Interview: Disney’s Cinderella, Lily James

Lily James, Cinderella

Lily James, Cinderella - Credit: Archant

From the springboard of acting school in Tring to Downtown Abbey and now the big screen in full fairytale glory, Lily James hops on her ‘princess pedestal’ to tell us about becoming an empowered Cinderella in this spring’s Disney blockbuster

Lily James shares a joke at a press interview

Lily James shares a joke at a press interview - Credit: Archant

Stepping into Downton Abbey’s regal halls and causing all sorts of mischief as the rebellious Lady Rose MacClare, actress Lily James has found herself part of one of Britain’s favourite TV shows, spending six months at a time eating, sleeping and breathing the period in the hit drama alongside acting royalty such as Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery and Hugh Bonneville.

But now the 25-year-old, who followed her passion for acting to Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, where she boarded from age nine and as a newly graduated actress quickly found work on the stage, has entered acting aristocracy herself, with the kind of role young girls dream of. She has transformed from firecracker Lady Rose into legendary princess (with the help of a Fairy Godmother of course) in the part of Cinderella in Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Disney film.

As an actress who has become accustomed to costume drama, coming to the film from the Downton set was a happy transition. ‘I had good stamina because of Downton,’ she smiles. ‘It prepared me so much and put me in such good stead for just how intense it would be. Also, working with Maggie and then working with Cate Blanchett (Cinderella’s wicked stepmother), at least I’d already had some experience with phenomenal actresses!’

Taking on the director’s vision of a more feminist Cinderella, James was in her element. After all, she’d been in preparation for this role for years. ‘I had a Princess Jasmine outfit, which was a bit see-through – a bit weird for a seven-year-old,’ James laughs. ‘And I had little plastic princess slippers and I really loved princesses growing up. I was definitely one of those girls. But then I had two brothers who kept me from being too girly. They were always knocking me off my pedestal a bit!’

Lily with Cinderella director Kenneth Branagh

Lily with Cinderella director Kenneth Branagh - Credit: Archant

But James didn’t even originally audition for the lead role in the Disney film; she entered casting hoping for an ugly sister part. The casting director asked her to try for Cinders instead, and she ended up – hair several shades lighter, six auditions and two screen tests later – walking (or rather, dancing) away with the lead. ‘Once I started reading Ella and being her, I was totally desperate to play her,’ she admits.

Branagh’s re-imagining of the children’s classic sees Ella orphaned when her father dies suddenly, left at the mercy of her wicked stepmother and two step-sisters. Having grown up a Disney fan, James was able to take the kind, courageous Cinderella of her childhood and inject her with Branagh’s more empowering narrative by taking inspiration from princesses past and present.

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‘I’ve watched all the Disney princesses and it’s amazing how they’ve changed and become more modern, right up until Frozen,’ James enthuses. ‘I felt like I wanted a lot of Belle (Beauty and the Beast) and Ariel (The Little Mermaid) in Ella – I’m such a geek now with princesses!

‘There’s that desire for more in life, to want to explore, to want to daydream, and I feel with that spirit they’re great role models; they’re great inspirations for kids because they’re outside society in a way. They don’t settle.’

At the Berlin International Film Festival

At the Berlin International Film Festival - Credit: Archant

James’ Cinderella is a girl who doesn’t need saving, she insists. ‘I love the song in the film, A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes, and the sentiment of it – that dreaming can take you away from your life and you can escape,’ she says. ‘But the idea of, “Oh I want to marry that prince”, that’s not real. So with this, and at the end, even when Ella knows he’s a prince and he finds her, she says “This is who I am. I have no parents. I am this girl, take me or leave me, and I’ll love you if you can love me like that.” I think that’s so important too, so I hope that’s what is received from it.’

It’s a message James hopes to carry to the hordes of new fans she’s inevitably about to gain. She’s also aware that modern day princesses don’t walk around in glass slippers and a ballgown all day long. ‘I saw a really cool interview with Amy Adams years ago when she did Enchanted, and she said something like she’d be out in her jeans with no make-up on and kids would be like, “Mummy, look!” and she’d have to say, “I’m on my day off. I’m in disguise.” So I think I might have to do that, because I go around in ripped jeans.’

During the Cinderella shoot, however, James had very different wardrobe issues to consider. Her incredibly tiny waist was achieved with the help of a corset, though by now James is quite the veteran. ‘I’ve done lots of period filming and it’s the same throughout. This wasn’t really any different. Sometimes they’re tight on your boobs like in Restoration and that hurts even more. In Downton Abbey, it’s the ’20s and that era is worse, seriously, so yeah, it was tight.’

Stepping into her full princess attire was another experience altogether. ‘I put it on and I felt like...there’s a moment in Runaway Bride, where Julia Roberts puts on the dress and she looks in the mirror and she makes some sort of noise; I should really figure out what the noise is. I just felt like Julia Roberts.

‘I was so nervous about that aspect of the film because being Ella, I felt that she’s just a normal girl who’s exceptionally good but she’s just a girl. Her being the princess, I thought Oh God, how am I going to do it? And then the dress was like a suit of armour and I felt transformed and so confident that it made me forget all my own insecurities.’

Twice now, then, James has transitioned into the upper echelons of society in front of the camera. Her next move? We’d bet on following Dame Maggie Smith’s path and becoming major acting royalty. She’s already well on her way.

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