When Emily Blunt landed the title role in Mary Poppins Returns, she made a conscious decision not to rewatch the 1964 version of the film, which featured Julie Andrews as the iconic nanny. Instead, Blunt dove into the books by P.L. Travers, from which the film had been adapted.
"I didn't want to sort of get compromised by the details of what Julie Andrews did so beautifully," Blunt says. "I knew it was going to be my version of her."
Blunt says that Travers' books became "a very evocative source" for re-imagining the beloved nanny. As she read them, she came to understand Mary Poppins as a mysterious character who simultaneously connects with people and holds them at arm's length.
In Mary Poppins Returns, the nanny floats down from the sky and into the life of a new generation of the Banks family. Her former charge Michael is now a widower struggling to raise three young kids on his own. Mary's arrival — and her friendship with a lamplighter named Jack (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda) — suffuses the family with the joy and the discipline they desperately need.
"She is practical and yet fantastical and fastidious and yet really eccentric," Blunt says. "I think she rather likes that she's a mystery. She takes a lot of joy in that no one can figure her out."
On floating down from the sky
[It was] quite terrifying, I think. I thought I was all right with heights, and then as [I went] past 30 feet, 40 feet, 50 feet, you're suddenly at 60 feet and you realize you're terrible with heights, and Lin-Manuel Miranda was like the size of a pea suddenly.
I found the easiest thing to do when I was that high was just to look upwards to the sky, because then I had no frame of reference for just how high I was, because I was at that point above the trees and Lin was tiny. And I thought for a second, "This might be how I go. This is how I go — dressed as Mary Poppins." ... Because it's just one wire, and you'll think, "Who's holding the wire? And do I know them even?" You literally have your life in a burly stuntman's hands.
On mastering Mary Poppins' posh accent
It's not that I had to sort of do dialect lessons, you know. I mean, I can do various different accents from England. You know, it just makes me laugh that Mary Poppins is even posher than my mother. ... I think for Mary Poppins [the accent] needed to be a pretty exaggerated version of that [posh accent], because of her imperious nature but also [because] she should sound practically perfect. And also, it's set in the '30s, which was a very specific sound. Funnily enough, I listened to Princess Margaret quite a lot for how she spoke, and then I just sort of winged it. I walked around the house many nights in a row until an accent or a voice sounded right.
On working with a vocal coach
It's sort of essential actually for me, because I have not been trained as a singer and they do give you the sort of confidence and the tools to assist you. I think it was easier for me with Mary Poppins. I mean, Stephen Sondheim, his music requires all of you, it is the deep end of musical theater. But Mary Poppins for me was a more slow burn, tailor-made experience, because the songs were written with me in mind, with my abilities in mind, and the songwriters and composers, they really learned my voice and what I could do and what I couldn't do. And so by the time I started singing them on set, I mean, I'd been working with this music for over a year by that point.
On what she learned from working with director Rob Marshall
When I auditioned for Into the Woods, which — I went into that room my knees knocking — I just have always loathed singing in front of people. I really like doing it privately but just not in front of people, and I went in to audition and I said, "Rob, I'm very, very nervous." I said, "I don't like singing in front of people." And he said, "I'm not interested in singers who can kind of act. I want actors who can kind of sing." And he said, "So I just want you to tell me a story and stop worrying about making it sound pretty, but tell me your story as this character."
And that's, I think, what I learned, is that I think the singers that we all respond to and fall in love with are the ones that evoke a story and the ones that make you feel something. It's not just about listening to vocal gymnastics; it's about telling a story that moves people. So that's sort of what I tend to focus on now, and not worry about how it sounds — and it always sounds better if I stop worrying about how it sounds.
On having a stutter when she was young
It was very bad. It got progressively worse. It was not so bad when I was younger. By the time I was sort of 12, 13 it was probably at its peak. It is and it was — and still is for many people who suffer with it — it is a condition that people tease [about], because you sound funny and you look funny when you stutter. You're trying to force words out so everything contorts. ...
I had this awful teacher who said "Just say it! Just spit it out!" People don't understand it. They don't understand why you can't speak. Kids don't understand why you can't speak, and there's not enough information out there about it, and it's very common. ...
I did grow out of mine, and I think a lot of it was to do with this extraordinary teacher I had who encouraged me to do a class play. I said, "I don't want to," and he said, "Well, I think you're very funny and I think that you are very good at voices, you do silly voices and you don't stutter when you do a silly voice. So why don't you do a silly accent or something?" That's probably why I've always been really fascinated by changing my voice depending on the role, because it was a way of unlocking me.
On auditioning for The Devil Wears Prada, which became her breakout role
I was out in L.A., which I found altogether overwhelming because it was very new and I was 22, I think, and I was auditioning at Fox Studios for something else and then they just threw these sides at me and they said, "Actually, will you just read for this other thing, if you're here. Can you just read for it? It's called The Devil Wears Prada."
I remember feeling really nervous, because I was going to miss my flight. And so I think because of the anxiety I probably felt about being late — which I loathe being late in general — I think in some ways that worked, because I had a sense of fretful energy about me anyway, and that rather worked for this anxious, fractious, starving assistant I was playing. ... I think the ones that you care less about are the ones that you get.
Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Emily Blunt stars as Mary Poppins in the new film "Mary Poppins Returns," a Disney musical sequel to the beloved 1964 film which starred Julie Andrews and was adapted from the 1934 P.L. Travers novel. Blunt is nominated for a Golden Globe and an award from SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, for her performance. Emily Blunt is known for her roles in "The Devil Wears Prada," "Looper," "Sicario," "The Girl On The Train," the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's "Into The Woods" and the horror film "A Quiet Place," which was directed by her husband John Krasinski who also starred opposite her playing her husband.
In "Mary Poppins Returns," the two children she helped raise in the first story, Jane and Michael Banks, are now adults. Michael is a single father still mourning the loss of his wife a year after her death. His three young children desperately miss their mother. It's Depression-era London, and times are hard. Michael is an artist unable to support his children with his art, so he's taken a temporary job as a bank teller. But the bank is about to foreclose on the family's home, the same house the Banks children grew up in.
The Banks family needs a miracle, and they kind of get one when Mary Poppins comes floating back down from the sky to become the children's new nanny. The adult Jane and Michael are astonished and confused when they see her. Here's Ben Whishaw as Michael, Emily Mortimer as Jane and Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARY POPPINS RETURNS")
BEN WHISHAW: (As Michael Banks) Mary...
EMILY MORTIMER: (As Jane Banks) Poppins.
EMILY BLUNT: (As Mary Poppins) Close your mouth, please, Michael. We are still not a cod fish.
MORTIMER: (As Jane Banks, laughter).
BLUNT: (As Mary Poppins) Jane Banks, still rather inclined to giggle, I see.
WHISHAW: (As Michael Banks) Good heavens, it really is you. You seem hardly to have aged at all.
BLUNT: (As Mary Poppins) Really? How incredibly rude - one never discusses a woman's age, Michael. I would have thought I taught you better.
WHISHAW: (As Michael Banks) I'm sorry. I didn't...
MORTIMER: (As Jane Banks) You came back. I thought we'd never see you again.
WHISHAW: (As Michael Banks) It is just wonderful to see you.
BLUNT: (As Mary Poppins) Yes, it is, isn't it?
GROSS: Emily Blunt, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on "Mary Poppins Returns."
BLUNT: Thank you.
GROSS: I want to start by asking you what everybody's asking you, I'm sure. How old were you when you saw the original film? And what did it mean to you?
BLUNT: I mean, I'm sure I was about five or six. And I think, like most of the world, it was probably one of the first films that I ever saw - and was spellbound by it. And I remember elements of it so clearly. You know, the "Jolly Holiday" sequence where I couldn't believe that people could dance with cartoons. You know, it was, like, incredible to me.
And most profoundly, I remember - maybe because she is a bit of a disciplinarian, the idea of feeling very safe in her hands as a child - that she was going to come in and sweep it all up and make everything right again in a very sure-handed way. And I remember just feeling safe with her - you know, with the groundedness of her and the magic.
GROSS: Did you read the "Mary Poppins" books?
BLUNT: Well, I didn't as a child. But I did leading up to playing my version of her. In fact, I didn't watch the original again right before I played her. I just chose to, you know, have my - you know, a few memories of it from watching it as a child. But I didn't want to sort of get compromised by the details of what Julie Andrews did so beautifully. I knew it was going to be my version of her. So I did very much dive into the books where she is rather different, sort of rather eccentric and batty and very rude and vain. And so that's - the books became a very evocative source for this new version of her for me.
GROSS: Let me read a couple of lines from the original "Mary Poppins" book. (Reading) Jane and Michael could see that the newcomer had shiny black hair - rather like a wooden Dutch doll, whispered Jane - and that she was thin with large feet and hands and small rather peering blue eyes. You know, people know just a "Spoonful Of Sugar" or how Mary Poppins sings about how to sweeten the medicine and help the medicine go down. So in the book, Mary Poppins is holding out medicine. And it says, Michael suddenly discovered that you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her. There was something strange and extraordinary about her, something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.
So you know, you talk about how you took, like, the disciplinarian part of her. Like, you portray her - and she's this way in the book - so proper and such a disciplinarian. But she has this other magical side. Like every time she is the proper disciplinarian, there's always this implicit or explicit wink that's going on. And I was wondering if you could talk about playing both sides of her character.
BLUNT: Sure. I mean, I think that that's what excited me about her - is the duality of her. And certainly when P.L. Travers wrote her, you know, everyone would talk to P.L. Travers about how magical she is and how fantastical she is and how supernatural she is. And she said, well, I don't think she is at all. I think she is reality. I think she's very, very real. And she talks about her - she described her - she just said, in order to fly, you need something very solid to take off from. And I think that's how I see her. She is practical and yet fantastical and fastidious and yet really eccentric. And she doesn't really reveal her inner workings to anybody. I think she rather likes that she's a mystery. She takes a lot of joy in that no one can figure her out.
GROSS: And every time a magical episode is over in the books, Mary Poppins denies that it ever happened.
BLUNT: Sure, yeah, yeah. And I - well, maybe that's the form of true generosity - to give so much and to recognize what people need and give it to them and expect absolutely nothing in return, in fact to not even take credit for it. And I think maybe for me with the character, she connects so deeply. She's all about that - about connectivity with people. But yet she holds at arm's-length. And I've always felt personally it's because she will inevitably have to leave. It's maybe her way of coping with that.
