EXPRESS – Lily James is waiting for the clock to strike midnight. The actress hit her to best known as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey can’t believe her luck after landing the lead in Disney’s Cinderella.

Directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh and co-starring Cate Blanchett as the Wicked Stepmother and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother the film opened to a huge £47million of box office receipts in America.

It is a life-changing moment for James, who pipped the likes of Alicia Vikander and Wolf Of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie for the role: “My life definitely has a fairytale quality to it at the moment,” she agrees, as we chat in a London hotel.

“To be in this film playing the princess, directed by Kenneth Branagh and getting to wear these outrageously magical costumes, is a dream come true. It just feels like a whole other world and I keep expecting to wake up.”

It was only when returning home to the UK last week after a round of promotional duties in America that the 25-year-old actress, who grew up in Surrey, felt the enormity of her success. “When I was in America I saw the posters and went to the premieres but I felt very removed from it. It didn’t feel like me in a way. But it’s much weirder when it’s in your own country. I saw some posters just now in Leicester Square and I suddenly felt, ‘Oh my God’.”

There is an innocent enthusiasm and unaffected excitement about James which made her ideal casting in what is a charming, traditional take on the classic fairytale: no post-modern irony or knowing jokes, just a straightforward story of love and sunny optimism conquering all.

Branagh recalls the moment James won him over in the casting process. “Somebody said something funny, she laughed and then she suddenly did a big snort!” he recalls. “She didn’t seem remotely embarrassed about that, and why should she be?”

Initially, she was up for an ugly sister role, eventually played in the film by Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera. As she sits before me in a snazzy black erdem suit, brunette locks swept back, it is hard to picture her as anything other than luminous but James squirms at the suggestion she couldn’t play ugly.

“It’s interesting this ugly sister thing,”she says. “You are what you’re portrayed as. So if I’d been cast as an ugly sister it would have been absolutely right just like if Holliday or Sophie had been cast as Cinderella.

It doesn’t have anything to do with how you look but how you’re presented to the world. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, it’s just fascinating.”

It is only five years since she graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama which she attended after boarding school in Tring. Straight away she was notching up impressive stage credits, including Desdemona in a production of Othello at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre opposite Dominic West, but she denies having any grand ambition.

“At drama school we were taught to write down your dreams and carry them around in your wallet with you and they’ll come true but I didn’t do that. I just wanted to work and do cool, interesting parts.” She pauses. “But I did want to be the best. I suppose that is pretty ambitious isn’t it?” she laughs.

Being the best does not necessarily mean starring in Hollywood movies or hit TV shows. The role she’s most proud of was on stage at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre in Martin Crimp’s drama Play House back in 2012.

She played someone with bipolar disorder. “The feeling I had acting in that was what I wanted when I left drama school. That abandon when you really lose yourself. That courage. I felt that in a similar way with Cinderella.”

It is thanks to her gumption that she wasn’t overly intimidated making her debut in Downton Abbey. She joined Julian Fellowes’s hit drama in the third season as mischievous Lady Rose.

In any case, if she had any nerves they were scotched by the cast who all hid behind the sofas in the drawing room on her first day (Dame Maggie Smith not with standing) and jumped out to scare the bejesus out of her.

“They made me feel at home straight away,” she says. “It’s interesting playing a new character in something. Audiences take a while to get used to you so that was something to navigate but now I feel like it’s my home and I’m hoping to be back for the sixth series.”

Not for her the hasty bid for Hollywood stardom, a la Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown Findlay. “I know I wouldn’t be here now if it not for Downton,” she says.

If the popularity of the show helped prepare her for fame (“being in something that successful takes some getting used to”) the period costumes were a preparation of sorts for Cinderella.

“The costumes in Downton were actually much easier, other than the fact you wear a boob flattener which is worse than anything else I’ve had to wear,” she says brightly.

“The Twenties outfits are all about freedom and loose, flowing lines whereas in Cinderella I had to wear corsets and big huge skirts.”

For the set-piece ball scene, James shimmers in a gown made up of more than a dozen layers of gossamer-fine silk in different shades of pale blue, turquoise and lavender with more than 3,000 sequins.

“It took hours and hours to get ready in, because they were hand-sticking crystals and glitter and God knows what on to it.”Such is the price of being the belle of the ball.

Imagine how proud her father would feel if he were still alive. An actor and businessman, James Thomson died in 2008 when Lily was at drama school aged 19. “I don’t know what he’d be feeling, I get sad thinking about that,” says James, bowing her head. “But I think he’d be very proud.”

When she became an actress James was forced to change her birth name, Lily Thomson, as there was already an actress with the same name. She took her father’s Christian name.

That name is now shining as brightly as Cinderella’s tiara. James has a slew of high-profile projects in the pipeline including a BBC TV adaptation of War And Peace, which she is currently shooting in Lithuania, and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, in which she plays a zombie-slaying Elizabeth Bennet.

As it was announced last week that the sixth series of Downton will be the last, Lily won’t be short of work. Next year she is reuniting with Kenneth Branagh and her Prince Charming Richard madden for a new stage version of Romeo And Juliet at London’s Garrick Theatre. “I’d be really happy to do a play at the end of this year too,” she says.

“Something at the Royal Court or the Donmar in London. I was doing quite a lot of theatre and then I went down this path. I feel that’s where I can get better.”

Might she up sticks for America?

“I’m not ready to move to America yet but I definitely want to challenge myself in my next role by doing something completely different.” Something contemporary, I suggest? A chance to escape the corsets?

“Yes! I want to do contemporary.” It’s a wish her Fairy Godmother is certain to oblige.

  • Mar 30, 15Mary Yumalie says:  

    I wish Sir Kenneth Branagh would direct the movie ” Romeo & Juliette” starring Lily James & Richard Madden after they finish the stage production, The whole world would be ecstatic, I am looking forward with my fingers and toes crossed. Lily James has the quality of generosity and kindness, even I never met her,deep down inside me, I do feel it. I simply adore Lily & Richard in Cinderella. I can only say I am in awe.