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Interview: Lily James: The New Cinderella

Mar 09, 2015

By: Lynn Barker

If you happen to watch the kind of grown-up TV series “Downton Abbey” you might know lovely actress Lily James as Lady Rose. Soon she will play the lead characters in the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and “War and Peace” for TV.   

Cinderella (Lily James) says goodbye to her fatherCinderella (Lily James) says goodbye to her fatherCourtesy of Disney

For her interviews, Lily, her shoulder-length hair loose, was wearing a spring-like white top and skirt ensemble as she spoke in her lovely Brit accent about her on-fire career, her love of Disney princesses and trying to dance in that huge, blue ball gown while her prince, cute actor Richard Madden, tried desperately not to step on the skirt. In her tight corset, diet cokes produced embarrassing burps! Here’s friendly Lily:  

Q: Was it a childhood dream to play Cinderella?

  • Lily: I really loved princesses growing up. My grandmother made me a Princess Jasmine outfit, which was all see-through and bit weird for a seven year old. I had little plastic princess slippers. I had two brothers who were knocking me off my post a bit. Thank God (she laughs). I auditioned for one of the step sisters but once I started reading Ella and being her, I was totally desperate to be her.

Cinderella with her mean step sistersCinderella with her mean step sistersCourtesy of Disney

Q: There is a nice message of kindness and courage. Do you feel like you have those qualities in life?

  • Lily: I hope so. I think we all do. I think we have to be to get through life which throws us….whatever (laughs).  I think what is amazing about Ella is that she is the best version of herself at all times and that’s what is remarkable about her.

Q: Talk about the first time you put on the amazing blue ball gown. What was your initial reaction?

  • Lily: I was so bowled over by the dress. There is a moment in Runaway Bride where Julia Roberts puts on the dress and she looks in the mirror and she makes some sort of noise, which I could never figure out what the noise was. But I just felt like Julia Roberts. It was the best moment of my life! I was so nervous about that bit of the film because being Ella I felt like she was just a normal girl.  But being the princess I was like “God, Holy crap, how am I going to do it?” Then the dress was this suit of armor and I felt transformed and I felt so confident in the dress that it made me forget all of my own insecurities.

Cinderella admires her gorgeous ball gownCinderella admires her gorgeous ball gownCourtesy of Disney

Q: Can we talk about the dance sequence at the ball? That dress is huge and swinging all over the place. Did you have to factor that in when you were doing choreography? Did you practice with a big skirt?

  • Lily: I really wished we had.  But I was in tracksuit bottoms and a little strappy top and Richard the same, in a strappy top too. We were practicing for months and every weekend we went to Pinewood Studios in London where we had these amazing teachers and with Rob Ashworth the choreographer.  We were getting really smug and we thought we were getting really good at it. 
  • And then suddenly, we were like “Oh, the dress!” I put it on and I had a complete nervous breakdown.  This is never going to happen! And that was just the (support underskirt). That wasn’t even the twelve layers of material and silk, which basically ripped when you looked at it.  Then I had the corset, which meant I could only breathe from up here and the dance was quite long and athletic.

Dancing at the ballDancing at the ballCourtesy of Disney

Q: But it looked so effortless.

  • Lily: Disney magic, I don’t know but it worked and it all came together. Richard had to basically ice-skate, because if you picked up his feet, he would step on the skirt.  He had to go to the gym because to lift me in that dress was really hard! (she laughs). When he pushed me on the swing you could see him pulling faces behind me! 
  • There were definitely casualties and the costume designer had to make different length skirts. You would turn and, five minutes later, the skirt would catch up with you and like hit me in the face and I would try to look like I’m really enjoying it!  Actually towards the end we did it a few times from start to finish from me arriving on the top step of the ball to running off, and we did it seamlessly without stopping, I didn’t remember any pain. It felt like I was falling in love. It was really magical.

Q: Cinderella moves so gracefully. Did you study the animated film to get that down?

  • Lily: That was one of the things I wanted to take from the animation was her grace and that ease and that movement but I didn’t want it to seem like she was this ballet dancer prancing about. I love the physicality in the film. There is a moment where she cries by the well with her hands in her face and without seeing her face you can feel her grief.  In the film, I tried to basically exactly mimic that moment.

Making a grand entranceMaking a grand entranceCourtesy of Disney

Q: How did you endure that corset? The waist is so tiny in that dress.

