Rachel Watson, Emily Blunt’s unhinged, voyeuristic alcoholic, and Megan Hipwell, the beautiful young woman (played by Haley Bennett) whose life Rachel envies from afar, take up much of The Girl on the Train — the Tate Taylor-helmed adaptation of Paula Hawkins’s best-selling thriller. After all, it’s Megan who goes missing, and Rachel who may or may not have had something to do with it.
But there’s a third woman, one whose problems may linger slightly deeper beneath the surface than Rachel’s or Megan’s. Meet Anna Boyd Watson — played by Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation star Rebecca Ferguson. She’s married to Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), has the baby with him that Rachel always wanted, and ends up on the receiving end of Rachel’s threats more often than any new mother would like.
EW caught up with Ferguson by phone to dissect Anna’s psychology and the trickiness of American accents before The Girl on the Train rolls into theaters this Friday.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get attached to the film initially?
REBECCA FERGUSON: I was in Los Angeles promoting Mission: Impossible, and my agent said that Tate Taylor was doing The Girl on the Train. I hadn’t read the book, but I knew that it was just becoming popular — I think it just hit after my meeting. I met Tate, and he walked me through the story, and I was just drawn in by it, and the way he exposed his vision and what he wanted to do with it. It was this really sad story of these three women and what they were battling. It felt human, and it felt important. After two seconds, I was sold. And funny enough, I went to Croatia after that, and by the pool, everyone was reading The Girl on the Train. Everyone. And I thought, “Oh guys, if you only knew! I’m gonna f— it up for you.” [Laughs]
But I went into that meeting thinking, first of all, Tate is a director I really, really wanted to work with. Second of all, the leading lady is a woman I’ve been wanting to work with for yonks and yonks — which is “years” for me — Emily Blunt. It feels like I’ve been following her footsteps: She worked with Tom Cruise, I worked with Tom Cruise. She worked with Meryl Streep, I worked with Meryl Streep!
That’s so funny! What was it about Anna that fascinated you?
I’m fascinated by people who have lists, the people who have to check the boxes: I’m going to become a millionaire before this, I’m going to buy the house before this, I’m going to get the child before I’m 20-whatever. [Then] having a child changes their entire life, and their identity is basically related to this kid. It’s so far from me, so I wanted to go into that, and explore it.
So Anna’s version of motherhood is different from yours?
Oh, hell yeah! My son comes to sets and he’s strung up on straps with these stunt guys, and he’s hanging I don’t know how many feet off the ground and screaming and yelling. Anna would be knitting a pair of… I don’t know, leg straps for him.
When you and Tate were talking about developing Anna’s character, what were some of the things that you wanted to focus on?
I wanted to display Anna as this driven young girl from lower middle class, wanting to be something, where the façade is so important. Wanting to maintain the perfection… and to gradually find what broke her down, and the fear that he will do to her what he did to Rachel. But how far do you let that go until you stop? How far are you willing to take a relationship for her? It’s all about protecting her child and protecting the image.
And I think also what’s interesting is, after a while, you realize you’ve already passed the threshold, you’ve already passed those boundaries, but you hadn’t actually realized it until someone shakes you and smacks you in the face or verbally like Rachel does. You know that kind of thing, where someone goes, “Hey, look at yourself. Look what’s happening.”
Did you do anything to prepare, to get into her mindset?
She’s very well-written. I can see Anna as being the one that crosses her T’s and dots her I’s, and that’s because it’s so well described. So the research is, read the book and read the script, and look at this people. Who is she? Can you find someone in your own life to portray? Then I basically work my ass off getting an American accent.
What’s was the most challenging part of the whole process for you?
The accent. I’ve never done an American accent before, and I’m working very hard, and doing my best. I think the accent is hard because it’s a bit claustrophobic when you do an accent and you don’t feel 100 percent certain. It’s hard to focus on the character and movement and to be relaxed in the words, you have to be so focused on intonations or dictation, whatever. And it sometimes takes away from the acting, actually.
Anna lives in Ardsley, Westchester County. She’s moved from Long Island. And if we don’t like the American accent… basically what I would say is she’s probably moved from Sweden, and then she decided to live a middle class life up in Hudson!
The location is definitely the biggest change from the book.
The best thing with this film is it’s not geographically important where they are — it’s about human beings looking into the lives of others, in this fantasy of creating a world for other people that’s not necessarily true. Rachel travels on this train and creates this incredible romance between Scott and Megan, and it’s not even 1 percent of what it’s actually like, but it’s her reality. And you cling to that!
We always think [we know] what other people are like, but there’s glass between us. We judge and we get nervous and we protect and we feel insecure, without having our facts straight. And we have different reasons why.
Anna is an interesting character, because you kind of want to be on Rachel’s side and hate her…
But then if you look at Anna, who’s living her life, trying to create this beautiful relationship with someone who she actually loves. she has the baby, she has the house… her life is pink! And then here comes the ex, just devouring all happiness and making threats, and Anna just desperately tries to create normality even though this is happening. But she doesn’t know why… she doesn’t know the half of it. But it becomes Anna’s reality, and she’s doing anything to protect herself and protect her daughter.
She’s also the only woman in the film who isn’t seeing the therapist, Dr. Abdic, so we don’t get a lot of her psychology.
Well it doesn’t show in the film, but maybe she goes to lots of psychiatrists! [Laughs] She has one for Monday, one for Tuesday… Oh, Anna. I kind of want to embrace her. I just want to hold her and go, “You’re great. You’re fine. It’s gonna be okay.”
Emily said that cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen would shoot with the camera extremely close to her face. Was it the same for you?
Oh no, it was literally in her face. But that’s sort of Charlotte’s way. I think her way of shooting brings us as close in as possible to those fragile moments. And you get in there — you see the grit and the dirt, and the physical and the emotional part, something that I think Emily displays beautifully.
What was it like working with Justin Theroux?
He’s horrendous. And he smells! No he doesn’t, I’m just joking. He is adorable. He’s one of those people that you’d like to just — in a non-patronizing way — have in your pocket and just pull out as soon as you feel a little bit down. Or happy! Just in general! Supporting, fun, but when needed would go into the seriousness necessary to create something hard in a scene. He balanced that beautifully, which is very important. Smart, witty. Looks great without a shirt on.
Lucky Jen. Lucky him! Everyone’s just lucky.
This interview has been edited and condensed.