Fairy-Tale Heroine Lily James Steps Out Of Her Cinderella Slippers

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. 

Silk dress; knitted bra (just seen); jumpsuit, all from Dior

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 swivelled 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! 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 …”

Silk dress; and body, both from Dior. White and yellow gold, diamond, and yellow sapphire earrings, Van Cleef & Arpels

She has arrived for our lunch casually dressed in jeans, eco-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 colour 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.

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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.

James takes the title role of the conniving, manipulative Eve Harrington, a would-be actress who flatters her way into the life of the ageing star Margo Channing in order to take her place both personally and professionally. It seems a brilliant subversion of James’s own likeability, though she says she hesitated before accepting, because for much of the play Eve successfully presents herself as an innocent ingénue. “I thought, I just want to play the evil bit,” she admits. “But she’s definitely a pathological liar, and there’s a lot of nastiness in her—I can’t wait. It will be good if I can really surprise the audience.”

Cotton dress; knitted bra; and jumpsuit (just seen), all from Dior

The tempestuous and insecure Margo is played by Gillian Anderson, James’s co-star in War & Peace, with whom she is looking forward to working, once more. “She’s a phenomenal actor … When I did the photo shoot with her for the poster, I thought, ‘I can’t wait to spend time with you!’ I like people who are direct and honest, and she seems funny and she’s classy. But I hope our roles don’t seep into real life.” James pauses briefly, and then goes on, a little anxiously: “I did hear from someone who worked with Ivo [van Hove, the play’s director] that he encouraged a sense of the character in their real relationships, so I hope it doesn’t become toxic and weird between Gillian and me …”

It would appear that James is apprehensive about returning to the stage altogether—“the nerves are out of control”—following her previous experience playing Juliet in Kenneth Branagh’s production of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Various misadventures meant she ended up performing opposite three different Romeos—firstly Richard Madden, who had been Prince Charming to her Cinders, then his understudy Tom Hanson, and finally Freddie Fox. “It was a very surreal and challenging experience … The Romeos kept breaking their legs and dropping like flies. That whole run became about dealing with those unreal circumstances. I mean, it’s a funny story now, but it was literally like I was eating them alive … It did traumatise me. I also had problems with my voice and missed a few shows, so I felt like I really let myself down.” Later, I read the reviews and find that her nuanced performance was singled out by the critics as one of the highlights of the production; she is far harder on herself than anybody else is.

While to James’s fans and admirers, her life may seem like a dream come true, living it is clearly more complicated. “I don’t always deal with pressure and stress well,” she admits. “I grew up in a house where tempers rose quickly … I think the extremes live quite happily in me. I can be really happy and I can be the opposite; I throw things and shout. My dad had a bad temper and I think it’s a family trait. I’ve always been quite explosive.”

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James grew up in Esher, Surrey, the middle child between two brothers. Hers was an outdoorsy, active childhood, of a superficially conventional English type—inspired by Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books, she petitioned successfully to be allowed to attend boarding-school—except for the strong streak of theatricality running through her veins. As a small child, she watched old films obsessively, she says, pausing and rewinding to learn chunks of dialogue and song lyrics. Her American godmother, Helen Horton, was herself an actress who most famously voiced Mother, the Nostromo spaceship’s computer in the 1979 film Alien. “She had such grace, and bone structure to die for, and an American accent that was so old-fashioned, it sounded English,” says James. “The stories of her life as an actress were legendary in our family.” Horton’s talents descended to James’s father, who, she recalls, “told us made-up stories every night, with different accents and different voices … My dad had such a rich, varied life. He was an actor for a while, then he had an orchestra; he was an entrepreneur, but at the same time, he wrote music, he played in a band—he was just so clever.”

James Thomson died of cancer in 2008 when his daughter was still a teenager, a subject that over a decade later still causes her face to fall and her eyes to well up; she took his name professionally in tribute. While studying drama at the Guildhall, she saw a counsellor, she says, because she was worried about whether acting was what she really wanted to do for herself. “I thought, maybe I’m just doing this because I’m following a path I started so young.”

Indeed: James has so many major roles under her belt that it’s hard to believe she’s not yet turned 30. She will pass this milestone during the run of All About Eve and the prospect is causing her to reassess her life somewhat. “It is a real turning point,” she says. “My twenties have been so chaotic, and I’ve always looked forward to 30 as being an anchor point. You stop caring so much about what other people think, and become more secure in your own life.” Previously, she says, she has been hesitant about voicing her professional opinions, holding back from, for instance, an inclusion rider in her contract demanding a certain level of diversity in casting and production staff, because she fears she doesn’t have sufficient clout or worries about being seen as difficult. “But I guess everyone needs to be doing it. Screw agreeability, screw feeling like you’re not worthy of demanding what is right.”

Mesh dress; body; and knit bra, all from Dior. Pearl and diamond earrings, Tiffany & Co.

James’s personal experience of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements seems to have largely been confined to the shadow cast over Baby Driver by allegations of assault made against her co-star Kevin Spacey. “Of course, there have been times when I can relate to attitudes and behaviour,” she says. She has previously told BAZAAR about attending meetings during which she realised, “Hang on, this kind of feels like a date. But I think things are definitely changing. People are more likely to speak out and know they will be listened to.” What will assist the process is more women in positions of power, both on-screen and behind the scenes, because currently the statistics are depressing, with men outnumbering women by two to one in acting roles, and women over the age of 40 virtually invisible. “When you see it in black and white, you can’t believe how imbalanced it is,” says James. She talks enthusiastically about how much she enjoyed working with the young female director Nia DaCosta on the gritty indie film Little Woods, in which James plays a desperate and penniless single mother. “For our wrap gifts, we all got caps saying ‘The Future is Female’. We’re already on that vibe, you know?” she laughs.

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Now James herself would like to move behind the camera. “Maybe I’m meant to be a producer? Produce first, and then if I find the right book, direct. I’m always trying to find books,” she says, citing Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, and Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. “A lot of actors feel, once they’ve made the film, that’s it, my job’s done. But I get jealous of the director in the edit. It tortures me and I really try to contribute. I’m a real perfectionist—which probably limits me—but I do feel I’d be quite good in the edit.”

Meanwhile, though, there are other starring roles waiting in the wings. After All About Eve, she will be taking on one of the most intriguing and ambiguous of fictional heroines—the second Mrs de Winter, in a new film of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, opposite Armie Hammer as Maxim. “It’s going to be really hard, because so much of it is in her head, that lack of self-worth,” says James. “How do you translate that into film? And it’s so screwed up. A man kills his wife because she lives how she wants to, and you’re supposed to feel sympathy for him? In the book, you get all the flavours in this feminist story of both women—it’s going to be interesting to try and get that richness into it. I don’t want to be afraid of the fact that morally, it could feel really wrong.”

Rebecca strikes me as the perfect antidote to Lily James’s Cinderella image: this twisted, unhappily-ever-after fairy tale in which the penniless servant girl falls in love with her Prince Charming, who turns out to be Bluebeard. “It’s good to tell stories from the wrong side,” she concludes, then gathers up her possessions and sets off into the chilly afternoon, trying her best to look anonymous, yet radiant as always, with the children on the next table enraptured, watching her every move.

Hair: Earl Simms/Caren using Kerluxe; Make-up: Mary Greenwell/Premier Hair and Make-up; Manicure: Sabrina Gayle/ The Wall Group using Miss Dior Hand Cream and Dior Vernis; Styling assistant: Sophie Chapman; Set design: Jacki Castelli