Lily James: A young Meryl Streep?
James is back on the big screen with ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’
Lily James: if ‘momentum’ really is the thing you need then Lily James has exactly what’s needed. Photograph: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait
“I hate the word ‘momentum’. That’s the word you hear all the time,” Lily James says. She drops into a perfect American accent: “You gotta keep the momentum up.” I imagine a stereotypical, pushy agent in a loud checked suit.
Well, if “momentum” really is the thing you need then Lily James has exactly what’s needed. After breaking through in the title role of Disney’s Cinderella three years ago, she went on to play Natasha in the BBC’s War and Peace, Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Zombies, the romantic lead in Baby Driver and Churchill’s faithful secretary in Darkest Hour. This week she appears at the head of Mike Newell’s take on Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s popular novel (deep breath) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is on the way.
“I have been very, very busy,” she says in crisp, home counties English. “And it’s potentially not a pace of life I could be doing always. But I have been rolling with it. The opportunity to work with all these people is wonderful. But I crave time off.”
There’s some pressure on her this week. Following the experiences of inconvenienced Jersey Islanders during the Nazi occupation, Shaffer and Barrows’s book has many dedicated followers.
“Yes, I do feel some pressure,” she says. “But it’s a delight to play such a great character. You roll with the punches. I found this with War and Peace. I found it even with Cinderella. There is such a well of information to draw on. You are sort of overwhelmed.”
James is amused to discover that – as is so often the case with famous people – harmless misinformation that would be of no interest to m’ learned friends has already lodged in her biography. Contrary to what Wikipedia says, she doesn’t exactly come from a family of actors.
“No, somewhere this got reported about my mum,” she says. “They said my mum worked in a travel agency too which wasn’t true either. ‘First an actress and then a travel agent?’ Thanks. My dad was an actor and that probably explains it. I remember, at drama school, we realised that we could make our own Wikipedia page. And my boyfriend at the time made me one. I was so delighted. I have a Wikipedia page!”
I trust she invented lots of juvenile roles at the RSC and copious achievements in horsemanship.
“You mean the lies we often tell? No, we didn’t do that,” she says with a smile (though firmly).
Anyway, James, who was raised in Surrey, does confirm that, as the bios claim, she attended a boarding school that skewed towards the arts and performance. She was set upon acting, but paid enough attention to win a university place reading psychology and philosophy. Then she got into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Lively, smart, with the downturned mouth and sharp cheekbones of an old-school matinee queen, James was playing Desdemona at the Sheffield Crucible before her 23rd birthday. She also scored a role in Downton Abbey.
Still, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella must have felt like a kick up the ladder. Suddenly she was on the side of buses throughout the world. Othello in South Yorkshire doesn’t do that for you.
“It was terrifying in ways I hadn’t expected,” she says. “I had been in Downton. But I still felt that I’d barely been on camera – not in a film. Even if there was just me and Helena Bonham Carter in a shot I’d try to edge my way out of the shot. Ha ha! As if Cinderella could edge her way out of Cinderella.”
She mentions the attention. That came in several directions. Suddenly a role model in way that only Disney princesses can manage, James found herself at the centre of a controversy concerning stills depicting her with the thinnest of thin waists.
“I am aware of the huge impact these characters have on screen,” she says. “You are aware that it’s important people are equally represented on our TV and film screens. We need to show the world as it is. People need to see that. But, as an actor, it has to be about the work and the roles you play.”
The pressure increased that little bit more when James began dating former Dr Who and then current Prince Philip Matt Smith. The supermarket tabloid had their It Couple for the late 20-teens.
“You see us when we are working,” she says. “When we are working we expect a certain amount of attention. The rest of our lives is rarely that. Sometimes it trickles in. Sometimes it’s invasive. But quite rarely.”
Next up, she plays a young version of Donna, Meryl Streep’s character, in the sequel to Mamma Mia! A young Meryl Streep? That’s a challenge?
“It’s certainly a version of Donna,” she says. “I think of it as a young version of her rather than a young version of Meryl Streep. That is too much for my head to contemplate.”
About the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
The hit novel was over 20 years in the making and only just made it into print. The US writer, Mary Ann Shaffer, conceived the story while researching a biography of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Decades later, she finally embarked on the epistolary tale of a group of Guernsey folk who form an early version of the now-unavoidable book club during the Nazi occupation of that island. Shaffer died after the novel was accepted by a publisher, but before she could make the editor’s suggested rewrites. Completed by her niece, Annie Barrows, a children’s writer, the novel fast became a staple of the sort of book clubs depicted in its pages. The book reached number one on the New York Times Best Seller List in 2009.