Last time I sat down with Lin-Manuel Miranda was for his music for Disney’s Moana. It was about 2 years ago, so he was already signed on for Mary Poppins Returns, so this interview brought me so much joy. He’s so kind, charismatic, and genuine. I could sit and talk to him all day long. Playing Jack, a lamplighter in the 30’s, he gives a fair earned nod to Dick Van Dyke’s role as Burt in the original film. It’s not a secret that Lin-Manuel is brilliant, but he really shines in the role and with Jack’s child-like heart, you too will love him in this role.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Mary Poppins Returns Interview
You’re the highlight of my day. Hello.
We heard. It’s been a long time since you professionally performed work other than your own, right? So how did that work for you doing Mary Poppins Returns?
It is the fruit of the harvest. No, honestly, I started writing “In The Heights” because I very quickly realized at age eighteen that no one was gonna write my dream musical. That I did not have the ballet training to play Bernardo in West Side Story. Or Paul in A Chorus Line. And if you’re a Puerto Rican dude that’s all you get. In the cannon. So In The Heights really was the beginning of creating my own opportunities. Hamilton is an extension of that.
And then to have Rob Marshall call you and tell you, it’s Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins and you’re the only other person we have in mind. And we’re gonna build from there. It felt like the fruit of the harvest. The harvest I began when I was eighteen years old.
How is it different being in musical theater versus starring in a musical movie production?
You finish the eight-minute dance number and you wait a year and a half for applause. But honestly, you’re trying to tell the truth on stage and you’re trying to tell the truth in film. The difference is the energy source. Doing eight shows a week is a yoga. You’re gonna hit the same positions every night but you’re gonna hit ’em differently depending on your energy, the audience, you’re fellow performers. And you have two the next day.
The energy source in making a film is, especially a film like this, today you’re dancing with penguins. Tomorrow you’re singing with Meryl Streep. Friday you’re shutting down Buckingham Palace with 800 bikers. And you’re not coming back. We’re not going back to the penguins next week. You don’t get two shows a day with Meryl Streep tomorrow. So the adrenaline source becomes this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment and you have to be completely present. And so it just shifts from the audience to the sheer one-of-a-kindness of it.
Do you have a scene that you are most proud of?
Oof. That’s a great question. There are so many scenes I’m proud of. It’s funny. There are scenes I’m proud of because they’re my fault. And there are scenes I’m proud of because they took so much practice and mastery. Tommy Kail, who directed Hamilton, said he was most moved [LAUGHS]. Sorry, it makes me laugh. He was most moved when he saw me slide down the banister in “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” because that’s like the one thing I actually know how to do really well.
And as Tommy Kail put it, “You don’t know how to land a joke or sing a note or grow a beard without practice. But man you were born to slide down banisters.” And then some moments represent hours and hours of hard work from the eight minute, continuous dance sequence in “Trip A Little Light Fantastic”, and Rob ran it as an eight-minute dance sequence, you know.
There was sort of the three minutes of the song that are getting to that abandoned playground, and that was on location throughout London. And now we’re in another location, and now we’re in the sewer, and now we’re here. And that sequence was run as if it was a Broadway musical number. From jumping on the lamppost to the flaming sticks balancing on my foot, that was all run of a piece with hundreds of cameras around.
I’m very proud of that. I’ve never danced like that in my life. None of my shows, there’s incredible dancing with Hamilton. Hamilton doesn’t do it. You know what I’m talking about. And so I was very proud of that because it was a lot of hard work to get there.
Did you find the costumes comfortable or uncomfortable, especially with dancing in them?
Yeah. Well, Sandy Powell’s a wizard and she’s sort of a Mary Poppins herself. She looks not of this world. She comes in with this orange hair and these amazing outfits. The next thing you know, you’re wearing an amazing outfit, which is very Poppins-esque. And, but dancing was always given priority. So even in those hand-painted suits in the Royal Dalton Ball, that is acrylic paint on the suits, there’s give and there’s stretch in the pants so we can sort of do our work.
Do you remember the first time you saw Mary Poppins and what that meant to you?
I remember seeing the first two-thirds of Mary Poppins. We had the V.H.S. cassette and it was, some of you will remember this. You know, they had their own section in the home library because they were fluffy and white, a little bigger than your shelf. And then I remember turning it off during “Feed The Birds”. “Feed The Birds” is the most emotionally devastating melody in the history of cinema.
