Lily James found fame with Downton Abbey, but Cinderella is a whole different level for the London actress – but, as the remake of the fairy tale hits cinemas, she tells us she’s ready for it
Gazing down from glimmering billboards, sparkling in a cobalt blue ball gown with whirling golden locks and dazzling golden slippers, she’s every little girl’s dream in her guise as Cinderella. Sitting in front of me in a Central London hotel suite, Lily James wears a baggy cream shirt and dark harem pants, with her shaggy tawny hair tossed over one shoulder. Insistently cool. A galaxy from her fairytale alter ego.
Two seasons in as Downton’s flighty, feisty Lady Rose McClare, the rising 25-year-old, who grew up in the Surrey countryside, is already encountering incongruous press rumours. With the Disney spectacular now on release, it will only get worse (as proven when there was a real hoo-haa around claims her waist in the film was digitally shrunk). Bring it on, she says.
‘The stories they make up make me laugh,’ she snorts, twirling her hair between her fingers. ‘The funniest one was I was leaving the Groucho Club early one night because I had a play reading the next day. And I’d been there with all the Downton crew and literally didn’t drink. Because I was papped leaving, flashes going off everywhere and blinding me, the next day the story was I’d left in the early hours and apparently I was trollied. And that was only because I blinked from the flash because I couldn’t see. One blink and I’m a drunken mess.’ She claps her hands together in glee and grins. ‘I loved that. It made me laugh so hard.’
One can only hope this laissez-faire attitude remains. A relatively familiar face since joining Downton Abbey at the end of season three as rebellious Rose, the actress – who’s lived in East London since attending Guildhall in 2010 – will soon be an A-list household name after the release of Disney’s sumptuous reimagining of Cinderella.
Leading the £140 million epic – and with a cast including Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Madden, Derek Jacobi and a scintillating Cate Blanchett as a the nefarious wicked stepmother – is Lily ready for the harsh spotlight, or will she still be able to laugh it off?
‘Well I’m never going to go to Groucho again,’ she titters, pleased with her joke. ‘I don’t know how much you have to prepare yourself for that. It’s so easy to assume, but who knows. I can’t imagine it’s going to change. Plus, I’m not recognisable.’
Perhaps her romance with former Dr Who, Matt Smith, will force her simmering fame to finally boil over? ‘Hmm,’ she smiles with an awkward pause. ‘One can never say.’
Reportedly beating a queue of rising stars, including Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander and Gabriella Wilde to the part, Lily initially auditioned for one of the mean stepsisters, played to aplomb by Holliday Grainger and Lily’s Downton co-star, Sophie McShera.
And while triumphant in her success, nothing could have prepared her for an audience with Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett. Graciously, her matches of wit with Dame Maggie Smith paid dividends. ‘If it hadn’t been for Downton and squaring up against Maggie Smith, I think Cate would have been even more intimidating,’ she admits. ‘Maggie prepared me in a way. And Cate is everything you want her to be and more. Most amazing woman. And it’s wonderful when people excel your expectations.’
Currently shooting BBC’s lavish retelling of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, audiences can soon catch Lily in spoof period horror, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where she met and fell for Matt Smith and star-studded kitchen drama, Adam Jones with Bradley Cooper.
It begs the question: will it be Hollywood over Hackney sometime soon? ‘It’s actually Homerton technically although I’ve lived in several places around Hackney and honestly, I’ve been working so much lately and I live with my friends so it’s lovely to come home to them. If I moved away, I wouldn’t have that anymore. It’s like my second home from home.’
So nights at the Hackney Empire are the equivalent of Cinderella’s ball? Twirling down the Kingsland Road in a glass slipper? ‘The area you first move to in London, that’s where it feels like home. Do you have that? I think most people do. I just like summers in Victoria Park and the lido at London Fields. And strolling around Broadway Market. And I love the fashions and creativity. I stand amazed on the streets some days, gawping at how fabulous some people look.’
As fabulous as the pleated residents of Downton? Lily assumedly won’t give any series six secrets away? Will Rose return after marrying Atticus? She nods her head in accordance. ‘I know nothing. And couldn’t tell you if I wanted.’
With Downton, Cinderella and forthcoming War and Peace, the actress must be so grateful for her ‘period style’ features? ‘I’ve never really thought of it like that, but I guess I have a period face. Or a round face. I don’t have strong cheek bones, which was of the period. So, yes, having no cheekbones seems to have paid off!’ she smiles.
Words: Stephen Milton
Cinderella is in cinemas London-wide now