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Of the three films every moviegoer ought to know before seeing Disney’s 2018 sequel Mary Poppins Returns, two are no-brainers: The 1964 classic Mary Poppins brought P.L. Travers’ books to life onscreen, and the 2013 biopic Saving Mr. Banks chronicled Walt Disney’s early interactions with the author to get that ’64 movie made.
The third film on the list is a surprise, but it served as the screen inspiration for new star Emily Blunt in her interpretation of beloved nanny Mary Poppins: Howard Hawks’ 1940 screwball hit, His Girl Friday. The classic comedy stars Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson (below), a fast-talking, quick-witted, practical journalist who ferociously wields the power of conversation and can discipline a room full of obnoxious men with just one look.
“She’s like a heroine for me, and in fact, that was the ‘in’ to the character that I discussed with [director Rob Marshall],” Blunt tells EW on the set of the sequel. “I love the pace at which things happen. It’s just so exciting. It’s the ‘30s in our film, and so it’s got a lightness and a rapid-fire quality to it, which I thought was right since Mary comes in and sweeps everything up and makes everything right again and it all happens before you even know it. There’s a pace that felt really right for the period and for the character. And stylistically, it’s a different look as well, and I love this whole era.”
Blunt’s approach to Mary Poppins takes fewer cues from Julie Andrews’ performance in 1964 and many more from Travers’ original eight-book series, which serves as the inspiration for the ‘30s-set story of Mary Poppins Returns. “I started to watch the film and then decided that wasn’t the way that would best serve me trying to come up with something original, so I just read the books and I found so much there,” says Blunt. “The books quickly became the source for me. I’m one of these people that, when I have an instinct about a character and I find an ‘in,’ I just go with it. The character jumped off the page and I immediately had an instinct about how to play her, and it’s in the direction the books were leading me to go.”
The Mary Poppins who lives in Travers’ books, which most audiences are likely far less familiar with than the Disney movie, does in fact call to mind that snappy pace of His Girl Friday. On the page, Mary Poppins has an implicit warmth, but she’s also overwhelmingly conceited, obsessed with perfection, easily offended, and quick to dispense an acidic barb to those who inconvenience her. Most chapters end with Mary, after having taken the Banks children up to the clouds or deep into the sea, insisting that the unimaginable thing that happened was just that — unimaginable. These are the levels Blunt has calibrated into her performance. “It is a bit surreal sometimes, but I’m just trying to approach her as I would any other character so I don’t get overwhelmed with the iconic image that people have of Mary Poppins,” says the actress.
Director Marshall, who says Blunt was his immediate first choice for the role when the project first arose, gushes about his leading star: “We really worked at figuring out who she is in the world and who she is in the adventures, because in the adventures, she lets herself go and can be eccentric and odd and in her element, and then in the real world, she absolutely denies anything ever happened. It was so astonishing to see Emily in rehearsals. She worked from the book and really found her way in. She has this incredible combination of mystery, humor, and warmth, but she’s also incredibly strict. There’s in some ways maybe a slight bit more darkness in her. It’s the full range. Emily finds that eccentricity and oddness and great depth of feeling and beautiful vulnerability. Mary Poppins herself can be an abrasive kind of character, so you have to find someone who underneath it has that warmth and that humor so you can have all the facets of Mary Poppins. And you have to find somebody who can sing and dance.”
Blunt more than proved her musical chops in Marshall’s 2014 film Into the Woods, but here, she says that the zippy dialogue serves a useful function in making Mary Poppins Returns hum along as pitch-perfectly as the character herself. “With a musical, you need that lightness so that the transitions don’t ever feel like, ‘Hey, here’s a song!’” Blunt chuckles. “Rob never likes things to transition perfectly into a beautiful musical number. He likes it to feel real and feel like if there’s something that’s just too big to say, then you’ve just got to sing it.”