And I was not ready for it as a kid. So I remember crying and turning it off. I didn’t see the end of Mary Poppins ’til I was like in high school because that song was just too sad. It was just too sad for my tender little heart. So I remember the first two-thirds of it on repeat. And then “Feed The Birds” was like, “Oh, okay, I’m gonna go play.” That was my experience growing up with it.
Dick Van Dyke was kind of infamous for the accent.
Yeah. Best accent in the history of cinema.
So you were taking on the Bert-esque role. What was that process of getting the accent nailed down?
Well, what I realized going in was that no matter what I did my accent would be scrutinized for the rest of my career if Dick Van Dyke is any indication. But the fun of that is, you know, music is sort of my catalyst for everything. So I had an amazing dialect coach named Sandra Butterworth, which is a very Poppinsian name in and of itself. And she became my closest friend and ally on set, whispering in my ear between takes.
And also music. You know, she realized that music was my way in. So it was not just listening to music sung in the east end Cockney accent, it was music in the 1930s. Because it’s not just about the part of the world, it’s about the time of the world. It’s about the when as well. So I listened to a lot of Anthony Newley, who was a big sort of music hall star who then also wrote a Broadway musical called “Stop the World, I Want To Get Off” in the 1960s.
But I listened to a lot of his early stuff and that was my sort of north star for the accent.
How do you feel that you can inspire children, especially your son, that everything is possible?
I was inspired by him. You know, we started making it right when my son was turning two. He was just gaining language. And my character really the biggest note Rob Marshall gave me is that all the other grownups forget what it’s like to be a child except for Jack. And so my biggest research was watching my son play in Princess Di park in Kensington Park in London, watching his boundless imagination.
We are all born with that. I think we’re all, that’s inherent in us until life does what it does. And so you know, that was my secret weapon in finding Jack was I had a two-year-old research assistant who kept me childlike and kept me in that mode.
Gertie. That’s what I called her.
So the bike, I called it Gertie because she was not your average bike. This is not your Schwinn 10-speed. This is an old bike with a 20-pound ladder in a basket on your right side. So you’re constantly accounting for that. So I would bike to craft services. I would bike around all over Shepperton Studios until it was second nature to me. And then in the sequences where all the kids and Mary Poppins are on the bike, we just had a set of training wheels that we C.G.I.’ed out.
So it’s really me driving those kids on that bike. There’s just a certain limit to how far they can tip over thanks to the training wheels. And those are taken out in post.
And how was it to be in the upside down actually with…
With Meryl Streep? I mean, every day with Meryl Streep feels like you’re in the upside down. It’s like, how is this my life? How are we on the ceiling? It was a joy. I mean, I think, that’s the sequence that I think that I watched the movie I watch it more closely every time because it’s a triumph of production design, the way every ceiling element becomes a floor element. And then Meryl, you know, I talked to Emily Blunt about this.
You know, she’s done three films with Meryl. She’s gone from being her assistant (Devil Wears Prada)to being the lead actress of this movie. It’s been kind of an incredible product. And what Emily told me going in was that like Meryl just kind of stays in the character, but not like method Daniel Day-Lewis cobbling shoes. Like she’s just kind of in the spirit of it. And I felt so lucky that she was in the spirit of a character that’s so mischievous and flirty and fun.
I’ve told this story before but there’s one moment between setups where she just looked at the kids and went, “Hey kids.” I can’t do Meryl. Emily can do Meryl. She goes, “Hey kids, you wanna know how to do a pratfall?” And she went… like from standing to face down. Everyone runs in like, Meryl Streep has died. And she gets up, she goes like this, and she goes, “I learned that at Yale School of Drama.” And it was just to show off for the kids. And so I was very grateful that I got to play with that version of Meryl Streep.
Has your son seen the movie?
Not yet. He’ll see it in a couple of weeks. I brought him to work every time I had a musical number. And when we would drive through London while we were living there, he would point at Big Ben and say, “Daddy climbs that for work.” So I’m so curious now that he has much more language than he did, how those moments will sort of percolate and solidify in his brain.
Mary Poppins Returns in theatres December 19th!
I was invited by Disney to attend the #MaryPoppinsReturnsEvent. All opinions are my own.