'Mary Poppins Returns' breakout Kobna Holdbrook-Smith shares his journey from 'struggling actor' to blockbusters

Tom Butler
Senior Editor
Kobna Holdbrook-Smith plays a small but pivotal role in Mary Poppins Returns (Disney/REUTERS/John Sibley)

This Christmas, British actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith will see his biggest movie role to date arriving in cinemas. He stars as Frye, a lawyer at the Fiduciary Bank, in Mary Poppins Returns and shares scenes with Emily Blunt, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, and – his hero – Dick Van Dyke.

“Don’t listen to people who tell you not to meet your heroes,” Holdbrook-Smith tells Yahoo Movies UK.

“Meeting that hero [Dick Van Dyke] was absolutely exceptional. That was one of the best days of my career so far.”

Despite all this, actor says he’s still waiting to feel like he’s hit the big time.

“You never think you’ve made it,” the actor shares. “I could be a multi-millionaire, super-successful, with a cabinet full of awards, and I’d say ‘yeah, no-one takes me seriously’.”

“There’s just that rolling dissatisfaction that’s the lot of the artist, certainly of the performer.”

After studying acting at Guildford School of Acting he says he found his chosen career “a real slog”, but credits his own hard work and determination over his acting abilities for getting him where he is today, walking the red carpet in Hollywood for one of the biggest films of the year.

“It’s tenacity that will get you there more than talent,” he says. “I crawled around on school halls, with woollen udders strapped to my belly, being a cow in theatre education, and now I’m fighting Liam Neeson in [The Commuter], or doing Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch.”

We caught up with actor ahead of the release of Mary Poppins Returns on 21 December to learn more about his incredibly journey from academic indifference to Hollywood blockbusters like Doctor Strange, Justice League, and Mary Poppins Returns, and beyond.

Yahoo Movies UK: You play a really pivotal role Mary Poppins Returns – how did you end up playing Frye, and was it a long audition process?

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith: It wasn’t a long audition process, I must admit. I could see, from the moment I walked in, how clear Rob Marshall the director’s vision was. I could see how clear his ideas were, or what would make the production work.

From everything he’s ever said, from everything the script promising, it was everything you see on the screen. It’s a very perfect entry of what we’ve worked with.

We rehearsed, and that was unusual. Usually for films for might rehearse for like a day or two here, a week or two there, just to get a feel for what you and the other actors are doing, and that’s luxurious if you get that chance. Disney now, we had three or two months of rehearsals.

And when we rehearsed, we had on one of the sound stages at the studio, we had these little cardboard boxes that represented obstacles, and it was all mocked up for us in a way that was… it was frankly incredible.

So the process itself was really enriching, really enhancing. I hadn’t noticed how pivotal – as you said – the character is. I was just playing him. It’s only when I went to the premiere and I was doing interviews like this that people were saying ‘your character is really pivotal’ and I was like ‘do you know, I think he is actually! Yeah, you’re right he is!’

Obviously I can’t say why, but he is. I know you know why, but I can’t say for spoilers, but the way actions play out, he’s actually really important.

It’s the whole Saving Mr. Banks thing again, isn’t it? It’s interesting to hear about how long you spent in rehearsals. It speaks volumes about Rob Marshall’s status as a master musical maker, but also of the property’s importance to Disney. Was it a reverent atmosphere on set?

For me I was completely on board for Rob. For me it was like, his captaincy was what I was serving. It was like ‘yep, let’s get this right’.

If he gave a note, I took it. If he has a vision I try to serve it. And by extension, the film was how it was. But I think, as you say, Disney knows what it is, as a property. The DNA of the original film runs through this film, even though it’s a new film, it’s still got the magic and the heart of the original. It’s a very, very charming piece of film, to my mind. I think it’s brilliant.

Did you help Lin-Manuel Miranda with his accent?

Dick Van Dyke, he’s in the film – I can say now, right? – he was amazing, but when he came on set he said ‘you know, I did this film, and there were people there, and the director was English, my crew was English… nobody told me I sounded like that!’ He said nobody had helped him out.

Which was so sweet, he’s so funny. But Lin-Manuel was on point, I certainly didn’t have to help him, he’s so talented. I know he had a voice dialect coach.

What was it like when Dick Van Dyke was on set?

That was one of the best days of my career so far. Because it synthesised my childhood dreams of being an actor. The idea of doing a film of that scale, and a star coming in, was made real. Don’t listen to people who tell you not to meet your heroes, meeting that hero was absolutely exceptional.

