Lily James on how Helena Bonham Carter helped her beat her anxiety

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Amy Everett
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Swinging a sword as a zombified Elizabeth Bennett, championing kindness as our modern day Cinderella and escaping the mundane in Baby Driver, Lily James is quietly offering her own slant on the empowered 21st century woman. 

Her latest project? Oscar-tipped World War II biopic Darkest Hour, in which she’ll be starring alongside Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas as Winston and Clementine Churchill. 

In the film, James plays the Prime Minister’s tenacious secretary, Elizabeth Layton, tasked with harnessing the genius of an unpredictable, curmudgeonly leader. Faced with the small task of delivering Great Britain from the grip of Nazi rule, the film highlights how Churchill (and indeed his peers) fell back on women in order to win the war. chatted with the actor over tea at Claridges to discuss female roles, Donald Trump and the advice that helped her beat her anxiety.

Lily James with Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas at the Darkest Hour premiere

You’ve played a legion of strong female characters. Do you deliberately choose such roles?

“I play roles I can either relate to or admire, or if I feel they would be a challenge. They tend to be full and rounded women who just feel real to me.”

Darkest Hour focuses on the traditionally male-dominated fields of war and politics – is it important to you that women’s stories are told too?

“Of course, and behind every great man there’s an even greater woman! I think it’s fascinating for so many reasons. Firstly, because that’s an interesting perspective and maybe one that isn’t shown so much. And also because it shows Churchill in a much more interesting light, and you see other sides of him that are more vulnerable or open.

“I love those scenes where Kristin (Clementine Churchill) is buoying him and giving him the strength he needs – he wouldn’t have been there without that. And I love that Elizabeth Layton was so dedicated, ferocious, committed and loyal.”

Was there anything in particular that made this film, or role, stand out to you?

“My Granny was a young girl during the Second World War and I still speak to her about it – for me, that makes it very emotional. For example, I can’t believe what my Granny went through… and I can’t believe the stories of Dunkirk and all those men. I watched [Dunkirk] last night and I still find it really moving.”

Your character brings some brilliantly funny moments to Darkest Hour. Have you considered branching into comedy?

“I feel like I’m only funny accidentally and that’s my problem! I would love to do more comedy, but whenever I’ve tried to do comedy in film I find I’m actually not funny, so we’ll see…”

We get a fabulous insight into royal life in this film, with Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI – are you a Royalist? Are you excited about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding?

“I’ve been quite compelled by Harry and Meghan. I really believe in their romance and I’m excited by them. I think they’re a very important and inspiring change for the Royal Family – they can do good and they’re progressive.

“I think they’ve got good ideas and their minds and hearts are in the right place. They can make a change.”

Jennifer Lawrence said she’d throw a martini in Donald Trump’s face if she met him, and he famously blocked Chrissy Teigen’s persistent Twitter trolling. What would you say if you met him?

“I still can’t get my head around him and how this has happened. It’s like a horror show. Maybe I’d scream and run away! Although actually, I think I’d be glued to the spot.”

We see you sing in Baby Driver and Cinderella, and the second Mamma Mia! is coming up – can we expect more of your singing in roles to come?

“[Growing up] I loved singing and I used to love musicals – I went every year as a kid, that was my birthday present. But I sort of got frightened – I had issues with my voice, and then I thought no, I’m an actor, I’m not going to sing anymore… but now I’ve started again it’s a part of who I am, so I’m definitely keen to do more.”

Lily James as Deborah in Baby Driver

Is TV something you’d like to get back into?

“Yes, I’d like to get back into TV. I think you get to stay and examine a character for much longer and that’s really interesting.”

There are a lot of amazing TV shows being produced by women right now – do you have any favourites?

Big Little Lies was phenomenal, it blew my mind.”

But it seems like Hollywood has work to do in terms of representation…

“[Hollywood has] a long way to go, a very long way to go. There are so many people I admire and I’ve always looked up to women. That’s where I’ve found my strength, that’s who I’ve learned from – women such as Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lawrence, Cara Delevingne… There are so many powerful, strong, clear voices that I think eventually things will have to change.

“There have been no female directors nominated for Best Movie at the Golden Globes. I want way more female directors, I love being directed by a woman.”

Would you ever like to try directing?

“I really want to – at the moment I’m so far from it, but I get so frustrated being an actor. I feel like I would know how to get that scene or tell that story, and I have those feelings a lot each day while I’m making a film, so I think it’s something I will eventually do.”

Which female actors have you been most excited about working with?

“Meryl Streep was pretty up there! The pinnacle. I’ve been so lucky, working with Cate Blanchett, Maggie Smith and amazing young actors as well. I want to do more with Kristin (Scott Thomas), I’d love to properly work with her.”

Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

Little Woods is amazing in that I had such an incredible time making it. It was written and directed by Nia DaCosta, who is a first-time filmmaker. Set in North Dakota, I play a single mum trying to get by. It’s a modern day Western, a beautiful story produced by women. It was a really refreshing thing for me to suddenly be in this female-dominated story and atmosphere.

“Then I’ve got Guernsey (The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society) which is a lovely, post Second World War romance – a very funny, heart-warming story - and then Mamma Mia!

“I have to keep telling myself that I’m playing a young Donna, not a young Meryl Streep, as it’s such an awesome challenge – she’s one of the greatest actors of all time. It’s been amazing. I loved that movie, I had the time of my life.”

Lily James and Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour

Do you have any New Year’s Resolutions?

“To reply straight away to texts because I’m so s**t on my phone – I find it really hard. I always just go ‘oh, that’s so nice, I really appreciate that message’, and then I don’t write back. I can’t use phones. I find it really hard, but it looks like I’m being rude, so I need to get better.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

“I got really overwhelmed and anxious about something and I was freaking out. Then I felt guilty about freaking out and Helena Bonham Carter said to me, ‘Oh no, you can have one breakdown a week. It lets people know you’re not a robot.’ Like, forgiving yourself. Its OK to lose your s**t or get really upset about something. Everyone’s human.”

Darkest Hour is slated for UK cinema release on 12 January

Images: Rex Features / Sony Pictures Releasing