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Emily Mortimer & Ben Whishaw Interview: Mary Poppins Returns

Stage, film, and television actor Ben Whishaw has international recognition for playing the new “Q” in the James Bond franchise. Emily Mortimer has appeared in dozens of Hollywood films and played television news producer MacKenzie McHale on HBO’s The Newsroom for three seasons.  Now they are playing Michael and Jane Banks in Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to the classic 1964 Disney film. Twenty-five years since events of the first film, Michael and Jane are revisited by Mary Poppins, while their family is dealing with the loss of a family member.

Screen Rant: First of all, this movie is brilliant. And it's crazy because, as a child, I'm sure we all grew up with Mary Poppins in some form and it transported me right back. It was almost like, without missing a beat, I was right there. Instead of being a journalist, I was like a child again. So, it was incredible. So, some of these questions are going to be kind of based around, had I not seen the movie, so I can write up pieces earlier. So, can you talk to me about your experiences with Mary Poppins growing up?

Emily Mortimer: [nervous laughter] We just said it in front of each other many times and you start getting embarrassed to say it again. I didn't, I just--

Ben Whishaw: Deep breath.

Emily Mortimer: I watched it just as a matter of course. It was just part of our childhood. It was just on the television all the time. And especially at holidays. Sort of, Easter, Christmas. It was just on TV and there was never much on television. There were only three channels as a kid. And so, pretty much everybody was watching the same shit.  And so, there was that amazing feeling of like, you were watching Mary Poppins, and you knew the whole country was watching Mary Poppins at exactly the same moment that night. And it was just always a part of my memory of childhood. Was that movie. And being slightly fascinated by the weirdness of that character. And who was she? What was she? Was she sort of a witch? Or like just a sort of real person? Or a magical person? I don’t know. She has that kind of Willy Wonka-esque sort of mystery. A lot of those-- I guess it's quite a trope or a conceit in literature and movies and that sort of magical childhood.  That magical sort of child wrangler character who isn't apparent, but is…

Ben Whishaw: And a bit ambiguous.

Emily Mortimer: Yes. You don’t know what their motives are. Are they good or bad? Or you know, a bit Pied Piper-ish.  It's like there's a bit of a mystery, an enigma to her. And it’s just endlessly fascinating who that person is. And what it would be like to have her as your own nanny. So, yeah, I just remember being fascinated by her and then, maybe always.

Screen Rant: Interesting. Because, I know that I'm sure, I heard your answer in the press conference you used to dress up like Mary Poppins. So, I'm going to save you from that. But I do have a-- It's fascinating because Michael, to me, he's very vulnerable. And it's very rare that you see a male breakdown and cry on screen like that. And I thought that was such a touching moment that his kids are holding him together. So, when you guys first read the script and you were going through it, what immediately jumped out at you during this version of Mary Poppins?

Ben Whishaw: I mean, yeah, I think that the fact that there was this… One, that there was this loss at the center of the story. It felt very exciting actually because it really raises the stakes. As Rob said, and lots of people have said, there has to be a reason for her to come back. So, and I thought that was a brilliant thing to have, in any film, but particularly in a film for the family but for children.

And I think also there's something beautiful in the film about the loss of this house, the potential loss, which gives the story a real, which may be the first one doesn't have, which is not to the detriment of it because it's a wonderful-- But that has, the first one has this strange meandering-- There's nothing really…

Emily Mortimer: At stake.

Ben Whishaw: Yeah. But this film has a much more like… The clock is literally ticking. They’re going to be homeless.

Emily Mortimer: And that that house, of all houses.  That’s a house that everybody feels, like the audience feels connected to because it’s Cherry Tree Lane.

Ben Whishaw: No one wants to lose that house on Cherry Tree Lane.

Screen Rant: Because it's almost like its own character.

