Emily Blunt and Hugh Jackman on Making Musicals (and Horror!) at the Movies

Emily Blunt and Hugh Jackman sat down for Variety’s Actors on Actors. For more, click here. 

Anyone who’s ever seen “The Greatest Showman” or “Les Misérables,” or the Broadway musical “The Boy From Oz,” knows that Hugh Jackman can belt out a tune. This Oscar season, however, he’s resting his singing voice and taking on another challenge by portraying Gary Hart, the idealist Democratic senator whose 1988 presidential bid was derailed amid allegations of infidelity, in “The Front Runner.”

With Jackman hanging up his dancing shoes, it’s up to Emily Blunt to score a musical hit with “Mary Poppins Returns,” the follow-up to the 1964 Disney classic. In addition to putting her own spin  on the famous nanny, Blunt scored with the horror  hit “A Quiet Place.” The film marked her first on-screen  collaboration with her husband, the actor and director John Krasinski, requiring her to perform the most agonizing birth scene since “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Hugh Jackman: Tell me, how did “Mary Poppins Returns” come about?

Emily Blunt: I had worked with Rob Marshall on “Into the Woods,” and he was a friend. And he called me and left a charged voicemail on my phone, so I knew it was something quite big because it was so ceremonious. I called him, and honestly it really felt like he was building to some sort of marriage proposal. It had such energy behind it. And I was filled with a feeling of complete thrill and fear because I knew in that moment I was going to do it, and I knew I really had my work cut out for me. It’s that film that’s sort of seared into your memory. Do you remember seeing it as a kid?

Jackman: I must have, but I don’t.

Blunt: I knew it was not going be a remake, which I was so relieved about because nobody is going to ever be able to out-Julie Julie Andrews.

Jackman: Don’t undersell what you did. Julie Andrews is unbelievable in every single way. You are unbelievable in every single way.

Blunt: I’ve never had training. Are you a trained singer?

Jackman: No. I was a trained actor, and I got singing lessons. It was in my contract when I did “Beauty and the Beast” [as a stage musical in Sydney]; I had to have one singing lesson every week. So I’ve been learning on the job. It took me a long time to feel confident.

Blunt: Shall we do a musical together?

Jackman: I’m totally in.

Blunt: I want to do “The King and I,” but you can’t do that with me. That’s inappropriate. When you’re doing Broadway are you nervous? Do you love it?

Jackman: Yes and yes.

Blunt: What happens if your voice just cacks out?

Jackman: I started in theater, in a way it’s the place I feel most at home. When something goes wrong ­— a piece of set doesn’t come up, someone gets sick and someone new comes in — I love that. I kind of go, “Oh. This is great.”

Blunt: I felt my palms just start to sweat. Even at the thought of it.

Jackman: It’s such a great counterpart to doing film. One makes you sharper for the other. Vocally, I was super nervous. When I did “The Boy From Oz” I had 20 songs and it was 8 shows a week. I didn’t speak during the day for the first bit, poor Deb… I wouldn’t go out afterwards, sleep in, I had no coffee for a year because someone told me it dehydrates you. So I didn’t do anything, but what you realize particularly in Broadway, you have so many people who will help you get through that show.  If you have a sore throat, if you’re in London, the doctor says, “Let it run its course. Take a few shows off.” In America, they’re like —

Blunt: Steroid shot.

Jackman: “Pants down! Let’s go. See you later.”

Blunt: Does it work when you get a steroid shot?

Jackman: Yeah. What do you think makes a great movie musical? A lot of them don’t translate.

Blunt: You want the songs and the scenes to sort of have a seamless feel so that it’s not this quality like “Here’s a song.” I think musicals, if they are done poorly, it’s almost like it’s funny when people start singing. It makes you cringe.

Jackman: I agree. When I was in drama school, there was this famous acting exercise called “the bonds.”

Blunt: What’s that?

Jackman: This is the scene, and my professor made every acting student do it, about how to make emotion real: You work at the bank. So I’m at the bank. Someone, my boss, says, “I need you to take all these bonds home.” So imagine you got $5 million, and I need you to take care of it. So you’re carrying home all this cash, and you come home to your wife and child, and you put down the bag with the money, and you go in to bathe the child. And the child’s in the bath, and all of a sudden you hear a screech, and you realize, somewhere, the money caught on fire in the other room. So somehow the bonds, the $5 million cash, is on fire. You race out, and while you’re racing out to get the money, your child drowns. So, he tried to come up with the most extreme, ridiculous, impossible emotional situation, and then he would say, “Go!” When I watched that [birth scene] in “A Quiet Place,” I thought, “Oh, this is the bonds for the 21st century.”

Blunt: Really?!

Jackman: If you make a noise, you and your entire family are going to die. You’re about to give birth, your water broke, you’re terrified, and as you walk down the stairs you put your foot through a six-inch nail.

Blunt: Just all extremes. So, my little one was just about one and a half when we shot it. It was a terribly challenging scene, but it was so exciting as well. John is so spontaneous when he works. That was the one where he was like, “This is this shot. I need two takes.” I knew he wasn’t going to exhaust me.

Jackman: Did he push you a ton?

Blunt: I think because I’ve given birth twice, he was like, “This is your department.”

Jackman: Having given birth, are you really judgy when you watch actors doing birth scenes?

Blunt: Some people nail it, but it’s usually people who have given birth. So when you do your birth scene, give me a call. I’ll give you some pointers.What were your personal feelings toward Gary Hart?

Jackman: The more I got to know him, I empathized a lot more. The movie is not about did he or didn’t he have an [affair]. If he did, is that relevant? The ground was shifting under their feet, and everyone was making mistakes, and no one knew how to handle such a situation. And no one knew what the hell to do. You have a journalist saying to a candidate, “Have you ever committed adultery?” And no one in history had ever asked that question.

Blunt: Did you meet Gary Hart before the movie?

Jackman: Yeah. I wanted to meet him mainly because I wanted to look him in the eye and say, “I’m taking this really seriously.” I stayed with him. And he was there curbside to meet me with the trunk of his car open. Lee, his wife, had just had elective hip surgery. They were sleeping downstairs on the fold-out sofa, and he said, “You’ll sleep upstairs.” So we go upstairs, and I’m walking into the master bedroom. Then he just cleared a little bit of space in his cupboard, and he goes, “You can put your clothes here.” You met Julie Andrews, right?

Blunt: I met her years ago at some event. And she was so charming and so lovely. Little did I know that years later I would be off playing Mary Poppins. But Rob was very close with her; she was incredibly supportive of me playing the part and excited for me to do it. There was discussion about [how] maybe she would come and do a bit in the movie. She said to Rob, “This is Emily’s version of her, and I don’t want it to be that she’s playing Mary Poppins the whole way through, but then I come in like, ‘Oh, but there’s the real Mary Poppins.’” She didn’t want that for me, which I thought was incredibly gracious. I hope she’ll come to the premiere.

Jackman: How did you feel after you saw it?

Blunt: I sort of “scream cried” after watching it. It was completely overwhelming. And I’m really not one of these people that’s like, “You should see my movie.” I’ve never been. It is still tricky to watch stuff that you do. I tend to pick it apart a bit. But I watched it completely alone, and I was so proud to be in it.

Watch the full interview below:

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