TORONTO STAR – Resilient Cinderella would have done just fine if the prince hadn’t shown up with that glass slipper, says British actress Lily James.

James, best known as free-spirited flapper Lady Rose MacClare Aldridge on TV’s period drama Downton Abbey, plays Cinderella in director Kenneth Branagh’s lavish and live-action version of Disney’s 1950 animation.

James spoke to the Star Thursday while in Toronto to promote the film, which opens Friday. “I think she would have been OK. I think she would have figured it out,” said James.

After all, Ella — soon to be renamed Cinderella — chooses to stay on as an unpaid servant despite horrible treatment from her stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her nasty daughters (Holliday Grainger and Downton Abbey’s Sophie McShera) after her father’s death. “I think that within that structure of keeping it within a fairy tale context, she is in charge of her own destiny and that means she is a heroine,” said James.

Cinderella doesn’t leave because it’s her home and she wants to protect it and the work provided distraction from her grief, James explained.

James said she wanted to convey Cinderella’s “courage and kindness and inner strength” with her portrayal of the storybook character as she copes with difficulties. “She can get through life on her own terms, despite the fact she is staying (in the house) and find joy in her life,” said James.

Of course, it is a fairy tale and Cinderella does end up with her prince, played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden.

The 25-year-old James said while she grew up with Disney princesses — and had her own pair of plastic “glass” slippers as a child — she never bought the myth of Prince Charming. “I don’t think he comes and saves you. I never believed that,” she said. “But I do believe in true love and I do believe in two people meeting and enriching each other and making each other feel like life is worth living.”

James said initially she didn’t see many similarities between the impulsive and self-absorbed Rose, who she’ll be back playing in Season 6 of Downton Abbey, and Cinderella, but she’s warming to the idea. “They’re both spirited and I think they both want more,” she said.

But they differ in their view of the world. Rose tends to see herself as “the only person that matters” whereas Cinderella, who “has a great capacity to feel compassion … is thinking of everyone else first.”

Cinderella even manages to feel sympathy for her stepmother, played with delightfully calculating intimidation by Blanchett, an actress James said she has always admired and was thrilled to work with. “What she did with her character, the depth and the dynamic and the colour she brought to it, she made her vulnerable as well,” said James of Blanchett’s take on Lady Tremaine.

James has been juggling her Cinderella duties with shooting another period drama, the BBC adaptation of War and Peace for British television where she plays the central character, Natasha Rostova. “I’ve been carrying War and Peace around with me while I’m promoting Cinderella,” James laughed, adding after she wraps on this project “it’s enough iconic characters for a while.”

Except for one — with a decidedly contemporary twist.

James plays Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 satire, where the characters in Jane Austen’s 19th-century classic must cope with an army of the undead. “It was great after Cinderella,” said James, who said she’d love to make a classic rom-com or get into some action roles next. “(Cinderella’s) strength comes within,” she explained. “In this film, all the girls have weapons and guns and I really felt the Bennet sisters polishing muskets is brilliant. I felt equally powerful in each character,” James concluded. “I didn’t feel stronger holding a gun than I did as Cinderella.”


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