Mary Poppins Returns: Would the Sequel Musical Make Emily Blunt a Bankable Movie Star?

It’s been a banner year for the talented actress Emily Blunt, as she says: “I finished Mary Poppins Returns and then we had a few months off and then shot A Quiet Place,” the thriller indie directed by husband John Krasinski, which became a smash hit.

Blunt has already scored Best Actress nominations from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and a Golden Globe nod in the musical/comedy category.

There have been many talks for years about making a sequel to Mary Poppins, the 1964 cult musical that was a global blockbuster and won Julie Andrews Best Actress Oscar. “Mary Poppins Returns” offered Rob Marshall the opportunity  to create a movie that would stand on its own merit and yet pay homage to the original and other classic musicals. The film features all-new original songs with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman.

“‘Mary Poppins’ was the first film I saw as a child, and it opened up my mind to adventurous movies and fantasy musicals,” says Marshall. “But when the producers came to me, it was daunting—how do you follow that iconic film?”

Marshall, who began his career on Broadway, has made several successful screen adaptations, most notably “Chicago,” which won the 2002 Best Picture Oscar, and recently “Into the Woods.”  Nervous as he was, Marshall was also thrilled by the task: “I never had the chance to create an original movie musical before.” This is probably the most personal film I’ve done because of the profound nature of what it says about finding the child inside us, and keeping hope alive in dark times, like the current world climate we’re in.”

The story is set in Depression-era London, in the 1930s, when during the “Great Slump,” money is tight, people are anxious, and the future is uncertain. As scripted by David Magee, based upon the Mary Poppins Stories by PL Travers, in the new musical, Mary Poppins is back to help the next generation of the Banks family find the joy and wonder missing in their lives, after the tragic loss of their mother’s death.

Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw) is now a struggling artist temporarily employed by Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, where his father had 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 Banks house is rundown and in state of chaos, despite the efforts of the good but inefficient housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters). With the outside harsh reality and the burden of  loss weighing heavily, the children take on additional responsibilities. Michael doesn’t connect well with his children, and at first fails to understand the scheme of the bank’s shrewd chair, Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), a duplicitous businessman who plans to foreclose his home.

Marshall (who’s also a producer and co-writer) biggest challenge was casting the title role, the enigmatic governess whose unique magical skills turns any ordinary tasks into a fantastic adventures.  After all, what actress would “dare” step into the shoes of the iconic Julie Andrews, a great singer and actress who was at the height of her popularity, having made two smash hits back to back. The Sound of Music, the 1965 Best Picture Oscar winner, followed Mary Poppins by less than a year.

Marshall decided to approach Emily Blunt, with whom he had recently worked on Into the Woods. Blunt recalls: “I was shocked.  There was a bit of a stunned silence before Rob said, ‘I want you to play Mary Poppins.’  Honestly, even the phone call was filled with ceremony and energy behind it, so I knew something big was coming down the pipe.  And 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.

If I was going to take on this role, I just had to completely carve out a new space for myself as this is the next chapter in a different time, darker time, darker backdrop. I wanted to take a big swing with her.  I decided before I played her not to re-watch the original as an adult, I had this sort of searing memory of her that I wanted to honor but yet this was going to be my version of her and I didn’t want to just impersonate Julie Andrews, who is so beautiful and what she did should be treasured and preserved and not sort of butchered by me

 

I definitely found that in the books, Mary Poppins was quite different from what I remembered.  Julie (Andrews) is so beautiful in the original and her natural sunnyness shines through.  But she is probably more tender in “The Sound of Music” than she is in “Mary Poppins.” In the book, she’s completely bizarre and unknowable and eccentric and very rude, vain, and yet stylish.”

 

It was one of the first films I ever saw, around six.  I remember as a child, my lasting memory of her is that she is a bit of a disciplinarian and stern. She sort of brings order to chaos, and comes in and makes everything right again. I remember feeling protected and safe with her, she is very healing, and then she leaves at the end and I was full of grief that she goes.”

 

Marshall made other smart choices: He cast Lin Manuel-Miranda (Broadway’s    ) as Jack, a charming, optimistic street lamplighter, who takes the children on whimsical adventures with his lovable band of leeries. And he added other colorful characters like Mary’s eccentric Cousin Topsy (the incomparable Meryl Streep) and in cameo roles Dick Van Dyke (who was in the original) and the legendary Angela Lansbury.

 

Blunt’s dilemma was: “How do you play somebody who’s completely in command of her environment and yet pretends not to be?  she is grounded yet airborne, she is magical yet practical, but she never reveals her inner workings to anybody.  It was just terribly exciting to play that duality of the character.

 

I said to Rob, ‘I really want her to be stern and austere, holding everyone at arm’s length, and yet she should be like an adrenaline junkie, and she can’t wait to go on these adventures.  It just was wonderful fun trying to figure her out.  We collaborated on what was not in the books, those cracks of humanity in this super-human?  Where do we see the private or tender moments, which should be subtle and fleeting.  You’ve got to see that enigmatic master plan and you have got to know there’s a plan afoot. “

Blunt’s Family Reaction

My eldest daughter has seen the original and loves it, she hated that Mary Poppins left at the end.  We were driving to see my version, she goes, is she going to leave at the end?  And I was like well we will see.  And then that moment when I look in the balloon and say it’s time, Hazel looked at me and she went no!  It’s just so very sad for kids.”

