i-D – If a dream is a wish your heart makes then Lily James must have the biggest heart of all. Starring in the lead role of Cinderella, in Disney’s latest smash hit (no seriously, its global box office taking now stands at over $336m) the Downton Abbey star has been casting a spell over everyone she meets. From her endearingly goofy laugh to her warm approachability, she’s even more likable than the character she plays.
With Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair, Game of Thrones’ deceased King of the North, Richard Madden, as her prince, and Cate Blanchett as her evil step mother (just don’t ask her about cats), the family flick already boasts quite a dreamy cast. However, it has not been without its fair share of controversy, with a group of disgruntled feminists criticising Lily’s tiny corseted waist (you should see the size of her feet…)
Yes, Cinderella is about a girl who relies on a man to save her, but it’s also a tale of enchantment, magic and happy endings, can’t we just leave it at that? In a world where we’ve become almost too politically correct and where we’re all too eager to challenge, undermine, and unpick, something as removed from reality as a Disney film about a glass slipper, magic mice and transforming pumpkins might just be the antidote we need.
How did you get involved with the film?
I actually auditioned for the role of Anastasia. I went in and had my best stepsister act ready. But when I was there they said I should read for Cinderella, as I’d dyed my hair blonde and then it kind of went from there and I fell in love with the part. I felt that this version of her was very bold and strong.
What was it like working with Kenneth Branagh?
Amazing. I’m actually going to do a play with him next year with Richard Madden. We’re doing Romeo and Juliet. It was my first big film so it was really nice to have such a kind, generous and very specific director, with such a big heart. He’s very passionate, but he also led me through very carefully so I felt very supported.
He’s quite old school in terms of his acting method, to most he’s Mr Shakespeare. Was this the style of acting you leant towards under his direction or were you able to have a bit more freedom?
I mean yeah, when you work with a director it’s got to be collaborative. You want to bring in your own self and ideas to your part and work together. Hopefully he cast me because he likes what I did with the part. He’s not dictatorial with his directing. But I do think that the epic telling of Shakespeare’s stories translates really well into fairy tales. And actually Ken I think gave the same attention to detail as he would in any Shakespeare play, too.
What’s do you think is so appealing about the story of Cinderella?
I just think the magic is so appealing. And the idea of transforming and shedding your skin for the night. It’s very romantic. I also think it’s the story of the underdog: the girl who has nothing. You root for her; you want her to get what she deserves.
Do you think she’s an empowering role model?
I hope that in our version she is. Despite the fact that she could possibly be seen as passive and a victim, you know, needing the prince to rescue her, we did want her to be a really strong, young girl who is in charge of her own destiny. She stays because she has a reason to stay, the house where she grew up in and the memory of her family. The strength she has within her is really empowering, I think.
Most of the world knows you from Downton Abbey, how did making Cinderella differ from the whole Downton experience?
It differed a lot. Doing a movie there’s a lot more time, and with Downton you have no idea what’s gong to happen with your character. Julian (Fellowes) writes as he goes along. You’ll read the script and be like, “what?! I didn’t expect that to happen.” Whereas with Cinderella I knew the beginning, middle and end, so you can sort of sculpt and mould and figure out your performance.
What would be the dream role?
I don’t know. I definitely want to be careful with what I do next, because I’m doing a lot of period dramas at the moment. I’d really like to do an indie film, a lot more simple, pulled back, naturalistic.
Someone who is a lot more fucked up than Cinderella?
Yeah. someone completely fucked up. I did a play at the Orange Tree in Richmond directed by Martin Crimp, who is a brilliant playwright. The play is called The Play House and I played this bipolar, manic young girl and I actually found that I was very much at home there. Haha.
Do you think that’s a very drama school thing, you know, always wanting to play the tormented characters?
I think the death of acting is when you get bored. As an actor you need to challenge yourself and play lots of different roles and keep pushing yourself. The challenge may not always come in the role, it may come in the director or the genre or the writing. I definitely want to push myself and that, I think, is the drama school way.
What made you want to be an actress?
I don’t actually know. I always did singing and dancing and prancing around like an idiot. My dad would take me to the ballet every year and he’d pile up cushions on the seats and I’d be all dressed up. It used to be my favourite thing in the world. And then it turned into musicals. I think I saw Mama Mia about five times! I’ve had two best friends play Sophie, so I’ve seen it lots.
Is it weird watching people you know act?
In a way. When you know someone and you’re having to do scenes with them in a way that isn’t your usual friendship, it can be. But you know it’s an illusion, and you have to enter this alternate world. I’m really proud whenever I see my friends doing well.
What about when people you know watch you?
My brothers are always so supportive and they come and watch everything I do. They came to see the play I did where I’m cartwheeling on the stage only in knickers. They brought their really hot, cool friends that I’ve grown up with and always fancied. That was the one night I wish I’d done it in a t-shirt. I know it’s theatre, but I felt really uncomfortable, haha.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m doing War and Peace at the moment for the BBC. It’s really exciting. Even though it’s a period piece, the character I’m playing, Natasha, goes from this perfect little girl to this ruined, destroyed woman. It’s a real pleasure to play.