THE TELEGRAPH – hen Lily James was a schoolgirl, years before she turned into Cinderella – and prior to causing trouble at Downton Abbey – she wore an outfit so vile it near enough put her off trying to look glamorous for life.
‘Oh God, it was horrendous,’ she mutters solemnly, before burying her head in her hands at the very recollection. ‘I shared a birthday party with some friends, a disco in the village hall, and we all decided it’d be appropriate to wear pink dresses. Except they weren’t really dresses, they were basically patent-leather miniskirts with awful heels. I have no idea why our parents ever let us go out like that.’
‘From that moment on, I went to everything in casual [clothes]. I gave up heels, and spent the rest of my teens trying to be the most underdressed at any party. I think I wore the whole glamour thing out early, to be honest, and all in one go.’
We’re sitting outside James’s local café on a street corner in north London. She lives just down the road, and today looks decidedly as if the pain of patent-pink-leather-dress-gate might still be raw: chocolate-brown hair bunched in a messy half-topknot, charcoal denim dungarees, a stripy T-shirt and hi-top Converse trainers. Not a wisp of fuchsia in sight.
‘My personal style is still to look fairly, um, effortless,’ the 27-year-old says, glancing down at herself. ‘I never want to look as though I’ve tried too hard. I do love dressing up in costume and learning about clothes from designers these days – I can completely see the artistry in it now.’
It’s been a gentle journey to appreciating fashion, and James puts it down to the fact she’s spent most of the last few years playing a series of characters who’d make Liberace look dowdy.
In addition to Cinderella on the big screen and Downton’s Lady Rose, there’s been Natasha Rostova in the BBC’s War & Peace, and even a weaponised Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this year’s action-comedy adaptation of the Jane Austen classic.
‘Going to a costume fitting and wearing these incredible clothes really transports you to a different time,’ she says. ‘It’s the quickest way to feel your route into a character, deciding how she stands and moves, and such a privilege to wear nice things.’ That tiara-strewn CV notwithstanding, in many ways James’s latest role is her most glamorous yet.
On becoming a Burberry model
In August, Burberry, the British luxury fashion house, announced her as the face of its My Burberry perfume range, beginning with My Burberry Black. In the first campaign, a stylish short film created by Burberry CEO Christopher Bailey with still images taken by fashion photographer Mario Testino, James is seen wearing the label’s signature gabardine mackintosh in the rain, before undressing to nothing but a pair of lacy black knickers, and finishing by reclining – for some reason – against a giant perfume bottle.
In taking the role, she has found herself following in the footsteps of supermodels Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne. It’s an impressive line of succession, I say, but hearing her name alongside supermodels elicits nothing but an audible, incredulous snort.
‘I never thought of myself in that way at all,’ she protests, putting her tea down. ‘The first time I did my acting headshots at drama school I had to pay for them twice because I couldn’t take a good picture. It was mortifying. And now I’m doing it properly, being photographed by Mario Testino, half naked on billboards at Piccadilly Circus. It’s so surreal.’
Despite her relatively recent strides into the fashion world, Burberry is a label James has admired for years, having worn its immaculate designs for red-carpet events and (perhaps unwisely) ‘at Glastonbury’.
Burberry is, she says, ‘quintessentially British and cool’, so when Bailey personally chose her for the new venture – her first global modelling campaign – there was little hesitation.
‘Christopher said he found me through this little video pitch I’d made on YouTube for a friend, which I didn’t even think anyone had seen,’ she says. ‘He loves finding new talent, and Burberry almost seems like a family-run company, the way they take care of you. Besides, if you’re working with creatives like Christopher and Mario, whose photos are just magic, it’s easy to trust everyone.’
At the photo shoot for the Telegraph Magazine a few days before our interview, James is relaxed, and clearly enjoying posing in the latest Burberry offerings. She excels in the campaign, too, and comes across as a natural – even when leaning topless against a vat-sized fragrance container.
