Spoilers ahead for The Girl on the Train.
Tate Taylor prefers his women complicated. Lest you mistake his uber-square jawline and dripping Southern drawl for the trappings of masculinity, the 47-year-old director is at his best when he's telling stories of women who aren't afraid to be good and bad and a million shades of grey in between. He did it before, with The Help, and he's done it once again with his adaptation of The Girl on the Train, the story of an alcoholic divorcee who becomes obsessed with a crime she believes she witnessed during her daily commute. (Taylor took a slight detour to funky town between the two with 2014's James Brown biopic, Get on Up.)
His latest brings Paula Hawkins’ No. 1 New York Times best seller to the big screen. Ahead of The Girl on the Train's Friday release, ET called up Taylor to discuss why everyone is so in love with Emily Blunt, which The Help actress solicited a cameo and those comparisons to Gone Girl.
ET: There's always so much pressure when you have to cast one of these best-selling novels. What made you decide Emily Blunt was the right choice for Rachel?
Tate Taylor: Pure and simple, the Rachel in the novel, as tragic and desperate and just sad as she was, I found her really charming. Some of the self-deprecating humor that Paula wrote for her, commenting on her own drinking canned gin and tonics -- I was just like, "OK, I've been there." [Laughs] I related to her! We've all had those days, and she had a lot of 'em. We've all made deals with God, like, “If you make me feel better, I'll never drink again.” So, I liked Rachel and I liked Rachel so much because of what Paula got to write. And that made it so much more interesting when she was potentially a suspect in the book.
But what I soon realized with the screenplay and filming the movie is we don’t have the benefit of that. It's a quiet role at many times. I didn't just want to load it with cute, self-deprecating voiceovers. I needed to have a Rachel who is inherently likable and that you root for. Even when Emily was in [The Devil Wears] Prada, she was a bitch, but you really liked her still. Even when Anne Hathaway's character gave her the clothes, you were, like, so happy for her. And besides Emily's just unparalleled talent and skill, I just knew that I would need someone like that. Despite how bad her choices are lying to Scott, you still just want to roll with it with her. You know that moment in the movie when Scott offers her the beer? I'm sure people laughed in your theater when you saw it?
They like Emily! They like Rachel! They're like, "You know what? F**k it! You deserve that beer. Go for it." [Laughs] "Start tomorrow!" That's what Emily brought to the role.
What did you think about Paula Hawkins saying Emily is "too beautiful" to play Rachel?
Of course Paula said that before anything had been filmed or done. That was her knee-jerk reaction. When you write a book, you physically figure out who you see as that person and when we all read the novel -- it would be really fun to see the collage of faces that readers all come up with. But the fact of the matter is I met with Emily and she was like, "I need to gain weight." I said, "You know what?" First of all, I could tell there's no way in hell she can gain weight. She eats like a 14-year-old boy at football practice and nothing happens. She's got that lucky gene. But I just said, Paula wrote a woman that's constantly talking about how she let herself go. You don't have to be overweight to have let yourself go. You don't have to be homely and have homely features to have let yourself go.
What I think is really cool is as rough as Rachel looks played by Emily -- swollen face, bloodshot eyes, mousy hair, nine-year-old clothes -- I think it almost goes to your first question about why Emily and likability. It almost makes you go, "Oh my God! If somebody would just go kidnap her, get her sober, take her to Kathie Lee and Hoda and do Ambush Makeover, she would be awesome again!" It's the same thing. And I'm not going to cast for physical reasons. I never have and I never will.
When you started, was there a specific scene or part of the book that you were particularly concerned over how hard it would be to adapt?
Every movie's got that thing when you adapt a novel that the author has done, where you go, "Ok! That was a choice." [Laughs] "Everybody loves it and I’ve gotta do it!" For me, in The Help, it was the sh*t pie, which I just had such anguish over. I didn't believe it. I didn't think it would work that way. I just couldn't stand it. But you've gotta make it work. And it ended up being one of people's favorite things in the movie, so what do I know? But I would say the ending. How Tom [Justin Theroux] is killed and then Anna's [Rebecca Ferguson] reaction to it. That was very delicate, once you bump it up with such deep, deep heartfelt drama. It's tough! When you read the book, what was your reaction to, All of a sudden the corkscrew went into the neck and the wife was turning it deeper?
I read the book a while ago and I remember being shocked, but I was curious because that scene in the movie isn't too bloody, but it is pretty gruesome. How do you decide how gruesome to make it?
Either you go for it or you really don't really pay attention to it. You can't go middle ground with that. You just can't, and it’s what people want. It's the sh*t pie, man. I had to embrace it. I learned a lot from the sh*t pie. So, I just said, "Let's go for it!" [Laughs] And I had two beats I had to service: I had to service [Rachel] stabbing Tom and then Anna's reaction. That made it even more complicated, which is why I made Rachel's murder of Tom come quick and fast and not lackluster, but a little more about the emotion of her killing Tom, not the process. And then once that was serviced, I had a lot of fun with Anna. I had a test screening and a lady was asked why she liked the movie and she said, "Cause that son of a bitch a**hole got what he deserves! My husband just cheated on me and I sure wish I could screw him!" She just lost it. It was for those people. You have to service. And that's what this is. It's a fun, dark, sexy, scary, thriller. So I just decided we had to go for it.
