How Emily Blunt made singing nanny her own in Mary Poppins Returns
English actress Emily Blunt went back to the books to find her take on the beloved musical icon
Even though she spent the last few years portraying intense, dark characters in films like The Girl On The Train, Sicario and A Quiet Place, nothing made Emily Blunt more nervous than taking on the beloved role of the miracle-working titular character in Mary Poppins Returns.
The 35-year-old English actress said during our interview at the Montage Beverly Hills hotel: "I think there was a bit of a stunned silence when (director Rob Marshall) said, 'I want you to play Mary Poppins'. I was like, 'Oh my goodness!' I felt like my hair blew back, I was so stunned. And terribly excited at the same time. Yes, I was nervous, but so excited to play her."
Everyone knows the original 1964 movie musical fantasy with Julie Andrews playing the nanny who swoops into the Banks household in 1910 London and takes care of the kids Michael and Jane, solving the family's problems in her magical but no-nonsense way.
In the sequel currently showing here, set in Depression-era London, Michael and Jane (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer) are grown-ups.
Michael is so mourning the loss of his wife that he has lost touch with his three children, who run amok. Aunt Jane does her best, but even she cannot help her brother when he learns he is behind on payments and could lose their childhood home.
So it's Mary Poppins once more to the rescue, this time helped by her lamplighter friend Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).
Dick Van Dyke from the first movie makes a cameo as the owner of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank which employs Michael, Colin Firth plays the villainous bank manager and Meryl Streep appears briefly as Mary's mad cousin Topsy.
Blunt, who saw the old film as a child but decided not to rewatch it, went back to the P.L. Travers books on which the movies are based to create her own Mary Poppins, and find the "subtle and fleeting private, tender moments" of the person behind the nanny.
"I didn't want to just impersonate Julie Andrews," she said.
"What she did should be treasured and preserved and not sort of butchered by me. So I knew if I was going to take on this role, I had to completely carve out new space for myself .
"In the books, Mary is completely bizarre, unknowable and eccentric, and very rude, funny and vain. And so how do you play somebody who is completely in command of the environment that she is in and yet pretends not to be?
"She is grounded and yet airborne, she is magical and yet practical. She never reveals her inner workings to anybody. She was just terribly exciting to play, that duality of the character."
The singing in Mary Poppins Returns was easier for Blunt than in the 2014 Into the Woods, which co-starred Streep and was directed by Marshall.
"The (songs in Mary Poppins Returns) were songs that were tailor-made for me and my strengths and workshopped for months in advance."
Streep's cameo for the Turning Turtle musical number is one of the highlights of the movie, and their reunion was a happy one for Blunt.
"I adore being around her. She is so exciting to work with, completely unexpected and surprising. She is absolutely bonkers in this role and so funny.
"Everyone was hanging around between takes and she said to the kids, 'Have 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 and like, 'That's it, that's how Meryl Streep dies'. It was extraordinary. She fell flat on her face and everyone gasped, then she stood up and was like, 'I learned that at Yale'," she said with a laugh.
Blunt - who has two daughters aged four and two with her husband, US actor John Krasinski - also adored the three child actors on the set, especially "the little blonde one" Joel Dawson.
She said: "It was his first film and he was completely wild and brilliant. You would hear about 10 voices around the set as they were rolling going, 'Joel, focus, Joel, Joel?' Because he was just bouncing off the walls. And yet when you put the camera on him, he was so magical that you just had to put up with it.
"The older two were just such pros and I adored all of them for different reasons.
"But I remember working with Joel one day and they were rolling and I had a big monologue coming up. He was like, 'Emily, what do you get if you put the letter B in front of the word oobs?'" she said with a laugh.
"It was endless things like that, like fart jokes, just as I am trying to play this very put-together nanny."
But for Blunt, the hardest part was "probably the dancing".
"Especially the whole green screen A Cover Is Not The Book (animated) musical number, because you are interacting with tennis balls.
"Rob is going, 'that tennis ball is a giraffe and there's a monkey on your head'," she said, laughing.
The writer is the president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a non-profit organisation of entertainment journalists that also organises the annual Golden Globe Awards.