Casting Meryl Streep is a tall order in Hollywood. But convincing the 21-time Oscar-nominated actress to participate in Mary Poppins Returns proved easy for producer John DeLuca and director Rob Marshall.
“I’ll never forget Meryl Streep’s email after we asked her,” producer DeLuca tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was an email that said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. This is what we need at this time. I need to be a part of a project like this that is going to give hope, and as Mary Poppins comes out of that sky, to know that there is, behind those clouds, something that can get us through this.'”
Streep signed on to play Topsy, the wacky cousin to Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins, in the long-awaited sequel — reuniting with Blunt, DeLuca and Marshall after their first team effort in 2014’s Into the Woods. Despite the unusual 54-year gap between the original Poppins, starring Julie Andrews, and the upcoming movie musical, Streep wasn’t the only one who believed the magical nanny couldn’t have returned at a more appropriate moment — in the Donald Trump era.
“We felt we had to find the ray of hope in this rather bleak, dark time,” DeLuca says. “Even though Rob and I were living in London at the time, we felt it when the election happened. It reverberated around the world.”
But the new Poppins tale isn’t all spoonfuls of sugar. While the original took place during the early 1900s, director Marshall and DeLuca decided to push the sequel’s time frame to Britain’s “Great Slump” in the 1930s, when all of London could use some of Mary’s magic.
“We plowed forward in trying to, again as I said, pay homage, but still make a step in the future and have our own story to tell,” DeLuca says. “And then we decided to change the time period. The original was set back in a more happy time, which is what Walt did. And what we did, we went to the time that the books were written.”
In the sequel, Mary revisits the now-grown Banks children (Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer), as well as Michael Banks’ own children, during a challenging period in the family’s lives. And just as Mary is a savior to the Banks, DeLuca says Blunt was a “godsend” to him and Marshall. After witnessing Blunt’s and Marshall’s “rare” working chemistry on the set of Into the Woods, Blunt wasn’t just at the top of the list to take over Andrews’ iconic role. She was the list.
“It was a no-brainer — he said, ‘There’s no one else,'” DeLuca says. “That’s another reason why we did it. There was both, not only Rob, the right director, but then there was the right actress — someone who was an actor through singing and could move and dance and have this joy but yet have that stern, British, no-nonsense, rather vain exterior.”
Much like the practically perfect nanny herself, DeLuca says the rehearsal and production process was “a constant, working machine that is very, very closely scheduled and followed through,” yet simultaneously spontaneous and magical thanks to its mix of Hollywood veterans and fresh talent.
For example, Joel Dawson, who plays the youngest Banks child, had never acted before, while original Poppins star Dick Van Dyke returned to act, sing and dance at the age of 91 — a performance that left Marshall, a longtime Van Dyke fan, speechless.
“He couldn’t even call ‘cut’ after he did this beautiful, emotional monologue,” DeLuca says. “The tears were streaming down his face. He just couldn’t say it. So I just kind of butt in, and I cut it, cut the scene. It was so beautiful that he wasn’t able to speak.”
That sense of wonder and whimsy is what DeLuca credits the film for communicating effectively to audiences of all ages. On paper, a sequel, musical, blockbuster family film may not register as typical awards-season fare, yet Mary Poppins Returns has already collected Oscar buzz and four Golden Globe nominations. But DeLuca, who knows the dedication that went into the movie firsthand, isn’t as shocked by the warm reception as he suspects critics and moviegoers may be.
“They’re surprised that we have taken a step,” DeLuca says. “They’re all ready to sit back and be cynical, and the funny thing is, you can’t be cynical because the funny thing is, there’s no cynicism in the film — none. It’s very clear, and we’re missing that, I think, in the films of today.”
Echoing Streep, DeLuca suspects the film’s success is a product of poignant timing and much-needed joy.
“There’s room for that, I think, now, and room for a pure hopefulness,” DeLuca adds. “I think that’s why people are responding. I think that it is time for this.”
Mary Poppins Returns hits theaters Wednesday.