• Director Kenneth Branagh had a long list of qualities he wanted in Cinderella.
• James’ chemistry with Richard Madden was instant.
• As a child, James’ favorite princess was the spirited Belle.
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These days, life has a fairytale feel for Lily James.
The British actress had spent most of her young acting life in smaller roles, from films like “Wrath of the Titans” and the TV shows “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” and “Just William.” Then two big breaks came her way.
She was cast as the spunky Lady Rose in “Downton Abbey,” a series that has been a massive hit for the BBC and PBS. In the middle of all that attention, she landed a film role that has turned her into a movie star.
She plays “Cinderella” in the new live-action film about a young girl with a good heart, a stepmother with a lust for power and a prince with a shoe obsession.
“I’m here, in L.A., with my mum and my brothers. Tonight, there’s this Hollywood premiere and so all of that really, truly feels like a fairytale,” James says. “A role like this has all this magic around it because it’s Disney. It’s a princess. It’s a fairytale. I feel so, so lucky.”
She credits director Kenneth Branagh. He could have made the story cheesy with its mice, transforming lizards and a fairy godmother who is a few handfuls of pixie dust short of a spell. But he made the film a sweet love story.
Branagh feels lucky to have found James. Cinderella had to be witty, smart and sharp, but not cruel. Inner and outer beauty were musts.
He saw all of that when James auditioned.
She sees “Cinderella” as a story about two people from different backgrounds who meet and fall in love. She laughs and says it was easy to be lovestruck by Richard Madden, who is both as charming as his prince and “a little bit naughty.”
The pair got along from the first day. James was impressed that when she burped in his face after drinking a warm soda too fast, he was not offended.
“I think when people are doing a love story the work can get complicated. But, this was so uncomplicated,” James says. “We were just good friends and that made it easy to do the scenes.”
Another thing that made the work so easy was the beautiful wardrobe. James’ favorite dress was the pink gown Cinderella sews from one of her mother’s gowns.
Although she considers Cinderella a role of a lifetime, as a child she identified with Belle from “Beauty and the Beast.”
“I also liked Belle’s spirit of adventure and wanting more. Growing up, I liked the characters who dreamed more and wanted more,” James says.
But, she didn’t limit herself to Belle. Her grandmother made her princess outfits to wear around the house.
The greatest challenge of playing Cinderella ended up being the pressure she put on herself.
“It wasn’t just a fear of ruining Cinderella for everyone in the world, because everybody has such a clear image of her whether it’s from the storybook world, their imagination or the animation,” James says. “I think every little girl wants to be a princess but the reality of actually doing it, and believing you can do it, that was the challenge.
“I ended up not thinking of her as a princess, but simply as Ella.”