No one who’s witnessed the violent tongue-lashings she gave Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada would imagine that not very long ago, British actress Emily Blunt had a debilitating stutter.
It set in around age 10. “I remember that when it first started to kick in, I thought it was a habit,” she says, “but when it really starts to ingrain itself upon you, it becomes an anguished situation to live your life in, especially when you’re a kid, when you’re only trying to appear very cool. I was definitely not cool.”
By age 12, when it reached its peak, she stopped speaking altogether. “Why am I like this?” she thought at the time. “Why have I got this stupid voice problem? Everyone else can talk, what’s my problem?”
“My friends started to accept my stutter as just who I was,” Blunt says, “but I didn’t like being accepted in that way. I felt it was a misrepresentation of who I was, what I wanted to say, what I could see in the world and wanted to share.”
Tonight Blunt, now 27, will emcee the “Freeing Voices Changing Lives” gala to benefit the American Institute for Stuttering, an organization she says she wishes she’d known about during her silent early adolescence. Only during adulthood did she connect with the organization’s founder and executive director, Catherine Montgomery, who spent the last two decades working to develop techniques for overcoming a stutter. Tragically, the beloved Montgomery lost her battle with cancer at the end of May.
• Carly Simon: How I Found My VoiceStuttering affects an estimated 1 percent of the entire world population—around three million people in the United States and 60 million people worldwide. It is a treatable condition for almost all sufferers, and the American Institute for Stuttering takes aim at the affliction’s physical, emotional, and psychological dimensions. Recent studies have found that around 40 percent of children who stutter are bullied on a regular basis. But with support from therapists, teachers and family, stuttering children have a good chance of growing into confident, fluent adults. Plenty of former childhood stutterers have even gone on to prominent careers in the public sphere: Blunt, for example, as well as this year’s gala honorees Harvey Keitel, journalist Clarence Page, and presidential debate coach Michael Sheehan.
Every stutterer struggles in a unique way to find their voice. Without Montgomery’s methods to aid them, Blunt’s mother took her to a battery of specialists. There were relaxation classes, voice classes, and breathing classes. There was “cranial osteopathy.” None of it solved the problem.
“My friends started to accept my stutter as just who I was,” she says, “but I didn’t like being accepted in that way. I felt it was a misrepresentation of who I was, what I wanted to say, what I could see in the world and wanted to share. It felt like a mental mountain that I found impossible to overcome.”
And then a teacher offered what seemed like the most appalling possible solution: That she act in the school play. He had seen her telling stories to friends, performing imitations and speaking in funny voices. “You’re insane,” she said, when he first brought it up. “No, absolutely not. Please don’t make me do this.”
“What if you speak in an accent?” he asked, and the idea was just intriguing enough.
“I did it in a Northern English accent, which is very different from how I speak, although it was probably a terrible Northern English accent since I was so young at the time,” she says, “but it was somehow liberating. I wouldn’t say that I ceased to stutter after that, that it was some huge revelation. But for the first time in five years I was able to speak fluently—and in front of 200 people.”
The path from that school play to her award-winning roles in the television miniseries Gideon’s Daughter and The Devil Wears Prada, plus dozens of other big-screen turns, unfurled smoothly. Today she almost never stutters, except very occasionally, when speaking on the phone. “Weirdly, it is when someone asks who’s calling, and I have to say my name,” she says. A lot of stutterers struggle with certain consonants and vowels—c’s and “eh”s were particularly tough for Blunt—and so, in conversation, her brain has always done somersaults to avoid words that were tough. “Can I have the salt?” became, “May I have the salt?” and so on. But the one word she couldn’t get out of saying—and one that begins with an “eh” no less—is “Emily.”
But, with the pressures of a growing audience and higher profile roles, her speech only improved, such that she now never worries about the stutter returning. “It’s ironic that I’ve ended up in a job where you have to be able to speak,” she says. “My stutter sort of showed me the way.”
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.