Emily Blunt is recalling her first encounter with Mary Poppins and the effect it had on her. “It was one of the first films I ever saw, at around six,” she says. “My lasting memory of her is that she is a disciplinarian and stern. She brings order to chaos, makes everything right again. I remember feeling protected and safe with her because she’s very healing. And when she leaves at the end . . . I was full of grief.”
It has been more than 50 years since Mary walked out of movie-goers’ lives but, after several stalled attempts, a sequel to the 1964 classic has finally materialised. With Mary Poppins Returns, which last week received four Golden Globe nominations, Rob Marshall has created a film that stands on its own merit while also paying homage to the original.
The biggest challenge facing director, producer and co-writer Marshall was casting the title role. What actress would dare step into the shoes of Julie Andrews, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance? When he approached Blunt, with whom he had worked on 2014’s Into the Woods, there was stunned silence. “I was shocked,” she recalls. “When he said it, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ like my hair blew back. I was terribly nervous and terribly excited at the same time.”
Despite her reverence for the old movie, Blunt instinctively knew that she would have to go her own way. “I decided before I played her not to re-watch the original picture. I had this searing memory of her that I wanted to honour, but this was going to be my version. I didn’t want to impersonate Julie Andrews, who’s so beautiful, and what she did should be treasured and preserved, and not butchered by me.”
Instead she went back to the stories by PL Travers, who famously disapproved of the Disney adaptation and was memorably portrayed by Emma Thompson in the 2013 film Saving Mr Banks. “I definitely found new ideas in the books, in which Mary Poppins was quite different from what I remembered,” says Blunt. “She’s completely bizarre and unknowable and eccentric, and very rude, vain and stylish. Julie’s natural sunniness shines through, but even she is more tender in The Sound of Music than in Mary Poppins.”
The new film, which features all-new original songs with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics co-written with Scott Wittman, is set in Depression-era London, during the “Great Slump”. Money is tight and the future uncertain. In a script by David Magee, adapted from Travers, Mary Poppins comes back to help the next generation of Bankses find the joy and wonder that is missing from their lives after the loss of their mother.
Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is now a struggling artist employed by Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, where his father worked. He lives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane with his three children: Annabel, John and Georgie (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson, respectively). The house is rundown and in chaos, despite the efforts of their well-intentioned but inefficient housekeeper, Ellen (Julie Walters).
Marshall made other smart choices beyond Blunt: he cast Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of Broadway mega-hit Hamilton, as Jack, a charming, optimistic street lamplighter who takes the children on whimsical adventures. He also added colourful characters such as Mary’s eccentric cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) and created cameo roles for Dick Van Dyke (co-star of the original) and 93-year-old screen legend Angela Lansbury.
For Blunt the most daunting aspect of the production may have been the musical numbers. “I was always quite embarrassed singing in public,” she says. “I much prefer singing alone in the car or in the shower. I was never that person at parties who gets up and sings. Even in karaoke, I need a lot of tequila to do it. But I certainly feel I got over my nerves on Into the Woods . . . and these songs were not Stephen Sondheim, who really requires all of you. They were tailor-made for me and my strengths, and I workshopped for months in advance.”
Blunt has two daughters with her actor/director husband John Krasinski but found that some of the young cast on Mary Poppins Returns could still be quite a handful. “It was things like fart jokes just as I am trying to play a very put-together nanny. Lin and I were on constant child-wrangle patrol. That little blond Joel [Dawson], it was his first film and he was wild . . . you would hear 10 voices on the set going, ‘Joel, what’s your line? Joel, focus now.’ He was bouncing off the walls and yet when the camera was on him, he was so magical that you had to put up with him.”
Fortunately, there were also more experienced cast members to hand. This is the third teaming of Blunt and Meryl Streep (after The Devil Wears Prada and Into the Woods). “We always play women who are contentious with each other,” Blunt notes. “She’s not very nice to me, and I’m wondering if we could play friends in the next one. I’ll pitch it to her and she’ll probably turn around and be like, ‘Dream on.’ ”
Mary Poppins Returns gives Streep the chance to show off her physical comedy skills. “She’s absolutely bonkers in this role, completely mad and so funny,” says Blunt. “That’s actually her swinging around the chandelier. She said to the kids, ‘You ever seen a pratfall?’ The kids said, ‘No’, and she goes, ‘Watch this . . . ’ She stood vertical and hit the deck. I thought she was dead, she fell flat on her face and the crew gasped and ran forward. But she stood up and said calmly, ‘I learnt that at Yale.’ ”
For the kids on set, it was an unusual form of education — something of which Blunt approves. “We need to create great thinkers and innovators, and Mary Poppins has that — anything is possible, even the impossible . . . It’s time for big ideas. I do prefer an unconventional approach to education, even though mine was pretty conventional,” says Blunt, 35, who was born and raised in London, and bullied as a child because she stuttered. Naturally, she doesn’t want her daughters to be teased or bullied, but knows that it’s part of growing up, and may happen. “If it gets to the point where the bullying is really cruel, that will be agonising for me,” she admits.
For her, the magic of Mary Poppins is timeless and inspiring. “Her superpowers infuse childlike wonder into your life . . . and it’s not just about the fantastical nature. She makes sure you’re bathed and dressed and fed, all the practicalities of life. People respond to the fact that they’re in safe hands. She’s kind of a modern-day superhero, maybe the first superhero.”
Blunt sees nothing wrong with the movie’s escapism and optimism. “I do realise people’s need to escape into a heightened world that’s fantastical, certainly in our times, which are fragile and very disconcerting. We must never see ideas of hope and joy as being trivial words or trivial life choices.”
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ is released worldwide from December 19
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