‘I love a character with a secret’: Emily Blunt on the BBC’s shocking new Western

Cowboys, corsets and a baddie who barks like a dog. How violent, all-star drama The English turns ‘America’s original sin’ into must-see TV

In the opening scenes of The English, Hugo Blick’s epic six-part Western for BBC Two, a dusty stagecoach draws up at an isolated hotel in the American desert, and a woman in a huge flouncy pink frock steps out. She is Lady Cornelia Locke, as played by Emily Blunt: the British actress known for bringing Disney’s magical singing nanny back to the screen in Mary Poppins Returns (2018). When Locke opens her mouth – to enquire why there’s a Native American tied to a post and to insist the hotelier “cut the poor man free, spit spot!” – her crystalline consonants are still the purest Poppins. But within minutes she’s laid out cold by a solid slug to the jaw. Her rape and murder appear imminent. Mary Poppins, this ain’t.

“What it is,” explains Blick, “is the origin story of modern America. It’s about the cost of putting that first stake in the ground. The English recognises the strength that took – but also whose land was taken. It’s a reflection on a genocidal story, the original sin of America.”

The English is set in the late 19th century as European settlers scramble for land across the Atlantic, massacring, displacing or assimilating Native Americans as they go. Locke arrives 15 years after her former beau Thomas Trafford (Tom Hughes), seeking vengeance for the mysterious death of her son. She soon teams up with Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a former Pawnee Scout – one of many Native Americans recruited by the United States Army between 1864 and 1871, to fight the Cheyenne and the Sioux – who is on his way to claim land he has earned in Nebraska.

For Blick, the new series represents a shift of geography, but not of fundamental theme. The 57-year-old writer and director has spent much of his career interrogating “schisms in our culture and society”, as he puts it. His award-winning 2014 drama The Honourable Woman (starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Stephen Rea) was set largely in the Middle East, while 2018’s Black Earth Rising (with Michaela Coel and John Goodman) dug into the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

In The English, Blick tells me, “the classic cowboy theme of revenge drives the drama. But there is also the epic element of love. Cornelia is a woman who has been confined up until this point, and now wants to live urgently, in the most exposed circumstances. Eli is a man who’s only ever lived in this physical, brutal way. He has learnt to shut down his emotions as a consequence and she has to tease that out of him.”

Blunt, on a video call from New York, tells me: “I love a character with a secret. And I loved Cornelia’s buoyancy, her hopefulness, her guilelessness. It’s the worst thing ever when you open a script and read the words: ‘strong female lead’. That makes me roll my eyes – I’m already out. I’m bored. Those roles are written as incredibly stoic, you spend the whole time acting tough and saying tough things. Cornelia is more surprising than that. She’s innocent without being naive and that makes her a force to be reckoned with. She startles Eli out of his silence and their differences become irrelevant because they need each other to survive. I thought that was very cool.”

Blunt turns to Spencer – who is with her on the call – and grins. “Do you remember, that first day? That scene when Eli tells Cornelia to shoot the little pig? I remember looking up at you, over my enormous puff sleeve, and seeing your extraordinary profile with the mohawk and the earring, and thinking you were so striking-looking. What an incredible image, to have these two people in the same frame.”

Blunt also relished the chance to get back in the saddle, although “the corsets made riding a little challenging… but they were elasticated at the sides so I could get on the horse with the help of three men”.

Spencer, perhaps best known for playing a werewolf in The Twilight Saga films, has in person a laid-back surfer-dude energy that’s a million miles from Eli’s edgy restraint. However, like Eli, Spencer is Native American. Born a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, in Oklahoma, he moved to New York to pursue photography, before changing tack to acting.

“This is the first time that a Native American character whose story is central to the plot has actually been played by a Native American actor,” says producer Greg Brenman. Blick notes that while “the mid-20th-century Western themes were often complex and compelling, the casting rarely matched the intention. In John Ford’s The Searchers, considered by many the greatest example of the genre, Chief ‘Scar’ is played by Henry Brandon, a blue-eyed German. In Chato’s Land, Charles Bronson played an Apache; in Apache, Burt Lancaster also took the titular role as did Burt Reynolds in Navajo Joe. Similarly, Elvis Presley in both Stay Away Joe and Flaming Star. Then there were Audrey Hepburn, Rock Hudson and Jeff Chandler [variously cast as Native Americans]… you get the picture.”

Indeed, as recently as 2013, Johnny Depp drew widespread criticism for assuming the role of Tonto in Disney’s reboot of The Lone Ranger, a situation made worse by the actor’s shaky claims to Native American blood. Two years later, Rooney Mara was cast as Tiger Lily in Disney’s live action Pan.

Blick dates his obsession with displacement and confused identity back to a troubled youth during which, he tells me, he was “highly sensitised to the possibility of assault”. For the first 11 years of his life he was raised in relative wealth in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. Then it transpired that his father was living a parallel life (he had a mistress and another child elsewhere), his mother suffered a breakdown and young Hugo was packed off, first to boarding school, then later to stay with a family friend in Montana, “not so much to straighten me out as to straighten the world around me.” To Blick, Montana in the 1980s “still felt like a young state, very connected to the past”. He remembers it as a place where customers at the local saloon “rode up to the bar” on horseback.

