“God, I used to have really skinny-crap eyebrows,” says Lily James, with a laugh. “They were such an ugly disaster.”
It’s an unexpectedly candid confession coming from a picture-perfect princess, but James doesn’t consider herself royal material. In fact, the British theater and Downton Abbey actress originally auditioned to play one of Cinderella’s mean-spirited stepsisters. (“I liked the humor,” she says.) The 25-year-old was completely caught off-guard when casting directors asked her to read for the title role, and even more so when she landed the part. “It wasn’t something I’d ever thought about,” she says of playing Disney’s pauper-turned-princess. “It’s hard to see yourself as a princess, because it involves a huge leap of the imagination and sort of requires you to believe you can be that, which is a scary, weird thing.”
James’ late father, James Thomson, was an actor, as was her grandmother, Superman 3’s Helen Horton, but it turns out that following them into the family business didn’t exactly prepare her for the hype surrounding her latest high-profile role. “Apparently people were given a badge with my face on it recently at Disney World,” James says, in a slightly bewildered tone. “It’s too weird.”
Despite her initial doubt about stepping into Cinderella’s Swarovski crystal slippers, James says she warmed up to the role once she saw director Kenneth Branagh’s contemporary interpretation of the iconic Disney character. “She’s not sitting around dreaming of Prince Charming or thinking of a castle,” she says. “She’s strong and she’s making her own choices.”
Just like James, it seems. The drama-school graduate will next be seen on-screen as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and she has a small part in Bradley Cooper’s upcoming foodie film, Adam Jones, from director John Wells. “The script is just brilliant and so I’m so excited to see it,” says James. She plans to return to Downton Abbey for its sixth season (“I can’t decide whether I want her to come back happily married or wanting a divorce,” she says of saucy Lady Rose McClare) and has begun filming the BBC miniseries, War and Peace. James is also set to star in a West End production of Romeo and Juliet in 2016, where she’ll reunite with her Cinderella costar Richard Madden. “I really can’t wait to work with Richard again,” she says. “He’s charismatic and sexy and funny… and he’s naughty.”
And between projects, she plans to pursue a part that will require neither a crinoline or a corset. “I’m dying to do a tiny indie and play something totally naturalistic without any sort of constraints on me,” she explains. “Something where I can shock everyone.” Forget about simply hoping for a happily ever after—it looks like James is determined to create her very own fairy tale ending.