Period piece or not, Lily James is a talented actress but she’s certainly made a name for herself tackling challenging prose and donning elaborate dresses thanks to Downton Abbey and Cinderella. Now, however, she’s adding something else to the equation – daggers.
James leads Burr Steers’ big screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as Elizabeth Bennet. Similar to Jane Austen’s novel, Elizabeth is one of five sisters living in 19th century England, feeling the pressure to find and marry an eligible bachelor. The only difference is that this rendition of the classic tale also has zombies, so while Elizabeth still shares a tumultuous relationship with Darcy (Sam Riley), she also has to deal with the undead, or rather, the “unmentionables.”
While on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies set back in November 2014, I got the chance to be part of a roundtable interview with James during which she spoke about reading the source material for the first time, making the switch from Downton to PPZ, her character’s weapon of choice and much more. You can check it all out in the interview below.
LILY JAMES: Um, no. [Laughs] I hadn’t heard of it in fact, so when I saw the title I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ I wasn’t so sure and then I read the script, which I thought was really brilliant and funny. Within 10 pages, actually within the first opening sequence when Darcy sort of gallops up on a horse and gets stripped down and all that stuff, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is cool.” And then I read the book. And also I read it in like three days or two days on the set of Downton. I was pissing everyone off because I had Pride and Prejudice and Zombies up. And I thought the book was also just brilliant. It shouldn’t work, but it does. [Laughs]
Is it refreshing after Downton Abbey to be filming a period drama with lots of action?
JAMES: Oh, yeah. I think that period dramas just need zombies. [Laughs]
If the zombie apocalypse happened tomorrow, what would your first step be? How would you prepare to survive?
JAMES: I’d run and find myself a badger den and burrow down with some canned fruit and hide.
After your training for this film, do you feel a little more prepared?
JAMES: Yeah, actually. That’s been really fun. I’ve loved that. When I do Downton I become like a sort of podgy little sludgy thing because you don’t really need to exercise, so it’s been really good getting fit. And working with [fight coordinator] Moe [Lee] and the stunt guys on this has been awesome. Yeah, I feel like I can sort of get into some fights now and be a little bit more victorious.
How does it compare to the preparation for Fast Girls. You were in training and learned to run for that. Was this more intense?
JAMES: No, I don’t think anything will ever be as intense as that because for this we can hide all manner of sins in a period dress, but in Fast Girls I was in pants so we had to be like, proper toned, whereas in this it’s been more about a mental sort of fighter attitude and then just being fit to learn all the stunt routines. I didn’t need to grow muscles, as such, for this.
How is it doing simple things like running down the grass like this? I was watching and someone’s shoe fell off.
JAMES: Yeah, Doug’s shoe fell off. [Laughs] He’s such a trooper, he carried on! I love Doug. Yeah, actually this running bit was quite scary because we ran past those horses and me and Suki were saying that at any moment now, one of those horses can kick and take us down and it’s all going to be over before it even began. That running is fine though, that was all fun.
Have you sustained any injuries so far?
JAMES: I haven’t gotten any injuries, but I’ve definitely injured other people. Like, poor Sam, we had the proposal scene where suddenly I start beating the shit out of him and I just get really swept away in the moment, and even though they’re plastic swords they really hurt if you jab them at someone. And actually, to be fair though, I had bruises all up my arm after that. I was kicking him in the shin, and actually really near his face, so when we were rehearsing I was like, I just can’t give him a black eye, because we won’t be able to shoot!
How is the rhythm in those kinds of scenes? You’ve got the repartee of Jane Austen and then you make it physical. Is there a rhythm or a beat to being able to do that?
JAMES: Yeah, when we’re just doing the scenes without any fighting, I just treat it completely ordinary, play it exactly for real, you know? And then when there’s dialogue and fighting, that’s sometimes been a bit of a battle because when you’re really physically exerting yourself, your dialogue comes out in a similar sort of feel. So sometimes I wanted to say lines very relaxed, but I’m saying them [in a strained voice] “like this” because I’m sort of punching Jane in the face. But I think that’s the point of it. I think that all that sort of osmosis of dialogue and fighting is when it will be funniest and scariest, I hope.
You seem to do a lot of period roles, is that because you particularly enjoy it?
JAMES: I’d love to do different things now, but I was always drawn to that as sort of a style and some of the actresses I loved growing up like Kate Winslet, I sort of remember them in things like Titanic and all that kind of period stuff so that was definitely something I aspired to and I wanted to do myself, but now having done it so much I’d quite like to do something where there’s no style or – well yeah, style that sort of slightly confines your choices and your emotions and the freedom to just sort of let everything out. So I’m looking forward to doing something not period.
So this may be a segue into that with it being a period drama and action/horror.
JAMES: Yeah! And also this is not as restricting because you think, ‘Oh no, I wouldn’t do that,’ but they’re zombies, so who cares? You can see even in the costumes there’s a slight edge. There’s a slight, I think kind of sexier, kind of cooler edge, which means that that has an effect on everything, so it feels more free.
What about weapons? What’s her weapon of choice?
JAMES: The blade. Hello! [Shows us her blade.] I have daggers hidden everywhere. [Laughs] Liz Bennet is a dagger/sword ninja so I always fight with two, but she has a dagger on her at all times. I think we all always have a weapon because there could be a zombie at any moment.
Or a marriage proposal.
JAMES: [Laughs] Exactly. The marriage proposal I throw books at him, I smash things on him. It was like The Matrix. [Sam] would dodge the books. It was like really fluky, but it looks so good. Yeah, I’m getting to let out all my pent up rage in this film!
For more from my Pride and Prejudice and Zombies set visit, check out the links below: