When Cinderella star Lily James was young, she was a fan of all things Disney princesses. She surely never dreamt that she would grow up to play one of the most iconic of the group.
“I 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,” she told Movie Fanatic recently.
The Downton Abbey standout didn’t even plan on being the title character when she auditioned for director Kenneth Branagh. “I didn’t still want to be a princess because I originally auditioned for one of the stepsisters. Once I started reading Ella and being her, I was totally desperate to play her.”
As you can tell from that first Cinderella trailer, this is not your parents’ Cinderella. She would be fine if no prince came knocking on her door. That was one of many big appealing aspects of joining the Disney live action version of their 1950 animated classic.
“They rescue each other. They meet as equals. They don’t know who each other are,” James said of the relationship portrayed in the 2015 Cinderella.
“The opening scene of the animated movie is A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes. And the sentiment of that I love, that dreaming can take you away from your life and you can escape. But the idea of, oh, I want to marry that prince! That’s bullshit,” James admitted.
“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 too. So I hope that is what’s received from it.”
Something that is so clear in James’ performance is that the physical magic that the animated film painted of Cinderella, she impeccably captures in live action. This is a character that is incredibly poised. “That 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,” James said.
“There’s a moment where she cries by the well and her back undulates. Without seeing her face, you can feel her grief. In the film I tried to like basically exactly mimic that moment -- which was the only time I mimicked.”
Another joy (among so many) for James making Cinderella was the company she would keep. Cate Blanchett stars as her wicked stepmother and Helena Bonham Carter could not be a better choice to be her fairy godmother.
“It was an unbelievable, very surreal experience. And I’m so grateful. Cate, I think she’s one of the great, great actresses of all time. So to do scenes with her was in a way easy because she gives you so much,” James said.
“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.”
She was shocked to learn that both legendary UK actresses shared a trait that she did not expect. “Helena is one of the coolest, kindest women I’ve ever met. We had so much fun and her spirit -- 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,” James said.
“Great actors and actresses are like that. Helena would mix it up. She does it different every time. It came at a point when in night shoots, I was exhausted. I was trippy. We had to shoot through the night. It was freezing cold. We were outside. And the point in the story where Ella even says, ‘I don’t believe anymore,’ like she’s almost given up hope -- then Helena came. It was like this bright light over the horizon.”
Then, there’s the education and honor that is being directed by one of the most highly trained and revered actor-directors today, Branagh (see his recent work and watch Thor online).
“I’ve never had it quite like it before because I trusted him completely, which is the most scary feeling because you sort of go, okay, I’m giving over to this director and I believe in you. But it’s also the most freeing experience because I felt like I could do anything and he was guiding through. He directs with such heart and such warmth,” James said.
“He’s very clear and specific and right from my first audition, how he spoke about Ella and how he wanted her to be. He always talked about, where does her goodness come from? It can’t just be abstract. Why is she this girl and does it cost her? How does she maintain this goodness? He’s such a remarkable director. And I think it’s because he’s a remarkable actor. So he knows. He brings both to the day and to the set.”
To truly bring Cinderella into a new century, James reported that she also went back and watched all the Disney princesses -- so that it would still feel like an evolution. "It’s amazing how they changed and they have become more modern right up until Frozen. I felt like I wanted a lot of Belle and of Ariel. I’m such a geek now with princesses,” she said and laughed.
“They desire more in life. They want to explore. They want to daydream. I feel like that spirit of princesses, that they’re great role models. They’re great inspirations for kids. They don’t settle. Whereas I think Cinderella, the criticism of this girl just waiting for a prince to save her, we wanted to like chuck that out and not have that dominate in our film. I tried to take flavors from all of the princesses but keep the overriding sensation of Ella which is that she is a kind, good person that is able to be happy in a cruel environment because of it -- and that it is a super power.”