GROSS: You play that at the end - I mean, I could see the sadness on your face when...
BLUNT: She loves the Banks. I think it's very hard.
GROSS: Yeah. And she is alone in the sky. I mean, she doesn't have a family. She's never going to, I don't think.
BLUNT: No. I mean, I think she likes flirting around with many laborers, but I don't think she has a special man in her life, you know.
GROSS: You know, because she is so proper, you know, she has a very proper accent.
GROSS: And it's not the accent that you're speaking to us with now.
GROSS: Did you have to, like, learn the Mary Poppins proper accent for the part?
BLUNT: I mean, it's not that I had to sort of do dialect lessons, you know. I mean, I can do various different accents from England, you know. It just makes me laugh that Mary Poppins is even posher than my mother, which I can't quite believe, you know (laughter).
GROSS: Is your mother posh?
BLUNT: She is very posh, yes (laughter). So is my dad. You know, they speak beautifully. But I think for Mary Poppins it needed to be a pretty exaggerated version of that because of her imperious nature. But also she should sound practically perfect. And also it's set in the '30s, which was a very specific sound. And so funnily enough, I listened to Princess Margaret quite a lot for how she spoke. And then I just sort of winged it.
GROSS: Can you say a few words with that proper accent? Like, can you answer the next question with that accent? Here's one that would set you up perfectly. There's, you know, several Mary Poppins-isms, and one of them is now, spit spot, into bed.
BLUNT: Well, Terry, my absolute favorite would have to be pish posh. I just think it's a wonderful way of just shutting everything down.
GROSS: Great, OK. Yeah, now, are those real Britishisms - spit spot and pish posh - or are those, like, Mary Poppins expressions?
BLUNT: I think they are. I mean, I think that P. L. Travers actually heard her auntie say, spit spot, and off to bed. So I think she took it from that. But I think they have quickly - I don't think I ever heard anyone say pish posh until I read the "Mary Poppins" books. It is my favorite phrase that she has - is pish posh.
GROSS: So you said that your mother has a very posh accent. She teaches English as a second language, right?
BLUNT: Yes, yes.
GROSS: So does she teach that very posh way of pronouncing to her students?
BLUNT: Well, I think it's just the way she speaks. She just has a beautiful speaking voice. So does my dad. My dad sounds like Richard Burton.
BLUNT: I mean, my dad, even on my wedding day, took great pride that he didn't need a microphone for his speech. He just knew how to project, you know (laughter). Everyone else was using a microphone, and Dad was like, no, no, I don't need that.
GROSS: So what was floating down from the sky like for you?
BLUNT: Well, quite terrifying, I think - I mean, I thought I was all right with heights. And then as they winch you past 30 feet, 40 feet, 50 feet, you're suddenly at 60 feet. And you realize you're terrible with heights. And Lin-Manuel Miranda was like the size of a pea suddenly. And I found the easiest thing to do when I was that high was just to look upwards to the sky because then I had no frame of reference for just how high I was because I was, at that point, above the trees, and Lin was tiny. And I thought for a second, this might be how I go. This is how I go - dressed as Mary Poppins.
GROSS: Oh, no. Were you really thinking that?
BLUNT: Yeah, yeah, 'cause it's just one wire, and you're thinking, well, who's holding the wire? And do I know them even? And (laughter) it's just - you literally have your life in a burly stuntman's hands.
GROSS: Now, silly me. I was imagining that it was kind of - some kind of rear projection and that you didn't have to float that much.
BLUNT: No. No. I was - I mean, Rob Marshall, the director, very much wanted to do everything as practically as possible. So as much as possible, it was us in the air on wires. And I don't think I was alone. I think a few of my costars were quite scared of heights as well.
GROSS: And you were wearing high heels.
BLUNT: Yes, exactly.
GROSS: Like, if you had to crash land...
BLUNT: That was...
GROSS: That would not have been good (laughter).
BLUNT: Yes. No, not good. I mean, that was one of the scariest stunts we did. We're doing this fantastic number through the streets of London that Lin-Manuel Miranda has. It's a huge, show-stopping Hollywood number called "Trip A Little Light Fantastic." And we have to dance along the top of a narrow wall, and then jump off the wall out of shot. And we land on a crash mat. But you're wearing heels. And so I thought, well - and my stuntwoman tried it for me first and twisted her ankle. I think she, like...
GROSS: Oh, gosh.
BLUNT: Yeah, she was in a boot for the rest of the shoot. So...
BLUNT: It was just all "Mission Impossible" doing "Mary Poppins," you see.
GROSS: But you did the stunt anyway.
BLUNT: I did. I did do it, but only a couple of times. And then I said, Rob, I think I don't want to do it anymore.
GROSS: OK. Well...
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Blunt. And she stars in "Mary Poppins Returns" as Mary Poppins. Let's take a short break here, and then we're going to hear you sing.
BLUNT: Oh, boy.
GROSS: We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARC SHAIMAN'S "MAGIC PAPERS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Blunt, who stars as Mary Poppins in the new film "Mary Poppins Returns."
Let's hear you sing. You know, I heard you sing first in the film adaptation of "Into The Woods," the Stephen Sondheim musical, which was adapted for the screen by Rob Marshall, who also...
