Meryl Streep knew she wanted to be in Rob Marshall’s next movie. She just didn’t know what it was.
After teaming up on 2014’s Into the Woods, in which Streep reinvented the Broadway musical’s villainous Witch with Marshall’s direction, the actress, 69, and film director, 58, felt the continued collaborative connection that so many pairs do after a successful project. “Rob knew that I wanted in on whatever it was he did next,” Streep tells EW. As it turns out, Marshall’s next project after Into the Woods was a doozy: He and producer/partner John DeLuca were developing Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel to the 1964 musical classic, for Disney.
“I had no idea what he had in his head,” says Streep. “And when he and John invited me over to where they live to talk me through this idea, I thought, ‘They’re crazy, these two. They’re just insane. They’ve lost their minds.’” She laughs. “But it was such a big vision, and it was so ambitious that I said, ‘Oh well, I want to be in it, absolutely.’ Right away.”
Streep’s history with Mary Poppins is likely just like yours. “I was a kid and I remember every single one of the sets and all the people in it and the songs and the music and the spirit of it,” she says. “You know, I loved it. But I wasn’t familiar at all with the other P.L. Travers stories. I didn’t even know they existed.” So when Marshall told Streep the story he and his creative team were thinking about — a 1930s-set tale in which Mary returns to Cherry Tree Lane to help a now-grown Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) raise Michael’s children — Streep ran with it.
The role Marshall offered was Topsy, a cousin of Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) whom the nanny seeks out to fix a broken Banks family heirloom — except Mary makes the mistake (please, as if she would ever) of visiting Topsy’s shop on the second Wednesday of the month, when gravity-challenged Topsy’s life flips upside-down. Fans of Travers’ eight-book series, from which Mary Poppins Returns draws heavy inspiration, will recognize the character as a re-imagining of the “Topsy-Turvy” chapter from the second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back (in which Mary’s perspective-shifting cousin is actually a man named Arthur Turvy while Topsy is his maid and, later, wife).
Marshall’s vision — for unplaceably-accented Topsy and the film in general — struck a chord with Streep. “It’s an amalgam of those earlier books but also Rob’s own imagination and where he wanted to take it, which, if you know him by now, he’s a pretty big kid,” she says with a laugh. “The child in him never got put to bed. He’s up all night, jumping on the bed and thinking of ideas and laughing and giggling. So this idea of his, to take what the spirit of those books is, which is that you can take a sad circumstance and completely transform it with imagination and goodwill and a little bit of magic… that’s all embedded in the sequel. It’s not unlike the spirit of the original.”
Much as Streep quickly trusted Marshall’s big pitch, the power of appearing in a Mary Poppins movie only solidified into place for the actress when she arrived on set at London’s Shepperton Studios (where she had previously filmed Woods). Marshall insisted that Streep and other cast members get the right introduction to what the company had been rehearsing, so “before we shot an inch of film, he let us come watch [the musical number] ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ and it was unbelievable. Unbelievable!” she gushes. “I don’t know anybody else on Earth that could have done that except Rob Marshall. And that’s when I said, ‘Okay. This is a gift to the world.'”
“It’s going to be amazing,” Streep recalls thinking. “And you can kind of tell, you know? Everybody’s walking around with their cheeks a little pinker, and you just know that everybody… they’ve got a secret. They’ve got something really good under wraps until Christmas.”