The vivacious and irresistible Lily James has triumphed on-screen as the fairy-tale heroine of period dramas, but now she is taking to the stage to play All About Eve’s twisted title character. She tells Lydia Slater why it’s time for her to step out of Cinderella’s slippers.
Sparkling with lights that twinkle from its mirrored walls and bounce off its polished marble floors, Claridge’s is always a magical place for a wintry rendezvous. And this grey, chilly lunchtime, the establishment has truly outdone itself; for there, tête-à-tête in a cosy corner of the restaurant, sit Lily James and Matt Smith, better known as Cinderella and Doctor Who, in close confabulation. No wonder the small children sitting at the next door table have swiveled round on their seats to gaze in unabashed wonder.
And who could blame them? James is enchanting, adorable, a star who appeals across genders and generations. From her breakthrough role as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey, to Disney’s new Cinderella, followed by the beguiling Natasha Rostova in War and Peace, and then, last year, stepping into Meryl Streep’s dancing shoes for the Mamma Mia! sequel, she has embodied a series of delightfully giddy heroines. More surprisingly, her innate sunny likeability has cast the same glow over other, less immediately appealing roles, including a diner waitress in the action film Baby Driver and Churchill’s conscientious secretary in Darkest Hour. Her relationship of four years’ standing with the equally beloved Matt Smith seems to be just another chapter in a fairy-tale career. “I think charm is the most important ingredient in a human being ... That is what Lily James has,” Downton Abbey’s creator Julian Fellowes once told BAZAAR.
However, these days James herself appears ambivalent about her rose-tinted image. It seems significant that, for the photoshoot that precedes our meeting, she firmly rejects any gowns she finds too princessy. “Cinderella was a gift, and I will treasure it for the rest of my life,” she explains after her boyfriend has sloped off into the crowd, hat pulled down firmly over his eyes to preserve his anonymity. “But I wore a dress for the Mamma Mia! the premiere that was blue and white and quite pouffy, and when I got out on the red carpet, all anyone said was, “Oh, it’s Cinderella!” It’s a happy association, but also something that you want to shed at some point ...”
She has arrived for our lunch casually dressed in jeans, co-trainers, and a white shirt, her Burberry mac slung over one arm, but to me, she still looks like a romantic heroine, with her wide, brown eyes, porcelain skin, and wavy gold locks. The latter have been dyed that color for a new Burberry campaign, she says. “I’m naturally a brunette, and I love it, but everyone else wants me to go blonde. Even my mum says, “I think I secretly prefer you as a blonde.” She laughs, ruefully. “The blonde, sweet thing is so not me ... I’m actively seeking characters from now on that are different, who don’t rely on charm or the qualities that I think I’ve explored quite a lot.” Perhaps it’s not such a surprise—though it is a great shame—that she won’t be reprising her part as Lady Rose in the eagerly anticipated Downton Abbey film. “My character is in New York, and they couldn’t bring everyone back,” she says diplomatically.
Instead, this year sees the first shot in James’s campaign to make us appreciate the breadth of her talent: her forthcoming appearance on stage in the West End in a new adaptation of the dark and gripping All About Eve.
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