Thursday 18 July 2019

'This film scared me more than anything' - Emily Blunt reveals why we need Mary Poppins now more than ever

Emily Blunt tells Julia Molony why now, more than ever, we all need a bit of Mary Poppins in our lives

Emily Blunt stars in 'Mary Poppins Returns'
Emily Blunt stars in 'Mary Poppins Returns'
Emily Blunt and John Krasinski

Julia Molony

Dressed in a puff-sleeved blouse and pale pink, high-waisted palazzo trousers, her hair neatly swept back, Emily Blunt is channelling Mary Poppins 2.0 today. The spirit of the magical nanny is unmistakably here in a dimly-lit London hotel room on a dull December day.

When Disney were developing the bold idea of a sequel to the beloved 1964 musical Mary Poppins, Blunt was, apparently, the only actress they believed who could fill the role.

It's not hard to see why she'd spring to mind to play a no-nonsense Edwardian-era nanny (though the new film is set 20 years later, during the depression). Her consonants are perfectly crisp. Her spine ram-rod straight. And I'd bet she could silence a stroppy child at 10 paces just by arching a perfectly-plucked eyebrow.

What's more, the execs at Disney knew that she can sing, after her show-stealing turn in 2015's Into The Woods. Yet behind the private-school primness (she went to the progressive London school Ibstock Place) there's a lightness, a humour in Blunt always vying to break through. And it's this quality which infuses her Mary Poppins with warmth. "She's like a superhuman," Blunt says of Poppins. "Because she is of such depth. It's the humanity and the superhuman quality that I really love about the character."

Since her breakthrough in film playing bitchy assistant Emily in The Devil Wears Prada, Blunt has become known for her controlled performances; she can be restrained and she can be arch, but beneath her porcelain composure we sense great depths of complex emotion.

So it makes sense that as Poppins, she's wryer and more knowing than the crystalline Andrews. Her voice has more gravel and grit, and there's a hint of irony in the set of her mouth. "I knew I had some very big shoes to fill and I knew I had my work cut out for me," Blunt says of the daunting task of re-imagining the role that had seemed tailor-made for her predecessor Andrews back in the 1960s.

"Obviously all those feelings come with a sense of apprehension. But I love a challenge and I love feeling a bit scared." Indeed, being a bit scared, she says is "usually why I want to do something. This film scared me more than anything, but I tried to approach it as I would any other role. I just tried to zen out the gasps of everybody around me when I told them I was playing Mary Poppins. If you are inundated with people gasping at you, you're like, 'oh my god, what am I doing? Maybe I'm crazy?' But I just absolutely fell in love with the character and so that overwhelmed the fear."

When preparing, she avoided going back to watch the original film, preferring instead to dive into the series of books by the Australian writer PL Travers who created the character. "I have memories of it," she says of the film, "but I didn't have memories of the details of what Julie did. And I think that was probably a good thing for me, personally. Because I didn't want to be intimidated... I had already got such a clear instinct of what I was wanting to go with from the book, that I didn't want to compromise at that point. Nobody wants to see me or anybody do a bad impersonation of Julie Andrews. It's sort of sacrilege to even try. I just knew that if I was going to take her on, it would have to be my own version of her. And hope for the best."

Her own version retains Poppins's essence, but with some updates. For one thing, "she's terribly vain. And Rob wanted her to look quite stylish. Even in the book, any reflective surface she can find she's looking in it. I always found that really funny in the book." She'd watched the film many times as a child, and was able to draw on what Poppins had represented to her then. "Maybe because she's a bit of a disciplinarian... that coming in and wrangling everything and making everything right again felt very comforting to me as a child. It felt like she was going to get the job done and I was in safe hands, and I kind of loved that about her. I think that's what kids do love about her."

Mary Poppins Returns takes place in "the slump" of the 1930s. Jane and Michael Banks are grown up now and Michael is a widower with three children of his own. Still living on Cherry Tree Lane, he has fallen on hard times, and it's into this crisis that Poppins enters. The era, Blunt says "was a time of fragility and a time when there was a certain disconcerting feeling out there in the world. And I think it has some relevance today. Maybe we all need a bit of Mary Poppins today."

In 2010 Blunt married American actor and screenwriter John Krasinski and the pair have two daughters, four-year-old Hazel and two-year-old Violet. When she'd wrapped filming, she sat down with Hazel to watch the original. "Hazel just absolutely loved it to the point where she was such a die-hard Julie Andrews fan," she says with a playful pout. "I was like, 'Do you know that there is another Mary Poppins film and Mummy plays Mary Poppins? In fact she watched the original again like a little traitor the other night.

"So many kids are just such riveted by the fantasia of it. And it's partly because what she infuses with magic are everyday things that they can understand. Like taking a bath or cleaning your room. It's everyday things that kids go through that can suddenly be injected with a sense of wonder. And real things, like the idea of loss, that a lot of kids experience. I really love that Mary Poppins is not someone who shies away from the cracked parts of all of us. That's where the light can shine through. I think that's how she sees the broken parts of us. I think kids respond to that. They're not to be trivialised in any way. And I think that kids are able to absorb those big messages."

Her own daughter Hazel has now seen both versions and "loves both of them to an immeasurable degree". Her only criticism of her mother's performance is that she leaves at the end. "Hazel was absolutely inconsolable watching the film when I left at the end," Emily says. "I remember feeling really sad when she leaves, because it is like a loss."

On the bright side, however, Blunt herself won't be flying off anywhere any time soon. After a long run of filming, with this and her next project Jungle Cruise, she's planning a long stretch of time at home.

"I'm going to take some time to be at home for the next six months."

'Mary Poppins Returns' is in cinemas now.

Read more:  Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns review: 'Producers so fearful of tarnishing Ms Poppins' good name, they've created something shiny and dead'

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