Lily James is back in a corset this week, nearly a year after her breakout role in Disney’s Cinderella had a very happy ending as it became one of 2015’s biggest hits. This time, though, she’s packing some serious weaponry inside that garment.
The beautiful 26-year-old Brit is Elizabeth Bennett: Undead Hunter in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the big-screen adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling 2009 literary mashup. In the film, like in the novel, the highly trained Bennett sisters are on the frontlines of early 19th century Britain’s bloody battle against invading zombies (while of course, also finding some time for love and marriage, with another Disney live-action alum, Maleficent star Sam Riley, playing reluctant suitor Mr. Darcy).
James, who also plays Lady Rose Aldridge in TV’s popular period drama Downton Abbey, told us she had to get out of “tea and biscuit” mode to prepare to fight for her life in PPZ. Now, though, she has clearly caught the action bug. In fact she may have been just a little too eager to put the hurting on walkers at points. Just ask the extra whose head she “properly kicked in” (by accident) while filming. Read on for the full story.
What’s generally more your speed: Pride and Prejudice, or zombies?
Both equally. I wouldn’t want to do Pride and Prejudice if it wasn’t like this because it’s been done so many times. And I just loved being a warrior and fighting. It was just so refreshing and empowering, and takes those themes that are so essential to Pride and Prejudice — Liz Bennett being so forward-thinking and independent and strong-willed — and just exaggerates them even more, because she’s actually beating the crap out of Darcy.
It is all very metaphorical.
Yeah, it is, which is so weird, and you don’t want to be too earnest about these things. Because it’s a fun adventure-horror romp. But then at the same time when you do put these characters in this life-and-death situation it does sort of bring out parts of the characters in the story that are quite interesting.
What kind of fight training did you go through?
Well, I was really lazy before this film started. I had been filming Downton and I was just in Downton Land of like biscuits and tea. And no need to exercise. So I just spent a lot of time working with my trainer James [Farmer], who’s amazing. He just got me really fit and then I started boxing. And then I was doing yoga and boxing for months. And then the Bennett sisters started training together and picking up the weapons and figuring out what our style was, and what weapons we were going to use. It was crazy and fun. We were like the Spice Girls with weapons. [laughs]
Were there songs, too?
We were always singing, yeah.
Did using all that weaponry come pretty easy to you?
I had actually done a lot of sword fighting on one of the first films I had done, Wrath of the Titans. All of it was cut from the film, along with my entire part [laughs]. But, I did learn to fight, and so it was useful. I had a basic knowledge and I absolutely loved it, and I really want to do more action.
Do you feel like more of a badass these days?
I did, when this film ended like a year ago. I’m definitely back to the sluggish-lazy Lily again.
You’ve gone soft. You’re back to the tea and biscuits.
Yeah, I’ve gone soft. I need a zombie apocalypse to perk me up.
This brings up a very important question. How would you survive the zombie apocalypse?
Well, I think I’ve got a more attuned eye to potential weaponry in any given room. With Pride and Prejudice I would have a sword in my boot, pins in my hair, knives in my knickers… So I feel a bit savvy. So I feel like I could defend myself.
Do you see potential weapons in this room?
[Looks over at garbage can] Well, I just keep looking at that bin. Maybe I’d put the bin on his head so he couldn’t see, and then wrap that USB wire around his throat, and then I’d shove the phone in his mouth [laughs].
You’re really good at this. You’re starting to scare me.
This is fun! Yeah, it would be those things, or maybe I’d just run.
I heard that you accidentally stepped on an extra’s head during the production.
I stepped on a real person, yeah. It was terrible. I was galloping in and the director [Burr Steers] said, “Make sure the zombies are dead.” There were like dummies everywhere, and they were so fake, with blood pouring out and swords stuck in them from different angles. What I didn’t know that in amongst the incredibly fake dummies were extras lying face-down in the mud, which is not what you’d expect on a freezing cold December day in England. So I trotted in and like properly kicked someone’s head in. But he was fine.
How did he react? What did he say?
He didn’t say anything, because he was so good and staying in character. But it was all the people behind the camera who were like, “Did she just step upon an extra’s head? Did that just happen?” Then there was this commotion and I found out. So I ran over and he was like, very strange. So I wasn’t really sure if I had really damaged him or if it was his disposition. But he was fine. He was fine.
Good to hear. Cinderella was a huge hit, obviously. How has that changed things for you, if at all?
I’ve been really, really busy, which is always good, and I think that’s sort of the result of being a part of such a wonderful film and something that did well that people responded to. And I did this, which was from one of the same producers as Cinderella. So I guess Zombies came from Cinderella [laughs].
Free Disneyland tickets for life?
I mean, I hope I do. I literally would be very pissed off if they made me queue. [laughs]
You didn’t make sure that was in your contract?
I wish I had. I mean, now, I would be much more of a diva. [laughs] But then, I was like, “Whatever, I’ll do it for free! I’ll do it just for the tickets!”
Do you get a lot of young girls coming up to you calling you Cinderella?
I did when I was really blond but now I don’t so much. And when I tell them [I’m Cinderella], they’re kind of like, “What? No.” They don’t really believe me.
What can you say about the Edgar Wright movie you’ve got lined up next, Baby Driver? Who do you play?
Oh, I’m excited — I had a costume fitting the other day. It’s brilliant. I’m playing this young American waitress. And it’s just totally Edgar Wrighty. Amazing script, amazing soundtrack. It’s this sort of heist, car-chase groove. So excited.
I’m assuming you’re not back in the corset again.
No corset! I even wear like ripped tights, socks, boots, rings, messy hair. I mean, I just can’t believe it. God I hope that I don’t massively fail. Maybe I can only do the corset, but we’ll see. [Laughs.]
What is the tone of that film like — is it in line with the Cornetto trilogy, or more along the lines of Scott Pilgrim?
I don’t really know how much I’m totally allowed to say, so I won’t. But it feels pretty different from [anything he’s done before]. And so cool. I can’t really believe I’m doing it. I’m so happy. I didn’t think that I was going to get it. I thought that the audition had gone really badly.
I just read that you’re a distant cousin to former President George W. Bush. Is that true? Have you heard that?
[Laughs] I saw something about that. No, not that I know of. I mean, I do have American family, so maybe.
According to the Internet, you are sixth cousins, once removed, to George W. and Jeb Bush.
No, that’s too close. That is terrifying. No, that’s not true. I should really ring my mum right now and find out. [laughs]
So no plans for a family reunion?
No, I don’t think so. I think I might skip that one.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies opens Feb. 5.