'Baby Driver' and 'Yesterday' star Lily James on playing literary characters and what 2020 has in store for her

Lily James at the UK première of Yesterday

Lily James at the UK première of Yesterday

Celebrityhood can often be a study in contrast. I can’t help compare Lily James’ aura to that of the French diva Juliette Binoche, both of whom I encounter at the International Film Festival and Awards Macao (IFFAM). Unlike the larger than life and intimidating Binoche, the persona of the much younger, new kid on the block is real world and welcoming. At a reception she doesn’t just mingle easily with the hoi polloi but floors a journalist by suggesting that he take a selfie with her than just clicking her alone. Earlier, dressed in simple black trousers and cream blouse and jacket, she disarmed the hard-nosed audience with her unpracticed candidness in a Masterclass.

The geniality, however, can’t obscure the fact that the 30-year-old, often called the next Keira Knightley, has amassed an enviable body of work in a short period. In less than a decade, her performances straddle across mediums — stage, television, independent films and big Hollywood cinema. Her oeuvre encompasses various genres — from a waitress in a musical actioner like Baby Driver (2017) to a war drama like Darkest Hour (2017), where she played Winston Churchill’s war time secretary Elizabeth Clayton; from the ABBA-inspired Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018) to the recent Beatles homage, Yesterday (2019). She also played Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies , the action-horror interpretation of the Jane Austen classic.

A still from Cinderella

A still from Cinderella

Forever Downton Abbey

“It feels like a long time ago,” she says, referring to her breakthrough cinematic performance in the lead role in Kenneth Branagh’s retelling of the age-old fairytale, Cinderella (2015). But, for the graduate of London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, even before Cinderella there was Downtown Abbey , the uber popular series. Auditioning for, and bagging the role of “wild, rebellious and often petulant and annoying” Lady Rose, is one of those moments that she can’t forget. “It was overwhelming because I knew how successful the show was… I have always loved period dramas… I worked hard [for the audition] and it felt right. Sometimes things just feel right,” she tells the small, select audience she is interacting with at IFFAM.

Working with the cast of great actors may have seemed daunting, but they were all more than welcoming. “The first day they all hid and then jumped from behind the furniture, including Maggie Smith,” she recollects. She couldn’t have asked for a better training ground. “On the one hand it felt terrifying, on the other it was the best opportunity one could have had because it was such an ensemble piece and I was learning from the best straightaway.”

James auditioned for Cinderella during the making of Downtown Abbey . “I auditioned some 7,000 times for Cinderella ,” she laughs. Was there pressure in working with a big name like Branagh? She would insist on retakes, not being sure of what she had delivered while he would refuse. “I didn’t believe in myself. I couldn’t see what he could see… I still struggle with it… I think it’s to do with control and, as an actor, you have to let go of that control… Being self-critical is almost like vanity,” she says.

People in books

    James is not averse to introspection. At the 40-minute-long Masterclass, there is a transparency in answering the many queries thrown at her unrelentingly. She comes across as good humoured and self aware. There is also a curiosity about people and about cinema rooted in other cultures. Despite the jet lag, she has managed to see Takeshi Miike’s First Love and can’t stop raving about it.

    But the conversation veers back to her. About performing arts having also been a kind of family inheritance. Her grandmother, Helen Horton, was an American actress and her father, James Thomson, was a musician and actor. “He never spoke in the same accent each day. He was always doing impersonations, pretending to be different people,” she says.

    Lily James in Baby Driver

    Lily James in Baby Driver

    Taking on Meryl Streep

    Baby Driver , and especially Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!! took her back to her love for singing. As for playing a younger Meryl Streep… “Everything you do has to be a challenge and has to frighten you… It felt like there was room to reinvent, embrace and discover this amazing, cool part”. Another such film was Billie Piper’s anti romcom, Rare Beasts , which she describes as a “brave expression of what it is to be a woman”.

    Acting is often seen as an individual pursuit, stardom as vanity. Yet James also regards it as a “social job” and loves the collaborative spirit in an ensemble of actors or a company of dancers. For her the primary requirement of an actor is to be thin-skinned. “You have to reveal yourself, let your emotions out and understand things from people but you have to have a really thick skin when it comes to dealing with failure or success or just what it means to be an actor,” she says.

    Director special

      There is a touch of sangfroid when it comes to the roles that have come her way and others that haven’t. Advice from friends in the industry has helped. Helena Bonham Carter, for instance, told her it’s okay to cry and break down and show people that you are human and not some robot. “It can get relentless at times, filming every day, getting up at 5, coming home at 9 and doing that month after month,” she says. Cinderella producer, late Allison Shearmur, also gave her life lessons. “She told me to stop apologising…she toughened me up a bit,” says James, who is also at a curious stage where she doesn’t want to see her own movies. “The process of making it is what our job is,” she points out. Fortunately, she is doing that quite well.

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      Printable version | Jun 6, 2022 6:35:42 pm |