Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer

Mary Poppins Returns' Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer talk about taking on iconic roles

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Dec 6, 2018, 5:01 PM EST

In Disney's Mary Poppins Returns, Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw play a grown-up Jane and Michael Banks, the children from the original film. A family tragedy has taken place, and Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to the Banks family to help a new generation of children.

SYFY FANGRRLS spoke with Mortimer and Whishaw about the film, Whishaw singing for the first time, and living in the world of Mary Poppins.

What was your first reaction to the idea of taking on roles that were this iconic?

Emily Mortimer: I just knew I wanted to be part of it, and I knew I wanted to be part of it from just meeting Rob [Marshall], and hearing him talk about the movie, and the way that he wanted to make a film that was going to kind of be a kind of an answer to kind of strange world we live in at the moment, and how we all need a dose of something, of magic, to sort of make us, remind us what it is to have hope, and feel joy, and hope, and full of love, and kind of find a path through the pain. And the way that he spoke about it in the first meeting I had with him was just completely inspiring, and that's what thrilled me. 

And so the whole business of sort of taking on this brand, or this type ... what do you call it? This legacy-

Well, now you can call it a franchise.

Emily Mortimer: This franchise, whatever, wasn't, luckily, wasn't playing too much on my mind at that time. It was more just like, "Oh God, I really want to work with Rob, and I love the way he's talking about how he wants this movie to be." And, of course, the movie, the original movie, was something I loved, as we all had. And so it was ... that added to the excitement of the whole thing. The daunting task of it wasn't so at the forefront of my mind. I'm sure it must have been for, of course for Rob and, of course, for Emily [Blunt], and more. Yeah, initially that wasn't something that was really feeling like too much of a problem.

But then when we came closer to sort of rehearsing it and then filming it, you start thinking, "Oh s***, this is quite a big deal. These are real people that we've seen before in another movie, and how do you do that?" But we didn't talk. It was interesting. We never talked about that with Rob, did we?

Ben Whishaw: Nothing.

Emily Mortimer: Did you ever have that conversation?

Ben Whishaw: No.

Emily Mortimer: Nor did I. No one ever said, "Do you try to be a bit like, you know, charactery as you can? Or don't?"

Ben Whishaw: Yeah.

Emily Mortimer: I mean, there was no kind of guidance about that. We all know the original movie so well that it was kind of that was there, and then what [Rob] was saying in the press conference is true. That was the starting point, and then you make it your own and build from it, and I think that was just sort of what happened. But everybody, and all the different departments, had to deal with that.

Ben Whishaw: So true. Everyone had that legacy.

Emily Mortimer: If you thought of it more just as a gift, like this is an amazing thing to have this there, and then we can go off and do our own thing from there.

Ben Whishaw: And I actually think when I watched it the first time, I was like, "I think it actually adds something to it 'cause it makes it somehow haunting." And also, the characters in the film are also remembering or the audience remembers. So it's a kind of unusual special thing.

Emily Mortimer: Yes, totally, totally.

Ben Whishaw: But it works. It works.

Emily Mortimer: Yes.

Ben Whishaw: Somehow.

Emily Mortimer: I think the reason, probably, it worked is that how clever [Rob] was to make it 30 years on from the original. So that you're not reading in anything. In fact, you're just seeing what happens to these characters later on in their lives. That was so clever, because then it's a whole different world, but it's ... it's just completely organic, and organic development feels kind of grounded and right from the original movie.

On the set, we did see little things here and there from the original film. But that attic scene where you sing, Ben, what was that like to film? Because my eyeliner may have run during that.

Emily Mortimer: Oh, I know!

Ben Whishaw: It was good. Again, I feel very so grateful, and thankful to Rob, because he really taught me how to do that really, because I never sang a song in anything before.

See, that is surprising. 

Emily Mortimer: Isn't it?

Ben Whishaw: Rob really taught me how to inhabit a song, and what not to worry about and what to focus on. Actually, I found it very inspiring, and I thought, "Oh yeah, I wouldn't mind doing another one. I wouldn't mind doing another musical kind of thing." Because I guess I saw, through Rob's guidance, it wasn't about how good your voice was or anything. It was about just being in the song, like acting it really. Yeah.

Emily Mortimer: My dad really loves opera, and I never really got into opera, but the way that he would describe it is kind of how you just get that feeling listening to Ben singing and Emily too. It's kind of where the characters are really allowed to say what they're feeling. And that singing it gives them kind of access to their emotions for a second. They're really just expressing themselves in a direct way that you don't normally have that as an actor because you're sort of ...

Ben Whishaw: That's right.

Emily Mortimer: Even in real life hiding-

Ben Whishaw: Covering.

Emily Mortimer: -what they're feeling. And then suddenly they're just allowed to say it in a song. If it's done right, it's just such a sort of an amazing release.

If the emotion is too big for mere words, you sing it.

Ben Whishaw: Yeah.

Emily Mortimer: Yes. That's it. That's it.

Ben Whishaw: I think that's the rule, isn't it?

Can you tell us about meeting Dick Van Dyke?

Emily Mortimer: It was ridiculously incredible. I mean it was ...

Ben Whishaw: You can't believe what you're seeing in front of you. He is so inspiring, wasn't he?

Emily Mortimer: Yes, totally. I mean completely inspiring if you just felt like, "God, that's how to live life."

Ben Whishaw: Yeah.

Emily Mortimer: And his is a life well lived.

Ben Whishaw: Yeah.

Emily Mortimer: And he's just so up for it still, and so full of joy, and enthusiasm, and ... yeah, he's just into it. And now ...

Ben Whishaw: So I spent so much time thinking, "I can't do it, I can't do it."

Emily Mortimer: I know.

Ben Whishaw: You can tell that he's not the kind of guy-

Emily Mortimer: No, no, no.

Ben Whishaw: -who's going, "I can't do it."

Emily Mortimer: "I can't do it." He's just like, "Let me do it."

Ben Whishaw: "Let me do it. Let me up on the table." Just good energy.

Emily Mortimer: Yeah. And that's what we keep saying. Like in a way he inhabits the spirit. The spirit of the movie is in him. The kind of that thing of like don't lose your childish ... I think it was Cole who said that, "To find genius as being able to keep the child's spirit of the imagination alive." That that's the definition of genius. Some people that can do that. And there's so few people that can. But when you think about it, Stephen Hawking, or someone that genius is because they still think like a child. And he's got that, totally.

Mary Poppins Returns opens in theaters on December 19. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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