Her husband, actor-director John Krasinski, was in tears, when he found out.  Says Blunt: It’s kind of a slight to John that he didn’t know I could sing. I was always quite embarrassed singing in front of people, I just much prefer singing alone in the car or in the shower.  I was never that person at a party who gets up and sing. Even in Karaoke, I need a lot of Tequila to do it.”

 

I certainly feel I got over my nerves on Into the Wood film, so when I embarked on “Mary Poppins,” not only was I working again with the great Rob, who is so emboldening, I was in safe hands.  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.”

 

 

She is so different from me and even how I sing as Mary Poppins is very different from my own singing voice. The removal of myself helped.

 

Preparation: I was a babysitter from really young age, 14, and then I also worked in a catering company, usually washing the dishes in the kitchen. The combination of babysitting and the catering company work certainly helped.

 

Eternal Magic of Mary Poppins:

She is a bit of a salve for people, her superpower is to infuse childlike wonder into your life.  And she sees the relevance and the importance of it.  And yet there’s something very sure-handed about her, she is so confident and that stems from how practical she is, that you are in safe hands and it’s not just about the fantastical nature, she makes sure you’re bathed and dressed and fed, all the practicalities of life are involved. What people respond to is the fact that they are in such safe hands with her and she is so confident and she thinks she is better than everyone and she probably is.  She is kind of a modern-day superhero, maybe the first superhero, before the Marvel movies began.

 

Acting with Children:

Says Blunt: The older two were just such pros and I adored them for very different reasons.  But I remember working with Joel Dawson one day, and I had a very long, fast-paced heavy monologue, and Joel was like, Emily, what do you get if you put the letter B in front of the word oobs?   And I was like, Joel, please stop.  It was things like fart jokes, just as I am trying to play this very put-together nanny.  Lin and I were on constant child wrangle patrol.” That little blonde Joel, it was his first film and he was completely wild.  We called it “Joel Wrangling,” and you would hear about ten voices around 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 just had to put up with him.”

Challenge of Dancing

The dancing was the most challenging part, and the whole green screen, like “Cover is Not the Book” musical number, because you are interacting with tennis ball that becomes a giraffe, and there’s a monkey on your head!  And you are just like crazy, doing live and animation at the same time. It was very often me making the mistakes, because the rest are professional dancers. You could see 30 lamplighters out of breath, OK, let’s go back, let’s do it again.  I was just lifted by them and they were like having to do all the lifting, but that was one of the most exciting times for me on the shoot.

Role of Education:

For Blunt, education is not about one plus one equals two, and knowing how to write perfectly, or list all of the states in America. “We need to create great thinkers and innovators and Mary Poppins has that–, anything is possible, even the impossible. It’s a great lesson when it comes to educating children who are so enriched with their own imagination anyway and let’s not squash or squander it.  It’s time for big ideas. I do prefer a kind of unconventional approach to education.  It certainly wasn’t the education that I had, which was pretty conventional. The school that I love for our kids is a really innovative school.”

Wishes for Her Own Kids:  

I obviously don’t want them to be teased or bullied, but that’s part of life, and it will happen. If it gets to the point where bullying is happening and it is really cruel, that will be agonizing for me.  But my older one is at a school where kindness is paramount and at our household kindness is paramount.  I want our kids to grow up with a great sense of justice and great empathy, and they are very empathetic children.

Magical Moments

The most interesting moments for me were her private moments, after she sings the ballad to the kid and she’s outside the door. Moments where there is sort of mystery to her and you are trying to figure out what she is thinking and what she is feeling.  Trying to find certain shifts in her was the most interesting part, that she is rather endlessly surprising.  A moment I really loved playing was when we were walking back down Cherry Tree Lane at the end and it’s a Summer fair and everything is happy and the magical world and the real world have sort of fused suddenly.  And they all walk off and run off and she realizes that they don’t need her anymore.

Reunion with Meryl Streep

We always play women who are contentious with each other. The movies I have done with Meryl, she is not very nice to me in them. I am wondering if maybe we could play sort of friends in the next one and I will pitch it to her and she will probably turn around and be like, dream on.’ I adore being around her and I love breathing the same air all day. She is so exciting to work with, completely unexpected and she throws curve balls at you all day. She is absolutely bonkers in this role and she is so funny.  That’s actually her swinging around the chandelier, she is completely mad.  She said to the kids, you ever seen a pratfall?  And the kids were like no, and she goes, watch this.  And she stood vertical and just hit the deck. I thought she was dead, it was just extraordinary. She fell flat on her face and everyone gasped and the crew ran forward. But she stood up and said calmly, ‘I learned that at Yale.’  And the kids were like, You’re our hero.’”

Escapist Entertainment: Hope and Joy

This sort of escapist spectacle and hopeful joy that a movie like this brings is nostalgic and maybe at a time gone by, but yet I remember when Marshall did “Chicago,” people said, ‘that will never work, and then it won Best Picture, and you realized the need for people to escape into a heightened world that’s fantastical and exciting. Certainly in the fragility of the times that people are now, and for many this is a very disconcerting time.  We must never see the ideas of hope and joy as being trivial words or trivial life choices.