Magic to do: Inside Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda's journey with Mary Poppins Returns
It’s one thing to land a job playing an iconic superhero or a famous historical figure, but a role like Mary Poppins — or, for that matter, any of the whimsical characters who pop up in the untethered orbit of the nanny from P.L. Travers’ book series and Disney’s 1964 film — doesn’t circle Hollywood quite as often. That’s why Mary Poppins Returns has signified nothing less than a benchmark career moment for its two leads, long before the Disney sequel even arrives in theaters on Dec. 19.
Blunt, 35, steps into the iconic part (originated onscreen in 1964 by Julie Andrews) after accumulating a critically-acclaimed, genre-be-damned body of work with films like The Devil Wears Prada, The Girl on the Train, Sicario, Into the Woods, and this year’s sleeper hit A Quiet Place. Miranda, 38, the musical tour-de-force behind Broadway’s Hamilton and In the Heights, takes his first major cinematic leap to leading man as Jack, a lamplighter who witnessed Mary’s magic firsthand as a child apprenticing at the feet of Mary’s charmed chimney sweep friend, Bert (Dick Van Dyke). Both Blunt and Miranda know what they signed up for with Mary Poppins Returns — the comparisons, the expectations, the challenges of subverting both — but the duo is understandably eager for audiences to finally get a look at what they’ve been conjuring up in secret for several hush-hush years. For the umbrella to drop, as it were.
In late October, Blunt and Miranda sat down with EW in Manhattan for a cup of tea and a conversation. They talk about the film’s set like it’s a charmed memory: dancing in the streets of London with director Rob Marshall (Chicago), demoing new ballads and showstoppers in New York with songwriters Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (who also penned the film’s score), and joining cast members like Meryl Streep, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, and Angela Lansbury in the collective task of showing audiences that Travers’ children’s books — and the unpredictable character of Mary Poppins herself — have more magic to share yet.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, who is Mary Poppins?
EMILY BLUNT: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
I’d actually like to start things off by asking, what are you most frequently asked?
BLUNT: For me, it’s usually along the lines of taking on a role as iconic played by somebody as iconic as Julie. What was that like?
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: What was your relationship to Poppins growing up? Dick Van Dyke. The accent.
BLUNT: [Laughs] And the dancing.
MIRANDA: You know, people don’t ask me about the dancing.
BLUNT: Because they assume you’re a natural dancer!
MIRANDA: I know. They’ve been fooled.
BLUNT: By both of us!
Lin, when I was on set last year you were very determined to master a specific hat toss.
BLUNT: [Gasps] He got it on the first take.
MIRANDA: Well, no, I did in a rehearsal… and that’s why it’s in the damn movie. This is why you have to be careful what you do around Rob Marshall and [producer] John DeLuca. I did it and they were like, “Can you do that again?” Then you [gestures to Blunt] showed up with the kids and I did it again and the kids were like, “Whaaat?!” but cut to me two months later…
BLUNT: It was just too much pressure. And it was a night shoot, so we had very limited kids’ hours on set.
MIRANDA: But it was worth it for the cheers from the crew when it finally happened.
BLUNT: They had to edit them out of the film.
Emily, did Mary require a specific physical skill you had to hone?
BLUNT: I have an inability to spin when I’m dancing. It became this in-joke with Rob and John. They were like, “Do not make her turn.” Truly, I don’t know why I can’t. I can pick up other steps fine. And I think the one spin that they actually ended up using in the film… Rob had to use three different cuts to execute. Not three spins, but three-quarters of one spin that I could barely make around. [Laughs] So I don’t know if I ever honed that skill. But certainly with three cuts in there, it looked like I did.
Is it true you began your first day on Mary Poppins Returns with an animated dance number?
BLUNT: Believe it or not, that was day one. Terror.
MIRANDA: Our joint choreography, terror, but also finding everything together. It was such a lovely mix working with these [filmmakers] in terms of what their vision is and how it fits on you. They make these parts like tailored suits. It was a lot of figuring out our way through it, and animators giving notes like, “The penguin’s going to be a little heavier holding onto your cane, can you show us that?” It was like all of the avant-garde training I did as a theater major at Wesleyan came in handy dealing with imaginary penguins and invisible costars. [Laughs.]
Lin, you call this your first “big movie.” What did you quickly realize was not normal for the typical big-movie experience?
MIRANDA: The highs were so high, in terms of: “Today we’re dancing with penguins, tomorrow we’re dancing with Meryl Streep, the next day we’re biking in front of Buckingham Palace.” For me, coming from theatre, the adrenaline source is having the audience there. And when you take that audience away, where is it? Where does that part come from? And you realize, it comes from, “We’re never coming back to Buckingham Palace to get a second take.” The adrenaline source is in getting it right in that moment.