The biggest gasp in my theater was during the flashback scenes when Megan reveals what happened to her daughter. Haley Bennett is naked in the woods and it's raining and she's crying -- how intense was that to shoot?
It was intense! But I'm very much an actor's director. There's an open door policy and we all talk a lot about things. Basically, it came to a point where I said, "I want to get to a place, Haley, where you say, 'I understand why we are doing this and I think it is correct.'" Until we got there, anything was possible. I just don't think directors can just command an actress to do something with such vulnerability; they have to believe in it themselves. But I knew I needed it for her character. In the novel, that [scene's] not really dramatized. You just know it happened. But I knew that for Megan -- 'cause you know women are judging her like crazy in this movie. [Laughs] I mean, she's everyone's worst nightmare -- I knew we needed to see it. We needed to see the little girl have the most horrific accident of her life take place.
So, when Haley read the script and I met with her, I said, "You're going to have to really go on some journeys. You're going to have to trust me and I promise you if say no to anything, that will be the final answer." And she just went for it. She did that scene in the morning, it was 40 degrees in a rain machine, and then we packed up and moved to another location and she did the scene with Edgar [Ramírez] where she tells the story. That was all the same day. Man, she was wiped out.
Was she actually reacting to anything in the bathtub? Did you have a prop doll or anything in there that she was reacting to?
Then consider me even more impressed, because her reaction as she crawls out of that bathtub gave me chills.
She really was great. And it was tough! I mean, she was naked and there was a crew of men. One thing I will say that hasn't come up much is Charlotte [Bruus Christensen], my DP, is a woman, and it really, really helps when there's an actress having to do scenes [that] include sex or nudity, to know that a fellow female is behind the camera. It just creates a huge ease. Imagine some guy twirling a cigar telling you to take your clothes off. [Laughs] It's a whole different ball of wax.
You also reteam with Allison Janney here. What is it about her that has you coming back for more? She's kind of like your muse now.
She is! She is so giving. She's been in everything I've ever done. Stuff you guys have never even seen or heard about. She does all of her friends’ short films and sh**ty attempts, and the first thing that happened when I was adapting The Help [was] I said, "She's awesome and she's so talented, but I want to put her in a real movie and let her do her thing." And we had so much fun that she was like, "I want to be in everything you ever do, no matter what." It's just kind of our game. So, in Get on Up, she was just the dancing racist women, which the critics were like, "I can't believe Allison Janney did such a small cameo!" And we're like "Oh, f**k you!" It’s not all business. But I found an opportunity [with] this movie about women to change the detective from the predictable a**hole male detective questioning Rachel. I said, "How interesting would it be if it was a female detective and she's going at her too?" Because Allison is pretty aggressive. So I said, "I'm going to make it Allison." And that's it!
I am OK with Allison Janney being in everything. I wish she had your pact with every director.
My girls are Melissa McCarthy, Octavia [Spencer] and Allison. Every time I call Melissa, she's like, "[Sighs] I'm busy!" Which is true, but we're gonna figure it out. And then Octavia was so funny. She was so mad she wasn't in this movie. I said, "Octavia, there's no part," and she says, "What if I'm the ticket taker?" I said, "I cannot have you in a conductor's outfit, punching tickets!" She says, "Why not?!" I go, "'Cause it will stop the movie!" She's a little pissed she's not the ticket taker.
I'm a little pissed, too. You'd be like, "Wait...was that Octa--"
It would've ruined the movie! You can't. I thought about it, but it would ruin the movie.
The novel of The Girl on the Train gets compared to Gone Girl so often. Was that something you thought about while making the movie, in terms of doing anything to differentiate yourself?
This doesn't come from a place of arrogance: I truly don't think about those things. I mean, people say, "Was it so much pressure that the book was so popular?" I'm like, "No!" That's a book. My job is to tell an amazing story to the best of my abilities. You can't think about that stuff.
What I'll say about Gone Girl is the source material is completely different, in my opinion. That’s a murder mystery and you don't deep dive into the psychology of these three women. This is a psychological thriller about what happens between our ears and how horrible we can be to ourselves and how horrible we can be to people and what the consequences are.
Is there something about your adaptation that you think will shock even the biggest fans of the book?
I think what's going to shock them is how much I leaned into the sexuality and leaned into the horrific violence and leaned into psychological torture. I don't think people are expecting that. And I didn't do it for any other reason than it's a real character. It's like the corkscrew -- you gotta go for it. Be truthful or go home.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]