Dick Van Dyke proves he’s still got it in Mary Poppins Returns (Disney)

He was hilarious, he was warm, he was generous, he was sharp and quick. At the premiere I overheard him talking to someone and he said ‘they’re all surprised I’m still alive’ and then he went ‘well… the night is young!’ He’s so funny.

And he can still move and dance. He sang on set, a piano struck up, and he just gave a number which is exactly what you would want. It was absolutely beautiful, and I’m so grateful that that’s been a part of my experience and life.

What was it like working on Doctor Strange?

Doctor Strange was wicked. It’s funny, because I did Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch before Doctor Strange. And then he came on set with his beard and he looked so different, and he was in character.

He wasn’t being awkward or anything. He was still himself, but he kept the accent and he kept the feel of Strange so he could play it when we shot. And the intensity, you can see in the shot, i’m so close to him, and he just went there. The tension, the difficulty, the struggle was there, and he was just like playing it to the hilt, it was quite a thrill.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Stephen Strange’s physio in Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange (Disney)

I’m doing the Tina Turner musical [Tina: The Musical] at the moment. One of the things I like about being an actor, is that I like actors. I like actors and acting, I like the technique and the craft, and all the stuff people might think is a bit luvvie. I love it, I love it all.

I mention it because the woman who plays Tina in the show is amazing, and I have a similar moment there. There’s one scene where my character – I play Ike – he freezes while she does a number, and the way she sings, the way she performs, sings, lives this number, is incredible, every single night, and I get to watch it up close.

And I had that with Doctor Strange, watching Benedict up close, give it stacks is really, really lovely. And in the scene it doesn’t even look like that much, but he heat, the emotional heat when you’re up close, was wonderful to see.

I was in Justice League, and there was one moment where I gave a little fist bump to my inner kid, because I was standing next to Batman. I was fully standing next to Batman. They cut the scene, but it happened!

When did you first realise you wanted to be actor?

I had wanted to be an actor from when I was about 15 or 16. My family aren’t especially artistic or theatrical, so I just didn’t know if it was allowed. I just didn’t know if it was a wise thing to do. Turns out it wasn’t!

Then I wasn’t terribly good at school, I wasn’t very academically gifted and I did a BTEC in performing arts. Then I did some A-Levels in Dance, Theatre Studies, and GCSE in Dance, and GCSE Maths in one year after that, and then went to drama school. Went to Guildford.

And so I just took the semi-traditional track. You do your basic schooling and then you go to drama school, and then when I came out it was a real slog. I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have any work, it was the classic struggling artist shtick.

Very, very slowly my career bit-torrented itself into existence. I often tell people, when I mentor, or when I talk to young people about coming up, I’ll say ‘just don’t worry, you just need to keep doing it’. It’s tenacity that will get you there more than talent.

Talent is incredibly important but it’s hollow if you don’t apply yourself. By contrast, even if you don’t know whether or not you’re talented, it doesn’t matter. All you need to do is just keep doing it.

I crawled around on school halls, with woollen udders strapped to my belly, being a cow in theatre education, and now I’m fighting Liam Neeson in a film [The Commuter], or doing Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch.

So I really do feel I’m sort of lucky, because I’ve come so far, that I can enjoy it more, then if perhaps I’d just come barrelling out of the gates at the beginning of my career, and never had to wrestle for it.

Was there a moment when you finally though ‘OK, now I’ve made it’?

No, never. You never think you’ve made it. I could be a multi-millionaire, super-successful, with a cabinet full of awards, and I’d say ‘yeah, no-one takes me seriously’.

There’s always something. Or I could I could be really serious and go ‘I wish people knew I was funny’. There’s just that rolling dissatisfaction that’s the lot of the artist, certainly of the performer.

But do your family consider that you’ve made it?

Yeah, I think they’re pleased. My family live in Ghana some of the year, and so sometimes they’re not here when things come out. And so they only find out things are out when relatives go ‘ah, your son was on the TV’ and then they’re exceptionally proud.

They’ll get a message from the U.K. when they’re holidaying in Ghana, and they’ll know that I’m on something. I think they enjoy that.

Mary Poppins Returns is in U.K. cinemas from 21 December. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith can also be seen as Ike Turner in Tina – The Tina Turner Musical at the Aldwych Theatre in London’s West End.

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