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Lily James: 'I got sucked into the vortex. I didn't know which way to turn'

Sophie Heawood
·12 min read

The problem with trying to be an actor but also trying to stay sane, says Lily James, is that you need a really thin skin to do the work, and a very thick one to withstand the rejection or the criticism. “You have to let everything affect you, everything hit your nerves, so you can perform. So it feels as if you’re constantly trying to guard yourself or let people in, put walls up or break them down. Your roots are often being ripped out and put somewhere else, so it’s sometimes harder to feel that stability in life which… yeah.”

She trails off, taking a sip of her tea as we sit in the drizzly garden of the Somerset hotel where she’s staying, having decided she can keep her mask off as we are outside, at opposite ends of a table. She’s dressed in civvies: baggy dark green trousers that would vanish you in a forest, her hair its natural brown, a star who could hide in plain sight. Far enough into fame, after a decade in the business, to know how to hold some of herself back, but young enough (at only 31) to still want to give it all away.

Yet even this level of socialising is a stretch, as she’s currently shooting The Pursuit Of Love, an adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s 1945 comic novel, for the BBC and living in a bubble with the rest of the crew, who are all regularly tested for Covid. She seems as if she’s trying not to say anything too bleak; perhaps it would come as too much of a surprise from the sunny face with the megawatt smile who played the younger, carefree version of Meryl Streep’s Donna Sheridan in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, as well as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. There is a quiet confidence to her roles; a youthful lightness that belies a certain precision – from Cinderella in Kenneth Branagh’s highest-grossing directorial hit, to Churchill’s secretary in Darkest Hour, and Natasha in the BBC’s epic War And Peace.

The thing is, though, we’re here to discuss Rebecca, which James finished shooting “before the world fell apart”. It’s the new film of the Daphne du Maurier gothic thriller, in which James plays Mrs de Winter, the naive new bride of a wealthy man whose first wife died in mysterious circumstances. First made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, and now by the cult British director Ben Wheatley, it reveals that things lost at sea can come back to haunt you – and it appears to have soaked her thin skin right through.

“Towards the end of making it, I started getting this thing where my heart was beating so loudly that you could hear it. It’s really scary. All of a sudden, you become very, very aware of your heartbeat and you can feel it going really fast,” she explains, adding that Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays her devastating nemesis Mrs Danvers, told her that she started suffering the same thing at about her age. “And when you look at the psychological aspect of the book, and the darkness and the twistedness in it, it suddenly made sense.” Her character, a rich woman’s companion who has been plucked from service into a romance with a high society man in his creepy mansion, “doesn’t know whether she’s in a dream or a nightmare”.

Du Maurier’s story leaves itself open to many interpretations, and James plays de Winter as a shy girl transformed into a bold woman upon discovering information that would surely destroy someone else. She says that even among the film’s producers and cast, “people felt differently about it – there were so many readings”; she stresses that it’s very important that the film must be able to “keep those difficult areas and let people decide whether it’s a great love story, or whether it’s about an abuser and a victim.”

The mindset of the character really got under my skin – the insecurities, the paranoia

(She adds, later, that “with art and life, it’s never black and white, is it? Everything happens in the grey area, and in the colour. I think conversations about things that are difficult can become very much one side versus the other. We’re in a time where I feel things become very moralistic, and then it’s very difficult to explore around the edges.”)

But the book itself had really dragged her in: “I think I got a bit sucked into the vortex. I didn’t know which way to turn at times. It was the mindset of the character: it really got under my skin – the insecurities, the questioning herself and the paranoia. I think I let that overtake me a bit sometimes.”

I ask if she went home at night feeling nervy. “I did,” she admits. “And I didn’t know who to trust. It was creepy but it was also… I don’t know what was coinciding at the time.”

Lily James with ex-boyfriend Matt Smith in Hollywood, California, 2018
James with ex-boyfriend Matt Smith in California, 2018. Photograph: Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Netflix

She won’t be drawn on her love life, but it does seem that her long-term relationship with the actor Matt Smith (the Doctor, and Prince Philip in The Crown) came to an end somewhere around this period. There are rumours that she had a fling with the actor Chris Evans (Captain America) but she’s far too sensible to tell me, and claims to have spent the summer on her own, at home in London, reading poetry aloud and watching films. What, all of it, entirely alone? Really?

She laughs, a somewhat suggestive smile passing over her lips. “No comment,” she says. Then she mutters, “I couldn’t confess to breaking laws, you know.”

Lily James grew up in Surrey, with an actor mother and musician father, neither particularly well-known, and attended the independent Tring Park School for the Performing Arts. (She remains best friends with the gang of eight kids she met there, aged 11.) When she was 18, her father died of cancer; when she went on to attend the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, she took his first name, James, to replace her real surname, Thomson, in his memory.

After drama school, she says, “there was a period of time where I was doing auditions and I wasn’t ever quite sealing the deal. I would get so nervous I had to wear a polo neck because I’d come up in this huge rash on my neck. I get it when I’m excited, or turned on, or anything, it’s ridiculous. But instead of trying to pick me apart, my agent just gave me a pile of books and a list of movies, and told me these were the women I should be reading about, or the stories I could tell – the fuel. Rather than bog me down in the practicalities or intricacies of actually, you know, how to get a job or how to be. And one of the books was The Pursuit Of Love.”

