Studio Photoshoots > Outtakes & Sessions > Session 040

NEW YORK POST – When Lily James arrived to audition for Disney’s new live-action movie “Cinderella,” she intended only to try out for the role of ugly stepsister.

“I thought it would be interesting to play an off-center character who doesn’t have to be pretty,” James, 25, recalls. But a casting director took one look at her heaps of blond locks and urged her to read for the starring role.

James glanced at the character synopsis on the spot and suddenly found herself desperate to slip on the glass slipper. After six grueling auditions, she won the part — and a chance to dance with Hollywood’s A-list.
“I am completely aware of how lucky I am,” says the charming starlet, who’s best known for stealing scenes as rebellious Lady Rose MacClare on “Downton Abbey.”

Indeed, James’ life of late reads like a true Cinderella tale — complete with audacious changes of fortune (and fashion: She’s a natural brunette who fortuitously lightened her mane for “Downton”), tragic losses and a real-life Prince Charming.

Just a year after graduating from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2010, she snagged rave reviews for her portrayal of Desdemona in “Othello” at England’s Crucible theater. A risqué turn on “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” soon followed and, in 2012, she made a splash with her taboo-breaking “Downton” debut (the show currently airs Sunday evenings on PBS’s “Masterpiece”).

Despite her easy laugh, effervescent eyes and dancing smile, the London-based actress admits to being drawn to shadowy, enigmatic narratives.

“It’s weird when you get roles that coincide with your life,” says James, whose father — the British actor and musician James Thomson — died in 2008 after a battle with cancer. (James, who was born Lily Thomson, took her stage name in his honor.)

“‘Cinderella’ touches on loss, and there was definitely a strong sense of grief.” Director Kenneth Branagh looked to French writer Charles Perrault’s darker 17th century version of the fairy tale as inspiration for the film, which comes out in March and stars Ben Chaplin as Cinderella’s father, Richard Madden as Prince Charming and Helena Bonham Carter as her Fairy Godmother.

“He’s remarkable,” James says of Branagh. “I was rehearsing a father-daughter scene with Ben Chaplin that was really dark and painful. I broke down. Ken gave me notes with tears in his eyes — he really wanted us to find the truth in the story.”

“Ultimately, Ken made us aware it was a simple story of this girl — and that we didn’t have to ‘conquer’ ‘Cinderella.’”
In real life, James counts herself lucky to have two caring, supportive and even prescient brothers.
“Weirdly, a few Christmases ago, my big brother Charlie gave me miniature books of all the fairy stories, including ‘Cinderella,’” she marvels.

And in another destiny-defining moment, James remembers her American grandmother, Helen Horton (who appeared on “The Benny Hill Show” and voiced the ship’s computer in “Alien,” and who died in 2009), stitching her fairy-tale costumes.

“She made me a Princess Jasmine see-through outfit — quite risqué for a 9-year-old!” James quips.

As for her current romantic life, the Surrey-born James confirms to Alexa that she’s dating former “Doctor Who” star and fellow Brit Matt Smith. (She remains coy on further details, telling InStyle UK in January: “In regards to your love life, you’re just entering into a whole [lot] of pain if you talk about it. If you’ve never said anything, there are no sound bites to haunt you when you’re crying into a box of Kleenex after it all goes wrong.”)

She’s more forthcoming, however, on her ideal Prince Charming:
“Richard Madden, of course!” she exclaims. “He has the most amazing blue eyes — so distracting when you’re acting.”
Another distraction? Madden tripping over her elaborate “Cinderella” dress during the palace dance scene. The showstopping ball gown, made from 12 layers of silk and created by Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, nearly overwhelmed the lithe actress.

“I had such tantrums about the blue dress — it had a life of its own,” she laughs. “Richard had to lift me during the dance and the dress made me four times heavier — I think you can see the strain in the film.”

While James’ personal style leans tomboy (“I can’t remember the last time I went shopping; I hate it. I tend to wear Doc Martens, ripped jeans and a jumper. Done”), she reveled in her cinematic princess attire.

“It sounds corny, but each dress meant a lot to me; I became quite emotionally attached,” she says. “It was like opening the pages of the book, with all the lush beauty.”

Still, she never drifted too far from gritty reality during filming. “Helena [Bonham Carter] and I would have to get changed into our beautiful costumes in these Portaloos!” she giggles.

The actresses clearly bonded on set, where they rambled around English heaths and castles. “We spent a mental two weeks of night shoots, frolicking around doing the garden scenes,” James recalls. “I didn’t stop laughing the whole time.” She’s similarly close with her “Downton” co-stars, particularly Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith (“We went to Glastonbury [Festival] together — it was wild”) and Michelle Dockery, a.k.a. Lady Mary.

“They have been great role models,” James says. “Especially as I became part of the ‘Downton’ cast a bit later.”

At the moment, the rising starlet is getting cozy with the cast of her next film in the frigid Russian tundra.
“It’s been snowing in St. Petersburg, and I’m dressed up in white fur capes, like the queen from ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’” James tells Alexa.

“And, I’ve got a slight hunchback,” she jokes. “I’ve been carrying a copy of ‘War and Peace’ around for so long, and it’s so heavy.”

She’s spending six snow-cloaked months filming scenes for her role as Countess Natasha Rostova in the BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel.

“I was worried about playing an ingénue after Lady Rose,” she admits. “But Natasha is quite complex and dark— and I have over 1,200 pages to look at if I get stuck!”

She’ll also appear on the big screen as a corseted, swashbuckling heroine in the upcoming comedy/ horror Jane Austen adaption, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
“I loved learning to fight and kill zombies,” says James, in her playful lilt. “The only thing that scares me is that I’m actually playing Elizabeth Bennet as this rage-filled young woman. I may have missed some of the details of her character.”

And she has a “tiny, tiny role” in a yet-to-be-titled film starring Bradley Cooper and Jamie Dornan slated for release later this year. (“It was so cool to do a scene with Bradley,” she gushes.)

In the meantime, she’s contemplating a move across the pond. “I love London, but I love traveling and I don’t think I’ll be here forever,” she says. “Possibly I’d like to move to New York and do a play in New York.”

And she’s still trying to sort out the darker sides of fame that can accompany even the happiest of fairy tales.
“I Googled myself, and I saw some nice things and some not-so-nice things,” she confides. “I’ve learned that that stuff isn’t real and it doesn’t exist, unless you look at it.”

“‘Cinderella’ will put me in view and it will be a ‘moment,’” she continues. “Right now, I’m lucky enough to be anonymous. We’ll see what happens in a month!”


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