‘Mary Poppins Returns’ star Ben Whishaw takes on role in his childhood favorite

You may also know him as the voice of Paddington.

Actor Ben Whishaw is no stranger to taking roles in some very British properties. He’s the tech guru Q in the latest iterations of the James Bond movies, he provides the voice of Paddington in the bear’s two films and now he steps into the role of Michael in the sequel to “Mary Poppins.”

In “Mary Poppins Returns,” set nearly 30 years after the original, Whishaw plays the grown-up Banks boy, now with a family of his own. When financial trouble hits, everyone’s favorite umbrella-wielding nanny floats in to save the day.

It’s a character that meant a lot to the 38-year-old Brit.

“It was a film that I was completely obsessed with as a child — I’m sure like many children,” he says. “It may not have been the very first film I ever saw, but it was the first I remember seeing for the first time. I guess in a way it kind of ignited the acting instinct in me really, because I started to dress up as her and I learned all the songs and I knew every word and I acted the whole thing out for anybody who would sit and watch.

“It went very deep into my child imagination,” he continues. “I couldn’t really believe it when I got this email saying, ‘Do you want to meet Rob Marshall to be in the sequel?’ It hardly seemed possible.”

amNewYork spoke to Whishaw about the film, out Wednesday.

Do you relate to Michael?

Yes, I do. I remember many things that struck me as a child. I remember there’s a line that I think Mary Poppins says to the children because they’re struggling to understand their father. And I remember this line that she says about some people can’t see past the end of their own nose. And I was so intrigued by that concept and I didn’t really understand it, but on another level I must have. … I suppose it tapped into something of my own bafflement about the adult world. Adults seem often so confusing to children and yet we also love our parents. It’s such a fraught and complex relationship and I really remember relating to that.

You’ve been in a lot of films with these beloved British characters, like Paddington, James Bond and now Mary Poppins. Do you have a sense of responsibility with these films?

There is responsibility, but I think, with all of the ones you mentioned, you also have to make them your own and you have to make them speak to the present moment and you have to be respectful, but not too respectful. And I guess maybe because I’ve come from theater, where it’s very normal to take on roles that have been interpreted for decades or even centuries and find something fresh in them, it feels very natural to me to take on a role that other people have played or a story that other people have done and investigate it anew. 

What was your reaction when you saw Emily as Mary Poppins?

I just remember feeling incredibly excited and [incredible] fear or trepidation or concern that this wouldn’t live up to the first film. [That] sort of very quickly evaporated because she was so charismatically taking this role by the scruff of the neck and making it her own. And I think she’s so funny and so natural.

What was it like working with Lin-Manuel Miranda?

Well, Lin is just, Lin’s just irrepressible, which I so deeply admire. He genuinely is childlike in the best possible sense of that. … He’s incredibly creative in an open and tireless and kind and engaged [way]. I feel like … next to him, a terrible old curmudgeon really because I’m such a pessimist by comparison. But I so admire his energy really.

As someone who is such a fan of the original, what was it like to work with Dick Van Dyke?

That was a probably the most special day. … He was the only actor who — understandably — didn’t come rehearsed. We had a very long rehearsal period. But Dick wasn’t there for the rehearsal, so he just literally arrived on set in the costume. I don’t think we even rehearsed on the day of the shoot. I think we just turned over the cameras and he performed. And it was all prepared by him and he did it immediately and he did it all in a couple of takes without any stumbling or any need for correction or anything. It was quite remarkable. It would have been remarkable in someone half his age. But it was jaw-dropping in someone who was 91 at the time. And just inspirational to see someone so in a way more alive than any of the rest of us. So intensely living and intensely taking pleasure in what they do. Wonderful to see.

You were in the “Crucible” on Broadway in 2016. Do you have any plans on coming back to the NYC stage?

I’m doing a play here next year, which is kind of a monologue actually. It’s not really a play. But it’s not on Broadway. It’s a new venue that they’re currently constructing called The Shed. And I’ll be there sometime in the spring, I think. So I’m really looking forward to coming back here and performing here. I had such a fantastic time.

So you have a pretty great mustache in this movie. Did you consider keeping it?

No. I don’t like it myself. I liked it for the character. … I like a beard, but I don’t like a mustache.

Is there anything you can tell about if there will be another “Paddington” movie?

I really don’t know whether there will be another of those films. You know, I had such an interesting experience because we had no idea when we were making it that it would be as successful or as good as it turned out to be. I got called in very late in the day and I didn’t really want to do it. I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. I thought I was going to be bad at doing that kind of voice work. I resisted it and resisted it. But I feel very proud of those films now. As to whether there will be another one, I really don’t know. I think it depends on whether Paul King, who is the writer and director, whether he can be persuaded to.

Scott A. Rosenberg