NO ENGLISH ROSE
SHE MADE A NAME FOR HERSELF PLAYING THE CLASSIC ENGLISH ROSE, BUT LILY JAMES IS NOW TRADING IN THE ROMANTIC DRAMAS FOR CAR CHASES
“Iknow,” acknowledges Lily James with a blush, “it does seem like I’m having it all.” The 28-year-old British actor is sizing up her current circumstances as she sips tea inside a Beverly Hills hotel suite. The navy off-the-shoulder pantsuit she wears is a far cry from the corsets and starched petticoats she has been cinched into for much of her career.
After first sashaying into the world’s sitting room as the willful Lady Rose in Downton Abbey, audiences presumed this English rose to be every bit as confident as her alter ego. But James insists she has nothing in common with her imposing onscreen persona. “I did more than 50 auditions before I ever got a part,” she tells Stellar. “It was such a struggle and I would get so nervous. I’d go bright red.”
Once she mastered her fears, and after Downton Abbey raised her profile, James found success in the title role of Cinderella – sparring opposite Cate Blanchett as her onscreen stepmother – and appeared in BBC miniseries War & Peace and horror send-up Pride And Prejudice And Zombies. Rarely do her old insecurities resurface, though James admits, “It depends on what day you get me. I’m quite a nervous person.”
TODAY IS CLEARLY a good day. James is upbeat as she talks about Baby Driver, a contemporary thriller in which she plays Deborah, a misfit diner waitress. The film, which co-stars Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey and Ansel Elgort, gave James her first opportunity to try on an American accent. “It’s a real old-fashioned romance between two dreamers,” she says, “with a lot of car chases in between. It was
brilliant finally getting to wear jeans and a T-shirt, or my cute waitress uniform.”
The part was not a natural fit. Unlike seemingly every other actor in Hollywood, James has never waited tables – although she says she can pull a mean pint, having once spent a year working in a pub outside London.
She took that gig before starting drama school, which marked the realisation of a childhood dream. Born Lily Chloe Ninette Thomson in a bucolic London suburb, James grew up wanting to be an actor. Her dad James Thomson – who acted in his youth – and his mum Helen Horton, who voiced Mother in
Alien, inspired her. Mum Ninette was the sensible one, who “would have a heart attack if you asked her to act”.
James was a precocious middle child who enjoyed roughhousing with older brother Charlie, now a sports reporter in Melbourne, and younger brother Sam. “I was big-boned,” she says. “My winning move was to jump on them and pin them down.” As a student at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts and, later, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, “I did all the plays and loved dancing and singing – basically just showing off. There’s tapes of me really young, reading poems and singing with my dad. I always wanted it.”
Her bedroom wall was strewn with posters of Ryan Phillippe and Justin Timberlake, but it was her high-school drama teacher who held pride of place. She giggles at the memory: “I had the biggest crush on Mr Newell. I stuck his picture above my bed – it’s so wrong! Maybe that’s why I got into acting? He was, without a doubt, my first major crush. I hope he reads this.”
JAMES SAYS SHE can’t recall a time she was not in love. In fact, she is in the midst of a three-year romance with The Crown’s Matt Smith, yet she prefers to keep the relationship private. The pair met on the set of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, and she only speaks of him in vagaries: “My boyfriend and I went to India for New Year’s Eve…” or “It’s good to spend quality time with the person you love...”
But there are hints the two may be in it for the long haul. James does not miss a beat when asked if she wants a family: “Oh yeah, yeah, definitely – a big one! I love children. I’ve always wanted to be a young mum, for sure.”
Still, she insists she won’t be rushed. “The time when people get married, have families and have careers has shifted along with the maternal clock,” she says, “so I don’t think we should stick to rules or put pressure on ourselves.”
James is currently filming Guernsey, an adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s novel The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, set during World War II. Then she plans to realise a long-held dream: “I’ve always longed to live in New York, and I’m hoping to move there this year with a friend, and maybe do a show on- or off-broadway. London will always be my home, but it’s important to try out different places.”
Much like her Baby Driver character, James seems to have an innate desire to break free. “I’m a daydreamer at heart,” she admits. “I like escaping my world by listening to music or taking long walks on Parliament Hill near my home in Hampstead. I need that release from my job, which can be manic and stressful.
“Sometimes I think how nice it would be to just hit the road… and never look back.”
“i had a crush on my drama teacher ”
THROUGH THE AGES (clockwise from right) Lily James (right) as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey; opposite Cate Blanchett in Cinderella; with Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver.