Esher-born actress Lily James on her life, career and break-out roles

Lily James (Shutterstock)

Lily James (Shutterstock) - Credit: Archant

Lily James’ cinematic education has been overseen by a host of Hollywood’s most recognisable names; now, as she nears her 30th birthday, the Esher-born actress is looking to step out of her co-stars’ limelight and enjoy her leading role at the forefront of future British generations in Tinseltown

There is a distinct group of British stars working in Hollywood today for whom the set of Downton Abbey proved the incubator for future careers on-screen. Those vaunted hallways gave Lily James the opportunity to capitalise on what was the small screen zeitgeist of the time – all period dramas and early 20th century etiquette – and suited her burgeoning ‘English Rose’ status to the ground. But, says James, it would take an escape from the limitations of lace and post-Edwardian finery to realise her greater on-screen ambitions.

“It was a long time in coming and I honestly couldn’t wait – I was starting to feel persecuted by corsets!” the 29-year-old laughs. “I was very lucky to have played those parts, though, it’s more that you don’t want to people to only think of you in those terms.

“But in this profession, it’s almost impossible to plan your work in advance - all you can do is wait and choose the best projects available. You’re always dependent on circumstances.”

Last year brought James to the fore in a big way with Baby Driver and Darkest Hour. The ‘circumstances’ of each project could not have been farther from the other: the former being a high-octane pop-art crime thriller and the latter a deadly serious look at then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s hardest days in office. But both films rang true in their assessment of James as a bona fide supporting star and paved the way for her to finally take the lead (in more ways than one) in this year’s all-singing all-dancing Scandi pop spectacular Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!

If the sun-blushed island palms and plethora of pop classics prove utterly juxtaposed to Downton or War and Peace, there is a common vein connecting James’ early appearances with last year’s break-out roles.

For throughout the course of her career, James has been blessed with uncommon luck when it has come to her co-stars – from Cate Blanchett in 2015’s Cinderella, to Darkest Hour’s eventual Oscar-winner Gary Oldman and the iconic Meryl Streep in the latest Mamma Mia instalment.

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“I feel like a sponge who gets to absorb all those incredible little secrets that are part of what makes those actors so great,” she nods. “I remember how I learnt so much from Cate Blanchett and how she has this extraordinary ability to act with her eyes and how they can be so bewitching and compelling. I couldn’t wait to work with Meryl. I tried to focus more on the character and make sure I was able to capture her uninhibited spirit rather than trying to imitate Meryl Streep because you can’t possibly do that. Just before I was about to meet her I was listening to her sing in a chapel and I started crying because it was such an emotional moment for me. I had to tell myself to hold it together!”

To be constantly surrounded by such huge Hollywood talents is a lasting indicator of how far James has come from her upbringing among the pleasant greenery of Esher. Even now, on the verge of her 30th birthday and with a leading role among a mega-watt ensemble cast under belt, the memories provide relief from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles.

“It was so wonderful to live in the countryside where the pace of life was a little slower and the air was so fresh,” she reminisces. “It’s very different from living in the city. I went to a fantastic school where I felt very secure and relaxed. It was a bit like living in a bubble, very beautiful, but still a bubble.”

It was this idyllic upbringing, coupled with a poignant personal loss, that sowed the seeds of a career on-screen. James’ father, James Thomson, was an actor and poet who passed away in 2008 and to whom the star’s professional surname represents a lasting legacy: “My father was my everything,” she nods. “He was my greatest inspiration and I loved listening to all the stories he would create for children with these incredible characters like a cloud that talks and disappears when the sun comes out or a cow that goes to the market. One day I’m going to collect all his stories and have them published. He had an extraordinary imagination and he helped me grow up in a world filled with joy and beautiful dreams. I’m sure my interes in acting comes from him and all those stories I grew up with.”

This personal connection to the craft is perhaps one of the reasons that James continues to eschew the more invasive practices that come with a career on-screen. In spite of her current reputation as one of Britain’s brightest talented young actresses, and her four-year-long romance to fellow actor and former Doctor, Matt Smith, there’s an endearing sense that James is searching for “extraordinary” stories to tell far more than she is fame and fortune.

And as she nears the fruition of a journey that has taken her from corseted drama, to Churchill’s War Rooms, and finally the heart-warming world of ABBA hits, she is looking only towards the future. “I love musicals and in this case the joy and exuberance you feel from the ABBA songs. There’s the beautiful sense of friendship and sisterhood that really resonated with me.

“I would love to do a film where I would get to play a singer. Playing Janis Joplin would be great, but Amy Adams is already doing that. I’m hoping that I can find a role where I would play a singer. The experience of making Mamma Mia! has made me realise how important music and singing is to me.”


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