The Leading Lady

By
Photography Matt Holyoak

Published December 15, 2014

ABOVE: LILY JAMES. PHOTOS BY MATT HOLYOAK.

In the place of end-of-year lists and resolutions, we’ve rounded up 15 acts worth getting to know for 2015. We’ll be posting a new interview a day between now and January, starting with 2015’s leading lady Lily James.

Lily James’ upcoming filmography is more than impressive; it’s career-defining. In March, the 25-year-old British actress will star in Disney’s color-saturated, live action revamp of Cinderella opposite Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Madden, and Stellan Skarsgård. Then there’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s unconventional take on Jane Austen’s classic novel, in which she’ll play Elizabeth Bennet, with Douglas Booth as Bingley, Jack Huston as Wickham, Matt Smith as Collins, Bella Heathcote as Jane, and Sam Riley as Darcy. She’s also completed a still-untitled-film written by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Peaky Blinders), directed by John Wells (August: Osage County), and co-starring Jamie Dornan and Bradley Cooper. Finally, there is a rather potent rumor that she’ll be playing Natasha Rostova in a BBC and Weinstein Company-produced miniseries of War and Peace. Paul Dano, whom James describes as “completely unbelievable,” is rumored to have the part of Pierre Bezukhov.

Born Lily Thompson in Esher, Surrey, James has been acting professionally since she graduated from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2010. She started in television and theater, playing Nina in The Seagull at Southwark Playhouse, Desdemona in Othello at the Crucible in Sheffield, and, perhaps most famously, Lady Rose, the resident jazz musician-dating bad-girl in the period drama-turned-soap Downton Abbey. She has two brothers: one older, one younger. Her grandmother, who James remembers as “a beautiful, glamorous, wonderful woman,” was the American actress Helen Horton.

AGE: 25

NATIONALITY: British

INTRODUCTION TO ACTING: It was really the fact that my dad, he did every single accent under the sun and he would read bedtime stories. He read all the Harry Potters up to the last couple of ones—I read them myself. Me and my brother would share the book at the same time, both reading on different pages. [laughs] My dad’s creativity and storytelling—he could sing and play guitar—was kind of my inspiration. We were always playing. I used to go to musicals every birthday—that was my birthday present. We’d go to London, me and my two brothers and mum and dad. I think I saw Mamma Mia about five times. [laughs] I definitely got obsessed at a young age with the theater.

EARLY DISNEY EXPERIENCES: The first Disney movie I saw I think was Snow White. I loved all the Disney princess movies. I was completely infatuated with all of them—especially Belle [from Beauty and the Beast, 1991]. I had the little slippers and would parade around the house before my brothers sort of beat me up and shattered my dreams of being a princess. [laughs]

FIRST PAID ROLE: My first paid role was my first job out of drama school, which was Just William. It was a BBC TV show. I played Ethel. I look at me then, I was still a little kid. It’s weird being an actor—I know we all document our lives because we take photos—but you can see yourself growing up [through] the roles you played.

WORST AUDITION: The greatest thing is that usually the auditions you think are bad are the ones you get. I’ve learned to try and switch off and go for a drink after every audition to forget entirely what just happened, because usually it’s mortifying. [laughs] I think our sense as actors of what we’ve just done—whether or not it be in an audition—is usually really not connected to any truth. I’m always asking for more takes and more goes. I think I just need to shut up and listen.

I remember doing an audition; I didn’t get it. I was at drama school, so they teach you to really go for the moment and be big and bold and brave, which I think is great advice but not necessarily always in an audition. It was a final round. It was with Jack O’Connell, who you know is brilliant. [My character] had to kiss him, [but] it was just a reading and I actually kissed him. We were just holding the script and I went in and actually went for the kiss and it was just silly. It was really out of place and inappropriate.  [laughs] I didn’t get that job and thought, “What did I just do?” I get really red when I’m embarrassed—bright red —and I was just completely flushed

CINDERELLY, CINDERELLY: When I first auditioned, I went in for one of the sisters. Then Lucy Bevan, the casting director, said, “You should read for Cinderella too.” I’d had my hair died blonde for Downton Abbey, because I’m a natural brunette. It was a really long, long process of auditions and screen tests and it took a few months before [director] Ken [Branagh] rang me and told me he wanted me to be his Cinderella. It was one of the most surreal exciting moments I’ve ever had. I was on set at Downton and then Hugh Bonneville announced it round the dining room table. It was also euphoric and lovely—one of those moments you’ll remember. 

I really, honestly and truthfully, never thought I’d get it—at every point along the way. When I finally did a screen test and it was working out, Allison Shearmur, the producer, and David Barron and Ken said, “Treat this as a great way to meet everyone and as an experience.” I really, really didn’t think I’d get it. I was able to stay quite calm; I didn’t get too nervous, because I thought it’d never happen.

STEPPING INTO THE SHOES OF A BELOVED CHARACTER: I feel that responsibility in every respect. It’s pretty disabling sometimes, the terror of not living up. My expectations are the worst. Of course I’m scared of other people’s responses, but you can’t please everyone and that’s down to taste so I try to let that go, but I have some high standards for myself and such clear imaginings and visions of what these characters should be like because I fell in love with them. It’s been a struggle. But I think with Liz Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it’s such a different Liz and such a different story. I mean, there are zombies. I had to let go of my preconceived ideas of her and try to go along with the flow of these crazy zombies in this manic world. With Cinderella, I fell in love with everything. It’s so close to my heart. That’s the one I feel the most precious about for sure.

STAGE VS. SCREEN: I played Nina in The Seagull, and I remember thinking it’s incredible to see all the actresses in the past that’ve played her. It’s quite strengthening. You feel a part of the family of actresses going through and giving something of themselves to the role. 

IF EVER I FEEL A LACK OF CONFIDENCE: I can just ring my mum and she’ll be like, “No, you’re brilliant.”  “If you say so, Mum.” [laughs] My mum thinks I’m amazing at everything. That unconditional love is just the most precious thing you can have. As a kid growing up and I definitely had that.

I’D RATHER BE ON HORSEBACK: [For Cinderella], I did most of the horse riding myself because I learned. Once I got the part, Ken asked if I could ride because he had this idea that she should be on a horse a lot. It actually ended up unlocking a lot of her character; the act of riding gave her a strength and womanliness that otherwise—because in a way, she’s passive. A lot of things she lets go. Putting her on a horse gave her a power and strength that she needed to be a rounded character and someone that you could look up to.  I started lessons about four months before we started shooting.  I fell completely in love with horse riding. I get to do loads in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies too.

For more from the 15 Faces of 2015, click here.