Airing simultaneously on Lifetime, A&E and History, the four-part event series War and Peace, adapted from what is widely considered the greatest novel ever written, is a thrilling tale of love, war and family. Set against in the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, it is the ultimate story of passion, romance, scandal and deceit, following the rise and fall of the fortunes of five aristocratic families.
While at the TCA Press Tour for A&E Networks, actress Lily James spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about playing beloved literary character Natasha Rostov, why she so deeply understood her, using the novel as a bible while filming, the importance of family and romance to the story, and the amazing costumes and sets. She also talked about the unique experience of working with director Edgar Wright on Baby Driver, starting rehearsals in April for playing Juliet in a stage production of Romeo and Juliet, having been a part of Downton Abbey, and playing an action hero in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Collider: You must be having so much fun in your career right now, fighting zombies, being a part of Downton Abbey, playing Cinderella and now getting to re-tell War and Peace.
LILY JAMES: Yeah, and I can’t really believe I’ve played all these literary heroines. It’s bizarre to me, with Liz Bennet and Natasha Rostov, and I’m going to do Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. It’s very daunting.
Have any of them been most daunting, or are they all equally daunting?
JAMES: I think in different ways. Downton was my first big thing, so that was daunting, and it was a show I’d already loved. Cinderella was Cinderella. I was terrified. I didn’t want to let anyone down. The whole world knows that character and loves that character. And Natasha was daunting because it’s probably the greatest acting challenge I’ve had so far. It starts off when she’s young, youthful, open and spirited, which are qualities that I’ve played before in other characters But as the journey goes on, by the last episode, it’s a completely different story. That was frightening for me to play such intense scenes.
You don’t typically get to play such a wide age range with one character, like you did with Natasha.
JAMES: Yeah, and that was terrifying, but Tom Harper, the director, led me through. He was so crucial in helping me monitor the age. I wanted her to feel really young, at the start. I thought was really important, so that you felt that journey and felt that openness and you understand why she falls for Anatole and how hard she is on herself. There are such depths to her despair versus that joy, at the start.
How did you come to this project?
JAMES: Harvey [Weinstein] had spoken to my agent about the role and had expressed interest in me as Natasha. And then, I auditioned for Tom [Harper]. I’m so grateful I got the part because as soon as I read the scenes aloud, I just knew that I wanted to play her and was connected to her in a way that was really intense, actually. I felt like I understood her.
Was it important to you to use both the script and the novel to find Natasha?
JAMES: Yeah. Andrew Davies did such an incredible job of distilling the book and capturing the souls and spirits of the characters in the story, but there were things that I don’t think I would have created myself. Tolstoy talked about her wild, animated eyes, so there’s this one moment in the ball where I just didn’t blink. The extremities of her thoughts was a gift because Tolstoy described it. It was a bible that I carried around with me everywhere because he told me what she was thinking and feeling. And then, beyond that, I used my imagination and tempered that through my own emotion, past and feelings.
Were you surprised at how relatable this story and characters still are?
JAMES: Yeah, completely. And I didn’t realize that I would read War and Peace and not want to put it down. It was a complete page-turner. You get so besotted with the characters and into the families, and you want to know who’s going to end up with who and who’s going to die and what that’s going to mean. Natasha’s journey is so vast. She becomes a woman, and she changes, grows and discovers. It’s just the most beautiful story. Ken Branagh said to me, when I told him I’d gotten cast in this and was reading the book, he said, “It will be one of the great joys of your life to read it,” and he was right. It was just a joy.
What can you say about who Natasha Rostov is and the journey that she goes on throughout this story?
JAMES: Without giving spoilers because people haven’t read [the book], it’s so vast. I felt like she’s bi-polar because she can go from such happiness to such deep, deep, deep despair. It expands years and there’s a war going on, so you can imagine that there’s death and re-invention and love. She’s a young girl feeling things for the first time, so it’s more intense. It’s a heightened time. It’s a time of war and a time when each moment could be your last. You say goodbye to your brother and you may never see them again, and you say goodbye to your lover and you may never see them again, so that creates this tension, this conflict and this drama that is so vivid and romantic.
Family and the importance of family is a big part of this story. What was it like to explore Natasha’s family and her place in it?
JAMES: Family was just crucial. Each family within the story – the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs and the Kuragins – became a little team and we all had our own little family. Adrian Edmondson and Greta Scacchi were my parents, and they felt like my real-life parents. And the relationship that Natasha has with her brother, with her cousin, Sonya, and with her younger brother, all adds to the dynamic of who Natasha is. She loves her family and would do anything for them. And then, she falls out with her family because of her love for a man, and different men. It’s really dramatic. It’s just real life. It’s like a real family. I have two brothers and I’ve experienced similar things within my family. It’s just so modern and relevant.
Obviously, romance is a huge part of this story, too. What was it like to explore that side of Natasha? What do you think it is that makes her such a beloved romantic figure?
JAMES: In the trailer, Andrei says, “You seem to have the gift of happiness.” She has this open-hearted generosity and her spirit is just so alive and she so lives in the moment. That’s intoxicating for people around her. She’s so unique, in that respect. And she loves love. She’s a romantic. She’s desperate to fall in love and feel that passion, that burning, and that yearning. That leads her into all sorts of trouble. She’s a beautifully flawed, open young woman.
What was it like to work with James Norton, as Andrei Bolkonsky, and Paul Dano, as Pierre Bezukhov?
JAMES: It was brilliant. My three main love interests were Callum Turner, Paul Dano and James Norton. They’re just such wonderful actors, and all three of them are so different. I really respect the work that they’ve done before and admire them. It was just so easy and exciting. And then, I had a scene with Jim Broadbent, who is just the greatest. And then, I had scenes with Tuppence Middleton and Jessie Buckley. There was such a youthful cast of these young actors who are just starting out in their careers. With Jack Lowden, who plays Nikolai, I just can’t wait to see where his path leads in his career because he’s just so brilliant. I feel very lucky to have been a part of this show with this cast.
How important are the costumes and sets, when you’re telling a story like this?
JAMES: When you’re filming in Russia in Catherine’s Palace, and you’re in the real place where the Tsar’s ball really happened, all those years ago, it does so much of the work for you. It’s so vivid. You escape into this different time through the costumes, the sets and the atmosphere. When we were filming in Russia, it was just so intense. I’m so lucky that, as an actor, you get to visit these places where you’re usually confined by a red rope and you’d be going around on a tour. We got to live and exist in these rooms. There was this Russian orchestra playing as I waltzed around the room with hundreds of extras, and it was candlelit. I’m so lucky!
We’re used to seeing you in these sweeping period stories, so what was it that appealed to you about something like Baby Driver?
JAMES: Well, I was ready for something different. I think you have to keep challenging yourself, as an actor. I just love Edgar Wright’s films. I think he’s such a unique director. I don’t think there’s anyone else like him. I feel so honored, actually, to be in one of his movies, since I’ve loved all of his previous films. And I feel safe in his hands. It’s the first time I’ve done something, since the start of my career when I did a film called Fast Girls and I did Secret Diary of a Call Girl, that’s modern, and I’m playing an American part. I’m happy that he’s the one leading me.
Edgar Wright’s movies are so undefinable. How would you classify this one?
JAMES: I don’t think I can. And this one is really different, too. It’s such a brilliant script. It blows my mind. He captures all sorts of different elements in his movies. He’s so unafraid and bold. He doesn’t obey rules or try to copy things. How he shoots and the stories he tells are so crazy and exciting. I think he’s just incredible. He’s so funny. He’s been doing stuff with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost since the very start, when they did that TV show (Spaced). He’s just so good. He understands humor.