‘I guess this was a bit of a turn in the road for me, but it was really fun. I like modelling and doing shoots, especially with nice clothes to wear, though I do find I sort of run out of faces,’ she says. ‘I sometimes think there are only so many times I can stand with my mouth slightly apart and my head at an angle…’
To demonstrate said face, she tilts her head to one side and gawps at me for a few unnerving seconds, before snapping out of it.
James is endearing company: friendly, thoughtful and funny. She’s also a constant worrier, which results in frequent conversational apologies. When a particularly boorish West Highland terrier sitting under the next table leaps up at us, for example, she somehow manages to say sorry to the dog for startling it.
Despite crushing nerves that persist to this day, she’s always been a performer. Born Lily Thomson and raised in Esher, Surrey, she made home videos from the age of four, singing and acting as various characters for the benefit of her family – including two brothers, one older and one younger, who would habitually tell her to shut up.
‘There’s one where I think I’m something to do with the Pied Piper,’ she remembers. ‘I’m dressed as an old boy with a hat and a limp, and really over-pronouncing everything I say. I’m completely terrible, but obviously loving it.’
Artists are dotted around the family. Her American-born father, James (who died in 2008, and whose name Lily took when she turned professional) was variously a musician, poet, actor and writer. She also has an aunt who’s a painter, and her late grandmother, Helen Horton, was an actress who spent some of the 1980s being chased around on The Benny Hill Show, and was also the voice of Mother, the ship’s computer, in Ridley Scott’s Alien. After attending Tring Park, a performing arts school in Hertfordshire, where she ‘never did what [she] was told’, James successfully auditioned to study acting at the Guildhall on a whim, initially preferring to go elsewhere to read musical theatre or – if all else failed – philosophy and psychology.
‘I didn’t want to be an actor at all at that point,’ she says. ‘I did English at A level and hated it. I was bored by Hamlet and didn’t read anything. But once I was at drama school they stopped over- analysing the words and we studied it by saying it and hearing it. That’s how you learn the meaning of Shakespeare. Suddenly it all sort of “clicked”, and I realised how amazing it can be to take a text and perform it.’
As whims go, it wasn’t bad. In 2012, two years after graduating from the Guildhall and with only two television credits plus a few theatre turns to her name, she landed the role that would kick-start her career, as the mischievous Lady Rose MacClare (later Aldridge) in Downton Abbey. ‘I still can’t quite believe I got that. I loved period dramas when I was younger – Kate Winslet was practically my idol – and it just blew up. “Downtonmania” took off all over the world. It was such a wonderful thing to be a part of.’
Dame Maggie Smith’s Downton masterclass
Given it was her first major role, James sought to learn as much as possible from the rest of Downton’s ensemble cast – not least Dame Maggie Smith, who won three Emmy Awards for her portrayal of the acid-tongued Dowager Countess.
‘On one of my first days I asked Maggie whether the scene I’d done was OK, and she just looked at me and went, “Oh, I don’t know, do I?”’ says James. ‘I don’t know if you can teach what she can do, but she listens so much. I would watch her eyes. She was as razor-sharp as her character, and so kind to me when I was agonising over the auditions for Cinderella.’
While filming Downton, in 2013, James beat the hundreds of other actresses – many of whom had far more experience of big-budget films – vying to play the heroine in Sir Kenneth Branagh and Disney’s live-action fairy tale, joining a cast that went on to include two of her other heroes, Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter.
‘People have told me that parts like Cinderella don’t come around very often, and that when they do it’s always at the right time. It felt like that. Everything about it and everyone in it was so remarkable and unexpected. At the core of it, Ken wanted to tell the story of this girl growing up, and he nurtured me through the whole experience.’
It doesn’t take a scholar to identify a connection between the majority of James’s roles – particularly the literary adaptations. Immediately after Cinderella, Natasha Rostova in War & Peace was a similarly febrile, love-struck beauty, battling to be taken seriously by her family. So too Juliet, whom she played in Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet on the West End this summer, a production that also saw Cinderella’s Prince Charming, Richard Madden, as her Romeo. Throw in Lizzie Bennet, and it’s four in a row.
‘I don’t think I could have said no to any of those roles, but I did recognise that through-line,’ she says, thoughtfully. ‘It made me actively look to change Juliet so that she wasn’t so graceful, and wasn’t such an ingénue. I’ve acted falling in love a lot now, I’m ready to not do that.’
In real life, James has been in a relationship with the actor Matt Smith – of Doctor Who fame – for two years. She refuses to talk about him, and bristles with a sudden steeliness when I foolishly refer to them as a celebrity couple (‘let’s not call it that’).
Being part of the new British ‘acting set’
She and Smith are two of the brightest lights in a coterie of drama school-educated British talents who have seemingly all emerged at the same time, and are all making tentative assaults on Hollywood. It includes her War & Peace co-stars James Norton and Jessie Buckley (another real-life couple), old Downton mucker Jessica Brown Findlay, and best friend Freddie Fox – whom she first met at the Guildhall but who recently stepped in as her Romeo at the 11th hour when Richard Madden and his understudy both injured themselves. Many of those friendships were formed during long shoots.
War & Peace, for instance, involved spending six ‘intense’ months filming entirely out of sequence (the book spans 15 years, meaning James could play Natasha as a heartbroken woman in the morning, then as an impressionable teenager after lunch) in the depths of winter in Lithuania.
‘What’s really nice about this job is that you start projects like that, and they take so long to film that you create amazing bonds with people, getting lost in a little world with them for a while.
‘There’s a good crew of us in and around London, we see each other a lot,’ she says. ‘I did Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with Douglas Booth, who’s a good friend, and I was at a party the other day with Felicity Jones and Jenna Coleman. It’s nice, we’re all fighters, in a way, and very passionate about what we do.’
As well as being done with falling in love on screen, James plans to distance herself from period dramas for a while. She admits to missing the comfort of returning to Downton, which finished last Christmas, but there’s a chance to stretch herself now.
‘I don’t want to close doors, but I’ve got to a point where I’m looking to do contemporary stuff. I’d like to act in a different style, where you don’t have a period dictating how to emote, or speak, or feel. It won’t happen just yet, though.’
That’s true. Aside from upcoming crime comedy Baby Driver, in which James plays an American waitress alongside Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx, her next three projects are set during the Second World War.
James may have left the 19th century behind, it seems, but there’s still the 20th to go. She’s been preparing for one of those just this morning, in fact. Next year she’ll be seen as Elizabeth Nel, wartime secretary to Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill, in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. To get into character, James has been feverishly practising touch-typing on an old-fashioned typewriter for weeks.
‘I probably won’t even be really typing in the scenes, but I can’t take the chance,’ she says, drumming on the table as proof. ‘Plus, if acting doesn’t work out I could always go and look for work in an old sorting office, couldn’t I?’
As it is, acting – and now modelling – seem to be working out just fine. It’s taken James a little less than four years to go from promising drama school graduate to one of the most in-demand British actresses around. Understandably, that ascent has taken even her by surprise.
‘Sometimes I stop and think, “How has this happened?”’ she says, dropping her voice and sounding almost guilty for a moment. ‘I know that quite a few of my first attempts at things have been high profile, and I’ve felt out of my depth a lot. I did TV twice and then got Downton Abbey, so I didn’t really have any room to fail. But that’s fine, you have to forgive yourself that. I hope I’ll get better and have more confidence in myself.’
In the coming years, James says, she just wants to stay busy, working with interesting film-makers and actors. She ‘doesn’t think too far ahead’, but then does also mention (deep breath): doing a Broadway show, more campaigns with Burberry, singing in a musical, living in New York, performing at London’s National Theatre, returning to television, taking up life drawing and – eventually – ‘maybe moving to Tuscany, surrounded by lots of children and sunflower fields’.
You’d be a fool to bet against any of it. Is this what James pictured being an actress would be like, back when she was a teenager?
‘I think I just sugar-coated everything and thought it’d all be really glamorous,’ she says, smiling into the dregs of her tea. ‘It’s actually even better than I imagined.’