GROSS: ...Directed "Mary Poppins Returns." And he's so good with musicals. I mean, he also did "Chicago."
BLUNT: Oh, he's extraordinary. I mean, I think he is the only man for this impossible job of taking on the next chapter of Mary Poppins. You know, he's just extraordinary.
GROSS: Yeah. It's very hard to do musicals on film, I think.
BLUNT: Yes, very.
GROSS: Like, it's somehow easier on stage. I'm not exactly sure why - maybe because stage, there's nothing - it's not realism, whereas in movies, you're kind of expected to see some sort of realism. Though, that's not even true since there's so many superheroes and sci-fi and everything. So...
BLUNT: No, you're exactly right. But I think the thing about film is that everything gets terribly intimate. And you are sucked into a world that has a sense of realism. You're not in that proscenium arch nature of watching a performance on stage. And I think that that's his great skill is making sure that it's not sort of embarrassing when people break into song (laughter). It can very often be like, oh, God. Why are they singing, you know?
GROSS: Well, in this film, he really has a knack - he and the composer, Marc Shaiman, and the lyricist, Scott Wittman - for kind of talking into songs. So like...
GROSS: You talk your way into the songs. You know, the character of Michael, the father, talks his way into...
GROSS: ...His song. And we're going to hear an example of that in the song I'm going to play. It is a song I really like. It's called "Can You Imagine That?" And this is your first - it's like your first day with the kids. And they've been...
BLUNT: It is.
GROSS: They're all really dirty, and you're preparing a bath. None of them want to take a bath. But you put these, like, magic bubbles in the bath. And then you're taking out, you know, all these magical things, all these magical toys from your famous carpet bag (laughter)...
GROSS: ...Throwing them into the tub, and then even more magic happens. But anyways, as you're doing all of this, you're singing this song, "Can You Imagine That?" as you're talking to the kids. So here's my guest Emily Blunt from the soundtrack of "Mary Poppins Returns."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN YOU IMAGINE THAT?")
BLUNT: (Singing) John, you're right. It's good to know you're bright, for intellect can wash away confusion. Georgie sees and Annabel agrees most folderol's an optical illusion. You three know it's true that one plus one is two. Yes, logic is the rock of our foundation. I suspect, and I'm never incorrect, that you're far too old to give in to imagination. No, not yet. Some people like to splash and play. Can you imagine that? And take a seaside holiday - can you imagine that? Too much glee leaves rings around the brain. Take that joy and send it down the drain. Some people like to laugh at life and giggle through the day. They think the world's a brand new, shiny toy. And if while dreaming in the clouds they fall and go kersplatt, although they're down and bent in half, they brush right off and start to laugh. Can you imagine that?
On second thought...
GROSS: And that's my guest Emily Blunt from the soundtrack of "Mary Poppins Returns." So as I said, you'd already sung in "Into The Woods." And Rob Marshall has said that he likes to work with actors who can sing as opposed to singers who can act.
GROSS: And I know he's hired voice teachers. Like, for - for "Chicago," he had a voice coach working with the actors who didn't know how to sing or hadn't at least sung in front of a camera or on stage. Did you get any kind of singing coaching for this role?
BLUNT: Oh, yes. Yes, I mean, I - I worked with Eric Vetro on "Into The Woods." And then I worked with Joan Lader and Eric Vetro on "Mary Poppins." And it's sort of essential, actually, for me because I have not been trained as a singer. And they do give you the sort of confidence and the tools to assist you. I mean, I think it was easier for me with "Mary Poppins." I mean, Stephen Sondheim, his music sort of requires all of you. It is some of the most - it is the deep end of musical theater (laughter).
But "Mary Poppins" for me was a more slow-burn, tailor-made experience because the songs were written with me in mind, with my abilities in mind. And the songwriters and composers, they - they really learned my voice and what I could do and what I couldn't do. And so by the time I started singing them on set, I mean, I'd been working with this music for, you know, over a year by that point.
GROSS: So you were cast before the songs were written?
BLUNT: Yes, yes. Yeah, I was cast - I mean, Rob called me in August, 2015. We didn't start shooting till February, 2017. So it was the longest - longest attachment to one project of my life, really.
GROSS: So what did you learn about your voice or about singing for this film that you didn't...
BLUNT: (Laughter) That I got better. (Laughter).
GROSS: ...Already know.
BLUNT: That I had a better range than I thought, probably. I mean, that I think it can - you know, that I shouldn't be intimidated right off the bat with a song because you can improve so much. You can get so much better the more you sing it. And it just gets in your blood. And then the other thing - great thing I've learned from working with Rob Marshall - I remember this when I auditioned for "Into The Woods," which I went into that room, my knees knocking. I just have always loathed singing in front of people. I really like doing it privately, but just not in front of people.
And I went in to audition. And I said, Rob, I'm very, very nervous. I said, I don't like singing in front of people. And he said - he said, I'm not - as you say - he said, I'm not interested in singers who can kind of act. I want actors who can kind of sing. And he said, so I just want you to tell me a story. And stop worrying about making it sound pretty. But tell me - tell me your story as this character.
And that's, I think, what I learned is that I think the singers that we all respond to and fall in love with are the ones that evoke a story and the ones that make you feel something. It's not just about listening to vocal gymnastics. It's about telling a story that moves people. So that's sort of what I tend to focus on now and not worry about how it sounds. And it always sounds better if I stop worrying about how it sounds.
