Despite her childhood stutter and shyness, Emily Blunt has shone throughout her career with a series of show-stopping performances. Now she’s reaching her highest heights, taking on the iconic role of Mary Poppins in the sequel to Disney’s classic. The actress speaks to Lydia Slater about motherhood, marriage and the magic of soaring through London skies.
Emily Blunt gazes quizzically at the camera. Perching jauntily on the brim of her black hat, George the robin does exactly the same, apparently unfazed by the flashes and clicks. “Sit! Good lad!” coaxes his handler.
Bazaar cover shoots are always exquisite, but this one seems particularly magical, inspired as it is by the world of Mary Poppins in honour of Blunt’s latest starring role. The weather has been horrible for the past few days, but now the sky is a limpid blue. Assistants on ladders throw artificial blossom that falls like pink snow, a carousel has been temporarily set up in the garden, and we have been joined by a pack of a dozen dogs, ranging from a tiny chihuahua called Manuel to a colossal Great Dane named Parker. To add to the fairy-tale surrealism, just across the street from our location, hundreds more dogs are gathering with their owners for an anti-Brexit ‘Wooferendum’ march, a scene of cheerful chaos itself worthy of Cherry Tree Lane, the setting for the original Mary Poppins stories.
But there is no doubt that George is the star of the show. “Oh my God, the robin!” Blunt cries. “I want one! Every girl needs one!”
Mary Poppins, of course, has one. In the original film, starring Julie Andrews, the magic nanny makes a confidant of an oversize (American) robin, to which she sings ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’. For Mary Poppins Returns, this robin has been stuffed and added to her hat, a neat device that instantly prepares you for a less saccharine interpretation of the childhood classic. “It’s a dark time, the Thirties, isn’t it?” says Blunt.
A few days after the shoot, she and I meet at the Olympic, a former recording studio turned café and private members’ club in west London, near where her parents are based and where she was brought up. Blunt, who is slender, and blonder than I am expecting, has a face that radiates amusement and intelligence as well as the rose-petal beauty of a Fragonard painting.
She is now dressed in a Dior Tarot sweater, grass-green trousers adorned with large pearls, scarlet Louboutin shoes and a Dior patchwork handbag, an ensemble that strikes me as faintly Poppins-esque in its colourful quirkiness. “Why not, right? I like mixing patterns and styles,” she says.
It wouldn’t be surprising if a little Poppins has rubbed off, for Blunt immersed herself in the world of PL Travers’ bossy heroine, basing her interpretation solely on the books. “Even though I’d seen the film as a child, I decided not to watch it when prepping,” she says. “She was so clear to me from reading that I decided not to be intimidated by the iconic Julie Andrews in the iconic role, and just approached it as I would any other part.”
“Because I couldn’t speak fluently as a child, I watched and I’d wonder about people”
Blunt plays Poppins as satisfyingly vain, capricious, enigmatic and occasionally alarming, with a fruitily refined accent that periodically slips into broad Cockney. “She thinks she’s better than everyone – which she is… I think the pace at which she speaks and the way in which she speaks is a way to hold people at arm’s length and not over-sentimentalise moments.”
Her other source of inspiration for the role was Rosalind Russell’s fast-talking journalist in the 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday. “She’s like a tornado. I went, ‘That’s it!That’s the pace!'”
The Mary Poppins sequel is set in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression. Michael Banks, now grown-up and recently bereaved, is struggling to cope with financial travails and three children. Enter Mary Poppins at the end of a kite, descending through the grey clouds that cover London like a pall. “I was about 50 feet in the air, hanging from a crane, having to look effortless…” says Blunt, appearing a little queasy at the memory.
“But then one of the camera guys came up to me and said [she slides into Estuary], “It was really emotional, seein’ ’er come back.”’ Sitting in the darkened auditorium, I had felt the same thrill of childish hope watching the navy-coated silhouette with its primly turned-out feet descend: would she be in time to bang a few politicians’ heads together and send them to bed until they’d agreed to behave sensibly? Even if not, the film itself is an antidote to current national gloom, as Mary once again catapults the Banks family out of their dismal reality into a world of glorious Technicolor.
There are dancing lamplighters, cartoon elephants, upside-down houses and even Dick Van Dyke, playing the bank owner Mr Dawes Jr, and performing a creditable tap dance on top of a desk. “Yes, he’s 92 years old, but the eyes, and the smile, are seared into your memory,” says Blunt.
“It was terribly moving having him there. Obviously he’d be exhausted by the end of the day, but between takes, he’d put his hand on my arm and sing, “It’s a jolly holiday with Mary”.”
I wonder if Blunt had a Mary Poppins in her own life? She was born into that sort of upper-middle-class English milieu where nannies are commonplace: her grandfather was a major-general, her father is a QC and her uncle is the Eurosceptic MP Crispin Blunt. But she says her maternal grandmother came closest. “She was so magical! She’d make up wonderful stories, and she was a beautiful artist – we have her water-colours and pastels and acrylics all over my mum’s house and all over my apartment. She could whip up something fanciful and fab from a few things in the fridge – she was such a presence in all of our lives.”