Ben Whishaw: Exactly. So, I think they were all these decisions that Rob [Marshall] and David [Magee] came up with were brilliant and very exciting because they would attach to the original. But also, they’re…

Screen Rant: It's interesting too because Rob has such a brilliant mind for choreography and bringing musicals to the modern era. So, when you knew that you booked this job and you read the script, you also know that you're going to do a little singing and dancing. Can you talk me about the preparation that went into that a little bit?

Emily Mortimer: It was huge. It was a really big commitment. The rehearsal period was a couple of months, I think.

Ben Whishaw: About six weeks, eight weeks.

Emily Mortimer: Yeah, yeah. It was a long rehearsal period. And we rehearsed it like you would a play, or a musical. I felt like I was in Fame, the kids from Fame. Like you would, going from one studio to the next, to the voice classes, to the-- Well, I never was in it. We weren’t in a dance. But there were all these wires. And rehearsal on wires. It was so cool. It was like getting ready for a play. A big show on Broadway or something. So yeah, it was very incredible, meticulous attention to detail-- Which is really how everything should be. And I keep thinking now, “God, I wish-- I'm going to try and do that for getting ready.” Because generally movies don't-- There's no rehearsing is there?

Ben Whishaw: No.

Screen Rant: Really?

Emily Mortimer: You’re lucky if you've met the director.

Ben Whishaw: Lucky if you’ve met the other actors.

Emily Mortimer: And if you’ve met the other actors. Definitely. Probably never met the other actors when you turn up on the first day of shooting hardly.  And you're like, “God, there's more sort of forethought that goes into putting on a school play then-- there's millions of dollars being spent.”  And there's a lot of it, of course, the magic of the filmmaking is finding something magical in the moment. But you do have to kind of maybe workout what’s going on [chuckles]. And it really does help. I'm really feel—

Ben Whishaw: So much so.

Screen Rant: So, it's interesting, because you're speaking of it as if it were like a stage play. Like the way that the beats kind of work.  Interesting. One thing that obviously in movies now there's-- a lot of movies have green screen and all this and all that. But Rob really wanted to take it back and make it practical. How did that help inform your guys' performance?

Ben Whishaw: Do you mean with the animation and everything?

Screen Rant: No, I mean even like being on the physical street in the house instead of like the..

Ben Whishaw: The painted sets and everything. Yeah. Yeah. What it… It's true what Robert said in the press conference. I guess it just made everything feel very real. And it felt like a real family, a real home, a real street. And not a fantastical one. But like a real-- really bedded in something natural, real, just every day like. And I think that's also key to the why it works or something. Because all just, everything, all the fantasy comes out of something…

Emily Mortimer: Reality.

Ben Whishaw: That’s just very tangible.

Emily Mortimer: Even like the parrot talking, remember that?

Ben Whishaw: Yeah.

Emily Mortimer: That was a real animatronic.

Screen Rant: Was it really?

Emily Mortimer: It wasn't something that they added after. Maybe they've added to it a little bit,

Ben Whishaw: But it worked.

Emily Mortimer: It worked.

Ben Whishaw: They did it live in front of us.

Screen Rant: It did it. Oh my god. But that’s so cool.  Because I really, I find it very… I don't know what the word is. But takes me out when the CG, all the CGI, even though it's a brilliant nowadays and amazing and it's just a sort of, you know, it's a huge thing and so cool. But there's nothing quite like something actually having happened there and then at that moment. That kind of informs the rest of the, you know. It really makes a difference.

Ben Whishaw: That’s really true. It's really true.

Emily Mortimer: And all the flying and everything.  We were really up there suspended for hours at a time. Up high and going up. Imagine if you hadn't actually really had to do that.

Ben Whishaw: It would have been horrible

Emily Mortimer: It would have been horrible, yeah.

Screen Rant: Well, you guys did an amazing job. Especially keeping me in the moment. So, I just wanted to say thank you guys so much. And it was amazing. You guys are wonderful.

More: Rob Marshall Interview for Mary Poppins Returns

Key Release Dates
  • Mary Poppins Returns (2018) release date: Dec 19, 2018
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