LOS ANGELES — It hits you as soon as Lily James walks into the room: The star of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” looks like she has been whisked out of the 19th century by some form of time traveler, wrapped in modern garments and deposited in the 21st century. The look has worked for her on the TV show “Downton Abbey” and the film “Cinderella.”
It also makes her the right choice to play Elizabeth Bennet in the twisted version of the Jane Austen novel as written by Seth Grahame-Smith. James looks like she and Austen could have been best of chums.
James read both “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and Austen’s original novel before being cast as the liveliest Bennet daughter.
“I studied ‘Pride and Prejudice’ when I was at school. It is part of every English girl’s curriculum,” says James, who was born in Esher, Surrey, England.
Growing up in England gave James a multitude of opportunities to see film and TV productions of “Pride and Prejudice.” She wasn’t interested in being part of another standard production of the novel. This version goes markedly nonstandard by throwing in a load of brain-eating zombies.
James loved the idea of adding the zombies. She also liked that the five Bennet sisters were no longer reduced to waiting for love and are fierce warriors.
To prepare for the physical demands of the role, James did a lot of boxing to get into shape.
“I go through phases of exercising a lot and not,” James says. “I just had to get strong and fit. So I did boxing and some martial arts type training. We did a lot of training together and it helped as we became a lot like sisters.”
That ended up being an important time for James and the other actors playing the Bennet sisters — Bella Heathcote, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady and Suki Waterhouse — to spend time together. The filming schedule was so hectic they had few other opportunities to get together.
Until the last two years, James had spent most of her career doing smaller roles, with 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.” In the middle of all that attention, she landed a film role that turned her into a movie star: She was “Cinderella” in the live-action Disney film.
James was drawn to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” because of Elizabeth.
“She’s just the coolest character and she is so strong, independent and quick thinking,” James says. “Immediately, I wanted to play Liz Bennet, but then in this new form it was fun.”
James embarrassingly admits that she got so into the fight scenes that she ended up bruising co-star Sam Riley, who plays Mr. Darcy, during their big fight sequence.
After this unique performance, James is playing a more traditional heroine in the cable version of “War &Peace” for Lifetime, A&E and History. She plays Natasha Rostova alongside co-stars Paul Dano, James Norton, Jim Broadbent and Gillian Anderson.
The TV production was filmed early in 2015, while “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” was shot in 2014. The delay in getting the feature film to theaters was due to the special effects.
James is looking forward to watching the entire “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” film. On the night she was supposed to see it, she left in the middle because she was nervous watching her own work for the first time: “I just left and had a glass of champagne.”