The most terrifying scene in The Girl on the Train isn’t a murder. There’s no weapon. No blood. No victim. Just a mirror, and a woman, and an explosion of fury. As Rachel Watson, Emily Blunt is a woman whose mind is ripping apart. Her husband, Tom, has left her for another woman. She has lost her job. She has spiraled into self-obliterating alcoholism. She has been stalking her ex in a drunken haze, and has become obsessed with a young woman — a beautiful stranger with a seemingly perfect husband and perfect life — whom Rachel glimpses from the train every day. But when Rachel sees this young woman with another man, she comes unglued.
In a bathroom at Grand Central Terminal, Rachel careens into a martini-fueled rage, violently smearing her lipstick across a mirror with both hands and screaming her desire to storm into the woman’s house and grab her by the hair. “I would just smash her head all over the floor!” she shrieks, voice cracking. This is the moment when a woman at her breaking point finally shatters. “It’s the peak of her unhingedness,” Blunt says. “It couldn’t be sad, it had to be angry. You had to imagine that she could be capable of doing dangerous things.”
When Rachel wakes at home the following morning, she is covered in cuts, caked in dirt and blood. She can remember almost nothing. And according to the morning news, the young woman is missing.
Millions of readers of Paula Hawkins’ literary phenomenon already know what’s happened to that young woman, and whether Rachel is responsible for her disappearance. Tens of millions more will discover the answers when the hotly anticipated film adaptation opens Oct. 7. But even if you’ve read the book, this pitch-black thriller, directed by Tate Taylor (The Help), will likely shock and unnerve you. It is a big studio film stripped of every glint of glamour, revealing the naked bones of agony underneath. “Rachel couldn’t just be the lush that you laugh at,” Taylor says. “You had to get that she was really in pain…. It was important that the alcoholism was not glossed over, that it was shown for how destructive it can be. That’s got to be a really lonely place — knowing you let everybody down and that everybody’s talking about you.”
While the history of cinema is peppered with vengeful, damaged, potentially lethal women — Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Jeanne Moreau in François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black, and Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, to name just a few — they are seldom the heroines of their stories. But Rachel, unlike most of her foremothers (most notably Amy Dunne in Gone Girl), is not in control of her own (potential) crimes. Both she—and we—are rooting for her innocence. “We haven’t seen a character like Rachel in a movie since…ever,” says Holly Bario, an exec at Amblin, the film’s production company. “I can’t even think of a movie where [the female lead] is super drunk and thinks she killed someone.”
That degree of complexity in a character is difficult to convey, however. It requires a great actor, and Taylor worried that the studio would saddle him with a marquee star who lacked the chops to pull it off. “I was so glad they didn’t suggest the Us Weekly cover-of-the-month,” Taylor says. Blunt had the added benefit of being just famous enough to feel familiar without being burdened by audience expectations. “Emily possesses tremendous craft, but at the same time she just feels like somebody you would know,” says producer Marc Platt, who worked with Blunt on Into the Woods. “If you didn’t like this character, you wouldn’t go on a journey with her.”
Since her scene-stealing turn 10 years ago in The Devil Wears Prada, Blunt, 33, has forged a reputation as one of the most talented and versatile actresses of her generation, delivering acclaimed performances in period costume biopics (The Young Victoria), sci-fi action films (Edge of Tomorrow), and tense, topical dramas (Sicario), but The Girl on the Train represents a huge turning point in her career: It’s the first time she has carried a high-profile mainstream studio movie all on her own. Taylor suspects this is because Blunt chooses roles for artistic reasons rather than commercial ones. “A lot of the so-called ‘carry the movie’ roles for women just aren’t that smart, unfortunately,” he says. And indeed, Blunt shrugs off the suggestion that the role could elevate her into a bankable movie star. “I never felt a pressure, because I feel that this film is completely character-driven,” she says. “It didn’t feel like we were making something in order to get the crowds in.”
In conversation with Blunt near her new home in Brooklyn in early August, it’s easy to see both how invested she was in bringing Rachel to life and how wholly unlike her she is. Warm and relaxed, Blunt is quick to laugh — at others and at herself — in small chuckles and in hearty bursts. During filming, Blunt, who’s married to actor John Krasinski (The Office), was pregnant with their second daughter, Violet. (She gave birth this June. Their elder daughter, Hazel, is now 2.) “I have such baby brain right now,” Blunt jokes when she doesn’t have a quick answer to a question. “It’s real. You feel like such a dum-dum. You can’t remember anything!”