GROSS: So in the song we just heard, where you basically talk your way into the song...
GROSS: ...Does that make it any easier or more difficult to sing? You know, like...
BLUNT: No, no. I think it's more seamless. And I think that what Rob Marshall tends to do when he works is you rehearse for nine weeks. So we had a long rehearsal period. So we knew what we would be doing when we sang the songs. So then you go and prerecord them. And I prerecorded them with, like, a hundred-piece orchestra - one of the best days of my life, so moving and wonderful.
So then on the day of shooting, when you shoot the musical numbers, you have a perfect prerecord that he - he'll blast from the speakers. So you'll do a few takes like that. And then he'll - there'll be that hideous moment where he says, OK, we're going to do one live. And you just think, oh, my God. And then you put the little earwig in your ear, and you are the only one on set who can hear the music. Everyone else is listening to some probably, like, subpar acapella version of the song.
BLUNT: Which is so humiliating (laughter). But I think what you then get is this beautiful blend so that there is a lovely, seamless quality from the scene into the songs so that the songs become an extension of the scene.
GROSS: So there's a blend of you singing live, so to speak, with the prerecord?
BLUNT: Correct. So the ballad I sing to the children, which is another number, was nearly all live, actually, just 'cause of the sense of intimacy that the song has. That was predominantly live I think.
GROSS: My guest is Emily Blunt. She stars as Mary Poppins in "Mary Poppins Returns," which opens tomorrow. After a break, we'll talk about how she stuttered when she was growing up and how acting helped her overcome it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Emily Blunt. She stars as Mary Poppins in the new movie "Mary Poppins Returns," which opens tomorrow. It has new songs and a new story. She's nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in the film. And she has two nominations from SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, one for "Mary Poppins Returns" and one for "A Quiet Place," which was directed by her husband, John Krasinski, who also plays her husband in the film.
Blunt is also known for her roles in "The Devil Wears Prada," "Looper," "Sicario," "The Girl On The Train" and the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's "Into The Woods." So when you were a child, you had a stutter.
GROSS: How bad was it, and how did it affect your childhood?
BLUNT: It was very bad. It got progressively worse. It was not so bad when I was younger. By the time I was sort of 12, 13, it was probably at its peak. And it is - and it was and still is for many people who suffer with it - it is a condition that people sort of tease 'cause you sound funny and you look funny when you stutter. You're trying to force words out, so everything contorts. And you look - you can sometimes look like a crazy person, you know. And it's a misrepresentation of who you are. It's just inability to speak.
And so I work a lot with kids who stutter and adults who stutter. And - and it's hard when you're in the thick of it 'cause you think it's going to be your whole life, and - and it's not. It doesn't have to be. If you get the right treatment, it's very temporary. You can - you can manage it. You can very much manage it. You just need to get the right help.
But it did affect me. I mean, I did become less verbose literally and didn't want to speak as much just because I was embarrassed, but I was also embarrassed for people who were talking to me because they don't know what to do. Some people would just be - I had this awful teacher who just said, just say it, just spit it out. You know, people don't understand it. They don't understand why you can't speak. Kids don't understand why you can't speak. And there's not enough information out there about it, and it's very common. It's very, very common.
GROSS: When a teacher would say, just say it, just spit it out, would that make it worse?
BLUNT: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, one time, I just actually walked away from her because I needed to go to the bathroom, and I couldn't say I need to go to the bathroom, so I ended up just turning around and walking out the door...
GROSS: Were you punished for that?
BLUNT: ...To hear her going, where are you going? And I wrote it down. I wrote it down. I said, I had to go to the bathroom and I couldn't tell you. And then she felt quite bad, I think. And then my mom had to come in and have a word (laughter).
GROSS: So you said it got worse until you were, like, 12 or 13. Why do you think it got worse with time instead of better until that point?
BLUNT: Well, I think it's a skipping record. And then as soon as you associate yourself with somebody who stutters and that's the stamp that you put on yourself, then it sort of solidifies it in some ways. It's sort of like people who - I don't know - put some label on an illness that they have and the illness suddenly intensifies as soon as it's labeled. And so I think that probably is what happened. But then I did grow out of mine.
And I think a lot of it was to do with this extraordinary teacher I had who encouraged me to do a class play. And I said I don't want to, and he said, well, I think you're very funny, and I think that you are very good at voices. You do silly voices, and you don't stutter when you do a silly voice, so why don't you do a silly accent or something? That's probably why I've always been really fascinated by changing my voice depending on the role and - because it was a way of unlocking me. And I have to credit him as somebody who's not a stutterer for understanding the idea of sort of removing yourself from yourself so that you can speak fluently. And it was one of the first times doing a stupid Northern English accent that I could speak fluently.
GROSS: So was it a kind of slow change losing your stutter...
BLUNT: Yes, yes.
GROSS: ...Or was it slow?
