Emily Blunt on why Mary Poppins is the most empathetic role she’s ever played
We spoke to Emily Blunt about taking on the iconic role of Mary Poppins, and the excitement of filling Julie Andrews’ shoes as the magical, generous and selfless nanny.
Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dick van Dyke, Emily Mortimer, Meryl Streep
December 19th, 2018
Emily Blunt was waiting for the big reveal.
The 35-year-old actor was on the phone with her Into the Woods director Rob Marshall, who was keeping her in suspense about a film in which he wanted her to star.
“It kind of felt like a marriage proposal from Rob Marshall,” says Blunt on the line from New York. “It was such a wonderful, ceremonious phone call. He really knows how to tell a story and draw you in, and so he started speaking about this being Disney’s most prized property, and he still hadn’t told me the name of it. And then he finally said, ‘And the project is Mary Poppins,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, my god!’”
The official title is Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to Walt Disney’s 1964 classic pic Mary Poppins, which starred Julie Andrews as the magical nanny who drops out of the sky to help care for children Jane and Michael Banks. Thanks to its collection of catchy songs, memorable scenes that mixed live action with animation, and Andrews’ fussy, but warm turn, the film became an instant Disney classic. So the notion of a sequel seemed absurd, verging on criminal.
But when it was revealed Emily Blunt would step into the role, well, that changed everything. With performances as varied as a harried assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, a military hero battling aliens in Edge of Tomorrow, a conflicted FBI agent fighting the drug war in Sicario, and her recent portrayal of a wife and mother silently holding her family together in her husband John Krasinski’s directorial debut, A Quiet Place, Blunt has grown into one of Hollywood’s most respected, versatile and liked actors.
“[Being offered the role of Mary Poppins] kind of felt like a marriage proposal from Rob Marshall”
So, we may have felt she was up for the job of reimagining Mary Poppins, but she wasn’t so sure.
“I was instantly enthralled and instantly terrified because I knew it was such an iconic role to take on, and was played by somebody as iconic as Julie Andrews,” she remembers. “But I felt safe doing it with Rob. We were dear friends, we had worked together, and I knew he would allow me to take a big swing, and do what I wanted to do with it, and he would support me. So it was wonderful really.”
The fact that Marshall would rely on the source material, the series of books by author P.L. Travers, helped calm her nerves.
“I knew he very much wanted to stay more loyal to the books which were written during the Great Depression, a darker, more profound backdrop for hope to reappear from the skies, literally.”
And in the books, Mary Poppins is a more pompous, stern and slightly unhinged character than how Andrews played her in the first film, which Blunt absolutely loved.
“I mean she is bonkers,” Blunt says with a laugh, “and funny, and vain, and so enigmatic. She thinks she’s better than anyone else, which she is, but I think it’s a wonderful quality that she doesn’t mind letting her light shine, which is refreshing. But what I discovered when I started really diving into it is, actually, I think she is the most empathetic person I’ve ever played because there is nothing manipulative about her generosity to the Banks family and what she allows them to rediscover. She doesn’t want any gratitude, she doesn’t want any thanks in return, and at the end she disappears.
“She really is such a delicious character to play.”
Mary Poppins Returns is set in London during the 1930s and finds grown up Michael (Ben Whishaw) grieving the death of his wife. His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is, just like their mother, consumed with social justice causes. Michael’s three kids, Anabel (Pixie Davies), Georgie (Joel Dawson) and John (Nathanael Saleh) are lonely, but they do have a friend in Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda).
Miranda, the multitalented writer, rapper and actor whose stellar Broadway career includes the creation of musicals In the Heights and the pop-culture phenomenon Hamilton: An American Musical, takes on his largest film role to date.
“He’s so, so multitalented,” notes Blunt. “I remember seeing him on set and he was listening to music while reading a book and learning his lines. He’s just got that brain, that multifaceted, simultaneous approach to things, and is lovely as a person. And he’s confident, which I like, he’s not afraid to let his light shine either. I think it was kind of a relief for him to come into Mary Poppins Returns and just be an actor and not have to be everything to everybody.”
“I was instantly enthralled and instantly terrified because I knew it was such an iconic role to take on, and was played by somebody as iconic as Julie Andrews.”
Blunt calls the film a love letter to London, with Marshall and company shooting both on location around the city and creating vast sets in order to pull off the big song and dance numbers. The biggest number, performed to the song “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” takes place in an abandoned park set that took 26 weeks to complete and features five levels, a fountain, bridge and stunt ramps.
“I mean it was just madness, just really mind blowing,” says Blunt. “The scale of it was so massive with these enormous sets that they built at Shepperton Studios. And the craftsmanship of it all, it is very much paying homage to the original movie without using that many effects. Mary’s parrot umbrella is not CGI. I was holding an animatronic umbrella that would wink and talk and all of it, and people are floating around on wires, they’re not CGIed afterwards. I think you feel that about the film.”
With the movie ready to hit screens, Blunt is waiting to see what her two daughters, four-year-old Hazel and two-year-old Violet, think of her turn as Mary Poppins. The girls are huge fans of the original film.
“We’ll see, maybe they will reject my version, they are very loyal to Julie at the moment, very loyal,” she says with a laugh. However, they will be able to play with one of the film’s most prominent props. “I did take home one of the parrot umbrellas. Come on, I had to!”
See Mary Poppins Returns with your whole family.
Parents and children alike will fall in love with this enchanting sequel that makes for the perfect film to watch over the holidays. Don’t forget to SHOW-off your SCENE card while you’re at the theatre for a chance to win instant prizes and a grand prize of 100,000 SCENE points. Click here for details.