Watching her as the sharp-tongued fashion magazine assistant in the hit film The Devil Wears Prada or as the effervescent nanny in Mary Poppins, it’s hard to believe Emily Blunt was once plagued by a stutter.
“It was very bad. It got progressively worse. By the time I was 12, 13 it was probably at its peak,” the 38-year-old actress says of her speech disorder.
The five-time Golden Globe nominee recalls a particularly embarrassing moment when she was a 10-year-old growing up in Wandsworth, London.
“It was Christmas, and everyone at school was dressed as festive characters. I’d hurt my knee so at the time I was on crutches and my mother said, ‘Well, why don’t you go as Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol?’ I had the peasant cap, the lot.“
And in front of the whole school, a teacher asked me who I’d come as and I was stuttering – Ts were especially challenging for me – and I just couldn’t say it. It was awful. I remember just saying to her, ‘Guess, guess’ because I couldn’t say it. It seemed to go on for an eternity.”
Emily vividly remembers the agony of being teased mercilessly and the constant frustration of not being able to express herself.
“A stutter is such a dreadful imposter in your body,” she says.
“It misrepresents who you are completely, so that’s all people see. Because people sound funny, they look funny when they talk and it’s very readily bullied and made fun of.
“I had this awful teacher who said ‘Just say it! Just spit it out!’ People don't understand it. They don't understand why you can't speak.”
But another teacher – this time a sympathetic high school teacher – changed everything by encouraging Emily to try out for a school play.
“I said, ‘I don't want to,’ and he said, ‘Well, I think you're very funny and I think you’re very good at voices – you do silly voices and you don't stutter when you do a silly voice. So why don't you do a silly accent or something?’"
And he was right. Doing accents and “silly voices” gave Emily “a fluency I wasn't otherwise capable of,” so she tried out for the play, got the role and the acting bug bit.
She was starring in another high school production when she was discovered by an agent and, by the time she’d turned 18, she’d made her professional debut on London’s West End starring opposite Dame Judi Dench in a production of The Royal Family.
Nearly 50 film credits and two decades later and Emily is now considered one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.
“It was the making of me, in many ways,” she says of her debilitating childhood stammer.
“You learn great empathy and to watch people very closely, because often you can’t speak. You read every nuance of every person you’re talking to – mainly to see if they’re going to make fun of you or understand you.
“I think it made me more empathetic and observant. I love mimicking people. I love putting an essence of someone I know into a part I’m playing. So, whether it’s an abstract or an acute awareness, I think it has made a difference to how I choose to play people.”
These days Emily, who’s married to The Office star John Krasinski (41) and is mom to Hazel (7) and Violet (5), campaigns for the American Institute for Stuttering, and has been known to turn up on the doorsteps of young stutterers to offer them advice and encouragement.
Emily isn't Hollywood’s only big name to have overcome a stutter.
Bruce Willis (66)
The action-film veteran had a severe stutter from age nine to 17. It was so bad it could take up to three minutes to say a single sentence, he says. Things took a turn when he joined a high school production of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
"When I got onstage, I stopped stuttering. When I stepped off the stage, I started stuttering again. And I went, 'This is a miracle. I got to investigate this more.'"
In a speech to the American Institute of Stuttering, he had this piece of advice: "It's easy to get frustrated with a child who stutters, but believe me, the one who stutters is much more frustrated. Be patient, always listen. Offer encouragement, give positive reinforcement always."
Nicole Kidman (54)
She was drawn to storytelling and acting from an early age, but had to overcome intense shyness and a stutter. Nicole told Newsweek that when she stuttered, people would tell her to calm down and think about what she was going to say. She slowly grew out of it.
Tiger Woods (45)
"The words got lost somewhere between the brain and the mouth," the golfer says of his childhood speech disorder which he later took classes to overcome.
In a letter he wrote to a boy who was struggling with a stutter, Tiger wrote, "I know what it's like to be different and to sometimes not fit in. I also stuttered as a child and I’d talk to my dog and he’d sit there and listen until he fell asleep." His struggle with stuttering factored into his decision to open the Tiger Woods Learning Centre in 2006.
Samuel L Jackson (72)
As a child Samuel dealt with his stammer by "pretending to be other people who didn't stutter" – a technique which eventually led him to join a drama class.
He readily admits that he hasn’t completely overcome his stutter and says he feels particularly vulnerable on days "when I'm on the set and realise I'm having a 'W day' or an 'M day' - 'cause, see, I still stutter. So, I do a Porky Pig: I find a substitute word."
Kendrick Lamar (34)
Long before he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper, Kendrick had a stutter. He was still stuttering late into high school over certain words when he was in trouble or excited.
“I think that’s why I put my energy into making music,” he told the New York Times. “That’s how I get my thoughts out, instead of being crazy all the time.”
Ed Sheeran (30)
The Shape of You crooner tried speech therapy and homeopathy to treat his stutter, but what helped was rapping along to Eminem. His father bought him his first Eminem album when he was nine years old and that helped him through it.
"He raps very fast and very melodically, and very percussively, and it helped me get rid of the stutter."
Sources: npr.org, menshealth.com, dailymail.co.uk, spin.com, nytimes.com, rollingstone.com, time.com, washingtonpost.com, newsweek.com, vanityfair.com, hollywoodreporter.com