IAR INTERVIEW: Lily James Talks 'Cinderella'

Wednesday, 11 March 2015 10:40 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR INTERVIEW: Lily James Talks 'Cinderella'

This Friday, one of the most famous and enduring fairy tales gets a lavish big screen revitalization.

Disney previously adapted the seventheenth century folk tale as an animated fantasy classic sixty-five years ago, but the upcoming Cinderella marks the first time the studio has tackled the story of the glass slipper in live-action.

This new Cinderella is not, however, a revision, reinvention, or reimagining.  Instead, it's a heartfelt, straightforward retelling of a downtrodden girl's magical romance with a dashing prince, infusing an old story with the unprecedented spectacle of modern blockbuster filmmaking.

The film is already critically acclaimed, and all the CG spectacle and gorgeous sets wouldn't matter if critics and audiences weren't responding to the core of the Cinderella story: Cinderella herself.

Lily James stars as the heroine, called Ella in the new movie.  Best known as Lady Rose MacClare on the hit British series Downton Abbey, James breaks out as a full-blown movie star in Cinderella, bringing the title character to living, breathing life in a way that not even the finest animation can quite match and anchoring all the romance, pumpkin carriages, and ceremonial balls in a real, relatable humanity.

At the Los Angeles press day, Lily James star down with IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick and various other entertainment journalists to discuss Disney's Cinderella.  The actress enthusiastically talked about her history with fictitious princesses, the influence of animation, dancing in a hugely impractical ballgown, acting against living legends Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter, working with director Kenneth Branagh, and how her take on Cinderella dispenses with outmoded concepts of gender.

"I love princesses. My grandmother made me a Princess Jasmine outfit, which was all see-through and bit weird for a seven year-old. I had little plastic princess slippers. I really loved princesses growing up. I was one of those girls but then I had two brothers knocking me off my post a bit. Thank God," James said with a laugh. "But I didn’t always want to be a princess when I grew up. I auditioned for one of the step sisters but once I started reading Ella and being her, I was totally desperate to be her."

Though she grew up on princesses from Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, she drew inspiration for Ella from Disney's 1950 Cinderella, saying, "one of the things I wanted to take from the animation was her grace and that ease and that movement. But I wanted it to feel real, I didn’t want it to seem like she was this ballet dancer prancing about. I love the physicality in the film. There is a moment where she cries by the well with her hands in her face and without seeing her face you can feel her grief.  In the film, I tried to basically exactly mimic that moment.

Unlike many other Disney princesses, Cinderella spends lots of time being harangued while scrubbing floors and doing laundry.  As such, said James, "being Ella I felt like she was just a normal girl.  But being the princess I was like 'God, Holy crap, how am I going to do it?' Then the dress was this suit of armor and I felt transformed and I felt so confident in the dress that it made me forget all of my own insecurities."

The dress to which she referred to wreaked logistical havoc shooting the enchanted ballroom dance Ella shares with her Prince Charming, played by Richard Madden (Game of Thrones).

During rehearsals, James recalled, "I was in tracksuit bottoms and a little strappy top and Richard the same, in a strappy top too. We were practicing for months and every weekend we went to Pinewood Studios in London where we had these amazing teachers and with Rob Ashworth, the chorographer.  We were getting really smug and we thought we were getting really good at it.  And then suddenly, we were like, 'Oh, the dress!' I put it on and I had a complete nervous breakdown.  'This is never going to happen!' And that was just the cage, that wasn’t even the twelve layers of material and silk, which basically ripped when you looked at it.  Then I had the corset, which meant I could only breathe from up here and the dance was quite long and athletic. Somehow, Disney magic, I don’t know but it worked and it all came together. We had to change bits and Richard had to basically ice-skate, because if you picked up his feet, he would step on the skirt.  He had to go to the gym because to lift me in that dress was really hard!"

"There were definitely casualties and the costume designer had to make different length skirts," she continued. "Sometimes I wouldn’t have the skirt on if it was a high shot, I would just have leggings on.  It was so good to do but it was really hard and you would turn and five minutes later the skirt would catch up with you and like hit me in the face.  (Laughs) And I would try to look like I’m really enjoying it!  Actually towards the end we did it a few times from start to finish from me arriving on the top step of the ball to running off, and we did it seamlessly without stopping, I didn’t remember any pain. It felt like I was falling in love. It was really magical."

The implications of that extravagant dress weren't limited to dancing: the waist-cinching corset. "In the blue dress it was designed that it was really pulled in at the waist but because the skirt is so big, it’s almost an illusion. It looks way smaller than it is. I would untie it in all the breaks and stuff but that is the nature of corsets. I’ve done loads of period filming and it’s the same throughout. It isn’t really any different," said James.

"It was tight and during lunchtime I would untie so I could eat, but I would snack on soup so it would go down.  Diet cokes is my only way of getting through filming because I get so tired and I would get the sugar rush! It was like the symphony of burps," she joked.

Apparently the corset didn't effect the actress's ability to sing in front of the camera.  While Cinderella isn't a full-blown musical, James does sing in the film.

"I love singing so much and as a kid that was what I wanted to do and I loved princesses who were singing," she said. "But then I got out of practice and my voice was all husky, so I was so excited to get to sing in this. I loved it. I had the best day. Ken (Branagh) was filming in the Baltic somewhere and he had Skype and so he was there for me while I recorded the song giving me notes over Skype."

The villain, Ella's stepmother, is played by two-time Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine).  Acting with Blanchett, James said, "was an unbelievable, very surreal experience. I think Cate is one of the greatest actresses of all time.  So to do scenes with her was in a way easier because she gives you so much.  For her stepmother there was this whole life and history that went on inside her eyes, so it was just so exciting. It felt so layered and multi-dimensional. I loved doing the scenes with her so much."

The saintly yin to the stepmother's evil yang, Ella's Fairy Godmother, meanwhile, is played by two-time Oscar-nominee Helena Bonham Carter (Les Miserables). "Helena is one of the coolest, kindest women I have ever met. We had so much fun. Helena would mix it up, she does it different every time.  She improvises and I loved her fairy godmother," James said.

Kenneth Branagh (Thor) is a top-tier director, but he is also a Shakespearean actor, which James said informed his approach to creating Ella as a character.

"He directs with such heart and such warmth and he’s very clear and specific and right from my first audition, how he spoke about Ella and how he wanted her to be," she explained. "He always talked about where does her goodness come from, it can’t just be this abstract, she’s a princess and therefore she’s good and sweet and doe-eyed and floats around on clouds. Why is she this girl and does it cost her and how does she maintain this goodness?"

Part of Branagh's conception of Ella involved dispensing with the fairy tale's character waiting on her beloved Prince to rescue her from her downtrodden existence.  In this take on the story, James said, "They rescue each other. They meet as equals.

"I watched all of the Disney princess movies and it’s amazing how they changed and how they have become more modern, right up until Frozen. I felt like I wanted a lot of Belle and a lot of Ariel, I’m such a geek now with princesses, that desire for more in life, to want to explore and to want to daydream. I feel like that spirit of princesses are great role models," she concluded. "They are great inspirations for kids because they don’t settle. Where I think with Cinderella, the criticism of this girl waiting for a prince to save her, we wanted to chuck that out and not have that dominating our film. I tried to take flavors from all of the princesses.  But to keep the overriding sensation of Ella, which was that she is this kind, good person, that is able to be happy in a cruel environment and that is a superpower."

Check out IAR's exclusive interview with Cinderella director Kenneth Branagh right here.

Cinderella opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, March 13th.

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