  • Lily: (Laughs) Like blood, sweat and tears! I wore the corset throughout the film and it was really fine. In the blue dress, because the skirt is so big, it’s almost an illusion. It looks way smaller than it is. I would untie it in all the breaks and stuff but that is the nature of corsets. I’ve done loads of period filming and it’s the same throughout. It was tight and during lunchtime I would untie so I could eat, but I would snack on soup so it would go down.  Diet cokes is my only way of getting through filming because I get so tired and I would get the sugar rush! It was like the symphony of burps. I was always apologizing to Richard!

Q: Funny!  Did you take any inspiration from playing Lady Rose, your role on “Downton Abbey”?

  • Lily: I think Rose is kinder. There is a similarity. But I did want (Ella) to be really different in her energy. She is so much calmer and is more grounded. I think it’s kind of impossible when you play a character for a long time, they kind of infiltrate you as a person. You’re like (yelling) “Get out, Rose! Leave me alone!”  I felt like in the first scene of the film, “Oh no, you’re being Rose.” I was really disturbed, but then I felt like she went.

Cinderella meets Prince Kit (Richard Madden)Cinderella meets Prince Kit (Richard Madden)Courtesy of Disney

Q: Helena Bonham Carter plays your fairy godmother and Cate Blanchett, your wicked stepmother. Talk about working with them.

  • Lily: I think Cate is one of the greatest actresses of all time.  She is just so cool so to do scenes with her was, in a way, easier because she gives you so much. She was so encouraging and supportive of me. For her stepmother there was this whole life and history that went on inside her eyes, so it was just so exciting. It felt so layered and multi dimensional. I loved doing the scenes with her so much.
  • Helena is one of the coolest, kindest women I have ever met. We had so much fun. If I’ve learned anything from Cate and from Helena, their sense of humor is wicked. That’s how you succeed! Helena improvises and I loved her fairy godmother. It came at a point in night shoots, I was so exhausted. It was weird to shoot through the night. We were outside and I was freezing cold and it was the point in the story when Ella says: “Even I don’t believe anymore.” She’s almost given up hope and then Helena comes! The bright light over the horizon. It was wonderful.

Cinderella with her evil stepmom (Cate Blanchett)Cinderella with her evil stepmom (Cate Blanchett)Courtesy of Disney

Q: You get to sing in this movie, how was that experience?

  • Lily: I love singing so much and as a kid that was what I wanted to do and I loved princesses who were singing.  But then I got out of practice and my voice was all husky, so I was so excited to get to sing in this. I loved it. I had the best day. I love Helena’s song too. It’s so cool!

Q: As someone who grew up with princesses like Jasmine and Belle, did they inform your choices on playing Ella? Were you concerned about presenting her well to girls who will see the film?

  • Lily: I watched all of the Disney princess movies and it’s amazing how they changed and how they have become more modern, right up until Frozen. I felt like I wanted a lot of Belle and a lot of Ariel. I’m such a geek now with princesses and their desire for more in life, to want to explore and to want to daydream. I feel like those princesses are great inspirations for kids because they don’t settle. With Cinderella, the criticism of this girl waiting for a prince to save her, we wanted to chuck that out and not have that dominating our film. I tried to take flavors from all of the princesses.  But to keep the overriding sensation of Ella, which was that she is this kind, good person that is able to be happy in a cruel environment and that is a superpower.

Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) sends Ella to the ballFairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) sends Ella to the ballCourtesy of Disney

Q: Are you prepared to become an icon to children when they see you, for them to look at you with awe?

  • Lily: All I know is that when I went to Disneyland as a kid, I had my Mickey Mouse autograph book and I went around to the teenage girls who were dressed up as princesses, that transaction is beautiful. It is magical and if I can be a part of that I would feel thrilled. I saw a really cool interview with Amy Adams years ago when she did Enchanted and she said that she would be out in her jeans with no make up, and kids would be like: “Mummy look!” And she would have to say that her character Giselle was on her off day.  She was in disguise.  So I may have to do that because I go around in ripped jeans.

Q: It’s cool that your Cinderella isn’t waiting to be saved by some prince.

  • Lily: That’s what I hope (comes across). They rescue each other. They meet as equals. They don’t know who each other are. The opening scene of the animation, I love the song (and the idea) that dreaming can take you away from your life and you can escape. But the idea of I want to marry that prince, that is bulls**t.  Even at the end when she knows he is a prince and he finds her, she says, “This is who I am. I have no parents, I am this girl, take me or leave me. I love you if you can love me like that”. I think that is so important.

The happy coupleThe happy coupleCourtesy of Disney

Cinderella is in theaters March 13th!