From director Rob Marshall, Mary Poppins Returns sees the practically perfect nanny return to help the Banks family find the joy and wonder that’s been missing from their lives since suffering a personal tragedy. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) has been lost since the death of his wife, leaving his three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson), his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and the housekeeper (Julie Walters) with the task of holding the family together, which is seemingly impossible until the magical Mary Poppins (the equally magical Emily Blunt) teams up with her lamplighter friend Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) to show them that anything is possible, if you just believe it can be.
During a conference at the film’s Los Angeles press day, co-stars Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, along with director Rob Marshall, talked about the challenges of making an original musical, signing on to play such a beloved character, why the books were such a helpful springboard to draw from, transitioning from Broadway to big movie musical, honoring the original film while putting a personal stamp on this one, the fun chemistry between Mary Poppins and Jack, and the experience of having Dick Van Dyke on set.
Question: Rob, why Mary Poppins Returns?
ROB MARSHALL: You know, what I thought to myself, when this came my way, was that, if anybody is gonna do it, I would like to do it. It was incredibly daunting, at first, of course, but at the same time, I really felt like I have that film, as many of us do, in my blood, and I wanted to be able to, in an odd way, protect the first film, and treat this film with great care and love. Musicals are very difficult to do. There are so many layers to it. Creating an original musical from scratch was actually a dream for me. I’ve never done it before, and to be able to create it with this beautiful company was exactly what I was hoping for. And I have to say that the guiding message of this film, about finding light in the darkness, is honestly what drew me to it, and kept guiding me throughout the whole process, until this very moment, when people are actually now seeing the film because it feels so current to me. I’m just speaking for myself, but I feel like people need this film now. I certainly knew that I wanted to live in that world, and send that message out into the world, of looking for hope and light in a dark time. That’s why we set our film in the Depression Era in London, at the time of the books. It was really so that it could feel accessible and feel like it’s a story that needs to be told now.
You’ve said this is your most personal film. Why is that?
MARSHALL: Because that philosophy that I was just describing is honestly how I feel, deeply. It’s a life choice, I guess. You have to get up and approach your life in a certain way, and look at it from the point of view of looking for the light. It’s in the P.L. Travers books. It’s about finding that childlike joy in life, which might sound trivial to some, but to me, it’s very profound. I was able to explore that idea, in making this film. It was incredibly hard work, and probably the hardest work that I’ve ever had to do on a film, but at the same exact time, it was incredibly joyous, for that very reason.
Emily, how did this come about for you?
EMILY BLUNT: They called my agent and said, “Something big is coming down the pike for Emily.” And I got a voicemail from Rob, who is my dear friend and we have known each other a long time, and the voicemail certainly had a charged energy to it. I was like, “Oh, my god, what is it? What is this project?!” So, when he called me, because he is so beautifully ceremonious and wants every moment of the process to feel special and transporting and memorable for you, it had such a sense of ceremony to it. He said, “We’ve been digging through the Disney archives, and by far this is their most prized possession.” And I was like, “What is it?!” I couldn’t think of what it could be. And then, when he said, “Mary Poppins,” the air changed in the room. It was such an extraordinary and rather unparalleled moment for me because I was filled with an instantaneous yes, but also with some trepidation, all happening simultaneously, in that moment, because she is so iconic. She had made such a big imprint on my life, and on everyone’s lives. People hold this character so close to their hearts, so I thought, “How do I create my version of her? What will my version of her be? No one wants to see me do a cheap impersonation of Julie Andrews because no one is Julie Andrews. She should be preserved and treasured, in her own way, for what she did.” And so, I knew that this was going to be something that I wanted to take a big swing with, and I knew that I could do it with [Rob Marshall], who is the most emboldening, meticulous, brilliant director in the world. I was in safe hands with him, however much I knew that I had my work cut out for me.
MARSHALL: There is not another person on this planet who could have played this part, but [Emily Blunt].
Lin, you are so renowned for your work on Broadway, but this is your first big movie experience. How did it come about, and what was that like for you?
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I remember going to the midnight premiere screening of Chicago at the Ziegfeld Theater – RIP Ziegfeld Theater – and seeing it with everyone else who had the premiere date written in blood on their calendars, and seeing the greatest modern movie musical that I’d ever seen, in my life. So, when I got a call from Rob Marshall and John DeLuca saying, “We’d like to talk to you about something,” that became an immediate priority. They came to buy me a drink between shows. I was still in Hamilton, at the time, and I had a two-show day, so I finished the matinee, rolled across the street to the Paramount Hotel, and met them for a drink. They said, “We’re doing a sequel to Mary Poppins.” And I said, “Who’s playing Mary Poppins?” And they said, “Emily Blunt.” And I said, “Oh, that’s good!” Honestly, I can’t give them enough credit for seeing this role in me because, when I’m playing Hamilton, there is no childlike wonder in Alexander Hamilton. He had a very traumatic early life. He goes on that stage and wants to devour the world, and he wants to move so fast and do everything, whereas Jack, in this movie, as they pitched him to me, has this childlike sense of wonder and he’s in touch with that imagination that you see in your kids, when they can play in their own imagination for hours. Jack never lost that. I feel so humbled that Rob saw that in me, and from that moment, I was in. It came along at the perfect time for my family, too. We had finished a year of performing Hamilton, and then I chopped my hair off and left the country, and jumped into Mary Poppins’ universe. It was beautiful.
Emily, your work is always so sublime and so seamless. What did you draw upon to play Mary Poppins?
BLUNT: I found the books to be a huge springboard and enormously helpful. She leapt off the page at me, just in how complicated she is and how unknowable she is, in this wonderful way, with that duality of the character. She is stern and incredibly rude and vain, but funny, and yet there’s this humanity, and she has such a childlike wonder in her, in order to want to infuse these children’s lives with it. There is a generosity of spirit, and a desire to want to fix and heal in the way that she does. For me and certainly for Rob, in the year and a half that we spent talking about it before we even started rehearsing, we both wanted to find those layers and those moments of humanity. She’s also probably a bit of an adrenaline junky. She loves these adventures. It’s her outlet. We wanted to find those moments where she’s not just one thing because she is so enigmatic. It was a great, delicious character to play, and I loved it.
There must be an incredible inherent pressure in playing the role of Mary Poppins. How did you balance Julie Andrews’ extraordinary performance with the P.L. Travers version in the books, while adding your own personal signature to it, as well?
BLUNT: For me, even though I’d seen it as a child, I decided to not watch the original so close to shooting our version. She is so beautiful and so extraordinary, and I didn’t want to let that bleed into what I wanted to do. I just decided that, if I’m going to do this, I’m just going to go on my gut instinct from the book because she is rather different in all of the books. If I was going to carve out new space for myself, it was going to have to be without watching the details of what Julie did, so close to shooting. I have this searing memory of Mary Poppins, but not all of the tiny details of how she played the character. And then, as soon as we wrapped, I watched the original and I was just floored by it and relieved that I hadn’t watched it because she’s amazing.
Lin, what was your favorite aspect of making the film?
MIRANDA: There are so many. There are a lot of highs on a movie like this. Coming from the theater, where the only thing that changes in the performance is the audience and your energy that day, to go, “Okay, Thursday, we’ll be shutting down Buckingham Palace and riding with 500 bicyclists. And Friday, I’ll be dancing with the penguins,” those kinds of moments are really unforgettable. I brought my son to set, every time that we filmed a musical number, and to watch his eyes like saucers while daddy danced with what seemed like 500 dancers and bikers. I’ll never forget the look on his face, as long as I live.
Rob, how did you find the balance of touchstones from the original film, and include those nods to the past while taking us forward into the future?