At a time when fairy tales on the big screen are getting darker and more edgy, the timeless classic Cinderella show that kindness and courage can win out over all, and that maybe a princess has enough inner strength that she doesn’t need a prince to save her and make her dreams come true. This live-action retelling focuses on the beautiful young Ella (Lily James) whose idyllic life comes crashing down when her merchant father remarries following the tragic death of her mother, and her new Stepmother (Cate Blanchett) brings her own daughters into the family home, quickly turning into quite the jealous and cruel bunch. When Ella meets the dashing Kit in the woods, unaware that he is really the Prince (Richard Madden) and not merely an apprentice, she believes she has finally found a kindred spirit and hopes they will cross paths again, perhaps at the royal ball.
During a roundtable interview at the film’s press day, actress Lily James talked about how much she loved princesses growing up, how amazing it is to play a character who’s the best version of herself, at all times, just how difficult it was to do the choreography for the ball while she was in that dress, studying the animated film for inspiration on the physicality, enduring a corset, her experience working with Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter, collaborating with director Kenneth Branagh, and her hope that this next season won’t be the last one for Downton Abbey, in which she plays Lady Rose MacClare.
Question: Was it a childhood dream for you to play a princess?
LILY JAMES: I loved princesses! I had a Princess Jasmine outfit that my grandma made me, which was see-through and a bit weird for a seven-year-old, and I had like little plastic princess slippers. I really, really loved the princesses, growing up. I was definitely one of those girls. But then, I had two brothers that kept knocking me off my pedestal a bit, thank god. But I hadn’t carried that with me through life. I didn’t still want to be a princess. I originally auditioned for one of the step sisters. Once I started reading Ella and being her, I was totally desperate to play her.
How do you like the whole philosophy of kindness and courage? Do you feel like you have those qualities in life?
JAMES: I hope so. I think we all do. I think we have to, to get through life, which can throw us off. I think what’s amazing about Ella is that she’s the best version of herself, at all times. That’s what remarkable about her.
You have that luminous ball gown for the dance sequence, and it’s swirling all over the place. Did you have to factor that in, when you were doing choreography?
JAMES: You’d have thought we would have done that, and I really wish we did. I was in track suit bottoms and a little strappy top. We practiced for months, every weekend. We had these amazing teacher, and we were getting really smug and really good at it. And then, I put the dress on and I had a complete nervous breakdown. It was like, “This is never gonna happen!” And that was just the cage. That wasn’t even the twelve layers of gossamer-thin silk that basically ripped when you looked at it. And then, there was the corset, which meant that I could only breathe [very shallow], and the dance was quite long and quite athletic. Somehow, with Disney magic, it worked and came together. We had to change bits. Richard basically had to ice skate because if he picked up his feet, he would step on the skirt. And he had to get in the gym because to lift me in that dress was really hard. When he pushed me on the swing, you could see him [struggling]. And there were accidents. There were definitely casualties, and Sandy Powell was holding her breath in the corner. She actually had to make different length skirts. Sometimes I wouldn’t have the skirt on. If it was a high shot, I would just have leggings on. It was good to do, but it was really hard. You’d turn, and then five minutes later, the skirt would catch up and hit me in the face, and I was trying to look like I was really enjoying it. 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 don’t even remember any pain. It felt like I was falling in love. It was really magical.
Your physicality in this film is so beautiful and elegant. Did you study the animated film to get that down?
JAMES: Yeah. I’m so glad you said that because was one of the main things I wanted to take from the animation was that grace and that ease and that movement, but I still wanted it to feel real. I didn’t want it to seem like she was this ballet dancer, bouncing about. I loved the physicality in the film. There’s a moment where she cries by the well, and her back like undulates. Without seeing her face, you can feel her grief. In the film, I tried to exactly mimic that moment, which was the only time I mimicked.
Aside from the practical concerns of your performance in that amazing dress, what was your reaction, the first time you put it on and saw yourself in it?
JAMES: The feeling of, “How am I going to do anything?,” came later because I was so bowled over by the dress. I put it on and I felt like that moment in Runaway Bride where Julia Roberts puts on the dress and she looks in the mirror, and I just felt like Julia Roberts. I was like, “This is the best moment of my life!” And I was so nervous about that bit of the film. Being Ella, I felt like I could do. I felt like she’s just a normal girl, who’s exceptionally good, but just a girl. But being the princess was like, “Holy crap! How am I going to do it?” And then, the dress was this suit of armor. I felt transformed, and I felt so confident in the dress that it made me forget all my own insecurities.
How did you endure that corset?
JAMES: With blood, sweat and tears. Thankfully, it was only really tight in the blue dress. I wore the corset throughout the film, but it was really fine. The blue dress was designed so that it was really pulled in at the waist, but the fact that the skirt’s so big, it’s almost an illusion. It looks way smaller than it is. But, I would untie it in all the breaks. That’s just the nature of corsets. I’ve done those in period filming, and it’s the same throughout. This wasn’t really any different. Sometimes they’re tight on your boobs, and that hurts even more. In Downton Abbey, it’s the ‘20s, and that’s a flattener, which is worse. It was tight. Whilst filming, at lunchtime, I would untie it, so I could eat. But during the day, to snack, I had soup, so it would go down. I would burp in Richard’s face, all day. Diet Coke is the only way I get through filming because I get so tired. Helen was exactly the same. When we shot our stuff together, it was this symphony of burps.
As Lady Rose MacClare on Downton Abbey, you’re also very kind and, unfortunately, go through a lot of parental turmoil, as well. Did you take any inspiration, from playing her for so long, into your role as Cinderella?