Have you started rehearsals on Romeo and Juliet?
JAMES: No, I start in April. I’m reading it, at the moment. A bit like War and Peace, it’s a gospel. I keep going over and over it because it’s such a huge task. Actually, I was going to do something else over Christmas and I decided not to do it, purely so that I had time to prepare for both Baby Driver and Romeo and Juliet. Sometimes you’re tempted to just keep working, and then you don’t give yourself any time to actually get something good.
You’re making the rounds through some really iconic female characters, but is there one you haven’t played yet and want to tackle?
JAMES: No, I think I’m up for not trying to play a literary heroine. I think I’d rather just do someone that has just been created in a script, rather than in a book that everyone knows and loves. The difficulty with it and the reason these characters are so loved is that every woman and man that reads it understands it in a different way. They’re so relatable, but different aspects will be drawn from different people. I can only show what I have received from the characters. That’s what’s scary because you’re never going to be everyone’s taste and you don’t want to let people down. But, I can only do what I can do.
What’s it like to know that you’re a part of TV history with Downton Abbey, and will that project always hold a special place in your heart?
JAMES: Yeah. It was an honor. I couldn’t believe I got cast. It’s changed my whole career and opened so many doors. I just am so grateful. It was just so exciting to be a part of that ride and to be involved with something that was such a cultural phenomenon. No one expected that to happen to that show. It was just funny, really, to be swept up in it all for awhile. I will always treasure that show. That phone call, when I found out I got the part, was just insane. I knocked over a drink and ran out to the street. I was like, “Are you sure?! Are you absolutely positive?!” And it reminds me of War and Peace. It feels to me that it’s got the same elements and ingredients to be something really special.
What was Tom Harper like, as a director? Taking on all of War and Peace like he did, how was he to work with on set?
JAMES: Tom is remarkable, and I can’t wait to work with him again. I never heard him raise his voice and I never saw him look stressed. He commanded this show. He directed every episode. He was there every single day for six months, across countries, across seasons, and across hundreds of different actors. It’s mind-boggling. And he’s so emotionally in tune. Tolstoy understand a 13-year-old girl, Andrew Davies did and so did Tom Harper, even though he’s got two boys. I trusted him completely. He had a really good sense of the characters’ emotional journey, and also the scale of epic that War and Peace needs with the wide shots that make you feel like, “Woah!” Otherwise, what’s the point?
What will you take from this experience, embodying this character?
JAMES: I learned a lot about myself through playing Natasha. She’s so hard on herself. She tortures herself, and I’m quite similar. That’s my 2016 resolution. I need to stop torturing myself. Me and Aisling, who plays Sonya, had this last scene where we were singing out on the balcony and I talk about being in love with Andrei. When the scene finished, we both cried. I’ve never really felt a sense of achievement like I did when I finished this because it was such a huge journey. I was also doing press for Cinderella at the same time, which was this other momentous moment in my life.
The cool thing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that you get to play the literary character Elizabeth Bennet, but she also gets to become an action hero. Now that you’ve had a taste of that, do you want to explore more physical roles?
JAMES: I am absolutely desperate to do an action movie. And not to blow my own trumpet or anything, but I actually think I’m good at it. I did it all. I was really into the routines and the choreography. I used to dance when I was younger, and so I think that came in handy. I loved getting to beat the crap out of people, yield two swords, chop heads of, and beat up Darcy. It was brilliant to be in a movie where the girls push past the men and kick the crap out of people, rather than the other way around. Liz Bennet is one of the most incredible characters, and she’s so conflicted inside. She wants to let out how unsatisfied she feels within about what a woman’s destiny is, at that time, but rather than have it be so internal, it becomes external because she fights. That’s her way of letting out that frustration. It’s a very different Liz Bennet to the ones you’ve seen before. She’s very angry.
War and Peace premieres simultaneously on Lifetime, A&E and History on January 18th and will continue for three more weeks.