Lily James (Ella), who graduated from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2010, is best known for her role as Lady Rose in the hit television series “Downtown Abbey.”
Film credits include Regan Hall’s “Fast Girls” and “Wrath of the Titans,” in which she starred alongside Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson and Rosamund Pike. Other television credits include “The Secret Diary of a Call Girl” and “Just William.”
In 2011, James starred as Desdemona in the Sheffield Crucible’s production of “Othello” alongside Dominic West as Iago and Clarke Peters as Othello. Her performance garnered rave reviews across the board. In the Daily Mail, Quentin Davies wrote, “We may have a new star actress on our hands. Her name is Lily James and she left drama school only last year, yet she practically sweeps all before her as Desdemona in this ‘Othello.’” Other stage credits include: “Vernon God Little” at the Young Vic; Martin Crimp’s “Definitely the Bahamas” and “Play House” at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond; and Chekhov’s “The Seagull” at the Southwark Playhouse.
We sat with actor Lily James who plays Ella, where she shares what it's like to wear the iconic glass slipper, what her biggest fear was standing at the top of the palace stairs, and who she felt like when she wore the beautiful ball gown. ‘Cinderella’ is rated PG opens in theaters March 13th, 2015.
Interview: Actor Lily James
Q: The Fairy Godmother says the glass slippers are very comfortable, how comfortable are they really?
Lily James: Not comfortable because they didn't fit my foot. [Laughs] Which is totally breaking the illusion, but the good thing is they fit no foot. It's not that they got the wrong Cinderella, it's because they're made of Swarovski crystal. If you wore them I think they would just break, and they're incredibly beautiful and incredibly valuable. They were CGI'd onto my foot.
Q: Did they give you one to keep?
Lily James: No, but I feel like if enough people print that I want one, maybe they'll have to give me one.
Q: How comfortable was it to wear that dress?
Lily James: It was a design that Sandy choose because, I assume, because it's what princesses of the past, it's that iconic look. And I loved wearing that dress. I thought it was so beautiful and I felt like a princess in it. There was definitely a lot of struggle involved in getting around because it was super heavy, and really big, and very tight, and so I burped a lot. [Laughs] The only way I could sit was by putting a tiny, little stool underneath the dress.
Dancing in it was really hard as well because there were so many layers, and it was so delicate. For as uncomfortable as it was, it was so worth it because I felt amazing in it.
Q: How does the costume inform your performance, whereas you're going from the cotton Cinderella dress she's wearing around the house to the ball gown with the corseting? How does that impact your performance, the persona?
Lily James: Absolutely, especially when you have a designer like Sandy Powell. You go to the fittings and suddenly your character's enriched, and it gives you ideas, and it changes how you feel internally. So even though it's something external, it changes you internally.
Because I only had four dresses, I became so attached sentimentally to each dress and I felt so different in each dress. I loved them.
Q: What did you think the first time you put on the ball gown and Richard slips the shoe onto your foot? What are the thoughts going through your head?
Lily James: On my gosh, I'm Cinderella. [Laughs] When I first put on the dress…there's a scene in Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts where she puts on a dress and looks in the mirror, and she's like ‘swoosh, swish, swoosh, swoosh', she makes some sort of noise, and I when I put it on I felt like Julia Roberts. It was great.
I was so blown away. I had a version of that dress for the screen test, which was incredible, but also so cool. It changed your physicality entirely in that dress because there was a grace in it, where you had to stand and hold your arms, my arms had to be here because the skirt was so big.
And the slipper, it was all just so beautiful. It felt like the story was exploding into my world. It was all real and you just have to exist, because the set, and the costumes, and everything were so vivid, and beautiful, and luscious. It felt like a fairy tale, and there was something beautiful, not cheesy about it.
Q: What do you hope girls will take from your portrayal of Cinderella?
Lily James: I think at my first audition Ken was so clear about this Cinderella, and he said right away that she's not sitting around waiting for a prince to save her. Right from the start that was one of the most important things.
She is too busy dealing with her life to be dreaming about a prince. Not only that, but she's succeeding in getting through life with hope and happiness despite her situation. And she does that through great courage and great kindness, and her inner strength. I think that makes her almost a super hero.
When she meets the prince, and they don't know who each other are, they're equals. They're both on horses, they're both strong, and they both challenge and save each other in the end. In a moment where she's almost given up hope, and he proves that there is kindness left in people of the world. He's about to lose his dad and she shows him there's a different way to live. I think it's a really beautiful love story that's really balanced.
Even at the end, when the prince comes, she says this is who I am. Take me, love me or don't, but you have to know this is me. Which again is a really strong, and up to date message.
Q: Cinderella's kindness is, like you said, kind of her super power and draws strength from it. What do you draw strength from?
Lily James: Probably my family, which is why it's amazing that Ella's left without a family and she still manages. I guess it's their memory, it's their ghosts almost. Sometimes you watch Cinderella and you go ‘Why doesn't she just leave?', but that's her home. We really wanted that to feel strong as well, that she doesn't leave because that's her parents house, and they told her to look after them.
Q: What is the appeal of doing period pieces, because this is essentially a period piece? 1830's to late 19th century, in that range. What is the appeal of going into these other worlds?
Lily James: For me personally, when I grew up I loved Kate Winslet in Titanic. As a kid I loved princesses, but then growing up I loved that beauty. Now there's a sense of history and reminiscing, and a time gone by, the elegance and manners, things that maybe we lack today. As an actor I really always wanted to do period because there's a whole world created for you. It's so exciting to delve into something new, and pretend, and play.
Q: They built the set, so you did actually walk down that staircase. What was your first reaction when you looked out, in that gown?
Lily James: It was even more crazy than that. I arrived in the carriage. I walked up the steps. It basically played out in real-time. So I walked down this long corridor with guards, then I turned a corner, then I got to these huge, big doors, and then I knock, and I open these doors, and I walk out. Exactly what that shot is, it was it. It was unbelievable. I was so nervous. I was terrified. I didn't want to fall down the stairs in front of all those people. The dress is so big. Sandy Powell why did you do this? [Laughs]
All those feelings were kind of perfect for Ella. As Lily I was always so scared of doing this part. I had to keep going back to that line, when Ella's at the steps of the palace and says ‘I'm just a girl, not a princess.' I always thought about that because I was so scared of this, and I had to remember those feelings I had as Lily were really useful for Ella as well.
The story of “Cinderella” follows the fortunes of young Ella (Lily James) whose merchant father remarries following the death of her mother. Eager to support her loving father, Ella welcomes her new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) into the family home. But, when Ella’s father unexpectedly passes away, she finds herself at the mercy of a jealous and cruel new family.
Directed by Academy Award®-nominee Kenneth Branagh (“Thor,” “Hamlet”) and starring Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine,” “Elizabeth”), Lily James (“Downton Abbey”), Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”) and Academy Award-nominee Helena Bonham-Carter (“The King’s Speech,” “Alice in Wonderland”), “Cinderella” is produced by Simon Kinberg (“X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Elysium”), Allison Shearmur (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) and David Barron (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”). The screenplay is by Chris Weitz (“About a Boy,” “The Golden Compass”).
Portions of the material for this event has been provided courtesy of Walt Disney Studios, all opinions are my own.