Peter King talks about working on Mary Poppins Returns.
It’s been more than half a century since Disney released Mary Poppins, their big screen adaptation of P.L. Travers’ beloved fantasy character. Starring Julie Andrews as a mysterious nanny who brings some much-needed magic and whimsy to the Banks family in Edwardian London, the 1964 film earned an impressive 13 Oscar nominations and five wins, including Andrews as best actress.
Disney now continues that storyline, with Emily Blunt taking over the lead role. In Mary Poppins Returns, the timeless nanny returns to Depression-era London in order to help the now-adult Banks siblings Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer), as well as Michael’s three children. Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods), the film reunites a number of Marshall alumni including director of photography Dion Beebe, make-up and hair designer Peter King and actress Meryl Streep.
According to King, “This is my fourth film with Rob now, so there were a number of people I had worked with before coming back together again. It’s actually a lot easier when you’re working with people you know and how they work.
“Rob didn’t necessarily know how Mary Poppins should look in this film (apart from the iconic Julie Andrews look many years ago), so he sort of left it up to me to come up with some concepts and ideas. I had to explain why certain looks would be better than others, and then it was really a process of elimination—finding photographs of the period and so forth—until we got to where we ended up.
“There were certain traditions that one had to follow. Mary Poppins is a neat person, for example, who likes to have everything in its place, so when we came up with her look, it had to have that idea behind it. That look is influenced by the 1930s period, as well as the idea that she was perfect in every way and always looked like that. [You would never see Mary Poppins with her hair down or in a mess no matter what happened!”
The new film takes place during the Great Depression, which posed an interesting challenge for King: would his aesthetic be based on that period, or would he opt for a more stylized “Disney” look a la the original film? “In some ways, I think I did the perfect quality Disney version. I looked at some of the color posters of the period to see what the make-up was like and how fresh it was and how it was all about certain things and not others. It was all about lipstick and blusher not eye shadow, and eyebrows were fairly natural until that changed when the ’40s came around, so that’s mostly what I did.
“I actually knew the period very well, but that wasn’t the most important thing as far as getting Emily to look like Mary Poppins in the 1930s. She had to be fresh-faced, with that English-rose look, without being a slave to the period, which can sometimes get in the way of creating the right character. That’s also the reason I didn’t go back and watch the original movie again before we started: I didn’t want to be too influenced by it. Obviously, it was always in my head since the age of 5 or whatever it was when I first saw it, but I think we left it alone so we could create our own world of Mary Poppins.
“We did have a few down-and-outs in the soup kitchens and places like that, who look quite dowdy and messy, but most of the people walking around the parks looked almost perfect, almost like Mary Poppins in a way. Sandy Powell did a lovely job with the costumes, which I had to match in a way, so we weren’t doing the real period so much as the Disney version of it. The film is set in the Great Depression, so you can’t ignore it, but our family lives in a wealthy area, so they’re sort of living the high life on Cherry Tree Lane.”
As with most major films, King did make-up tests with the main cast members, which had to be approved by Marshall and the studio. “We tested all the major characters; Ben, Emily, Colin Firth [who plays William Weatherall Wilkins] and sent them all to the studio. Soon after that, Rob came up to me and said, ‘The studio says, “Don’t change anything!”’ so there was not a single ‘Oh, can we try …’ or, ‘Should we have …?’ They just said, ‘Perfect!’ so that was nice.”
After assigning Blunt to Tamsin Barbosa for the duration of filming, King divided up the remaining cast between him and his team. “I had another fantastic artist looking after Mr. [Lin-Manuel] Miranda and I did Ben Whishaw with Paula Price who did Emily Mortimer. I got to do Dick Van Dyke, which I was very happy about, but Emily needed to have one person looking after her the whole time, which is why I gave her to Tamsin.
“Meryl Streep was done by Roy Helland her personal make-up artist, but we’ve all worked together so many times now it was easy. I was there at the first costume fitting, and her character has this big turban that most of her hair was going to be under, so we came up with the extreme bob she had. And Meryl wanted the same hair color as Sandy Powell, which was a flaming iridescent orange, so that’s where the hair color came from.”
King was delighted to work with Van Dyke, who makes a brief appearance as the descendent of Dawes from the original film (also played by Van Dyke). “I looked at everything they did to give him that look, but I didn’t have to do a lot of it, because his hair has receded, so it was easy to put a wig and beard on him and say, ‘I’ll make you look damn near the same as you did before!’ so that’s what we did, I didn’t want to start reinventing the character and confuse people, and Dick was lovely to work with.”
Another Disney actress making an appearance is Angela Lansbury. “Dearest Angela,” reflects King, “who is still bright and sparkly, and they got her in to play the balloon lady which was lovely. It reminded us of Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Beauty and the Beast. It was lovely to see her again after we worked together on Nanny McPheee, which was my last outing with her, but she still knows what she wants and what works for her, so we came up with more of a 1910 look for her because she’s older now.”
Although King managed to see Mary Poppins Returns some time ago, he claims to still get goose bumps every time he sees the trailer. “Everyone I know who has seen it says, ‘It’s so beautiful!’ It’s such a gorgeous story, and in the tradition of Mary Poppins and Disney. We haven’t insulted or reinvented the original film; it actually continues the story, so that was lovely to achieve and for everyone to be that happy with it.
“I will warn you, there’s a song in there sung by Ben Whishaw and if you don’t have a lump in your throat after hearing it, you’re a very hard person! I think the movie really flies along, and you will want it to last, because it just doesn’t stop. There are some quiet moments, but they’re necessary, and there’s definitely no slump in the middle. It just keeps going and going until you finally come to the end of the film and think, ‘Oh, it’s finished?’”