BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Emily Blunt loves a challenge, and in the world of movie musicals there’s no greater trial than following in the footsteps of Julie Andrews to bring one of her most iconic, and beloved, roles to the screen for the first time in over half a century.
It’s only Mary Poppins. No pressure, right?
But the 35-year-old British actress has always been drawn to roles that scare her, and it’s proven to be a good strategy. Some of her most memorable parts have been those “impossible” ones, like stealing scenes from Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” and doing stunts with Tom Cruise in “The Edge of Tomorrow.”
There’s no one type of Emily Blunt role, but some roles seem like they could only be for her, and for director and choreographer Rob Marshall, the practically perfect nanny was one of them. When he signed on for “Mary Poppins Returns,” which would be a sequel to the 1964 classic, hers was the first name he thought of.
“It was the quickest, fastest idea. I knew in one second who it was,” said Marshall. “She had all the requirements.”
He knew how big of an ask it was (“It’s the climbing of Mount Everest,” he said), but he also knew from directing her in Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” that she was the right triple threat for the job.
“She’s so fearless,” he added. “I just knew that she would make it her own.”
And Blunt said yes to Marshall in a single conversation.
“I knew I had my work cut out for me just because of how extraordinary the original was and how beautiful Julie was in the original. But I knew that if I was going to take a big swing and carve out new space for myself, if I do it under Rob’s guidance, I’d be all right,” Blunt said. “He’s kind of a magician. He’s a bit of a Mary Poppins himself.”
She was able to take a year, during which she was “massively” pregnant with her second child, before they started rehearsing and filming to figure out her interpretation of the character with the help of P.L. Travers’ books.
“She is very different in the books,” Blunt said. “She is completely batty and funny and vain and rude and terribly empathetic in a very weird way, not necessarily by what she says but by what she does.”
Although she held fond memories of Andrews’ performance, she hadn’t revisited it as an adult and decided not to before filming.
“I didn’t have any of the details of what she did with the character in my head, I just had the sort of lasting impact of the joy bomb that the original was,” she said. “That was very helpful. I just read the books.”
For Blunt, who delights in altering her voice and physicality for every role, her Mary Poppins was going to be “a weird amalgamation” of Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday” and Princess Margaret.
“I wanted her to speak very quickly because I wanted her to have that impact where she almost renders people speechless, so that they’re helpless but to comply with what she wants. It’s like she gives them no time to think,” Blunt said. “You’re almost not quite sure if she’s planting a seed or not and you’re like, ‘Wait is there an enigmatic master plan afoot?'”
The film, out nationwide on Dec. 19, finds the now-grown Banks children Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) faced with their own troubles, and Mary Poppins steps in to help care for Michael’s three children and get their lives back on track.
Blunt uprooted her own family, including her then 5-month-old, to London for about a year to film the massive project, which at the time was one of the biggest productions she’d ever been part of. She said everyone felt the weight of responsibility to do justice to the original, and she hopes that this version will give people joy and an escape.
“Everyone is always trying to do the next thing, the new thing, what else, what else what else, the grass is greener,” she said. “And I think we need nostalgic moments in our lives.”
It’s also capping off a big year for Blunt and her husband, John Krasinski, which started with the unexpected success of “A Quiet Place” and is ending not only with the release of “Mary Poppins Returns,” but awards buzz and nominations for both films as well. On Wednesday, she picked up Screen Actors Guild nominations for both films.
“It is sort of an impossible task to absorb and digest what’s going on,” Blunt said. “It’s almost like it’s happening to somebody else. It’s a bit out of body.”
LINDSEY BAHR, AP Film Writer