BLUNT: Yes, it was slow. It wasn't, like, night and day. It wasn't, like, this sort of big reveal that suddenly I speak fluently. But it certainly gives you the confidence to know that you can, and so much of life and overcoming life's setbacks is about confidence. It's really so much about that. And weirdly, you know, I have met a lot of actors that I've worked with and then through the work I've done with the American Institute of Stuttering, which is the most extraordinary organization to help people with stutters - but I've met a lot of actors who stutter and still stutter but don't when they perform. So I think there is definitely something to that, that removal of yourself. And it allows for a more fluent way of speaking. So many actors I've met and worked with used to or still do.
GROSS: Have you thought about how much of stuttering is physiological, like the muscles seizing, and how much of it is the brain, like the brain not communicating to the vocal chords and the jaw muscles in enough time so that, like, you're speaking before your brain has fully communicated what you're supposed to be saying?
BLUNT: No, it's not - it's not that. It's not that you don't know what you want to say. It's that you know completely clearly what you want to say. It is - it's actually hereditary, stuttering. So it runs quite prominently in my family. And you'll usually find with most stutterers that it runs in their family in some way. But it's nothing to do really with the brain not being able to communicate what you want to say. It is a muscular issue. And so I guess it's a synaptic signal that happens, that there's a kind of misfire there. It's quite hard to explain really.
GROSS: So you were signed by an agent while you were still in school. Does that mean high school or college?
BLUNT: It was - well, it's what I call college, which is between the age of 16 and 18, so I guess that's still high school for you guys, so I was 17. When I got an agent, I was at the Edinburgh Fringe Theatre Festival, and I did a play through my school. I had this really great school that had a great drama department. And they said, do you want to do a play this summer and earn some money? I thought, yeah, great. And so I did. And an agent came to see it, and he said, well, I think you should give this a go - and not that I entered into the industry feeling cavalier about it. I just - because it had not been my intention. I didn't enter into it with a burning ambition for anything miraculous to happen. And that probably served me quite well because then I always really enjoyed auditioning for things. I had - I didn't feel nervous doing it because I didn't have any stakes really. The stakes were low for me.
GROSS: Because you weren't passionate about acting. It wasn't like...
BLUNT: Well, I just - it wasn't that I - that wasn't going - that wasn't going to be my life decision to do that. So I think I just approached it rather shoulder-shruggingly (ph) thinking I'll just give this a go. I actually wanted to go and learn Spanish at university and be a translator for the U.N. I was really excited to do something with languages. My mother is also an amazing linguist, so I was sort of inspired by her.
GROSS: Well, you've done something with languages. It's just not, like, speaking them.
GROSS: Were you initially shy about being on stage?
BLUNT: No, I don't think so. I mean, I was scared. I'll never, ever forget the first time I went on stage in front of the public. It was my first job, and I was 18, and I was in a play in the West End. And I just was sweating bullets. I was so frightened. I felt like I was 10 paces behind myself trying to catch up all night - out of body - literally out-of-body experience. I'll never forget that feeling. And it's never quite been so bad since other than when I did "Saturday Night Live," which I thought I was going to die from a heart attack of fear.
BLUNT: I couldn't - oh, I was terrified.
GROSS: Had you watched "Saturday Night Live" when you were growing up in England?
BLUNT: Yes. Not as much as people do here, but I'd seen some of it. But I just remember standing behind those doors and this wonderful woman Donna (ph), who sort of, you know, just wrenches you around the set, putting different wigs on you all night in the fast changes that you do. But she stood behind me, and I saw there was a puke bucket next to the door...
BLUNT: ...And she said you - yeah. And she said, you'd be surprised how many people upchuck into that before they get pushed through the door. Oh, it was - I remember her rubbing my back just saying everything's fine. You're OK. You're OK. Everything's fine. And then the door's open, and I was like, oh, my God, so frightened - frightened.
GROSS: Well, there's an image I never had in my head before (laughter).
BLUNT: Yeah. There you go. Just - now you have to imagine who's thrown up before they go on "SNL."
GROSS: That's an interesting game to play - an interesting mental game to play.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Blunt, and she now stars in "Mary Poppins Returns" as Mary Poppins. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Blunt. And her new film is "Mary Poppins Returns," and she plays Mary Poppins. So I think your breakthrough movie role was "The Devil Wears Prada" in which...
BLUNT: Yes, I'm sure.
BLUNT: No one's seen that movie.
GROSS: No one's seen that. So for anyone who hasn't seen it, I mean, it's set at this like high-fashion magazine - kind of Vogue. Is that fair to say?
GROSS: Yeah. And Meryl Streep plays the editor-in-chief, kind of. Why am I blanking on her name?
BLUNT: Anna Wintour.
GROSS: Anna Wintour, yes.
BLUNT: Yes. Although Meryl didn't actually base it on Anna Wintour - well, she told Anna that. She based it on two men in Hollywood that she knew - who will remain nameless, but I know who they are.
GROSS: Oh, that's very interesting...
GROSS: ...Because, oh, she's so kind of like, fetch this and get me that and do this, and that's not good enough. And everybody is kind of terrified her - terrified of her. And they kind of hate her. And they live two lives - one when she's present, and they're doing things because she's there and the other when she's out, and they're more like themselves. But anyways you're her assistant, and she's a tyrant. How did you get the part?
