The British-born actor tells us all about her supercalifragilisticexpialidocious experience
For her latest role as the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to the 1964 Disney classic, Emily Blunt rode a bicycle around a soundstage in full 1930s Mary Poppins regalia — hat, blouse with a bow tie, red dress coat with a capelet and those chunky shoes — all while trying to maintain a queenly poise.
It was by no means the hardest thing she’d ever done in character. She had to learn Krav Maga, an aggressive self-defence and combat system, for 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, and in last year’s sleeper hit A Quiet Place — a thriller written and directed by husband John Krasinski — she conveyed impossible fear without making a sound. Nor was the Mary Poppins role the first that required her to sing; her musical chops were on show in 2014’s Into the Woods.
But taking on the role of a beloved cinematic icon, one of the most daring moves you can make in Hollywood, was a first for the 35-year-old British-American actor. The title character of Mary Poppins, based on the books by PL Travers, was originally played by the luminous Julie Andrews. The movie, which was an instant hit upon its release 55 years ago and continued to be standard childhood viewing for decades, won five of its 13 Oscar nominations, with Andrews taking home the award for Best Actress.
Mary Poppins Returns is set in 1935, a gloomy time of global economic depression, and follows the Banks children as they become parents themselves. The film sprinkles the same fairy dust as the original, thanks to the music, the visual spectacle and some major star power: Meryl Streep, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer and the great Lin-Manuel Miranda. It earned awards buzz when it premiered last November, so we caught up with the star of the show ahead of next month’s Oscar race.
Were you a big fan of Mary Poppins, like the rest of us?
Emily: She is such an icon really, and emblematic of your childhood nostalgia in many ways. The thing that strikes me is the memory of seeing Mary Poppins and being so comforted as a child by the idea of this magical, enigmatic person, sweeping in and making it all right again. I felt very comforted by that. And so I did have a love affair with Mary Poppins as a child. I think a lot of people did.
You had to sing, act and dance for the role — which one challenged you the most?
Emily: I am dancing with some of the best, so that has been daunting. But we have lots of rehearsals and it has been terribly exciting as well.
Are you excited for your kids to meet Mary Poppins?
Emily: Very much. And they have been on set. The three-year-old must think I have the strangest job in the world.
You’ve worked with Meryl Streep and director Rob Marshall before, what was it like this time?
Emily: Meryl is a wonderful person and a great friend really. I always seem to be bullied by Meryl in some way in some film (laughs). This is the same all over again. We have this slightly contentious relationship, which is very funny and great fun to play. Rob is heaven. He’s just so meticulous and elegant. He digs for the gold and he knows how to do that, every day, with every take. He’s got such a fantastic eye. I have never met anyone who pays such attention to detail as he does. It is the most magical experience.
How about working with Lin-Manuel Miranda?
Emily: Lin is a fab guy. He is really bright, obviously. Everyone knows him for Hamilton. He’s confident and throws himself willingly into any scenario. He’s quite an infectious personality to be around.
What do you think makes Mary Poppins so appealing?
Emily: It’s her mystery and the fact that she has this enigmatic master plan, yet you are not made aware of it. She certainly doesn’t push it on you until the end. And she’s somebody who does so much for people and improves their lives for the better but takes no credit. She’s a pretty fabulous person. She’s also vain and stylish (laughs), so there are many layers of wonderful qualities to play.
How different is your version of Mary from the last one?
Emily: I don’t know, and I don’t quite like to sum it up. I can only do my version of her, really. Rob Marshall is so loving and nurturing that he made it feel like an intimate experience.
I didn’t [rewatch] the original film [to prep for the role]. I had seen it as a child, so that image [of her] was [embedded] into my memory. I just read the books. However people view it, it’s my version of her. And I hope people like it (laughs). I took her from the books where she is batty, eccentric and incredibly vain. It was just a joy to play somebody who knows that she is better than everybody.
But, ultimately, she has this incredibly warm core … there is this plan that she takes people on. She is magical. She loves the plan. She loves the journey.
What’s the one thing that turns you instantly from Emily into Mary Poppins?
Emily: The shoes! The shoes destroy my feet, so I take breaks from them. But I love them. They are very transporting.
This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Smile magazine.