HARPER’S BAZAAR – There has been an invasion of Russia. The imperial palace of Gatchina outside St Petersburg has been overrun by a motley army that has brought its own field kitchens, transports and baggage trains in its wake. Men in Hussar uniforms stride purposefully by, horses champ and stamp, and serfs dressed in woven-leather slippers look on.
But this is no Napoleonic conquest. The BBC has descended in force, breathing new life into War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy’s sweeping story of Russian society during the early years of the 19th century.
‘We wrap tomorrow,’ says Lily James, fresh from her roles as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey and Cinderella in the Disney fairy tale. Now she is playing Natasha Rostova, the bewitching young countess at the heart of the novel. Natasha loves, and is loved by, many of the other characters – not only her sprawling family but a succession of variously eligible young men. James herself was not proof against Natasha’s mercurial charm. ‘I had a lot of time to read the book and totally fell in love with Natasha,’ she says as she sits patiently in a make-up trailer, wearing a white T-shirt and ripped black jeans, while her hair is plaited, primped and transformed into an empire style.
‘She’s got such spirit, such soul, and feels things so intensely and extravagantly. At times I can be like her. There’s a description of her first ball at her dancing teacher’s house and it says she falls in love with every person in the room. She’s so open to the world and her heart is so big. I think I fell in love with everyone when I was growing up too, and my friends say I do fall in love really easily.’ The BBC team spent time in Vilnius in Lithuania as well as in Russia and was granted unprecedented access to film the young Countess Rostova’s first real ball in Empress Catherine’s palace. ‘That’s where the Tsar’s ball actually happened,’ explains James. ‘Being in that room with a Russian orchestra playing the music… those are some of the most breathtaking moments I’ve had filming. They made my hair stand on end.’