Mary Poppins: Emily Blunt is Practically Perfect
20th December 2018
Emily Blunt is busy dazzling cinema audiences at Christmas time in Mary Poppins Returns. Eileen Leahy reveals why the British actor is the perfect choice to play this legendary character
As acting roles go, reprising one of cinema’s most famous figures would seem like a pretty daunting task for most actors but it would appear that Emily Blunt, 35, is taking it all in her stride.
The English actress who first found fame as the steely and manipulative Emily in The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 is quite literally landing in cinemas this Christmas – brolly firmly in hand – as the world’s most famous nanny in Mary Poppins Returns.
She takes over the role of the supercalifragilistic-expialidocious character 54 years after Julie Andrews played the part in the 1964 film. But stepping into the buttoned-up boots of such a legendary character is something Emily Blunt sees as a proverbial soothing spoonful of sugar rather than an intimidating prospect.
“This is such an iconic character, and then you realise how much of an imprint she’s made on people,” Emily told Ellen De Generes last month ahead of its launch in cinemas on December 21st.
She also told press at a recent roundtable in New York that the new film could be a ‘great unifier’ too.
“This is what the world needs. You can feel the acrimony and the bitterness and here’s the opportunity for hope to reappear – literally from the skies.”
Interestingly Emily admitted she has not revisited the original Mary Poppins for fear of being too influenced by it. “I knew that if I watched Julie Andrews’ version, maybe I would take the edge off of what my instincts were telling me to do. Also, I didn’t want to be completely intimidated by the brilliance of her voice.”
Instead Emily says she immersed herself in the original books by PL Travers which inspired the first movie about the nanny who comes to turn around the lives of the Banks family. Intriguing fact here, Ms Travers was so notoriously protective of her literary creation that Disney devoted an entire feature film, 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, to the difficulties the studio had in securing Travers’ blessing to make the picture in the first place.
In Travers’ books Mary Poppins was portrayed as a stricter and sterner version than Julie Andrews’ depiction and this is something Emily says she has taken as inspiration for her version, which critics have deemed to be more ‘tart, clipped, and expressly comic’.
“She’s a superhero,” Emily told US Vogue. “You could say she’s some sort of angel. She recognises what people need, and she gives it to them, yet they discover something about themselves in the process.”
Directed by Rob Marshall of Into The Woods fame (in which Emily also starred), Mary Poppins Returns boasts a stellar supporting cast made up mainly of Brits – Ben Whishaw plays grown-up Michael Banks while Emily Mortimer is his sister Jane and Colin Firth is cast as the film’s nasty villain William Weatherall Wilkins.
Add to this already illustrious list the likes of Julie Walters (Ellen) and Angela Lansbury (the Balloon lady) as well as Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plays Mary’s sidekick Jack, and two very special cameos from Meryl Streep and 92-year-old Dick Van Dyke and you certainly have a special cast.
And Rob Marshall says he immediately knew that Emily was perfectly placed to play the world’s most famous nanny.
“For me, there was no one else but Emily,” he explained to US Vogue. “There wasn’t even a possible other choice. She’s rare in this world because she’s incredibly warm and funny, and has a great deal of vulnerability as well. And at the same time, she’s British and can sing and dance.” Emily showed off her singing prowess in Marshall’s Into The Woods, a talent she’d worked on at school when she studied drama during the late 90s.
Before leaving in 2001 Emily had already been signed up by an agent, Kenneth McReddie, who ensured her acting debut got off to a flying start by securing her work in Sir Peter Hall’s The Royal Family alongside Dame Judi Dench at London’s Haymarket theatre.
Then came roles in high profile TV series such as Poirot, Foyle’s War, Henry VIII and Empire, but Emily’s serious breakthrough role came when she played Natasha in Stephen Poliakoff’s Gideon’s Daughter (2005), opposite Bill Nighy.
For that she won a Golden Globe and since then has gone on to star in a series of successful box office hits including The Devil Wears Prada (2006), The Young Victoria (2009), Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and The Girl on the Train (2016), playing alongside the likes of Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck and Rupert Friend.
Quite the impressive Hollywood career in just a few years then for the girl who was born in Roehampton, South West London in 1983, the daughter of a fellow actress and a barrister.
Many believe that it is Blunt’s ability as a multi-faceted actor that has kept her firmly in the spotlight. The proof of this lies in the sheer variety of parts she has taken on over the past decade. These range from action hero (Sicario and Edge of Tomorrow) to horror victim (A Quiet Place) to comedian (Sherlock Gnomes) to love interest (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) to musical maestro (Into The Woods and now Mary Poppins Returns).
“The performances I enjoy are the ones that are hard to read or ambiguous or left-of-centre,” the actor has commented. “Because it makes you look closer and that’s what humans are like – quite mysterious creatures, hard to pinpoint.”
Happily her personal life sounds far removed from that of her professional one. Emily, who has three siblings, has been married to fellow actor John Krasinski, who found fame on the US version of Ricky Gervais’s The Office and also directed her in A Quiet Place, since 2010. The couple, who count the likes of George and Amal Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bradley Cooper as their close friends, are based in Brooklyn, New York where they live with their two daughters Hazel, 4 and Violet, 2.
During her initial rehearsals for Mary Poppins Returns Emily was expecting Violet and after her six-week maternity leave she brought the baby with her on set, so this role is quite literally a family affair for Emily.
The sequel sees the no nonsense nanny return to London 25 years after her first visit which saw her liberate the rather stuffy Banks family into a loving unit. Although Disney studio bosses are not keen to give away too much of the plot, what we do know is that Whishaw’s Michael Banks is the one in need of help as he struggles as a recently widowed father of three.
The film is set in London in 1935 and as well as Emily’s refreshing reboot of Mary Poppins there are lots of new songs which director Rob Marshall hopes will add to the cannon of classics such as Let’s Go Fly A Kite and A Spoonful of Sugar.
And it’s fair to say the first film’s enduring appeal is by no means lost on Emily, who personally loved it as a child and is very aware that her reprisal of a much-loved character is a big deal.
“The world is fragile right now and people need a film like this,” she recently told the Sunday Times. “It’s incredibly hopeful. I didn’t watch the original while shooting but it’s seared into my memory – this idea of her as this incredibly unsentimental character who swept into their lives and made it all right. I found great comfort in that as a child.”
And if the film is well received Emily has also indicated that she would consider taking to the skies as the iconic nanny again.
“Oh, I would pay Rob to do it again with me. Yeah I would. Definitely, (there are) more stories left to tell.”
Mary Poppins Returns is in cinemas nationwide from December 21st. See www.marypoppinsreturns.com for further details.