Lily James – the charmingly mischievous Lady Rose Aldridge in Downton Abbey – has been busy of late. From playing Cinderella to donning those corsets again for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the stunning actress talks to The Resident about her role in the critically acclaimed War & Peace and why she has a largely nonchalant attitude to sex scenes…
Words: Jenny Davis
Lily James is having a busy 2016 so far. The Downton Abbey actress has just come off the back of starring in the BBC’s adaptation of War & Peace, not to mention being announced as the new face of Burberry, and now the east London-based actress has the DVD release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to shout about.
Based on the 2009 book of the same name, the film parodies the 1813 British novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. James portrays the heroine Elizabeth Bennet, who is reinvented as a master of martial arts and weaponry who must fight the undead along with her sisters. Here she reveals what it was like fighting in a corset, plus how she feels about her recent success.
How did you find the mishmash that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies represents?
We loved it. Liz Bennet is already just the coolest, most independent and wonderful character and then give her a sword and she just gets even better [laughs]. Pride and Prejudice has been done, and done so well, so it just felt fun to add zombies.
What was the training like preparing for the role?
I was really in a very lazy phase. I wasn’t doing much exercise, so I had to do a lot just to get strong and fit. A lot of my training was just to get my fitness up, and then I did boxing, some martial arts and some yoga because each of the Bennet sisters had a different fighting style, but all of us had that sort of balletic almost graceful feel to the fighting.
Did they adapt the corsets at all?
Yes, the bones were shorter!
How did the role come about?
The same producer on the film worked on Cinderella, Alli Shearmur, who’s amazing. She brought the script to me after Cinderella and said ‘have a look at this’. It sounded insane and I couldn’t believe that these words were going together in a title. Then I read it, and read Seth Grahame-Smith’s book, and I loved it. So then I Skyped the director.
Working alongside the other girls, did it feel like you were siblings?
We really felt like this girl band. It was so fun to be the girls who are the action heroes. I mean, full stop, it’s just brilliant, and especially in a Jane Austen movie in a period drama it just doesn’t happen, so we loved it.
There have been many Mr Darcys over the years, so how does Sam Riley match up?
I think Sam Riley is the best Mr Darcy. I’m not just saying that. I just think he’s got that very wonderful, deep aura and when he’s saying something that there’s a whole other world going on underneath. He’s got that arrogant air, but he’s quite vulnerable.
It’s a funny film, but did you deliberately play the characters straight?
Burr [Steers – director] was so clear about that right from the start. I mentioned that we had this long Skype conversation and that’s why I think he’s done such a great job with this film because the tone is we’re not playing it for laughs. It’s not too camp. It’s about exactly what Bella said, the humour coming out of the situations.
You have had a spectacular rise over the last couple of years, has it been a fun ride?
I think actors tend to be pretty anxious, worried people [laughs]. There are ups and downs, but I’ve been having the best couple of years. I’m just so happy and grateful. So all the anxiety that comes along with that I can deal with.
How did you find the reaction to War & Peace, in particular the sex scenes?
It all got a bit hot under the collar! It’s good to not be too holy about anything, which is why I think doing Pride and Prejudice with zombies is so much fun. You know, people did have sex back then, so why not show it? I am really proud of War & Peace. It wasn’t in such an extreme way as adding zombies, but they were really bold with the adaptation and made it feel really fresh and modern and current. Tolstoy is so timeless. I read the book and there is so much social context that makes the story what it is, but it could have been set right now, so it was very easy to translate it.
Do you have a favourite zombie movie?
[Laughs] I really like Shaun of the Dead!
Lily James is in Romeo & Juliet at the Garric Theatre until 13 August 2016. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is out now on DVD