Blunt was the second of four siblings; she’s especially close to her elder sister Felicity, a literary agent married to Stanley Tucci (Blunt’s co-star in The Devil Wears Prada). “There’s only 17 months between us, so we really grew up together, we have a secret language.” Her brother Sebastian, an actor, and Susannah, now a vet, were born several years later.
She was a quiet, bookish child with a stutter. “Because I couldn’t speak fluently, I watched and listened. I’d be on the Tube, and I’d wonder about people and invent back stories for everyone. There’s always been a natural desire to walk in the shoes of others.” Moreover, only when she was playing a part did she find herself able to speak freely. “It started quite young, because it was the only tool I had to speak properly,” she reflects. “I was that kid, upstairs in my room, trying out stuff in the mirror. But I’d never tell anyone about it. It was always very private.”
Consequently, it never occurred to her to dream of being a professional actress; instead, she wanted to read languages at university with the aim of becoming an interpreter. But while studying for her A levels at her co-ed boarding-school, Hurtwood House, she was picked for a school production that then went to the Edinburgh Festival.
One of her fellow actors was a supply teacher, Adrian Rawlins (who played Harry Potter’s father in the films). “It was a rock opera called Bliss and it was incredibly intense,” says Blunt. “There was this horrifying scene where I had to do a makeshift abortion with a coat hanger, while singing a ballad.” She bursts into an infectious guffaw. “Maybe 30 people saw it in the entire run!”
Fortunately, one of those 30 was Rawlins’ agent, who immediately signed up Blunt too. “I didn’t have a desire to pursue acting and I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t fallen into it,” she admits. “Crazy, isn’t it? But that’s probably why I ended up booking jobs, because I didn’t have any nerves. It was very charmed – rather embarrassingly, in fact.”
And so it has continued. Blunt’s first professional stage performance, opposite Judi Dench in Peter Hall’s production of The Royal Family, won her a Best Newcomer award, while her film career seems to have been a continuous string of highlights, from her debut in Pawel Pawlikowski’s poignant coming-of-age romance My Summer of Love, which was swiftly followed by a show-stealing turn as a fashion-obsessed personal assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, to acclaimed roles in period drama, science fiction and most recently, the stylish horror film A Quiet Place.
Perhaps it is precisely because her success seems to have come so naturally that she manages to carry it off with élan. She herself credits Dench for setting her the perfect example of good leading-lady behaviour. “She taught me everything about how to be gracious and graceful and not take it seriously; she showed me how I wanted to be for the rest of my career. It just takes one person to toxify everything, and those are the movies you can’t wait to see the back of.” Blunt is delightful, un-starry company – today feels like having lunch with a friend – and she seems to have made allies of most of the Hollywood A list.
“It’s very rare I meet someone I can’t get along with. I’ve been warned about working with certain people, and then I have a great time with them. I like the different, weird, idiosyncratic personalities that you meet – you get a fresh injection of new people all the time.”
All the same, she manages to stay below the radar, no small achievement especially given that in the US (where she now lives) her spouse is as famous as she.
“I rediscovered how much I adore London, the general irreverence and authenticity”
She first met John Krasinski, the actor, director and screenwriter, in 2008, and they married two years later, in an intimate ceremony held in their mutual chum George Clooney’s villa on Lake Como. “John’s known George for a long time, they did Leatherheads together, but I can’t believe he offered us his house, actually. I’m still rather shocked about it. We thought he was joking the first couple of times he said it.”
They have two daughters, Hazel, who is four, and two-year-old Violet, whose births have prompted a move from LA to Brooklyn, which felt closer to Blunt’s own London upbringing. “There’s a multicultural, villagey feel, we don’t have a car, we walk everywhere and people are cool, they leave us alone.”
She revels in the ordinariness of domestic life, using her slow cooker and doing the school run. “We are both massively hands-on, and we love it,” she says of parenthood. “I’m so lucky with John. But I was colossally unprepared for how life-changing it is. Like all mothers, I think, “What was I doing with my day before I had children?” It’s so full-on and they need you so much; I do find myself in a perpetual state of distraction.”
For her, A Quiet Place, in which she and her husband starred together (Krasinski also directed) is less a horror film than a homage to parental love, and the sacrifices we are prepared to make for our children. The world has been invaded by spidery aliens that hunt by sound. Total silence is the only way to avoid being eaten – as one of their offspring finds out the hard way.
“It’s probably the most painful role I’ve played – the most personal, the hardest to shake off, because it was so close to home.” The couple have a rule that they won’t spend more than a fortnight away from their children; which in practice often means the two girls accompany their parents on set.
Today, the whole family is in London because Krasinski is filming the TV drama Jack Ryan here; and they all spent almost a year living in Richmond for Mary Poppins Returns.
“I rediscovered how much I adore it,” she says of her native city. “I love the attitude here, the general irreverence and authenticity. I love being back and seeing my friends and going to all the familiar places. When you grow up, it sometimes feels that version of yourself is slipping through your fingers. To rediscover something is really special.”
It’s a sentiment that’s sure to be echoed by any fan of the original film who goes to see this sequel, me included. For Emily Blunt’s Poppins is practically perfect in every way; just the tonic to lift our spirits, despite the bluster, Brexit and bad weather.
Mary Poppins Returns’ is released in cinemas on 21 December. The January issue of Harper’s Bazaar is on newsstands from 4 December.