So she was delighted when Emily Mortimer, who has written the adaptation and is directing it, cast her as the “fearless feminist” Linda Radlett in the new version, which is a BBC co-production with Amazon Prime. Linda is in pursuit of a husband, by partying all over Europe. Set between the two world wars, it is currently shooting in lush period locations in Somerset and Oxford, with a cast Mortimer appears to have chosen for their shaggability: Dominic West (of whom more later), Andrew Scott et al. One scene, already previewed in the Daily Mail’s showbiz pages, features James and her co-star Emily Beecham apparently gleefully naked and leggy in a bath together. Set to be screened this winter, it might just save the nation from second lockdown despair.

It took a while for filming to warm up, because of Covid restrictions. The actors remove their masks to shoot their scenes; if the script requires kissing, then they kiss. But the rest of the time, there is a “sort of Covid policeman called Ollie who goes around the set saying, ‘Mask on!’ He manages to do it with some humour, thank God, but when you suddenly see someone smile, you’re like, ‘Wow, hi!’” The cast are tested twice a week, and if they have to leave their filming bubble, they must then isolate for a week before they can re-enter it.

I ask about her co-stars: she says Scott is wonderful and playing someone “totally different” from the Hot Priest character in Fleabag, while she and Dominic West go back a decade to her first play, Othello, in which she played Desdemona to his Iago. “So I’ve known him a really long time. He’s a brilliant Uncle Matthew, another mad sort of character. I have a great line in it where I say, ‘Matthew is frightening and I disapprove of him, but I feel he sets the bar for English manhood.’” She smiles with some relish. “What a great line.” A few weeks after we meet, the tabloids go to town over photographs of James and West sharing a scooter and embracing in Rome. They go to town again when West flies home to appear in front of photographers with his wife and a handwritten note, insisting “our marriage is strong”. James declined to comment.

I love the humour and banter on set. But it takes a lot longer to get to know people when everyone’s in masks

Usually, a film or TV production is a place of rapid friendships for James, “with the sort of humour and banter that develops on set. I love that camaraderie.” They have that now (she is clearly loving this experience a lot more than Rebecca) “but it takes a lot longer to get to know people when everyone is wearing masks. And I’m really paranoid now because we’re nearing the end of it, and I just don’t want it to fall apart.”

A US TV show in which she was going to be the “most unlikely character you could imagine me playing” is on hold for now; she can’t tell me any more about it because she’s praying it will restart. Like most people, she misses normal life. “I really miss going to the cinema, but dancing in some sort of club is what I miss the most. When you’re in a dark room and you’re losing yourself in dance with a group of people – I do think that is one of the best feelings. It feels quite a religious experience, for me, something tribal,” she says. A lot of her lockdown viewing was chosen from Edgar Wright’s list of his 1,000 favourite films (she played the getaway driver’s girlfriend in his film Baby Driver), and when crowd scenes came on, she would gasp.

“You just think, when am I going to be sweaty, dancing next to someone? When am I going to be sort-of-not wanting to be groped again?” She laughs. As an actor she is also duty bound to say she misses crowded theatres, “being in a dark room watching a play, if it’s good – but often it’s not.” Though one theatre-maker she loves is the young Australian Simon Stone, who directed the Young Vic’s Yerma with Billie Piper, and with whom she has made a “deeply beautiful” Netflix film called The Dig, which has yet to be released.

She recalls making Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again in what feels like a different world. “It was one of the happiest times in my life, living on an island and singing and dancing with the most wonderful group of people.” The experience was not without awkwardness, though, due to the slight issue of being cast as the junior incarnation of an actor with 21 Oscar nominations (and three wins) to her name. “Trying to say in a sentence: ‘I’m playing the young version of Meryl Streep’? That bit, I sort of winced at.”

We talk about the state of the world now, in particular the QAnon conspiracy theory, which has people believing that Hillary Clinton and Oprah and Obama “are all part of the thing where they drink babies’ blood. All on Epstein’s jet. I mean, if I read it for long enough – and also I’m horribly gullible and horribly easy to convince, so if someone talked to me passionately about it – I’d probably go, OK, yeah, absolutely.”

Related: Call me by my dead wife's name: can Netflix persuade us we need another Rebecca?

I find this hard to believe – surely she couldn’t? – but the more she explains her life, the more she turns out to be rather astonishingly available to strangers. There’s not just the shamanic healing that she does “over Zoom, with music and drumming and a healer who has led me through all these different rooms in my brain where I had all these messages: I met my grandmother’s dog Dylan, who taught me to laugh.” Or the time she walked past a fortune-teller on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, “and she came up to me and” – James almost shrieks at the memory – “she said some shit to me that was so right, it was terrifying. But immediately the person I was with said, ‘Come on, Lily, she knows who you are’ which was true, maybe.”

Does she think she absorbs the energy given off by other people, and does that help as an actor? She says yes, but that it can be a hindrance, too. “I think great actors take it and transform it into something new and, I don’t know, sometimes I think I’m too… almost submissive in that way.” Because she’s so influenced by the characters she plays, she says, “it’s weird to wonder if I’d be a different person if I hadn’t played them. That’s quite a depressing thought, actually. You have to have a greater sense of self, which I suppose I’m working on.”

At this point an unexpected pile of cakes appears, which it transpires James has secretly ordered, knowing I had a horrible journey to the interview and might need perking up. It reminds me of the way her characters can sometimes subtly and crisply deliver a whole new angle you didn’t see coming – pivoting, for instance, from dismissable secretary to Churchill’s secret weapon in Darkest Hour. She says she’s gullible, and perhaps she is. But I think Lily James knows exactly what she’s doing.

• Rebecca is out now on Netflix.