BLUNT: I had to audition for it. And I remember I was out in LA, which I found altogether overwhelming anyway because it was very new. And I was 22, I think. And I was auditioning at Fox Studios for something else, and then they just threw these slides at me. And they said, actually would you just read for this other thing while you're here? Can you just read for it? It's called "The Devil Wears Prada." And I think - I remember feeling really nervous because I was going to miss my flight. And so I think because of the anxiety I probably felt about being late - which I loathe being late in general - I think in some ways that worked because I had a sense of sort of fretful energy about me anyway. And that rather worked for this anxious, fractious, starving assistant that I was playing.
GROSS: Yeah, because she's always in a hurry...
BLUNT: Always in a hurry.
GROSS: And everything needed to be done five minutes ago, so yeah.
BLUNT: That's it. And she's just desperate and lives - completely defines herself by this job that she does and the clothes that she wears. And she's really funny - a really, really funny character, just completely idiotic in many ways.
GROSS: So that was the first time you've worked with Meryl Streep.
GROSS: You've worked with her twice since - in "Into The Woods" and of course now. You have a big scene - a very funny scene with her in "Mary Poppins Returns." She's supposed to be intimidating in her character as the editor of the magazine. Did that carry over on set?
BLUNT: I mean, I was more - right. I mean, I was more intimidated because I was very young, and it was sort of my first big film. I think I'd done one film before that. And she sort of stayed in a bit of a midway point throughout the day, you know, when it comes to the character and who she is in real life. She sort of - I think she very much kept herself to herself on "The Devil Wears Prada."
And I found out afterwards that - because I learnt so much about her after the film, how gregarious and warm, loving she is, that I think that character was quite hard for her because we'd all be having a party on the other side of the set, and she would be sort of reading a book in the corner trying to stay focused and severe, you know, as this character. And then I really got to know her afterwards. John worked with her, and he had a fabulous time.
And then I worked with her on "Into The Woods" and then again - she played my insane cousin Topsy. And I do find it funny that Meryl and I, in every film we've done, we've played characters who were a bit contentious with each other. And I'm just like, when can we play sort of lovers or friends at least - even friends, you know. I'm sort of waiting for the day.
GROSS: So what's the difference between how you were dressing at the time you made "The Devil Wears Prada" and how your character at the high-fashion runway magazine was dressing?
BLUNT: Oh, God. I'm sure I was wearing probably some ill-fitting jeans and some bad shoes and probably a top that was too low cut - probably some obvious top. So I learnt quite a lot through Patricia Field about fashion and about how brave you should be and how artistic it can be. And I really love it now - I think probably because I tend to dress a bit like a teenage boy every day of my normal life. And then, you know, I get dressed up for these red carpets and the press junkets. And I really enjoy it because it is such fun. I find the style part of it very artistic and very exciting and - because it's so not me, so not how I dress. I mean, my children, even if I put on some makeup, they're like, where are you going?
BLUNT: I think they would prefer me just to be in sweatpants and high-top trainers all the time. That's how they want to see me.
GROSS: So in "Into The Woods," which is a Stephen Sondheim musical that's kind of a mashup of different tales - but you know, it's pretty dark.
GROSS: So you - in the film adaptation directed by Rob Marshall, who also directed "Mary Poppins Returns," you play The Baker's Wife. And that's how she's described in the film - is The Baker's Wife. I'm not trying to be sexist here.
BLUNT: It's OK.
GROSS: You are just the wife of the baker.
BLUNT: I'm the wife of The Baker, and he's The Baker.
GROSS: He's The Baker. So Meryl Streep plays this kind of like Wicked Witch kind of figure who's put a curse on your house. And this curse...
BLUNT: You see - contentious, contentious women.
GROSS: Yes, she's that kind of person. And this is what is preventing you and your husband, The Baker played by James Gordon - this is what is preventing you from conceiving and having a child, and you desperately want a child. So the witch, Meryl Streep, makes it clear that the way to dispel the curse - to lift the curse is that you have to bring her three totally improbable things that you can fetch from the woods - one of them being, like, a milky white cow.
BLUNT: Yes. It's four things. It's a milky white cow, hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood and a slipper as pure as gold. I was just trying to remember if I had those straight - yes.
GROSS: So your husband...
BLUNT: And a cow as white as milk.
GROSS: So your husband, The Baker, sets off to the woods by himself to find these things, and you say, I'm going with you.
GROSS: And he says, I can do it on my own. But you go anyways. You meet him there. And you are incredibly helpful. And this song comes when he realizes he couldn't have done what he's been doing without you. And this song is called "It Takes Two." And you realize in the beginning of this song that he's become more brave and more interesting during this adventure in the woods, looking for these things to fulfill the witch's needs.
GROSS: So here is my guest Emily Blunt along with James Corden from the soundtrack of the Stephen Sondheim musical - the film adaptation "Into The Woods."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT TAKES TWO")
BLUNT: (Singing) You've changed. You're daring. You're different in the woods - more sure, more sharing. You're getting us through the woods - if you could see you're not the man who started and much more brokenhearted than I knew you to be.
JAMES CORDEN: (Singing) It takes two. I thought one. It's not true. It takes two of us. She came through when the journey was rough. It took you. It took two of us. It takes care. It takes patience and fear and despair to change. Though you swear to change, who can tell if you do? It takes two.
BLUNT: (Singing) You've changed. You're thriving. There's something about the woods. Not just surviving, you're blossoming in the woods. At home, I'd fear we'd stay the same forever. And then out here, you're passionate, charming, considerate, clever.
