Read below the full interview of Lily for Town & Country magazine from the Summer 2014 issue. A new outtake has also been added to the gallery.

TOWN & COUNTRY – Thanks to Downton Abbey, Lily James – as Lady Rose – is now a global star. Andrew O’Hagan meets the girl with the world at her feet, and explores how a homegrown drama became an international obsession

Once upon a time in the County of Ayr, a man called Archibald Montgomerie, the 13th Earl of Eglinton, decided to throw a marvellous, romantic pageant, on which he squandered his family’s entire fortune. Over a weekend in August 1839, he put on a tournament that attracted 100,000 people. His estate in Kilwinning was thronged with visitors from all over Britain, coming in carriages, carts, by pony and on foot, the road from Glasgow jammed with people equal in their wish to enjoy the Earl’s historic flight of fancy. Inspired by Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the jousting was to be witnessed by Napoleon III of France, Princess Esterhazy of Hungary, Count Persigny of France, the Earls of Cassillis and Craven, and the Viscount Glenlyon. But the Eglinton Tournament wasn’t just for the upper orders; the majority of spectators were farmers and tradesmen, captivated by the spectacle of mediaeval chivalry and by a firm belief that the aristocracy offered moral entertainment and instruction, with banners, trumpets and flags.

It rained for three days and the tents were swamped. The fields were deluged, the ladies’ gowns dragged in the mud, and rain filled every goblet. The fantasy descended into chaos as the heavens opened and the people fled. When I was a child, growing up only a mile from Eglinton Castle, I became obsessed with the Tournament. It wasn’t the disaster alone. What I loved to think about, on rainy days in the 1970s, was the romance of it all, the belief invested in such splendour by everyday people. It told a story about class in Britain, a story that is more complicated (and more charming) than mere politics can describe. A part of me wants to hate the terrible waste of money in a time of poverty, but the bigger part sees it as the last, great gasp of the old world before the industrial revolution. Now, the world is enchanted with images of the British country house, the servants, the manners, the notions of order and decency, the intrigue of social differences and how they once played out. Downton Abbey has become a national obsession in the United States and elsewhere, the life of the monied, landed British gentry of the past now seeming almost magical to people who have perhaps come to know a life more ordinary.

I asked Downton’s writer Julian Fellowes to help me explain it. Why has it caught on to such a tremendous degree? Why are people so taken up with class distinctions? ‘The modern version of being rich, comfortable and powerful can be very ugly,’ he said, ‘and the old landed aristocracy had a conscience. They lived among beautiful things, yet they had a strong sense of responsibility to their own land and community. In fact, in those days, you were given social status on account of your moral commitment, and that is in danger of being lost entirely. Very often nowadays, politicians encourage the idea that the rich are horrible. And one sees a kind of group hypnosis: everyone wants to be rich, but they also pretend to hate the rich. So when some-thing like Downton comes along, it looks like an ideal version of life.’

One day recently, I saw that ideal in action when I drove from London into the Kent countryside to meet the excellent young actress Lily James. Rain – not that again! – was rolling in over the deer park and darkening the stone of Boughton Monchelsea Place, an Elizabethan manor house less than five miles from Maidstone. Lily, who plays Lady Rose MacClare, naughty cousin of the Grantham girls in Downton Abbey, was braving the blustery weather in a beautiful dusky-pink dress. I walked through the house – the draughty hall, the open staircase, the large bedrooms and the well-appointed drawing-room – and stopped to look down at Lily from the library window. She is the very picture of optimism. Not merely lovely, though certainly that, she exudes a kind of faith in the idea of enchantment, a simple hope, you might say, in the possibility of changing from one person into another. Such a belief is a cornerstone of fairy tales, but is also fundamental to an old idea of how to break the bounds of British class: some day my prince will come, or some day my house will come, and with it the servants. I took Middlemarch off the shelf and read of its heroine while watching Lily James in the gardens below. ‘Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by a poor dress.’

‘Well,’ I said to the camera assistant who came and stood beside me, ‘things do change. The house is the same. The horses are familiar. The log fire is here and the wallpaper is by Colefax and Fowler. But Dorothea Brooke didn’t get to wear a dress by Elie Saab.’

The current obsession with old-style British class might be more than escapism. It might express a common wish for steady values. Lord Grantham may be rich, but he is in no sense filthy; on the contrary, he is a study in high-born benevolence. He is, to my mind, a figure of moral wish-fulfilment in the era of corporate greed and failing banks. I don’t want to spoil the fun by suggesting that many Edwardian tenants lived in fear of their landlords, for this is a story of what our imaginations create and require to make life delightful. When I sat down to talk to Lily James, I found that it was impossible to be cynical about the value of enchantment. In a sense I have always known that, but Lily adds a hint of freshness to the certainty. Although many of her qualities are from another age, there is something very believable and very ripe in her enthusiasm as she stands on the brink of fame. Lily has just finished playing the title role in Disney’s live-action Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh. ‘I’m not like some dynamo of self-confidence,’ she says sweetly when we sit down in the baronial hall for a chat.