Emily, what differentiated this set from others for you?
BLUNT: It is to do with Rob, because he is so meticulous in how he approaches a film. Normally — we have this expression in England — it’s a bit of a kick-bollocks scramble to get through the day. You’re coming in blind, you haven’t rehearsed, you’re rewriting scenes on the day. I’ve had that on almost every other [project].
MIRANDA: I’m writing that down. Kick-bollocks scramble.
BLUNT: You can have that one. A kick-bollocks scramble. And it can feel like you’re making a film with a gun to your head. But with this, working with Rob, everything was so detailed, eight weeks of rehearsal, every set perfectly taped out on the floor. So that on the day of shooting, there was the freedom for just details alone, and that is beautiful, as an actor, to experience. Rather than trying to play catch-up and make the schedule and “we’re losing the light!” — tonally, we were a company by that point, and we were all in the same movie and we knew exactly what film we were doing.
MIRANDA: Emily, I don’t know if you remember this, but you gave me the best advice on the first day, which is, Rob’s not going to move on unless he has it. And that got me out of so much neurosis. I just knew I had to give everything. Rob sees it better than us.
BLUNT: I think Rob, deep down, will always have a dancer’s mentality, which is that you run it until it is absolutely perfect and as spectacular as it could possibly be. Even though he could have muddled it up in [post-production] and cut this bit and that bit together, instead we would run the scenes until the magic, the good stuff, the juicy stuff was all there and everyone did a perfect take.
MIRANDA: The sweetest words when we were filming dance numbers: “Thank you, we have that.”
I’m sorry to ask this, but since this is Mary Poppins: do you know what “spilling tea” means?
MIRANDA: Of course.
BLUNT: What’s “spilling tea”?
MIRANDA: Spill the tea!
It’s like, delivering the gossip. I just think Mary Poppins would have liked to know that phrase.
BLUNT: Okay, I’m gonna take that and you can have kick-bollocks scramble. Mary spills the tea. Ooh, I’m gonna say it.
Okay, so, when you both agreed to Rob’s invitation to be in the film: Lin, you were still in Hamilton, and Emily, you were about to do The Girl on the Train—
BLUNT: Which is so similar. The cheeks were ever so pink on that one. [Laughs]
You were both cast individually. When did you first officially meet to talk about this giant secret you were holding?
BLUNT: We had actually met before because I was a Hamilton junkie. I had gone to see it way before I had been asked to do Mary Poppins, and I had accosted Lin backstage at every performance. So the first time, it was wanting to see it, the incredible spectacle that it was. And then I saw it again with my mother. But then by the time I came back with my father…
MIRANDA: I think we knew by then. And it was a really stressful show. I honestly felt like I was auditioning for Mary Poppins, the person. [Laughs] I think that night was the first time we were both like, ‘Holy s—.’
BLUNT: The whole project was cloaked in a sense of protection, and by that time, it had sunk in that it was happening. I had been working on these songs that Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman had been crafting so beautifully, and it was becoming so deep in my bones that I was going to be doing this, and that first overwhelming rush of thrill and fear when I got offered this role had diluted to something quite real and I was so in love with the character already. And so I think it was exciting knowing that Lin and I were going to be playing cohorts and kindred spirits, and that we were going to have a laugh as well.
Mary is notoriously mysterious, and Jack is a brand-new character not from P.L. Travers’ books. How did you figure out who your characters were to each other?
BLUNT: I think they have a chemistry that comes from a place of really understanding each other and understanding what the magic’s all about. Jack is such a hopeful character and so effervescent, and she senses that kindred spirit in him.
MIRANDA: He grew up alongside the Banks kids, but he was the kid shining shoes outside while they were living in the house. And they’ve written off their relationship with Mary Poppins, but Jack never forgot. Jack sees Mary Poppins and remembers it all for the magic that it is.
Emily, was it difficult to play a character like this who has so many enigmatic blanks to fill in?
BLUNT: The mystique of her is kind of what I love. And this strange duality, that you’ve got this rather stern front and yet the lining of her coat is completely batty and eccentric and that’s just who she is. It’s like, when she goes on these adventures, she needs it and wants it just as much as the kids. She loves going on these adventures. It’s like her fix, you know? And yet, she pretends it doesn’t happen, and she makes it all about you. So because she is mystical and because you don’t really know what she is and she’s so open to interpretation of what you feel she is or who she is to you, I didn’t mind the unknown of it. It’s something for me think about and imagine my version of what I think she is and where she goes or who she looks after.
