It’s the middle of August and Albuquerque, New Mexico, is scorching hot. On the set of French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s latest, Sicario, crew and visitors are asked to drink plenty of water and stay in the shade — if you can find any, it’s a desert after all. Plus, we’re 5,000 feet above sea level, which can cause altitude sickness. But no one complains. All are happy to be working with Villeneuve, the talented director who has impressed critics and moviegoers in Canada and abroad with such films as Incendies, Enemy and Prisoners.
Sicario, which means “hitman” in Spanish, is a complex story about the war on drugs. An American task force is assembled from different agencies to crack down on the Mexican cartel responsible for a series of gruesome killings near the U.S./Mexico border.
Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin play law enforcement officers with questionable motives and methods while Emily Blunt is an FBI agent and the film’s moral compass. Sicario is as morally ambiguous as movies come and a true nail biter – just the type of film the Toronto International Film Festival loves, and it will have its North American premiere at TIFF before opening nationwide later this month. The film had its world premiere at Cannes in May, where it earned strong reviews.
Today’s set is a duplicate of a real border crossing in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Because of security concerns, Villeneuve was only able to get some aerial shots of the actual location. Instead, a parking lot in the middle of the Albuquerque desert has been transformed into a replica border booth, Mexican flags and all.
Villeneuve is filming an elaborate shootout — part of the movie’s climax — with more than 200 extras, hundreds of cars, a SWAT team (a few actors are actually former Delta Force) and Benicio Del Toro, wielding a machine gun. The scene is so massive it’s being shot over five days.
“It’s a big luxury,” says Villeneuve while rubbing some sunscreen out of his eye. “At home I’m used to shooting scenes in six hours.” But with the success of Prisoners, in particular, he has a higher budget, and with that comes more pressure. “The pressure is always coming from the inside in some ways,” he says. “You know what? One of my strong abilities is to be distant. I can cut myself [off from outside pressures] to make the movie.”
He is particularly excited about his talented cast. “I have very strong actors. They inspire me and bring lots of ideas. That’s the way I love to work,” says Villeneuve. “Emily is one of the best actresses I have ever worked with. She can express so much without saying anything. She is fantastic.”
Blunt is not on set on this day, but the next day she shows up at 5 a.m. for makeup, and then has to face a bunch of journalists at 6:43. She is extremely upbeat despite the early hour and her mommy duties. She just gave birth to her daughter Hazel six months before and is still breastfeeding.
“I am a morning person, always have been,” she says, laughing. “I played the cello as a kid. I can still play but I’m kind of crap now. But I used to have to get up really early to practice so I got really good at early mornings.”
Blunt has had a pretty impressive career considering that she started acting only to treat a problem. Because she had a stutter, a teacher suggested she try acting to speak “as someone else” — and it worked. The young Brit caught the bug and, in 2001, got one of her first roles in the play The Royal Family opposite Dame Judi Dench.
Her international breakthrough came as Meryl Streep’s mean assistant in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada. After that she snagged a string of wonderful roles in The Young Victoria, The Adjustment Bureau, Looper and the musical Into the Woods. In last year’s Edge of Tomorrow she amped up her action moves and nearly stole the show from Tom Cruise.
But she has her own opinion about what makes a woman strong. “I think people make the mistake of thinking that the only strong female roles are the ones where you’re carrying a gun. I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. The character that I played in Into the Woods — which is a very comedic role — she’s someone who’s a bit scatty and a bit crazed. She’s somebody who ultimately is desperate for a child and she’ll do anything in her power, and she’ll cross anybody, in order to get what she wants. That’s a very strong female character as well.”
She’s excited that there are more “kickass roles for women,” like Scarlett Johansson’s part in Lucy, and thinks Hollywood is now a better place for women than it was five years ago. “I’ve definitely seen a shift. Movies like Bridesmaids made a gazillion dollars and women and men went to see it,” she says. “There’s a demand from audiences to see movies that are not geared towards 14-year-old boys. My mother, for example, wants to see a movie like this.”
To prepare for Sicario, Blunt spoke with women working for the FBI. “They were some tough bitches I spoke to, but they were cool,” she says.
“I asked, ‘What do you do to decompress? What do you do after you’ve raided a house or someone’s been shot or a kid has died?’ And a lot of them said they just go home. Or go for a drink with a friend who’s not in the industry at all. And one woman said, ‘I go home and I watch Game of Thrones and The Office.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell my husband; he’ll be really happy to know that he’s like your outlet to relax,’” says Blunt, referring to her partner John Krasinski who played The Office’s Jim Halpert.
“Playing this role, it gave me a newfound respect for them,” the actor says of her real-life counterparts. “It takes a huge amount of courage to do their job.”
Julide Tanriverdi is a freelance journalist who lives in New York and writes about movies, TV and everything pop culture.
Sicario opens in Toronto on September 25th and across Canada on October 2. Click for tickets and showtimes.