By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Moviegoers may recall Lily James from last year’s live-action “Cinderella,” in which she played the titular fairy tale heroine. TV watchers are likely to remember her as the Crawley family’s rebellious cousin Lady Rose MacClare from “Downton Abbey.” She also is now starring on A&E’s lavish four-part miniseries “War & Peace,” in which she plays Countess Natasha Rostova, Leo Tolstoy’s enigmatic literary heroine torn between two men.
The in-demand British actress brings yet another literary character to life on the big screen—Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. Well, sort of. She stars in the big screen adaptation “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” as a more proactive Liz than audiences have seen before with mad swordsmanship and martial arts skills. The comedy horror is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith, who parodied the 1813 British novel by infusing 19th century Britain with a mysterious plague that turns the merely dead into the walking dead. Though Elizabeth and her sisters face the crisis of courtship and marriage, they also have to fend off the undead from infecting them as well.
Dressed for an interview in a patterned dress by London designer Saloni Lodha, James appears a vision of spring on a cool January morning. The 26-year-old has been too busy going from project to project to sit back and take stock of just how successful and popular she has become.
Asked if she finds it a little overwhelming to have both a miniseries and a big movie coming out at the same time, she is almost apologetic.
“I know, it’s too much already,” she says humbly.
The comedy horror is directed by Burr Steers (“Igby Goes Down”), who also adapted Grahame-Smith’s book for the screen. Starring alongside James is Sam Riley (“Maleficent”), Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”), Bella Heathcote (“Dark Shadows”), Douglas Booth (“Noah”) and Matt Smith (“Doctor Who”).
James spoke about taking on another literary character, preparing for the physicality of the role and the possibility of Lady Rose returning to “Downton Abbey.” (Hint: It’s very likely.)
Q: What drew you to this unusual Jane Austen adaptation?
James: I loved it. I mean I just think Liz Bennet already is just the coolest, most independent and wonderful character, and then give her a sword and she just gets even better. “Pride and Prejudice” has been done and done so well, so it just felt fun to add zombies.
Q: You get to wield a sword and show off your martial arts skills. What did you do to train?
James: I was really in a very sort of 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 and some martial arts and some yoga and stuff. Each of the girls who play the Bennet sisters had a different fighting style, but all of us had that sort of balletic almost graceful feel to the fighting.
Q: And you had a sword.
James: I had a sword and a dagger.
Q: Was the sword heavy?
James: It wasn’t real. We were not that accurate. (She laughs.) Lydia, who is played by Ellie Bamber, the redhead, spins those sort of needles and then puts them in her boots. We were practicing on crash mats. She had so much energy. She’s incredible, like a firecracker. When we were rehearsing, she was doing this move where she kind of spun the needles and fell and went alongside your head. She had been practicing on a dummy and I let her practice on me. I still, to this day, cannot believe it. She just (went for) my eyes. If you’ve met Ellie Bamber, you would know not to let her practice on you. (She laughs.) So they were fake weapons but they were still pretty scary.
Q: How did you say yes to this?
James: (enthusiastically) “Yes!”
Q: Did you get this part after “Cinderella?”
James: Yes, we had the same producer who worked on “Cinderella,” Allison Shearmur, who’s amazing. She brought the script to me 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 Seth Graham-Smith’s book and I loved it. So then I Skype’d with the director (Burr Steers).
Q: For you and the other actresses who play the Bennet sisters did you kind of feel almost like siblings on set? Did you hang out in your downtime or was there any downtime?
James: Suki (Waterhouse, who plays Kitty Bennet) and Ellie were like scheming and giggling and being naughty. We really felt like a girl band. It was so fun and really to be the girls who are the action heroes. I mean, full stop, it’s just brilliant. And especially to be in a Jane Austen movie in a period drama and be able to do this kind of action, it just doesn’t happen, so we loved it.
Q: Are you signed on to do a sequel?
James: No. I mean there isn’t any signed-on-ness about it. I didn’t sign up to do more but I think there’s always been an open discussion about it. I think we genuinely all would love to do another one.
Q: With “War & Peace” going on right now, it’s been a little controversial because the sex scenes are making some people crazy?
James: (She laughs.) Hot under the collar.
Q: How do you respond to all of that?
James: I just think it’s so good not to be too holy about anything, which is why I think doing “Pride and Prejudice” with zombies is much fun and why if you’re going to do a period drama, people did have sex back then so why not show it? I’m really proud of “War & Peace.” I think not in such an extreme way as adding zombies in but they’ve been really bold with the adaptation and made it feel really fresh and modern and current.
I just think Tolstoy is so timeless. I read the book and I thought there’s 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 and make those scenes feel real.
Q: Do you see a through-line between Natasha, Elizabeth Bennet, Lady Rose MacClare and Cinderella?
James: Yeah. They’re all such amazing characters and they’re all from books—except for Lady Rose. There’s so much to go on but that also gives a lot of pressure. And they’re all period dramas.
Q: Are you changing that in your next movie?
James: Yeah. I’m doing a modern part (in Edgar Wright’s heist comedy “Baby Driver”).
Q: We’re up to the final season of “Downton Abbey.” Are you returning one more time as Lady Rose?
James: (She laughs.) I am. I come back. It’s aired in England so it’s all right to say.
Q: What did you love about doing that show?
James: Oh, I loved everything. It was a great cast, a bit like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” There was a really good vibe between all the actors. Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna Bates, came to our premiere last night.
Q: There have been so many film adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice.” In all honesty, who do you think has been the best Mr. Darcy?
James: I think our Sam Riley is the best Mr. Darcy, and I’m not just saying that.
James: I just think he’s got a very wonderful, deep aura and when he’s saying something, there’s a whole other world going on underneath. He’s got that arrogant air (of a classic Mr. Darcy) but he’s quite vulnerable and so sexy. (She laughs.)
Q: Having had this spectacular rise in your career during the last couple of years, from your point of view is it a little scary or is it just a great, fun ride? Do you worry about making the right choice every time?
James: Actors tend to be pretty anxious, worried people, in general. I think there are ups and downs but I’ve been having the best couple of years. I’m just so happy and grateful. All the anxiety that comes along with it is just doable.
Q: Do you prefer the fast-running zombies or the slow ones that are easy to kill? Did you have a favorite zombie movie before “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?”
James: I would rather fight a slow one, for sure. As far as zombie movies, I really like “Shaun of the Dead.”