MIRANDA: Maybe she goes to Hogwarts.
BLUNT: But who knows? She likes that element of who knows.
What could you only tell me about Mary Poppins that you couldn’t have possibly told me before filming began?
BLUNT: I actually feel the thing I discovered most — which she would be surprised to hear because it’s so not how she presents herself — is that she’s the most empathetic character I’ve ever played. There’s nothing manipulative about her generosity. She expects nothing in return. She takes no credit for anything that she does. She makes it completely a voyage of self-discovery for you, for healing [the Banks] family. And then she leaves. I think that’s probably the ultimate form of empathy, isn’t it? To recognize what people need and give it to them and not expect anything in return, at all, ever.
I’ve actually never thought of her like that until just now. Especially in the books, where Mary Poppins has such a heightened sense of arrogance — practically perfect, always correcting her appearance in the mirror — it almost distracts you from recognizing the character as being truly selfless.
BLUNT: Rob and I really wanted to work hard on finding the private moments, which I don’t think were explored as much in the original. Finding just a little crack where you see a little piece of her. The moments where I’m not looking at the kids, the moments where she’s completely alone, like when I slide into the bathtub and she says “Off we go!” She’s so excited. That was really important to Rob and I to find those windows to the soul a little bit, because she is superhuman, but where do you find moments of humanity? She’s got to be full of feeling in order to want to do this for this family.
Lin, how did you find your way into the role of Jack?
MIRANDA: I was chained to my dialect coach Sandra Butterworth, who was the greatest, and if I pull this accent off a little, it’s because of her, and if I failed completely, it’s all my fault.
BLUNT: No, no it’s not!
MIRANDA: But we listened to a lot of Anthony Newley, which was really fun, and a lot of old 1930s music hall recordings. Listening to singers of the era was really helpful for me because we quickly realized that while I could study a list of words, if I could listen to a song and memorize it that was half the battle. So it was a lot of Anthony Newley and “Pop goes the weasel” and “Pocketful of treacle.” It became really fun finding the musical way into Jack.
As the cast filled up, names kept being added to the list like Angela Lansbury, Meryl Streep, and Colin Firth. Tell me about some of those days on set.
MIRANDA: My favorite one of those is when Colin Firth finally came to set for the first time, and the kids all saw him and started singing ABBA.
BLUNT: [Laughs] He was horrified. He was literally like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah, yep,” trying to shut them up.
MIRANDA: Everyone was like “This is Colin Firth, he’s playing the bank manager.” And the kids were just like, “Daaaaancing queeeen!”
BLUNT: All I want to do is embarrass Colin. He’s been a friend for a while. I love him. But I take such deep joy in Colin Firth’s embarrassment.
MIRANDA: One of the greatest moments I experienced on set was Meryl. She was sort of in weird Mary Poppins aunt mode the whole time, and at one point she goes, “Hey kids, wanna see a perfect pratfall?” And just boom, went from 90 degrees, face down. It was crazy. You haven’t seen Buster Keaton do a pratfall like this. And everyone rushes over like, “Meryl Streep has died!”
BLUNT: It was astonishing. I’ve never seen someone fall faster and flatter. I gasped, and I thought, “That it, that’s how Meryl Streep dies.”
MIRANDA: And then she got up and was just like [wiping hands] “I learned that at Yale.”
What was your experience with Angela Lansbury?
MIRANDA: So, I would DJ in the makeup booth every morning, because I had weirdly a long time in makeup. They had to paint that stubble. I can’t really grow that.
BLUNT: Lin is, like you can see, a hairless dolphin. It’s all goatee. That’s why Hamilton looked great. Anyway.
MIRANDA: Anyway, I’m in there an hour and they’re planting stubble, and I would DJ every morning, and one morning I realized I was blasting Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop from Sweeney Todd while Angela was in the next room over, and I just [long, horrified gasp]. But I’m not even sorry. She was such a sweetheart about it. I mean, she’s f—ing Mrs. Lovett! And you can just go all the way down the line, it’s a complete who’s who of musical theater just through her resume.
BLUNT: She’s very tall, I was surprised. So elegant and sharp.
MIRANDA: And when she sang, it was magical. Magical, to hear Angela Lansbury singing.
And finally, we have to talk about Dick Van Dyke. What do you recall about that day of shooting?
MIRANDA: No acting required.
BLUNT: Just grinning. Lin and I were supposed to assist Dick up onto a desk.
MIRANDA: It was completely unnecessary.
BLUNT: He just waved us away, almost like, “Get out of my way.” He was so game and so agile.
