There is only one Mary Poppins and that was Julie Andrews in the 1964 film. But Mary Poppins was a character in a series of P.L. Travers books, so why haven’t we seen her again in 50 years? This month, Mary Poppins Returns in the form of Emily Blunt.
Mary visits the Banks family again, now that Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are grown up. She helps the family through hard times, via Michael’s own children and a lamplighter, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Director Rob Marshall and and the cast of Mary Poppins Returns gave a press conference in Los Angeles and Dream Alliance was there. Mary Poppins Returns opens Wednesday, December 19.
Q: Why Mary Poppins Returns, Rob?
RM: I thought to myself, when this came my way, that if anybody’s going to 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 on this panel do, in our 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. An original musical, there are so many layers to it. With this one, creating an original musical from scratch was actually for me dream. I had never done it before and to be able to create with this beautiful company was exactly what I was hoping for. I have to say 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, including to this very moment when people are actually now seeing the film. It feels so current to me. I’m just speaking for myself but I feel people need this film now. I certainly knew that I wanted to live in that world and be part of that. Sending that message into that world now of looking for hope and light in a dark time. That’s why we set our film in the Depression era in London, the time of the books. It was really so it could feel accessible and feel like it’s a story that needs to be told now.
Q: Is this your most personal film?
RM: I think 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. To look at it from an angle, from a different point of view, 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 honestly was able to explore that idea in making this film. It was incredibly hard work, probably the hardest work I’ve ever had to do on a film, but at the same exact time incredibly joyous for that very reason.
Q: How did this come about for Emily Blunt?
EB: I got a voicemail from Rob who is my dear friend and we’ve known each other a long time. The voicemail certainly had a sort of charged energy to it. I was like oh my God, what is it? What is this project? 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, that even the phone call had such a sense of ceremony to it. He said to me, “We’ve been digging through the Disney archives and by far their most prized possession…” I was like, “What is it?” I couldn’t think what it was. When you said Mary Poppins I felt like the air changed in the room. It was such an extraordinary, rather unparalleled moment for me. 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 such a big imprint on my life and on everyone’s lives. People hold this character so close to their hearts. So how do I create my version? 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, so she should be preserved and treasured in her own way, what she did. I knew this was going to be something that I wanted to take a big swing with and I knew I could do it with this man, the most emboldening, meticulous, brilliant director in the world. I was in safe hands with him, however much I knew I had my work cut out for me.
Q: Where did you find all the colors of Mary Poppins?
EB: 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, how unknowable she is in this wonderful way. That duality of the character that she is stern and she is incredibly rude and vain but funny. Yet there is this humanity. She has to herself have such a charmed wonder in her in order to want to infuse these children’s lives with it. There must, under that, be a generosity of spirit to want to fix and heal in the way that she does. So I think for me and certainly for Rob when we talked about it a year and a half before we even started rehearsing, we would talk about her so much. We both wanted to find those layers and those moments of humanity. Also the fact that she’s probably a bit of an adrenaline junkie. She loves these adventures. It’s just her outlet. So just finding those moments so she’s not just one thing because she is so enigmatic. It was such a delicious character to play, loved it.
Q: How did Lin-Manuel join Mary Poppins Returns?
LMM: First of all, I remember going to the Midnight premiere screening of Chicago at the Ziegfeld theater, RIP Ziegfeld theater. And seeing Chicago with everyone else who had the premiere date written in blood on their calendars and seeing the greatest modern movie musical I’d ever seen in my life. So when I got a call from Rob Marshall and [producer] John De Luca, “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. 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, “Sequel to Mary Poppins.” And I said, “Who’s going to play Mary Poppins?” And they said, “Emily Blunt” and I said, “Oh, that’s good.” I can’t give them enough credit for seeing this role in me because when I played Hamilton, there is no childlike wonder in Alexander Hamilton. He has a very traumatic early life. He gets on that stage and he wants to devour the world and he wants to move so fast and he wants to do everything. Whereas Jack in this movie has this childlike sense of wonder. He’s in touch with that imagination you all see in your kids when they can play in their own imagination for hours. Jack never lost that. I feel so humble that he saw that in me and from that drink, I was in. It came along at the perfect time for my family too. We finished a year of performing Hamilton and then I chopped my hair off and left the country and jumped into Mary Poppins’s universe.
Q: What was your favorite part of making the film?
