If Emily Blunt’s track record is anything to go by, the British star excels at playing assistants to eccentric bosses.
She stole scenes from Anne Hathaway as assistant to Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” charmed as a reluctant publicist to a zany John Malkovich in “The Great Buck Howard” and took crap from Miss Piggy in “The Muppets.”
In her latest film, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” Blunt plays Harriet, assistant to a sheik who wants to bring salmon fishing to the desert. In the romantic comedy, directed by Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat”) and penned by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Harriet is paired with Britain’s leading fisheries expert, Fred (Ewan McGregor), to make the sheik’s dream a reality. Complications ensue when Fred, a married man, falls for Harriet.
Blunt sat down with Indiewire during a short stop in Manhattan to talk about working with her co-star, that title and why you can’t fake chemistry.
You and Ewan have such great chemistry it’s a wonder you two haven’t been paired up before.
I know! We feel a bit cross about that, too. We want to be paired up again because we had such a blast. It was just heaven working with him. He’s the best guy, the best scene partner and a very generous actor. You work with a lot of people who just work in their close-up. It’s lovely when you have someone who just wants to play the scene and explore every single avenue that the scene has to offer. That’s the fun of it, to keep it spontaneous and fresh.
Did you know him prior to shooting?
No. I’d seen him on a plane. I was with my husband and he was with his wife. We were both like, “Ewan McGregor is sitting there.” And they were like, “Emily Blunt is sitting there.” It was two years before we even got offered this film.
Is chemistry something you can fake?
It’s so funny. I remember hearing this quote from Michael Caine that really made me laugh. He said, “If you’re not getting that connection off your co-star, pretend you are.”
There’ve been times where I felt that I had to cultivate it, to some extent. But it’s lovely when it’s just there. I think chemistry is about whether or not the space between people is exciting. Chemistry’s a very hard thing to sum up because it’s something that people try to box in. It’s a very ethereal thing. You kind of have it, or you don’t.
I think it’s about warmth and a reality. That’s what people respond to. It makes your heart skip a beat. It feels real.
I felt that watching you and Matt Damon in “The Adjustment Bureau.” I totally believed that you two fell in love within minutes of meeting each other in a bathroom.
Matt and I in that opening bathroom scene, we felt a lot of pressure to make it connective. You have to root for these two from the get-go. If you don’t get it, or what they see in each other, then what’s the point? Even Joe Schmo, your neighbor, can feel it when people like each other. You don’t have to be a movie lover.
We spent a day on that scene, which is quite rare. We stretched it around, tried improvising and added a few little bits to keep it fresh and personal. I’m glad people like it because it was fun to do.
Who would you pick as your favorite on-screen partners?
I would say Ewan and Matt were great. I just loved working with Colin Firth [in the upcoming “Arthur Newman, Golf Pro”]. I absolutely loved it. I loved working with Amy Adams [on “Sunshine Cleaning”]…that was heaven, actually.
Any actors you’re dying to work with?
You know what, I would love to work with Gary Oldman. I’m obsessed at the moment with Mandy Patinkin from “Homeland.” And then who else? Oh yeah, Johnny Depp.
So about the title. What were your first thoughts when you came across the script?
I got sent the script and they said if you like it, they really want you to do it. Is asked, “What’s it called?” And I was a bit baffled by the title. My agent just said it’s so special, beautiful and very original.
It’s just an intriguing title. It is odd. But you know what, you read a lot of generic scripts with fairly unoriginal dialogue and ideas within it. So it’s a lovely thing when one is not that. There’s no other film like it, really. It’s such a ludicrous, far-fetched idea. And to have this slow-burning romance within it is great. It’s an endlessly surprising film. In this day and age when most films are derivative of other movies, it’s really nice that this isn’t.
It’s such a crazy premise that I assumed it must be based on a true story. I was wrong.
Yeah! No, the guy who wrote the book is a fanatical fly fisherman. He’s also written a story on the Middle East, so he just thought I’ll write about two things I know a lot about (laughs).
Do you fish?
No. Well, I’d tried it recently in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and I loved it. But I don’t actually enjoy the catching a fish part. I liked the serene, tranquil, drifting down a river part of doing it. That was really lovely.
So you left the fishing to the men during the shoot?
I saw them do it on set. They handled it quite well. Ewan did a snake roll. It made me laugh that it has a funny name, that cast.
It struck me after seeing the film that you have this track record of playing assistants. Did you work as one before acting?
I never worked as anyone’s assistant. No, the only job I had before — I started working at 18 — was babysitting and working in a catering company washing dishes.
So it’s just a strange coincidence you’re drawn to these roles?
Well, your boss in “Salmon” is the nicest of the lot.
Much nicer. He’s a really wonderful visionary man.
Harriet’s Mandarin skills set her apart from the pack of the ones you’ve played. I don’t speak it, but it sounded like you pulled it off rather well.
Well, I only know how to talk about salmon in Mandarin. I don’t know how to talk about anything else. I learned phonetically for the film. I had a really lovely Chinese woman come to my house and just rattle it off for me. It’s so different, it is an alien language to anything I’ve ever learned – I know a bit of Spanish and French. And so it was very different (laughs). I just spent a day learning and then we shot it. We had a bunch of Chinese guys on set that day and they looked a bit puzzled, so I’m not sure I made that much sense.
Maybe they were just a tough crowd.