On the eve of multiple projects being released, the now-30-year-old Lily James talks about moving away from her Cinderella past, playing darker roles and why Whitney Houston is her celebrity reincarnate.
Top and pants by Hugo; boots by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello; earrings by Cartier.
It’s a spring afternoon when Lily James rings me from London. And I’m instantly enamored. She’s well-spoken, giving care to each word. But there’s really no shock there. She’s passionate and charming. She’s gracious—I can’t help but think Lady Rose MacClare would be proud.
The British actress is in the midst of an already busy year. She’s wrapped Yesterday, out June 28; is currently playing Eve Harrington in the West End’s run of All About Eve; and is in the throes of preparing for her role as Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, in which she stars opposite Armie Hammer. James’ schedule has been similarly jampacked since her breakout role as Lady Rose in cult phenomenon Downton Abbey. (While her character made a cameo in the series finale, James will not be returning for the much-anticipated Downton Abbey film revival, out this September.) Post-Downton came James’ enchanting turn as the titular character in Disney’s Cinderella, a role that garnered her international acclaim and catapulted her to fashion stardom.
Since Cinderella, she’s tried to shed her princess visage. After James wore a pouffy blue-and-white dress to the premiere of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again—in which she played young Donna, Meryl Streep’s unforgettable bohemian character—the press was quick to associate the frock with her Cinderella character. For James, it’s a happy association, but one she’ll begin to move away from with the progression of her career.
Top by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello; earrings by Cartier.
Much like her wardrobe, James’ career has been anything but singular. After Cinderella, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama-trained actress played Natasha Rostova in the 2016 television adaptation of War & Peace; then came darker roles in Baby Driver and Darkest Hour; then she flaunted her singing chops in the sequel to 2008 blockbuster hit Mamma Mia!
Now, James stars as Ellie alongside Himesh Patel’s Jack Malik in Yesterday, from director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually). The film follows Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter, and his friend Ellie, a school teacher. After a bus accident and a worldwide blackout, Malik wakes only to discover the Beatles never existed. Left with the moral dilemma of having the band’s iconic songbook to call his own, the singer finds himself an overnight sensation—performing the greatest songs ever written. “It’s this love story between Ellie and Jack as he goes on this mad journey,” James says. “You see them come around as they find their happily ever after.”
Although life in the spotlight is foreign to Ellie, it’s familiar for James. “I was always performing as a kid,” she says, “overexpressing everything.” The image of a young James singing and dancing on old home videos (“doing the whole thing with littles moves to each word,” she recalls) is one that nods to her inherent charms. The child of creatives—her father a musician, her grandmother American actress Helen Horton (of Alien fame)—James is a born performer. “I find myself slipping into other skins quite easily and fluidly,” she says. “And that’s why I love being an actor. … I’m intrigued by trying to find the truth of it.”
James, who turned 30 in April, enthusiastically ushers in her next phase—both personally and professionally. “I feel like I’m in this stage in my life where I feel more assured and brave enough to go and speak about what matters to me,” she says. For the Surrey native, this raison d’être has translated into more challenging, complex character studies. “I want to keep playing really different people—people who think or operate or engage with the world in a way that I want to explore.” Case in point: her compelling performance in All About Eve. “Playing Eve Harrington has been such an incredible change for me,” James says. “Her psychology is so complicated, and her longings and her ambition and her desires—everything feels really toxic and desperate and brutal… pushing to the extremes of that has been really enjoyable, in a dark way, to get to play and explore.”
Next, however, the actress returns to a familiar presence as she prepares for her role in the upcoming remake of Rebecca. “I’ve read it several times,” she admits. “I’m just so passionate about the book. … That’s all I’m thinking and dreaming and talking about at the moment.” Based on the classic Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, the film adaptation from British director Ben Wheatley finds James’ Mrs. de Winter haunted by the shadow of her husband’s deceased wife. “The film’s been done; Hitchcock has done it,” she says. It’s no small task to take on the master filmmaker’s 1940 rendition, which won the Academy Award for best picture. But, James adds: “There’s got to be a reason we’re doing it again with a fresh outlook on it. The character is so precious to me. I really want to capture something real from the words and portray her in a way that feels true.”
Dress, shirt and boots by Dior; earrings by Cartier.
That same philosophy of truth and authenticity rings through in her role as modern muse—although this role, in particular, still comes as a shock to the British beauty. “I never feel like a beauty icon. It’s sort of bizarre to me to even associate myself with that,” she pauses, adding: “I’ve really tried to be true to myself. And I know that I’m flawed, and I know that I’m not perfect. … I think it all comes from within.” In fact, she finds fellow Brit Cara Delevingne’s genuine nature an inspiration when it comes to balancing beauty, personality and social responsibility. “It’s so about her soul and about who is she that makes people want to look at her face,” James says. “Beauty is much more than just how you look or posing in a photo. It’s about your essence. If I am to be a role model to young girls, I want it to be something healthy because I worry about a level of self-obsession with perfection that can become so contagious and so destructive. I want to be a positive influence.”
As our conversation nears its close, we touch on James’ growing advocacy work. She’s an avid supporter of the Motor Neurone Disease Association and is becoming increasingly involved in environmental causes. “That’s my next journey,” she declares. “There’s sometimes a fear that you don’t know enough or that you’re not an expert, but, actually, I think it’s about everyone doing a little bit and everyone learning together.”
We end where we began: with the music of Yesterday. While she can’t pin down a favorite song from the Beatles (“there’s this one, ‘Good Night’ on The White Album. … And ‘Blackbird’ is just so beautiful,” she enthuses), James is quick to name her celeb reincarnate. “Beyoncé.” Or so she thought. “Or Janis Joplin… or Joni Mitchell,” she wavers, uncommitted. “But I would like to dance like Beyoncé on the stage with the wind machine. I mean, who am I kidding, I’d be Whitney Houston. That voice! I literally cry every time I listen to her.”
She certainly has the range.
Buzz White | Styled by Kay Korsh | Hair by Earl Simms at Caren Agency using Hair by Sam McKnight | Makeup by Naoko Scintu at The Wall Group | Manicure by Nickie Rhodes-Hill at David Artists