She may be best known for playing ladies with clipped upper-class various corseted heroines and one of the most beloved fairy-tale princesses, but in person, Lily James is as down-to-earth as one could get. She turns up at our shoot on a grey English morning with nary an entourage, offering apologies to everyone on set for running late (of course we forgive her; the location is an hour outside of London). In Burberry’s classic trench coat and silk pyjama pants fresh off the runway from the night before, James is the picture of nonchalant cool. She kicks off her sneakers the moment she sits in the makeup chair and gamely obliges as we change up her look and try different hairstyles on her. We speak to the star of Burberry’s latest My Burberry Black fragrance campaign about the red carpet, personal style and her freakish spirit animal.
Congratulations on joining the Burberry family. How has it been?
It’s been such an incredible moment! I’m so proud and honoured to be part of such an incredible brand. The show at Makers House was so bold and beautiful and innovative. The wonderful thing about this partnership is that Burberry is so British. At the show, there was the classical music, the garden, the fairy lights, and all those statues and carpets and drapes – it just felt so English! I could feel very much a part of that.
Has fashion always been a big part of your life?
When I was younger, my mom used to let me dress myself, and all the other moms would be shocked when I went to school because everything would be multicoloured and clashing. I’ve always enjoyed dressing up; it’s only recently that I got more into fashion and my eyes were opened to these incredible designers. I’ve been lucky enough to work with them and wear their clothes on the red carpet, so that’s been a real pleasure.
Does the red carpet process pressure you at all?
It does stress me out! The Burberry show was my first big London show and I felt so nervous. I think I was more nervous than when I’m acting because everyone’s looking at you. The cameras were flashing, and I got nervous and red and sweaty – but now I really do enjoy it. At first, I found it daunting but I’ve got a great stylist and I’ve learned how to make it as unstressful as possible.
What’s your relationship with your stylist like?
She’s so clever at picking things that are your vibe and your style. We are so in tune now so she’s able to guess which looks I am going to pick. She helped me develop my sense of style. She’s the link between the designers and me, and she brings everything together but it’s still kind of my own style.
And how would you describe your style?
Quite laid back; I like to feel effortless when I dress. I don’t like to be too done up but I still like to look quite chic and cool. On a good day, anyway!
How different was it working on a campaign for a big fashion house compared to a movie?
It was a similar process in a way, but it was actually on a much bigger scale than a lot of the films I’ve done. We were in this massive warehouse with all the lights and music. But I didn’t really want to play a character; I just wanted to emphasise certain qualities – I wanted to feel confident and sensual because that’s the My Burberry Black woman – someone who’s really confident in her own skin.
How did you catch the acting bug?
I started acting really young. There are videos of me at five doing these weird poems and my brother going “Shut up, Lily!” My dad used to read us stories like the Harry Potter books. [The acting bug] was just always around in my household with my dad singing and telling stories, and my grandmother being an actress.
What’s the most satisfying thing about acting?
It’s probably when all the actors come together and something happens, and it feels really alive and you feel like you’re telling a story. That collaborative feeling between actors and directors is really special; it’s addictive and that’s why you keep recreating these parallel worlds.
Do you watch yourself?
I do at the moment because I’m still trying to learn from all my many mistakes but I do find it an uncomfortable process, which is why a lot of actors don’t. I think maybe one day I won’t. If people are still hiring me then I won’t (laughs).
What about reviews?
When I’m doing a play, I never read reviews. I’ve had advice from lots of amazing actors who’ve said “don’t go near them”. Sometimes with films, I do have a look later on, but I try to stay away from them because you really only remember the bad stuff.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing Joe Wright’s next movie which is called The Darkest Hour. It’s about Winston Churchill and it has an amazing cast. I’m a typist in that film so I’ve just started to learn how to type. My typewriter is actually here somewhere. They just gave it to me yesterday!
Do you see yourself branching out into something else?
I think one day, I’d like to direct. I have often longed for more female directors and I like trying to think about things like where the cameras should be. A few times, I’ve been very proud of suggesting some shots that ended up being used. But I think it’ll be a long time before I feel confident enough.
From Downton Abbey to Cinderella, your most prominent roles have had a particular sense of girliness. Do you ever find yourself wishing to play against that type?
I do. I think it’s because people first saw me as this sort of naughty girl and they cast you assuming that’s how you’re like. That’s definitely not what I’m like all the time, so I’m looking forward to going down a different alley. I would love to play something different and contemporary – maybe a bit of a badass, like a crazy single psychopathic, junkie mom! (laughs)
Ever think of moving to Hollywood?
I think I will spend more time in L.A. in the future; there’s a wider scope of projects there. A lot of the stuff here seems to be period dramas (laughs). If I was going to move, I think I’d go to New York. I love it there; the whole theatre vibe – I think that might suit me better, but I do like the sunshine and the yoga and the beaches in L.A.. For now, I’m staying put; I really love London.
What’s one thing that people are often surprised to find out about you?
Maybe I’m more solitary than people might think? Obviously for our work, when you’re doing press and promoting something, you have to be very gregarious and open and chatty. I think I’m less so when I’m not working.
Is there anyone you look up to?
Cate Blanchett, who is such an incredible woman and mother and actress, and she’s doing all that work helping refugees. She does theatre, she does film, and she’s so kind. I want to be as good an all-rounder as she is.
To end on a light-hearted note, what would your spirit animal be?
I just found out that if you put your eastern zodiac and your western star sign together, you get a greater… I don’t know what’s it called, a something animal (laughs)! I’m an Aries and a snake, so I’m a praying mantis! Isn’t that quite cool? Praying mantises eat their own partners though! My other spirit animal would probably be a cat, because I’m quite lazy and moody sometimes.
Photography Luc Coiffait
Styling Monica Mong
All Outfits & Accessories Burberry September Collection 2016
Makeup Nobuko Maekawa using Burberry Beauty
Hair Hiroshi Matsushita
Production Liesha Blackwood/Seventh Production
Digital Retoucher James Midwinter
Styling Assistant Jefrrey Yan
Photography Assistant Mike Hawkridge
Digital Operator Tanya Houghton