Gossip girls: Paula Hawkins and Emily Blunt discuss The Girl on the Train and the pressure of ‘perfection’

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Corinne Redfern
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Stylist brings Emily Blunt and Paula Hawkins – star and author of The Girl On The Train – head to head for a spirited discussion on womanhood

Emily Blunt has hit rock bottom. Not today – today she’s sitting in a hotel suite, drinking freshly squeezed orange juice. And not yesterday, even though she slept so badly due to neck pain that she had to knock back ibuprofen so she could move said neck more than an inch. But in the past, she admits, she’s come very close. “I think all of us, at some point in our lives, will have had that feeling,” she says. “You’d have had a very blessed life if you’ve never had that feeling. But I do think some people take setbacks harder than others.”

By ‘some people’, Blunt means Rachel Watson – her latest role and the titular character of The Girl On The Train – whose spiral into alcohol abuse provides an uncomfortably relatable example of how easily life can be derailed. It’s bleakly realistic, but its accessibility is proven in its success. After all, the novel, written by fellow Brit and former financial journalist Paula Hawkins, has sold over 11 million copies in the space of 18 months (to put that into perspective, its oft-cited literary competitor Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn has sold two million since its publication in 2012). Indeed, the tale was pre-emptively optioned for a DreamWorks film adaptation a whole year before it even hit shelves in January 2015.

Now, sat opposite both Blunt and Hawkins in the Rosewood Hotel in Holborn, I want to know what they accessed in order to develop a character like Rachel. The gin-swigging 30-something who has endured years of emotional manipulation, infertility and insecurity – is arguably both women’s most complex, developed protagonist to date. “I do know Rachel isn’t a ‘girl’,” explains Hawkins, who previously wrote four novels under the pseudonym Amy Silver. “But ‘Woman On The Train’ didn’t carry in the same way. She is in a state of arrested development. In that sense, I think we all feel like girls on the inside.”

Blunt is very convincing in the role. While watching a preview of the film certain scenes were so affecting, I had to look away. “I think domestic violence feels closer to home than some – potentially more extreme – scenes of violence that you might see in other films,” explains Blunt. “The women in The Girl On The Train are very relatable, so you’re not anaesthetised by seeing a situation that you can’t really access. I found certain moments very difficult to watch too.”

‘Difficult’ comes up a lot over the course of our 45-minute conversation – and it certainly feels like a conversation rather than the traditional interviewer/interviewee(s) dynamic. So do ‘double standards’ and ‘unfair’ – the latter generally exhaled in a series of sighs; some sarcastic, some sincere. But just as quickly as their voices rise in indignation – and Blunt rises up out of her armchair during particularly passionate rants – so too do the pair burst into spontaneous, uproarious laughter. “You have to alternate between the light and the dark,” Blunt explains, as one particular fit of amusement begins to subside. “Otherwise it all gets a bit much.”

Stylist: Did the fact that so many women would relate to Rachel’s experiences influence the way you went about playing – and writing – her?
E: Definitely, but in many ways, I feel very dissimilar to Rachel right now. A few years back there were probably some more relatable aspects of her experiences, but when I got offered the part, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have this lovely marriage and child’ – and then I was pregnant during the shoot. [Emily lives in LA with her actor husband John Krasinski, Hazel, two, and three-month-old Violet]. So when it came to portraying somebody unable to have a baby, and also so… damaged, well, I couldn’t really be ‘method’ about it.
P: I was a journalist in London for a very long time. It’s a very boozy culture, and we all know people who are – OK, hopefully not at Rachel’s level but maybe a little bit – teetering on the brink.
E: I spoke to a couple of friends who were recovering [from alcoholism]. And I watched Intervention [an American TV series about addiction] on a loop – which I found very helpful because none of us can remember what we’re like when we’re absolutely wasted, thank god. I had to portray somebody who was drunk, and what that does to your body. Tate [Taylor, the film’s director] and I would mark stage one drunk, stage two drunk, absolutely blackout raging drunk…
P: I’d lived with Rachel in my head for a long time – I’d been planning to use her character in another story. And the thing that always interested me – the thing that still interests me – is the memory loss. Because if you can’t remember what you did, then it changes your relationship to your actions. You don’t feel remorse.

S: It’s that feeling of waking up the next morning with that pit of fear in your stomach…
P: …It’s that awful feeling of, ‘Oh God, what did I say?’
E: ‘What did I do?’
P: That’s what makes you really vulnerable. You become so suggestible and so ashamed.
E: There is a double standard. When a guy loves to drink to a huge extent, it’s seen as, “Oh, he’s just blowing off steam.” Whereas when it’s a girl, there’s something uglier. People roll their eyes and are like, “Oh God, did you see her last night?”
P: [For guys] It’s “You legend.”
E: “You ledge!” [laughs]. It’s the same for women who like to play the field. They get, “Oh well, she’s clearly a whore”, while a guy’s just ‘a player’. I don’t like that double standard, but I think I’ve been conditioned to do it too. When I see a guy who’s really drunk, I don’t have the same reaction as when I see a woman drunk.
P: We internalise those things. They permeate us. That said, I’ve been on the night bus, surrounded by young girls drinking wine out of the bottle and teetering in their heels, and all I can think is ‘Oh God, please take care of each other. Please, please take care of each other.’

