If Lily James was already known to UK audiences as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey, last year’s title role in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella (pictured below), alongside Cate Blanchett, shot her into the stratosphere. Now, just five years after graduating from drama school, she leads one of the finest casts ever assembled for a British TV series.
War and Peace follows Natasha on one of the great literary journeys – from impulsive, wide-eyed teenager (the book opens with her aged 13, in this adaptation she is 15), through love, loss, heartbreak and the deepest sorrow, to wisdom and contentment.
“This was the most demanding and challenging role I have had by far,” says James, when we meet at a Mayfair Hotel ahead of the premiere. “I tried to really play the youth at the start. I love how Tolstoy describes the way Natasha moves, how kids don’t sit still because there is so much going on. She is seeing everything for the first time. There is that sense of discovery and curiosity. If you don’t see all that joy, you wouldn’t understand Natasha.”
Natasha is not James’ only literary heroine this year. In February, she stars as Lizzie Bennet in the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
There is that sense of discovery and curiosity. If you don’t see all that joy, you wouldn’t understand Natasha
“My Lizzie Bennet is incredibly different from ones you have seen before,” says James, pausing for comic effect, “… by the very nature of it being set in a zombie apocalypse! There are higher stakes. She is much more deadly.”
With a drastically increased profile comes added pressure and more offers of work. James has taken tips from the very best in the business. “There is only so much I can give,” says James, sounding momentarily weary.