Lily James is having a moment right now. Even if you’ve somehow missed the phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, you would have to have been living under a rock this past year to miss the buzz surrounding this young actress. From the controversy over her tiny waist in Cinderella, to her beautiful portrayal of Natasha Rostov in the critically acclaimed BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s literary classic War and Peace, to her budding romance with fellow Brit actor Matt Smith, aka Doctor Who, it seems hardly a week goes by when she isn’t making headlines.
When we meet, she’s in the middle of a four-month stint on stage in London’s West End, taking on yet another iconic role: the female lead in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Richard Madden – best known as Game of Thrones’ Robb Stark – plays Romeo to her Juliet, and Kenneth Branagh steps out as director. Having worked with both men on Cinderella, it’s a familiar crowd for James, which one can’t help but hope takes the pressure off somewhat, as she seems to be one of the busiest people in showbiz. Several projects are either in process or about to be released, War & Peace has just finished airing, she’s on stage eight times a week for four months, and she’s just been announced as the new face of Burberry’s fragrances. It’s a wonder she finds time for a personal life, but then again dating a Time Lord must have its benefits.
Not that she’s complaining. Despite being on voice rest (she sings in Romeo & Juliet, as with many of her other roles), any fears of a quiet interview and quick answers are allayed within a few minutes of meeting her. Warm and chatty, she makes it easy to forget she’s a serious rising star. Her speech is peppered with laughter, a chuckle that verges on the dirty, but with an undercurrent of nervousness that makes it truly endearing. She has a habit of wistfully repeating questions after they’re asked, as if she’s really invested in giving the best possible answer.
As the new face of Burberry fragrances – and the spokesperson for the newly launched My Burberry Black – she’s following in the footsteps of British style icons Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss. Though James differs in a lot of ways from her predecessors, she also represents many of the same things that Moss and Delevingne do, in particular an authenticity that resonates with women. “They’re both genuine people and they’re very real,” says James, “and I’d hope that would be true of myself.” Added to this is a sense of humour, which James sees as inherently British. “I feel there’s a sensibility of getting on with stuff and taking the piss out of stuff,” she says of fellow Brits. “It makes me happy.”
As chief creative officer of Burberry, Christopher Bailey has been on a mission to seek out the best emerging talent from the UK, and has proved time and again that he has the eye for it, as James is quick to point out. “I really respect [Christopher] ... He has an eye for talent and I felt really honoured considering the people who have been a part of the brand, you know: Felicity Jones, Emma Watson, Eddie Redmayne ... the list is endless.
”It feels bloody brilliant!” enthuses the actress. “I feel very English and very proud to be British, and I love Burberry. I always have. It’s been a part of my subconscious, you know. Growing up I remember the boys I used to fancy would have Burberry caps on with the full print. I feel very lucky and it does feel like a good fit.”
Beauty is also a good fit for James, not just because she’s beautiful, but because it’s something she loves. When asked if it’s true that she does her own make-up for Romeo & Juliet, she readily confirms. “For Juliet, yes I do. I use the Burberry make-up actually, because it’s really easy to put on. Like the Face Contour pen – have you used those? You just draw it on and rub it into your skin and it feels really natural and kind of effortless.” In fact, she doesn’t stop with her own face when it comes to indulging her love of cosmetics. "I’m always spritzing myself, and other people as well ... when I went home this weekend I was like, 'Mum, try this!'" She giggles as she re-enacts the frantic assault on her mother.
Mention British beauty and the concept of the English Rose will inevitably arise, so it’s no surprise that this phrase has been applied to Lily James on numerous occasions. But what, in her opinion, defines British beauty? “I think the idea of the English Rose is still really at the core, it’s sort of like an effortless beauty and often an effortless sexiness that’s not too considered,” she muses. ‘I think there’s a coolness, though. I mean, Cara Delevingne is a great example – kind of a boldness of character and air – and I think a sort of sensuality comes out.” Sensuality is one of the things that attracted her to My Burberry Black, and the campaign – shot by legendary photographer Mario Testino – reveals an intense, seductive side to James that many of us haven’t seen before. As she gets older, she says, she’s becoming more confident in her body, embracing her sexiness. “I’m leaving Cinderella behind,” she says.
The shoot, she explains, seemed more like acting than modelling, as Bailey and Testino encouraged her to explore different sides of herself, embodying the different personalities of each fragrance.
It’s all in a day’s work for the actress. In War & Peace, her character Natasha grows from a carefree ingénue into a strong woman completely aware of herself. Her Cinderella was gorgeous; in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies her Lizzie Bennett was deliciously badass. Reviews cite her as the standout in Romeo & Juliet. Does she ever feel the pressure of taking on such iconic roles? “People love these characters, they have their own ideas of them. You’re never going to please everyone, it’s impossible, so I think it’s an even greater feat when everyone knows the person. I just played an American waitress and it was set now and it was total heaven because I could just be more myself and very relaxed and modern. The roles I’ve been playing, even though in some ways they’re so modern – they’re classics because they’re these women that have stood the test of time because of their brilliance and their flaws, their humanity – it’s fun to just be a bit more chill and sort of naturalistic. I’m trying to go for less iconic roles for the time being.”
Is there any role she’d really love to play? “I would love to be a singer, like Reese Witherspoon did in Walk The Line. I think Amy Adams is doing Janis Joplin, which would be amazing. Maybe Carole King ...” She can’t reveal her next big project – all she can say is that it’s with a director she’s admired “forever” and that she’s very excited.
With that, it’s time to go, and all that’s left is to wish her luck for tonight’s performance.