Reimagining Mary Popping

Emily Blunt’s interpretation plumbs the iconic nanny’s deep empathy and selflessness
By Tara McNamara

When Emily Blunt got a call from her “Into the Woods” director and longtime friend Rob Marshall, she thought it would be just another check-in, or some chat about his next project. He did bring up his next project, and she realized he was calling to raise the idea that she’d star — as Mary Poppins.

“I felt like the air changed in the room, as my hair sort of blew back with shock, and then thrill, and slight panic. Because I knew, obviously, because of Julie Andrews’ brilliant turn as Mary Poppins, that I had my work cut out for me.”

But Marshall says his instinct that Blunt should play the part was right. “Emily created her own version of the character,” says director Rob Marshall. “She brings her own sensibility.”

Blunt had seen the first film as a young girl, but faced with playing the part, she dove into P.L. Travers’ books. “The thing I completely fell in love with was her duality, the contradiction of her,” says Blunt. “She is practical and yet she’s magical. She’s fastidious, and yet she’s kind of eccentric and bizarre,” she says. “Honestly, I found her laugh-out-loud funny.”

Blunt identified “magic and reassurance” as guideposts for the character, since “Mary Poppins Returns” moves into dark territory: the “Great Slump,” as the Depression was called in England; a predatory bank and the threat of foreclosure; and a family adrift after the death of their wife and mother. Mary Poppins, who came once before to save the Banks family, returns to help this mourning household regain its footing.

Blunt says she went in envisioning Mary “having a slightly sharper edge, but [I] also remembered the comforting feelings I got from her as a child.”

Co-star Emily Mortimer, who plays Jane Banks, says that edge is emblematic of Blunt’s approach. “She’s a daring performer so she’s not scared to not sugar-coat the character. At times, she made [Mary] quite formidable. I think that adds to her mystery as well.”

As played by Blunt, Mary is sometimes brusque, but that’s just a façade. “Even though she appears not to be,” says Blunt,
“I think [Mary Poppins] is probably the most empathetic person I’ve ever played.

“She completely recognizes what you need, and she gives it to you. But she makes it all about you. It’s a voyage of self-discovery for you, and she expects nothing in return.”

“And then, at the end, she leaves, and takes no credit. She doesn’t need it, doesn’t want it.”

With the ballad “Where the Lost Things Go,” Blunt softens the seemingly austere caretaker to console the Banks children.

“She recognizes in this scene that the children are really hurting,” says Blunt, “and they really miss their mom. So it’s this very hopeful and tender scene and song to comfort them.”

Marshall calls the result a very sophisticated performance. “It’s so layered,” he says. “It is so full and so rich, and you peel it back piece by piece and you see these little glimpses that are, to me, the heart of the film.”

Says Blunt: “I think we’ve been very careful to pay homage to the first film, and yet this is the next chapter and this is, ultimately, my interpretation of Mary.”