USA TODAY – Lily James once counted herself among those shocked, positively shocked, that a movie was underway injecting zombies into Jane Austen’s classic 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice.

To add injury to insult, the Downton Abbey and Cinderella actress was asked to star in the corpse-infested enterprise.

“When that call came, I thought that this all sounded terrible. They put zombies in Pride and Prejudice? I’m British, being obsessed with Jane Austen is a birthright,” says James. “And then I realized I was just being ignorant. The script was brilliant.”

That was a very bad day for zombies.

James, 26, who had wielded nothing more than tea cups and hairbrushes as Lady Rose on Downton Abbey, transformed into a killing machine for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (in theaters Friday), based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling novel. Her feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet, called Liz in the revamped work, wields a lethal sword and dagger on zombie foes.

Actually, all of Austen’s famed five Bennet sisters — including Bella Heathcote as Jane and Suki Waterhouse as Kitty — are like a “lethal Spice Girls,’ says James, wearing a black velvet jumpsuit and towering platform pumps during a talk outside Los Angeles’ London Hotel

Even a classic Regency dance scene turns into mayhem when the undead hordes mess with the Bennet warriors.

“That scene starts all civilized,” says James. “And suddenly there was blood everywhere and zombie arms hanging out all over the place. Between us, we must have killed 100 zombies.”

Director Burr Steers says James’ period pedigree made her a no-brainer for Austen’s heroine.

“Here’s someone with the chops to do Jane Austen dialogue with emotion and athletic enough to do it while kicking zombie butt,” says Steers. “Lily is the complete package.”

It required work for James. She trained and boxed extensively before taking a month of martial art classes with her fellow PPZ Bennet sisters. James was so into it that her boyfriend, actor Matt Smith, who plays the comedic Mr. Collins in PPZ, was surprised to find her perfecting the art of war in her kitchen with utensils.

“I had a spatula and a wooden spoon, practicing the moves,” says James. “My boyfriend was like, ‘What the blank are you doing?’ Sorry, I don’t have a sword knocking about at home.”

Humans feel James’ scorn onscreen as well. In the famed scene when the rude Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) professes his love, PPZ offers its own brand of Elizabeth Bennet rejection.

“I went straight for a high roundhouse kick and then a low one,” says James. “All her internal frustration and sexual frustration came out in the fighting. The scene is already filled with unsaid anger, but here they end up nearly killing each other.”

James will continue with the action onscreen, starring as a spy in the upcoming The Kaiser’s Last Kiss with Christopher Plummer. She’s also prepared for more period, or real-life, undead battles.

“I’m definitely not ready to give up my sword or my power,” says James. “And when the zombie apocalypse actually does happen, I am so ready.”


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