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.
“I felt I really gave myself to Natasha and went there into the darkness and the joy of playing her. I got some good advice the other day. Someone said Meryl Streep takes three months to prepare for every role. I don’t know if that is exactly true but there is a tendency for young actors to go from job to job to job. I was making some choices and decided I need to take time off to prepare properly for the next things I am doing.”
Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.
That said, 2016 is not going to be altogether easy breezy for James. A film called The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, about the last days of Wilhelm II in Holland, is already in the can.
“Oh my god, Eddie Marsan is so good, and Janet McTeer I love so much. I want to be like her!” she exclaims, the joie de vivre fully returned. “And I am doing Edgar Wright’s new film [Baby Driver] in February. Yeah, that’s not a bad cast – Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx. Whatever… I play an American waitress, which couldn’t be more different.
“It is also seared on my mind that I have Romeo and Juliet coming up at the Garrick Theatre. I am quite terrified. But it is a nice reunion with Richard Madden, Ken [Branagh] and Derek [Jacobi]. It is like Cinderella II.”
For now, James has taken further advice from a recent co-star who knows what it takes to maintain acting stardom without artistic sacrifices. “When I was doing Cinderella, I did an interview with Cate Blanchett. She said, ‘Do the things that frighten you, do the things that challenge you because otherwise – what is the point?’
“I feel like every actor makes a few blunders – those films you watch and go, ‘What are you doing in this?’ And I’m sure I will make some. But so far I have learnt on every job. It may not be about acting but how to operate under pressure or cope when I am not having a great time. And that enriches you as an actor and as a person.”