LMM: There are so many. You’ve seen the film. 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 their energy that day, to go, “Okay, Thursday we’ll be shutting down Buckingham Palace and riding with 500 bicyclists, and Friday you’ll be dancing with the penguins.” Those kinds of moments are really unforgettable. I brought my son to set every time we filmed a musical number and to watch his eyes like saucers while daddy danced with what seems like 500 dancers and bikers, I’ll never forget the look on his face as long as I live.
Q: Emily Mortimer, how did you step into the world of the child from the original Mary Poppins?
EM: It was a sleight of hand of Rob’s where he is the puppet master and he’s absolutely kind of Mary Poppins himself. You just sort of know what to do without having to worry about it too much and he’s protecting you from all the anxiety and the stress of the burden of knowing that this is such a huge thing and this is such a huge legacy and we’re in charge of this. None of that came into it. We’ve got to just do this, we’ve got to have fun doing this, we’ve got to do right by this in the best, sweetest way. It was just a joy and the only thing I thought about in preparing for the part of Jane in terms of what I took from the original movie was those two parents, who were just such brilliant characters in the original movie, the mother and the father. They’re so absentia, they’re so kind of out of lunch, both of them. On the one hand, terrible parents but on the other hand full of love. They’re completely absent and they make you feel better about your own failed parents and your own failure as a parent. I just felt who would this girl be who had those two for a mother and father?
Q: Ben, how did you create the portrayal of adult Michael Banks?
BW: It was brilliantly written. It was all there. You just have to do it. They’d wrote this beautiful role, so delicate and so perceptive. It was so clever to get that in there whilst also making the whole film fantastical and magical and brilliant. It was very instinctive. I didn’t have to think too much about it. I was thinking about my brother because my brother has two kids and he’s a very anxious man. I did think about him, because I’m not a father. I thought of my brother and about how difficult it is for him to have those two little ones and the anxiety and the stress and the money and jobs and everything, food.
Q: How did it feel to sing “The Place Where Lost Things Go?”
EB: I remember those early days of coming to [songwriter Marc Shaiman’s] apartment and singing that song. I was so incredibly moved by it that I found it virtually impossible to get through the first times I sang it. It was so emotional for me because I did think of my own children. These children in the film, their sense of loss and they’re trying to hold their father together. They’ve dealt with something so profound and so agonizing, to lose a parent. To be so young and miss her so much, I’m going to cry thinking about it. It just moved me so much. On the day, it was one of my favorite days on set. We shot that song over a couple days. It is that she recognizes what they need in that moment and gives it to them in this very tender way. This song is so true and she doesn’t shy away from the fact that they’ve lost something, but there’s cracks of light. There’s something to learn from. The idea of loss is something that they can digest as children and to walk through. You are going to walk through this loss but nothing’s gone forever, only out of place. It’s just such a hopeful way to look at loss.
Q: How do you balance Julie Andrews’ performance and the P.L. Travers version from the books and your own spin on Mary Poppins?
EB: I think for me, what I decided to do was, even though I’d seen it as a child, was not watch the original so close to shooting our version. Because I think probably because she is so beautiful and extraordinary, I think I would have maybe tried to accommodate some way what she did and let that bleed into what I wanted to do. I just decided 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. That was the decision really. If I was going to carve out new space for myself, it was going to have to be without watching details of what Julie did so close to shooting. I have this searing memory of Mary Poppins but not of all the tiny details of how she played the character. As soon as we wrapped, I watched the original and was just floored by it, probably relieved that I hadn’t watched because I was like my God, she’s amazing.
Q: Rob, how did you want the visual effects to fit in with the groundbreaking effects of the original movie, for an audience who’s seen everything?
RM: I try as much as I can to do it as real as possible. That’s why I was so anxious and excited to shoot on location. Lin drives by St. Paul’s. That is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Of course the first film, it’s that beautiful Peter Ellenshaw painting. Because we were setting this in the ‘30s, in a more real time, I really love the juxtaposition between the real world that we were shooting and this real family. I wanted you to really connect emotionally to these people and know that they were real. And then these fantasias and adventures that Mary Poppins takes them on, then we could go so many places and come back to this real world. The hope for me was that by the end of the film, they combine, they collide. So all of a sudden, Michael is at a place emotionally where he can bring fantasy into his real life. That’s when he has that beautiful moment where he says, “I never thought I’d feel such joy and wonder ever again. I thought that door was closed to me forever” which was the door opening that Mary Poppins was speaking to when she can leave. It was really finding that real world and then these two different worlds. That was the plan.