JAMES: I think Rose is kind. I don’t think everyone else does, but I think she’s kind, especially as she’s developed. So, I guess there is a similarity, but I did actually want her to be really different, in her energy. She’s so much calmer and more grounded. But when you play a character for a long time, it’s impossible for them not to infiltrate you, as a person. You’re like, “Get out! Rose leave me alone!” And I guess you’re cast for a reason.
You must have grown up admiring Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter. What was it like to work with them?
JAMES: It was an unbelievable, very surreal experience, and I’m so grateful. I think Cate is one of the greatest actresses of all time. To do scenes with her was, in a way, easy because she gives you so much. For her stepmother, there was this whole life and history and world that went on inside her and in her eyes, so it was just so exciting, and felt so layered and multi-dimensional. I loved doing the scenes with her, so much. And Helena is one of the coolest, kindest women I have ever met. We had so much fun. She has the best sense of humor. If I’ve learned anything from Cate and Helena, their sense of humors are wicked, and I think that’s how you succeed. Great actors and actresses are like that. And Helena would mix it up. She does it different, every time. She improvises. I loved her Fairy Godmother. It came at a point, in night shoots, when I was exhausted and it was trippy. You shoot through the night and it’s freezing cold, and you’re outside. It was the point in the story where Ella even says, “I don’t believe anymore,” like she’s almost given up hope. And then, Helena came, and it was like this bright light over the horizon. It was wonderful.
What was your first day working with Cate Blanchett like? What headspace were you in?
JAMES: It was a bad idea, but I had watched Blue Jasmine, two nights before, so I was just in awe. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how she was going to work. Actually, I’ve seen her in interviews and she says that her method changes, from job to job. But, she is just so cool. I wasn’t terrified. I was just totally in awe. I just wanted to like watch her, every second, and soak up everything I could from her. But, she was so encouraging and supportive of me. Not overly so, but subtle, like it’s no big deal, which is a huge deal for me. Just to watch her act and see her process for the character was great. She was so cruel, but sometimes it was hidden, so it was more confusing and disconcerting. I could just respond to what she was doing.
As an actress, what’s it like to collaborate with Kenneth Branagh, as your director?
JAMES: It’s really unique. I’ve never had it quite like that before because I trusted him, completely, which is the most scary feeling. You go, “Okay, I’m giving over to this director and I believe in him,” but it’s also the most freeing experience because I felt like I could do anything and he was guiding me through. He directs with such heart and such warmth. He’s very clear and specific. He was that way, right from my first audition, in how he spoke about Ella and how he wanted her to be. He always talked about where her goodness comes from because it can’t just be this abstract, where she’s a princess, therefore she’s good and sweet and doe-eyed and floats around on clouds. Why is she this girl, and does it cost her? How does she maintain this goodness? On the day, I felt like I could just be and exist and dream. He’s such a remarkable director, and I think it’s ‘cause he’s a remarkable actor. He brings both to the day and to the set.
Did he give you a lot of takes to try things, or did you have to get it done and move on?
JAMES: It varied. Sometimes he’d just be like, “Close your mouth.” Other times, it’d be psychological. He’s very funny. He does everything with humor, so I’d often just be laughing at what he said.
Cinderella’s strength is her superpower. How did you feel about having that inform your choices, to keep her relatable?
JAMES: I watched all the Disney princesses, and it’s amazing how they changed and they have become more modern, right up until Frozen. I wanted a lot of Belle and of Ariel. I’m such a geek now with princesses. It’s pathetic. I wanted that desire for more in life, to want to explore, and to want to daydream. I feel like that spirit of princesses makes them great role models. They’re great inspirations for kids because they are outside of society, in a way. They don’t settle. The criticism of this girl just waiting for a prince to save her, we wanted to chuck that out and not have that dominate in our film. So, I tried to take flavors from all of the princesses, but keep the overriding sensation of Ella, which is that she is this kind, good person that is able to be happy in a cruel environment, and that is her superpower.
This version of Cinderella, no one needs to save.
JAMES: That’s what I hope, and that’s what Ken was so clear about. They rescue each other. They meet as equals. They don’t know who each other are. The idea of, “Oh, I want to marry that prince!,” is bullshit. At the end, even when she knows he’s 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’s so important. So, I hope that’s what’s received from it.
Are you prepared to become an icon to children when they see you and look at you in awe?
JAMES: 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 that were dressed up as princesses. That transaction is beautiful. It’s magical. If I can be a part of that, I feel really thrilled. I saw a really cool interview with Amy Adams, years ago, on Jonathan Ross, when she did Enchanted, and she said she’d be out in her jeans with no make-up and kids would be like, “Mommy, look!” And she’d have to say, “I’m on my off day, in disguise.” I think I might have to do that ‘cause I go around in ripped jeans.
Because it is such an iconic song, what was it like to sing “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes”?
JAMES: I love singing, so much. As a kid, that was what I wanted to do. Also, why I loved princesses was the singing. But then, I got out of practice. My voice is all husky and I was like, “Oh, no!” So, I was so excited to get to sing in this. I loved it. I had the best day. Ken was filming Wallander. He was in the Baltic somewhere, and he had Skype on, so that he was there for me while I recorded the song, giving me notes over Skype. And I loved Helena’s song, too. It’s so cool. I was so nervous when I heard the song. I thought it was going to be a disaster. Thank god for reverb.
Have you heard anything about the next season of Downton Abbey, and whether it will be the last season?
JAMES: I don’t know. I actually don’t know. I hope not. I hope Julian [Fellowes] keeps going, forever. I love it! I also think, to a certain point, we can’t age that much.
But, are you’re excited to go back?
JAMES: Yeah, I’m really excited. I don’t know in what capacity it’s going to be yet. I don’t know what he’s written. But, I hope that’s not the end.
Cinderella opens in theaters on March 13th.