‘But everybody roots for the girl who gets to go to the ball,’ I state.

‘That’s true,’ she says. ‘And I never want to be one of those actors who sit around pretending it isn’t totally exciting. It’s wonderful to have these chances. I would like to be a decent example to other girls and that probably means believing in their belief in me. I want to respect the dream we’re all having.’

Lily is 25 years old and was born in Surrey. She had what she describes as a ‘ridiculously lovely’ childhood, and she dotes on her mum and two brothers. (Her father died of cancer five years ago.) She studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Lily has natural beauty and the kind of British ambition that doesn’t ever forget about charm: she wants to be likeable as much as she wants to succeed. After a series of memorable stage appearances, Lily worked with Billie Piper in Secret Diary of a Call Girl on ITV, before her role in Downton made her television’s most appealingly naughty aristo since Lady Julia Flyte swooshed down the stairs in Brideshead Revisited. But her turn as Cinderella will make her one of the biggest young actors in the world, fêted, copied, dressed and papped. Is she ready? ‘I love to dress up,’ she says. ‘You can’t help but feel special when you’re given something lovely to wear. And you feel lucky. I think everybody fantasises about having a chance like that, don’t they?’

Talking to Lily, it occurs to me that Britain is perhaps the only country in the world where one can speak of ‘acting royalty’. Dame Maggie Smith, to all intents and purposes, seems royal to most young people in Britain, and so does a whole group of actors. In a way, the acting profession is a surrogate aristocracy in this country, where the leading lights speak of community, responsibility and privilege, in much the same way as might the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. ‘The British have a strong sense of their own history and to us the past is a real place,’ says Julian Fellowes. ‘So when you take a girl like Lily James – beautiful, young, modern – and put her in a crinoline dress, she immediately looks as if she belongs. That’s a real gift.’

‘And how do young and older British actors blend?’ I ask.

‘Beautifully. A lot of the success of the acting in Downton is to do with energy. You put a young actor such as Lily next to a seasoned one like Penelope Wilton and the energy doesn’t go down a single bit. It holds. And they work with charm. I think charm is the most important ingredient in a human being. Forget class. The world is split into drains and radiators – the latter give out warmth. Good actors have the ability to draw one into a state of concern over their character’s predicament. That is what Lily James has.’

When I turn up at the Fumoir Bar at Claridge’s a week or so later, a single, sweet, pink rose sits on the table in a silver vase. Walking down New Bond Street an hour before, I stopped at the window of Richard Green’s gallery, where Samuel Peploe’s divine oil painting Roses and Tea was on display and up for sale. What is it with all these roses, I thought, and this sublimely interesting blurring of art and life? Then Lily James arrives in the bar all smiles and the candles flicker and the Moscow mules come after. ‘I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Lady Rose [her character in Downton] at the start,’ says James. ‘She seemed shallow. But she changes. Even though her values were about privilege and having a good time, she learned to care about bigger things. As an actor you struggle to take ownership of the people you’re playing.’

‘It’s pretty English to appear repressed.’

‘But I don’t want to be repressed,’ she says. ‘I want to be open and free and happy and just get it all out. I suppose you have to be careful.’

‘But you’re conscious of a British way of acting?’

‘Yes. I mean, I love the likes of Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams, but you look at Maggie Smith, not only now, but when she played Desdemona or was in California Suite, and you think, “Wow, she’s so sexy and funny. She’s an exemplar.” And you see some of the same quality emerging in Carey Mulligan and Felicity Jones.’

James has a very winning notion of class. She talks as if the perfect modern definition would involve a situation where if one person is elevated, then it’s good news for everyone; we all go up a little bit as a group, a tribe, a family or a couple.

It might be idealistic, in the age of crunch and bust, but I like it because it’s refreshing. As we get to the bottom of our glasses she tells a wonderful story about her elder brother, Charlie, who works for Sky Sports and loves golf. ‘A while ago, he wanted to go to the Masters and he wasn’t sure if his visa would come in time. And I promise you, I was like, “I’d rather he got his visa than I get Cinderella!”’

‘I must warn you, Lily – that’s very sweet.’

‘Oh, but he really loves his golf. He wanted to go.’

‘Everybody wants something, don’t they?’ I say.

She sighs and smooths the material on her Whistles dress. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Everything’s a new experience just now. I’m reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the novel by Carson McCullers. She wrote it when she was 23. There’s a rawness to it and yet there’s this great tradition behind her and this whole nation around her, and you think, “Wow, all you can hope for is to do justice to the whole brilliant thing.”’


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