classic. Before that hits theaters Christmas 2018, Blunt has a trio of family-friendly animated movies: My Little Pony: The Movie and Animal Crackers, out next year, and Gnomeo & Juliet: Sherlock Gnomes, in 2018.
After Train, Blunt opted for family fare as a "gift" to her daughters Hazel (2) and Violet (3 months), whom she raises in New York with her husband of six years, actor/director John Krasinski (NBC's The Office).
"They can't exactly watch this one," she cackles. "They might as well watch My Little Pony."