Despite her happy personal life, Blunt immersed herself in Rachel’s world by meeting with addicts and binging episodes of A&E’s Intervention. “Whether it’s meth, or alcoholism, or a sex addiction — I wanted to dive into that mindset, because I don’t have an addictive personality whatsoever,” she says. “Seeing them being interviewed and trying to hold it together, what that does to your body — that was really helpful for me.” All of which proved essential to helping unlock Rachel’s intricate psyche. “You’ve got the self-loathing element of her, and you’ve got the rageful anger of her, and you’ve got this obsessive, voyeuristic side and this compulsive side,” she explains. “She has to know about these people’s lives. She’s desperate to live vicariously through others and therefore has that same desperate desire to find out what happened.”
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For all its thriller trappings and conventions, The Girl on the Train is as much, if not more, about women than it is about the mystery of a missing one. Made on a modest budget of around $45 million, the film explores the complexity of women’s relationships to themselves and each other — how women are made to feel like failures for not having (or not wanting) children, how we can covet not just other women’s possessions but the happiness or fullness of their lives. “Something that really upsets me is the unkindness that can go on between women when it comes to children,” Blunt says. “You’re made to feel, by society and usually by women, less-than if you are not a mother, and I think that’s incredibly wrong.”
The film isn’t just about Rachel, though. Intertwined with her story are the lives of the two women she envies the most: Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband (Justin Theroux) who has given birth to the baby Rachel always wanted, and Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), the missing woman with her seemingly perfect husband (Luke Evans). But even those women aren’t happy. We learn through flashbacks that Megan in particular is dealing with a profound loss of her own and uses sex as a form of escape. As Megan, Bennett, 28, becomes both a shadow and a mirror to Rachel, and her performance is as powerful and as faceted as Blunt’s. Both could find themselves in Oscar consideration for limning the propulsive whodunit plot with real dramatic depth. “Megan is a character I would typically shy away from, just because of her explicit nature,” Bennett says. “This role probably could have been portrayed as just the ‘sexy girl,’ not a whole lot going on behind the eyes. But there was a frailty in her, something very childlike about the way she stumbled through life and put her hands on the hot stove. I wanted to bring a reality and a groundedness to Megan.”
It’s not surprising, then, that these characters were created by a woman and adapted by a female screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary). It was Wilson who initially had the idea to move the setting of the story from London to New York, with its commuter trains that run north from the city, passing through the leafy avenues and stately homes of Westchester County along the Hudson River. (The film was shot primarily in the area and on sets in Yonkers.) “The Metro-North train itself is totally unsexy,” Wilson says. “But the river is, and the backyards are — all these places you look at when you’re coming out of the grayness of New York City and you think, ‘I could live there.’ There are a lot of dreams there.”
The move from the U.K. to the U.S. required a few adjustments, but director Taylor wanted Blunt to keep her British accent, both “as a fun wink and nod to the novel,” he says, and also to highlight how isolated and untethered Rachel is. She’s away from her home country, unemployed, rejected by the man with whom she had built her life in America. All of which, Taylor says, adds “another layer of loneliness.”
The one central person not involved with the production, oddly, was Hawkins herself. Unlike Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, who adapted her novel for director David Fincher, or E L James, who famously has fought to retain control over the Fifty Shades movie franchise based on her erotic novels, Hawkins was happy to remain outside the process. “I basically handed it over, and everybody just got on with it,” she says. “Tate came to London and we went for a drink, and immediately, when he was talking about his vision for it, I was thinking, ‘He sees the same things in it that I see.’ He wanted it to be very dark from the start, and the thing that I was most concerned about was that [any potential filmmaker] would take away the darkness of it.”
For her part, Blunt was all about embracing that darkness, but now after a run of heavy roles —Train and Sicario chief among them—she’s eager to lighten up. “I want to find the silliness again,” she says. She’ll definitely get to come in contact with it, at least, playing Mary Poppins in a sequel to the 1964 classic, due in theaters December 2018. She won’t start shooting until early next year. That’s plenty of time to put Rachel’s vodka bottles — and rage — away and find a spoonful of sugar instead. Also: no trains.
This story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1429.