He found work cutting wood for the government “supplying people on social security, often members of the native community. It was an eye-opener. I remember delivering a tonne of wood to a Crowe Nation family in a single cabin. Montana winters are really harsh – I’m talking minus 60 C – and they had piled generations of clothing up against the walls in order to provide insulation.”

Out of hours, he’d saddle up and go elk hunting with a Native American friend. “I used to call him ‘Chief’ and he would call me ‘English’. We were casual with that kind of easy racism. We’d travel off the track by horseback into the wilderness about 100 miles from any other human civilisation.” Blick pauses. He’s a campfire storyteller.

“One day we rode into a camp full of Vietnam veterans. To hunt elk you use precision, single-shot, very high-calibre rifles. But these guys only had Thompson submachine guns. You ain’t gonna hit nothing that fast with a Thompson. So it was a very strange atmosphere. We realised we had to leave because it was very… odd. But they followed us out for quite some time. It felt quite threatening and peculiar. Silence is silence, but when you’re that far from civilisation I learnt it applies a very interesting psychological pressure.”

Not long afterwards, Blick says, Chief “had to take off across the state boundary, if you get my meaning. He left some stuff with me in case he came back. But he never did. So I never knew his name and he never knew mine. The kernels of The English were all in those stories…”

After returning to Britain, Blick began a career as an actor, most memorably playing the young Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. During his acting years he followed Michael Caine’s advice: “Sit still, think quick, don’t blink.” And as a director, he expects the same of his cast. It’s an attitude that adds intensity to a series like The English, in which every other scene is a potentially fatal standoff. He handles actors like those horses in Montana: drop the reins, settle in the saddle, and let them find their own way through.

Spencer tells me that, in his childhood, he imbibed so deeply the American propaganda designed to make him ashamed of his roots that, when he and his friends played cowboys and Indians, he was “always wanting to play the cowboy”. He found his way into the role of Eli through conversations with Native American veterans of the Vietnam War, “because they had a lot in common with the Pawnee Scouts. The question they get is: why did Native Americans serve in the US army? How can they do that and why are they proud of it? What they told me is: ‘It’s our f—ing country, man. This is our home and we have to fight for it.’ That had a huge impact on me. That’s where Eli is. It’s his country, where else is he gonna go?”

IllumiNative, an organisation dedicated to correcting historical falsehoods about Native people, put Blick in touch with “members of the Cheyenne and Pawnee, who could go through the scripts on a granular level”. He found a Pawnee ballad in the collection of the Smithsonian, “Song of the White Foxes”, which he had hoped Eli would sing in the series. “It’s a declaration of existence, brave and haunting,” says Blick. “But the Pawnee reminded me that their history was oral. During the life of the songwriter, we could ask his permission. But now he has died it would be disrespectful [to use it] – he takes his song with him. So they wrote a new song for me and we recorded it in post-production. Pawnee is a very particular language, very phonetic. This song in ancient Pawnee that stretches back through time… it was extremely powerful.”

But it’s not just the tribal complexities of America that are delineated in The English. The show also breaks the European monolith into tribal groups: psychopathic Welsh bandits, god-fearing Middle European idealists, Scottish pragmatists and cockney capitalists, all jockeying for position.

Stephen Rea tells me that, when he was cast as the sheriff charged with looking into a native massacre, he “assumed they’d want an American accent… but Hugo told me to use my own Northern Irish”. Rea, who was for many years married to convicted IRA bomber Dolours Price, notes that his character came “from a world where there was already turmoil, displacement and tribal enmity – so he ends up being quite sympathetic to the Native Americans in a way I found quite beautiful.”

Tom Hughes, who plays Locke’s one-time paramour Thomas Trafford, says that his ambitious aristocratic character is driven by “idealism, naivety and a degree of hope. The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed lad he is when he arrives could not have imagined the kind of violence and the betrayal of trust he confronts. There’s a foppish element to him, which might confer a certain power in the world he’s come from, but it means nothing in this new landscape. He’s behind the curve. There was one line I kept coming back to: ‘A man can lose many fortunes, but his confidence only once. As a man who has lost many fortunes, I can tell you my confidence has taken a beating.’”

The English finds all these characters – and more – pitted against one another in a pressurised atmosphere of relentless heat and dust. They’re all capable of violence that surprises and changes them – although one late-emerging villain proves to be the worst of the lot. You see him topless, barking like a dog, bathed in blood. And you see him sweet-talk women out of their money with an elegant twist of the cane.

“He’s a lethal Ferrari of a baddy, a wild animal,” says Blunt, “driven by very relatable hunger for revenge against the aristocracy.” Blick adds that he hopes “people don’t see him coming. I love the way he emerges and makes sense of everything in the final episodes.”

“That’s an unusual trick for a Western to play,” says Toby Jones – cast in The English as a canny coachman named Sebold Cusk – who grew up watching cowboy films on his father’s knee. But he believes the series’ villain is the perfect expression of its fascination with “the ruthlessness required for survival. Without scruple.”

Blick admits he could never have tackled The English’s level of grief with so much wit any earlier in his career. “Jimmy Stewart said that the Western is the purest form of cinema, and he was right. It’s a genre that sets one man – or one woman – against a landscape. The bigger the landscape, the greater the physical and psychological pressure upon those individuals. It’s essential storytelling, Grecian in its journeying and tragedy. I think there are very few filmmakers who wouldn’t want to have a go…”