“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.”
That’s the picture Meryl Streep paints for EW of the set of Mary Poppins Returns, Disney’s high-stakes, high-magic sequel to the 1964 musical classic. Any number of elements from the original film — its indelible songs by Richard and Robert Sherman, its career-making performances by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, its significant strides in animated penguin awareness — have amounted to Mary Poppins being nothing less than a crown jewel for Disney for more than five decades. So it’s only natural that all eyes are now on the people entrusted with bringing Mary Poppins back to audiences this December — and as EW learned spending time with them for this week’s cover, the cast and filmmakers behind Mary Poppins Returns feel they’re sitting on a movie with more than a little shine of its own.
Sharing the cover of EW’s Holiday Preview, Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda sat down for a conversation about the biggest movie of their careers (and perhaps the most ambitious sequel of the year that doesn’t involve an Avenger). Blunt, 35, was director Rob Marshall’s first choice to inherit the role of magical nanny Mary Poppins — and Julie Andrews gave her approval as well — yet for Blunt, stepping into the iconic part required a stiff upper lip. “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 would just try to allow all of that to be white noise and really approach her as I would any other character,” recalls Blunt, who first began collaborating with Marshall on 2014’s Into the Woods. “The beauty of Rob is that he kept it intimate enough so that you don’t feel the bigness too much. We just focused on this story and these people and this moment.”
But Blunt allowed the gravity of Mary Poppins to seep in every once in a while, like when Dick Van Dyke came to set and serenaded her with “Jolly Holiday” between takes…or when she revisited the original film after wrapping (“I showed my oldest daughter and it was this incredible two-pronged emotion because I thought, ‘Thank God I didn’t watch this before I did the movie’”)…or when she visited Miranda backstage at Hamilton in 2015 — her third time doing so, yet the first since they had both signed on to the film. “The whole project was cloaked in a sense of protection, and by that time it had sunk in that it was happening,” she recalls. “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 so I think it was exciting knowing that Lin and I were going to be playing cohorts and kindred spirits.” Miranda remembers that night just a bit differently: “That was a really stressful show,” he laughs. “I felt like I was auditioning for Mary Poppins, the person.”
Miranda’s Poppins character — Jack, a lamplighter and old friend to Mary and the Banks family — marks the performer’s first major role since creating and starring in Broadway’s Hamilton (look it up). Yet for his big debut, audiences will meet him solely as Lin-Manuel the actor, not Lin-Manuel the Pulitzer-winning writer (although his famous verbal dexterity is certainly on display in the film’s nine new songs, custom-written by Hairspray duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman). Miranda calls Poppins his “first big movie,” but acknowledges how unusual the film actually is from the typical big-movie experience. “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,’” Miranda laughs. “For me, coming from theater, 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.”
Elsewhere in EW’s deep Mary Poppins Returns carpet bag: another sit-down with director Marshall, who toured us around the film’s London set for EW’s first look last year. Marshall has shepherded movie-musicals to the screen like Chicago and Into the Woods, yet Poppins marks his first original musical and a passion project for the director, who assembled a veteran creative team (including Shaiman, Wittman, producer John DeLuca, and Finding Neverland screenwriter David Magee) to craft a new story from author P.L. Travers’ eight-book series. “I used myself as a barometer, honestly,” says Marshall, who cites 1964’s Mary Poppins as the first film he ever saw. “Just say I wasn’t involved at all. What would I want to see in this film? I knew I wanted to see an animation sequence in the hand-drawn 2D style. I knew I wanted to have those wonderful characters, Mary’s famously eccentric cousins, or uncles, or aunts. But the most important thing was an emotional story. I wanted to find something that you could connect with. When we chose to set it in the Depression era, it felt like today: people struggling to make ends meet, or in this case, to deal with a loss, which many families deal with. How do you move through that? We had to create a reason for Mary Poppins to come back after 54 years, and it had to be real.”
What Marshall and team came up with is a new tale set in the 1930s that reflects the economic hardship of London’s Great Slump. Mary Poppins finds herself revisiting Cherry Tree Lane to help a now-grown Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) raise Michael’s three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson) after the death of his wife. “They’ve also lost a sense of wonder and joy,” says Marshall. “And the theme that drove me — of finding that child alive inside you — was, to me, an important story to tell. We live in such a fragile time that we need this film. I certainly felt that I needed it. I needed to turn off the news and be launched into a magical world where wondrous things can happen still, and there’s hope.”
If Marshall’s wish comes true, Mary Poppins Returns might deliver some similar optimism to audiences this Christmas. It’s for that same reason that Streep, who sings and dances in the film as Topsy, Mary’s gravity-challenged cousin, calls the film a gift to the world. “I just can’t wait for people to see it,” gushes the actress. “I feel like we have this little secret all tied up in a bow. Why can’t we just give it to them today?”
As Mary Poppins would say: patience, Meryl Streep, patience.