S: That’s true – especially when it can feel like women are so often pitted against each other.
P: I was thinking about that when I wrote the book – how it’s so easy to internalise society’s judgments against other women.
E: I do think women can be more cruel and unkind to each other in a domestic environment. If you’re not able to have a child then you’re not a ‘real woman’. Or if you’re not ‘able to keep your man’. It’s like we’re more watchful of each other when it comes to family.
P: I think that’s because women are so often made to feel defensive about their own actions.
E: Absolutely! It’s like, “How do you raise your kid? Do you breast feed? Do you not?”
P: “Why aren’t you breast feeding?”
E: And it’s not fair.

S: The family thing is interesting, because it feels like society still determines women’s success by our personal lives.
E: It is. I have so many friends now where they’re the main breadwinner and the guy is more frequently at home with the kids, so I think the tides are slowly shifting. Since I’ve been a mum, a couple of women have come up to me and been like, “I don’t know how you work.” But then I have another friend who said that for a long time, she bought into the guilt-tripping that she shouldn’t go to work. And she’d be like, “I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t leave my child.” But then one day she turned round and said [to him], “But I love what I do.” And now she’s inspiring her son to grow up and find a career that he loves too.
P: I was just one of those people who always knew they weren’t going to have kids. But I still got a lot of condescending remarks like, “Oh, but you’ll change your mind…”
E: That’s so annoying!
P: But then we had all that fuss recently about Theresa May not having kids and that whole issue of having childless politicians. So clearly there’s still work to be done.

S: Do you think these things get easier with age because people treat you differently – or do you just care less?
E: I absolutely care less. I’m always saying, “Oh, who cares?” now. It’s like I don’t have the energy to care any more – I don’t like dwelling on an unhappy thought or an unhappy relationship. So I don’t.
P: I’m in my 40s, and you get so much better at knowing what’s good for you and what will make you happy. We’re both successful and in nice relationships, which makes everything easier. You do get to a point where you miss your youth, but you don’t miss the way you feel in your 20s at all.
E: I was a complete idiot in my early 20s. A complete idiot.
P: I’m so grateful that I went through all the stupid, teenage, early 20s behaviour before everyone had a smartphone, so there aren’t loads of pictures of me drunkenly falling over.
E: Exactly! [Laughs]. I feel like in my 20s, I was much more of a follower. I wanted to be in with the cool crowd and wasn’t very strong in my convictions. I made some stupid mistakes, and I’m so glad nobody was documenting them. That’s why I feel for people like Justin Bieber, because at the end of the day, I would have hated to have had that kind of focus on me when I was a teenager. God knows what people would have thought of me.

S: Although could it be a positive to see more of those moments? Otherwise it can be hard to imagine other people could be having a hard time…
P: It’s because everyone puts ridiculous fronts up on social media. Everyone looks beautiful and their children are always happy.
E: No-one ever posts a picture of their kid having a tantrum! I think we’re all complicit in maintaining a certain façade. You’re bombarded by the idea that you have to deal in the currency of perfection, and so everyone’s always looking for the greenest grass. In this day and age, there’s almost a lack of commitment to anything – to relationships, to jobs… I think people quit on stuff a lot more readily, because we’re constantly told, “But you could have this; but you could have that”. And that’s not reality.
P: That’s very much what [the character] Megan [who goes missing] is chasing in Girl On The Train – the next thing that’s going to make her happy. She’s not sitting around, facing up to her problems and thinking about the ways she could improve things for herself. She’s thinking ‘If only, if only’. And I’ve done that myself.
E: Me too! In many ways, Rachel is the only character who’s living authentically. She’s putting up much less of a façade than the others – she’s doing what she organically wants at that moment, whereas the others are trying to conform.

S: She’s the side of yourself who, if you’re heartbroken and want to text someone, just texts.
E: Yes. And people find that embarrassing, because you’re not supposed to do that.
P: There’s a good reason not to do that, because it comes down to protecting yourself and your own dignity. If you want to show those emotions, then you need to go and be a mess, privately, in front of your best friend. Once you let your self-preservation and dignity go, it’s very difficult to get them back.

S: Do you think it’s harder for women because often when we show emotions, we’re considered ‘unstable’?
E: I’m trying to do this less and less – in Hollywood you are usually overpowered by this boys’ club, and I sometimes find myself trying to sort of stop my emotions from getting too heightened so that I’m not seen as being unhinged. I want to be seen as having a strong viewpoint as opposed to one that’s easily dismissed because it seems too passionate. I find myself approaching issues in a more unemotional way, because I find it a more effective way of getting things done so that I’m not perceived as being ‘crazy’.
P: I remember working at The Times, and if a woman had a bad day and went to have a quiet weep in the loo, it was “Oh God, she’s so ridiculous”. But men could throw the most ludicrous tantrums in the middle of the office and shout at people because the photocopier wasn’t working. But that was fine, because that was just men blowing off steam. We talk about women being emotional, but when you consider who commits violent crimes in society, it’s men. And their behaviour is the result of anger, usually, which is also an emotion.
E: Yes!
P: I read somewhere that ‘crazy’ is an adjective that’s applied to women who are having emotions which are inconvenient. It’s a very common dismissal of women’s legitimate feelings to just say “Oh, she’s crazy”. But of course, the truth is – and I really hope The Girl On The Train shows this – she’s probably not.

The Girl On The Train is in cinemas now - watch the trailer below

Photography: Rex