CORDEN: (Singing) It takes one to begin. But then, once you've begun, it takes two of you. It's no fun. But what needs to be done you can do when there's two of you. If I dare, it's because I'm becoming aware of us as a pair of us, each accepting a share of what's there. We've changed. We're strangers. I'm meeting you in the woods...
GROSS: That's my guest Emily Blunt with James Corden from the soundtrack of the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Into The Woods." So I don't know when the last time you heard that was, Emily Blunt, but how does it sound to you?
BLUNT: (Laughter) I think it sounds all right.
GROSS: It sounds great to me. I love hearing the film.
GROSS: Did you get to...
BLUNT: Yeah. I mean, I love that song. I think it's such a beautiful song and such a sort of bonding moment for the two of them who sort of tend to bicker and be at odds with one another. And I found the whole sequence, singing that with him, very funny and very romantic. And I absolutely adore working with James. He's just the best - crazy funny, just so exciting to work with.
GROSS: Did you meet Stephen Sondheim in preparation...
BLUNT: I did.
GROSS: ...For the movie? What did he tell you? Did he give you any advice or insights that were really helpful, either as a singer or portraying the character?
BLUNT: He was in the recording studio, which we were all terribly intimidated by. My husband John was there when I was recording "It Takes Two" with James. And he said that Stephen Sondheim loved it and was sort of having his arms in the air and was just sort of, like, floating along listening to it. And the song finished. And apparently he just went, oh, that was fabulous. And so that made me feel good. And then I recorded another song. And he came in and he was, like, I think you're just thinking about it too much. I think you need to, like, be right on the beat. You need to be right on it. You're like dragging it. And I was like, I'm so sorry, Stephen Sondheim.
BLUNT: It went from thinking I could do no wrong to really disappointing him. He was like, you're just letting it drag. Just stop overthinking it, you know.
GROSS: Well, I guess he's honest, huh? He speaks his mind.
BLUNT: Hey, I'll take it. It's his song. He should be.
GROSS: Yeah. Which song was that?
BLUNT: "Moments In The Woods."
GROSS: And so how did you change after that?
BLUNT: I just listened to it. I stopped dragging it probably - stayed right on the beat.
GROSS: Did it deflate your confidence?
BLUNT: No, no. I liked the notes and the criticism. I think it's good. It kind of, you know, stirs you up a bit. You've got to find a different approach.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Blunt. And she now stars in "Mary Poppins Returns" as Mary Poppins. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARC SHAIMAN'S "MARY POPPINS ARRIVES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Emily Blunt. And her new film is "Mary Poppins Returns." And she plays Mary Poppins. So with "Mary Poppins Returns," your new film, have you seen it with an audience?
BLUNT: I have seen it once with an audience. And I thought it was just an overwhelmingly wonderful experience, actually, because you sort of rediscover it through their eyes. And the energy and the joy in the room was palpable and terribly exciting.
GROSS: You know, it's funny. Like, for me, I was just, like, a few years too old to see it as a child. So - and I was at that age where, like, you've just become not a child anymore. Like, I was maybe - did it come out in 1964, the original?
BLUNT: Yes, it did. Yeah.
GROSS: So I would have been 12 or 13.
GROSS: And, like, you don't want to be associated with child things at that age. It's like, no...
GROSS: I'm an adult now (laughter) you know?
GROSS: And I was just a little too old to want to hear songs like "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" or "Just A Spoonful Of Sugar" (ph).
GROSS: And so I don't have those childhood associations with the movie.
BLUNT: So I'm your first Mary Poppins.
GROSS: You kind of are. I've seen...
GROSS: Like, last week I watched some of the original, but...
GROSS: I have no, like, emotional childhood...
GROSS: ...Connection with it. But I really like your film so much.
BLUNT: Thank you.
GROSS: So I'm really curious what people seeing it without any preconceptions will think because that's kind of where...
BLUNT: Well, it's...
GROSS: ...I was.
BLUNT: It's interesting because I, personally, have found that even if people have not seen the original, I think they're still terribly moved by this version. And they don't really know why. I think, probably, the general nostalgic feeling and the spirit of the film represents how people grew up and the kind of films they probably watched growing up. And then there are a lot of people who are diehard fans of the original. And I quite like people like that going into our film because I think they go into it with their arms crossed, sort of wanting to hate it. And they end up really loving it.
And I had this one journalist say to me the other day - who was quite a cynical guy. He just said, I honestly went in not wanting to like it at all. I don't like musicals. And I really liked the original as a child, but I don't like watching musicals. And he said, but I - when I saw you coming out of the clouds, I just started to sob. And I don't know why.
BLUNT: It's so awesome for me to hear that. It's just - I kind of like both. I like people who are diehard fans, and I like people who've never seen it before.
GROSS: Emily Blunt, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
BLUNT: You too. Well, thank you very much. I loved talking to you.
GROSS: Emily Blunt stars as Mary Poppins in "Mary Poppins Returns." It opens tomorrow.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Ben Taub of The New Yorker. He reports that now that ISIS has been driven out of most of Iraq, Iraq is waging a cruel and corrupt campaign of revenge. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including women and children, are being detained, tortured, killed or cast out of society, suspected of associating with ISIS. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.