MIRANDA: That was also the most emotional day on set. He has this beautiful monologue, but then he also sang [off-script] “Feed the Birds.” Now, I never saw the end of Mary Poppins until I was in high school because when I was a kid “Feed the Birds” would come on and that melody was so sad, I would burst into tears and turn off the movie. So to have Dick Van Dyke beautifully performing this incredible monologue and then those notes, which still wreck me to this day… it was very tough holding it together.
BLUNT: That was the day that Rob cried, hard. I knew that Rob was struggling to hold it together because Dick finished his speech and there was a huge pause and no one was saying “cut.” That was when we all realized that this really was the next chapter and what an honor it was to carry this on.
Had you previously felt the need to compartmentalize the gravity of all this?
BLUNT: I did, going into this, [hear] the preamble of everyone turning to me — including a friend of mine who said, “You’ve got balls of steel” — and I just tried to allow all of that to be white noise and approach [Mary Poppins] as I would any other character. But that was the beauty of Rob. He kept it so that you didn’t feel the bigness too much. We just focused on this story and these people and this moment. But then when Dick van Dyke came on set, it was quite disarming for everybody in an extraordinary way.
Emily, when we spoke on set last year, you had not interacted with Julie Andrews yet about the role. Has that changed?
BLUNT: I met her years and years ago, but I have not spoken to her personally since embarking on this whole adventure. But Rob knows her and they’re very good friends and she was the one who was very sweet and gave her blessing. Can you imagine if she was like, “Oh, her?” I would be devastated. I haven’t spoken to her directly though. I would love to!
What was a time you were most impressed by each other on set?
BLUNT: It’s not surprising, but the time I was so thrilled I got the front row seat to watching Lin was the first time I saw him on camera, cameras rolling, costumed, fully rapping, bouncing up and down stairs, with props and penguins, and it’s all so fast. That’s when you just see, like, talent hitting you between the eyes.
MIRANDA: Oh my goodness. Well, my answer comes at the end of filming, during the final moments with Mary Poppins. And this is where you’re like, “Oh, she’s really a f—ing movie star.” Because what would not be different for 999 out of 1,000 actors holding still on camera, you see an entire life, an entire thought process on Emily. I watched take after take.
What were your afterschool reports like, when you both went home to explain to your families what you did that day at work?
BLUNT: It was kind of hilarious because John [Krasinski], at the time of me rehearsing and shooting this, was writing A Quiet Place. Another joy bomb! He was literally at the top of the house, which he turned into a writing office, and he was in this dark abyss of figuring out Quiet Place which is such an anguished, fear-stricken world. And I’d come home and be like, “We did this extraordinary dance number today with 40 lamplighters!” And John’s like [deep, gruff] “Ya did?” [Laughs] We were coming from these polarized worlds but it was really beautiful because he said, “It was so wonderful to hear about your day because it’s like I can go towards the light.”
MIRANDA: For me, the joy was my son was just starting to become himself. He was a year and a half, 2, and I would go home and practice the dances and he would be next to me waving a stick.
BLUNT: The videos were so cute. Oh Lin, I have to show you this picture I found.
MIRANDA: And wait, I gotta find the picture of our kids together on set.
[Blunt and Miranda show iPhone photos of their children for about three minutes. They’re really cute.]
On an almost daily basis, this set seemed enchanted. What was it like to adjust back to normal life after you wrapped?
BLUNT: I always feel that there’s a bit of a loss when you end a project, especially one as clearly magical and life-affirming and life-shifting for both Lin and I like this. When I’ve really enjoyed a project, I stare out of a window and feel a bit sad for a week. But in many ways, I fell more easily back into step after Mary Poppins because I had been working with children the entire time and then went back to my life with my own children. In some ways it was an easier adjustment than usual.
MIRANDA: You hear that cliché of actors saying “I don’t watch my movies” and I’d always go, [whispers] “You’re full of crap.” But this was the first time I got it! I for the first time understood the experience of making a film being a joy in and of itself and not about the final product. Because every day was such a joyous, surreal activity. It was almost like, this movie doesn’t ever even have to see the light of day — I just had the best eight months of my life. But I think it permeates what you see on that screen.
Should Mary Poppins return again?
BLUNT: I remember when we shot the arrival scene from the skies, where I was 50 feet in the air hanging from a crane and just so scared. Rob blared the music from the speakers as I was coming in, this incredible score, and it helped combat the fear. And as I landed, I remember one of the camera guys came up and was like [Cockney accent] “I got really choked up watchin’ you arrive there. Got really emotional watchin’ you do that.” And it was so beautiful because it just kind of reminded me how I think people really need a film like this and a moment like this — for hope to reappear from the skies. Maybe we didn’t realize how much we wanted her to come back. And now she’s back.