Ensemble melded as actors shared tips, guidance and reassurance

By Tara McNamara

For everyone involved, the idea of making a new “Mary Poppins” film was exciting but scary. For the actors, it could be downright terrifying. To appear in “Mary Poppins Returns” was to invite comparison with a beloved classic; to reimagine characters fans know by heart; and to bring deep emotion to the new story.

All that — and to sing and dance, too.

Some were movie stars and celebrated actors, including the most Oscar-nominated actress ever. One was a Broadway phenom making his first appearance in a studio film, another was a child in his first role anywhere. Each joined the cast with their own fears. But they thrived by lifting each other up. They got by with a little help from their friends.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, for example, was a sensation as the writer and star of “Hamilton.” He has won a Pulitzer, a Tony and a Grammy. He can rap, he can sing, but he’d never done a big movie before, and he didn’t consider himself a dancer. As Jack, the lamplighter who befriends Mary and the Banks children, he’d be leading several major dance numbers.

He wondered aloud to Emily Blunt, the new Mary Poppins: How could he be sure he’d really nailed a scene? Would he need to check the monitor between takes? Blunt, who’d worked with director Rob Marshall on his musical film “Into the Woods,” told him Marshall was meticulous about performance, so if he told Miranda he was ready to move on, the scene was solid.

“That took all my fear away,” says Miranda, “because I wasn’t scared: ‘Am I doing this right? Is the accent OK?’ The million things you can worry about. I will give him everything. And when I hear, ‘Thank you, we have that,’ [I know] we’ve got it. That’s an incredible feeling. Emily gave me that power.”

Miranda, in turn, lent a musical hand to Emily Mortimer (“Lovely and Amazing,” “The Newsroom”), who plays Jack’s love interest, Jane Banks. “He is extremely brilliant,” Mortimer says of Miranda. “He helped me massively through my song.”

Like Miranda, Blunt was confident about singing but less so about the dance sequences. Eight weeks of rehearsals helped them gain the confidence they needed. “Rob says, ‘It’s got to be in your body so that on the day when the cameras are rolling … you don’t have to think about it,” says Blunt. “You feel safe. That’s a dancer’s mentality.”

Extensive training didn’t prepare her for the fear that came when shooting the first dance sequence, “A Cover Is Not the Book” with animated characters who would not appear until a year later, in post-production.

“It was a completely greenscreen staircase. I’m in a huge skirt and heels. I’m not a dancer,” Blunt says. “I said, ‘Rob, I’m terrified.’ And he goes, ‘I know honey. I can see it in your eyes. OK, action!’

“Evil! I was like, ‘All right, I’ve gotta do this now.’”

But one of the dancers helped Blunt with a tip for navigating the stairs: “If you’re ever walking down stairs and can’t see very well after a big night, make sure your heel is against the back of the step as you come down,” Blunt remembers. “Great advice!”

Ben Whishaw (“The Danish Girl,” “Skyfall”) plays Michael Banks; Michael is one of the Banks children in the 1964 film, now grown up and struggling following the death of his wife, and facing the loss of his home. He’s a young man becoming beaten-down by life, and the role taps deep wells of feeling.

Searching the attic for a lost document, Michael has a wistful song about his grief and loss.

“Weirdly, the biggest preparation was learning not to sing [the song] too much!” Whishaw laughs, explaining Marshall directed him to abandon a full-throated delivery to instead focus on organic emotion. “You just inhabit it like you would inhabit a monologue, rather than trying to do the notes precisely.”

With a theme of managing difficulty by accessing the inner child, Marshall was intent on finding “real kids, not showbiz kids” to play Anabel, John and Georgie Banks

“The little one, Joel Dawson, had never done [any acting],” says Marshall. “I think he believed he was there. It was beautiful.”

Miranda remembers shooting the youngster’s part of “A Cover Is Not the Book,” where the kids got prop cotton candy.

“Joel ate it every time,” says Miranda. “They would have to make new cotton candy for every take. You see him cheering in those scenes, he’s like, ‘Whaaaaaaa!!!!’ because he’s had seven cotton candies. It was really happening to him.”

Meryl Streep connected with Joel and the other children when she was on set to play Topsy, Mary’s cousin.

“I just see her turn to the kids and go, ‘Hey kids, want to learn how to do a pratfall?’ And before anyone could blink, she face-planted so hard that everyone thought, ‘Oh my God, what’s happened?’

“And she said, ‘I learned that at the Yale School of Drama!’”

Dick Van Dyke’s return was special for the cast, particularly so for the new Mary Poppins. “He’s always tapping his foot,” she says, “and he just leaned over, and he sings, ‘It’s a jolly holiday with Mary.’”

“I just said, ‘You’re gonna make me cry,’” she says with a laugh.