Tag Archives: Downton Abbey

A star is born: my early interview with Cinderella’s Lily James

27 Mar
Lily James with that tiny waist in Cinderella. It's a wonder what a corset will do – along with 600 sit-ups a day.

Lily James with that tiny waist in Disney’s Cinderella. It’s a wonder what a corset will do – that, and a history of 600 sit-ups a day! “If you do any less, you’re wasting your time.”

I hate to say I told you so, but… Actually, scratch that. I love to say I told you so.

In 2012, I wrote a cover feature on a little British movie scripted by Noel Clark called Fast Girls, co-starring Lily James as a runner determined to score Olympic gold. It was Lily James’s first cover interview, and in it I wrote that “She will end up being more than just a pretty face in empty action films like Wrath of the Titans. She’s likely to become a real star.”

And now here she is, playing the lead in the new Disney extravaganza Cinderella, which opens today in the UK. Fair makes you proud. So, for anyone who wants to know where Lily James is coming from, here are the highlights of my 2012 interview with the then barely 23-year-old star in the making. Given the fuss about Lily’s tiny waist in Cinderella, note her comments about doing 600 sit-ups a day. Petite she may be, but this is no anorexic shrinking violet, this is one tough (though fat-free) cookie.

05. The Book

My cover interview with Lily James in The Book, June 2012

Lily James on getting fit for Fast Girls: “I had to train five times a week, two and a half hours a day. I was doing weights, circuits, running, jogging. My diet was changed to six small meals a day, with protein shakes, lots of chicken, nuts and raisins. It was really hard, and I got quite down for a while. I don’t like exercise that much, though I love dancing, yoga, being active. Soon, however, I became obsessive about my sit-ups – as soon as I began to see those six-pack muscles forming, that was all the incentive I needed. I did 600 a day – 50 V sits, 50 sit-ups, 50 leg raises. If you do less than 600, you’re wasting your time. You can do 300 without pause, it only takes 15 minutes.”

Acting for Hollywood:Wrath of the Titans was insane. It was my first film, and everywhere I went there was someone holding an umbrella to shade me from the sun in Tenerife. Your every whim is catered to – ‘Do you want this? Do you want that?’ With Fast Girls it was really exciting to feel much more like we were working together and pushing to get it done. We had to work for everything, shoot the whole thing in five weeks, it was really exciting.”

Favourite film scene: “The bit in Heat where Al Pacino and Robert De Niro meet. They crossed all the cameras so they got every angle in one go and it’s JUST AMAZING.”

Acting on stage: “I feel much more confident on stage. Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where I went, was very classically based theatre training. I love the family feeling of doing a play, going to the bar after, pushing the character to its limits. When you see the great screen actors like Meryl Streep or Al Pacino, they all started on the stage. There’s something lost now with the decline of rep theatre; it would be good to have the time to develop yourself before being thrust into the spotlight. To be entrusted with big roles before you feel ready… Then again, I guess you’re always learning, so you might as well take each opportunity and go for it!”

Acting mantra: “As long as everything is truthful and from the heart, you can get away with anything. Carey Mulligan is so honest. People long to see sincerity and people being genuine.”

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey: “Sometimes I wanted to scream!”

Downton Abbey: “I love period drama, exploring the history, and all the costumes. But it’s also very contained and reserved, I found sometimes I wanted to scream! You get more of a release doing modern stuff.” [At the time, she’d just started filming Downton, but no episodes had been shown.]

Her personal style: “I like long boho skirts, lots of jewellery, rings. I live in East London, and you have no choice but to start shopping in charity shops if you live in East London! It’s hard to maintain your own style sometimes in this business. When you are having photoshoots for the first time, you are presented with stylists who slip you into dresses, and you have to be diplomatic. You can really express yourself through your clothes, but it takes a lot of time and money.”

Her late father: “My dad passed away while I was at drama college so my whole world changed. I used to love singing while my dad played the guitar: Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, I was brought up singing all those. The hardest thing is not being able to share things with him: everything I have done since leaving college I can’t tell him about. But I feel everyone who’s left this world is still here with us, I really believe it.”

Lily James also stars as Elizabeth Bennett in, I kid you not, ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, out later this year.

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Pecs appeal: what The Guest reveals about Hollywood’s new stripping sexism

15 Sep

Ye gods, but Dan Stevens is gorgeous in new movie The Guest. You hardly recognise him from Downton Abbey: the puppy fat is replaced by cheekbones, the floppy fringe by manly stubble, the limpid blue eyes are now focused laser beams of energy. He needs to be gorgeous: the more interesting first half of the movie, before things go pear-shaped and daft-thrillery, is all about how he wins over a family, one by one – the mother through sensitivity, the father through beer, the young son through help with bullies. But does he really have to win over the 20-year-old daughter by stepping from a steamy bathroom in the skimpiest of towels? Those pecs! Those lats! Those abs! She swoons.

If Stevens becomes a star on the back of this, and he surely will, his personal trainer deserves 10%, along with his agent and manager. In fact, it’s a little surprising there’s not yet an Oscar category for that. And what’s interesting is how thoroughly gratuitous nudity in Hollywood has now been turned on its head.

Right into the ‘90s it was almost impossible to be an actress and not get your kit off, unless you were Meryl Streep. It’s why columnist Julie Burchill used to call acting a form of legalised prostitution. Even the respected auteur Robert Altman pressurised Greta Scacchi (unsuccessfully) to show off her celebrated bust in The Player, despite a prior agreement: “When it came to the day of the shoot,” Scacchi later recalled, “he told me ‘Get yourself on the set, take your knickers off and do what you’re paid to do.’” Demi Moore was paid a record $12 million to strip off in Striptease. Halle Berry is rumoured to have been given an extra $500,000 to show her boobs in Swordfish, though she denies any extra fee.

How times have changed in the new millennium. When Alice Eve gratuitously stripped in front of Kirk in Star Trek Into Darkness, the backlash was huge, to the point where the scriptwriter apologised – and even then she only undressed to bra and pants. There is no expectation now that beautiful and talented actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence will have to get naked to get ahead. It’s one reason, aside from righteous indignation at the appalling invasion of privacy, that the recent hacking of nude celebrity pictures has aroused such interest: in the ‘90s, it would have been nothing people hadn’t seen before, on screens 40 feet high.

No such reticence applies to the male physique, and I blame Brad Pitt. When he took his shirt off in Thelma & Louise, revealing the washboard abs beneath the cheeky grin, it opened the doors for equal opportunities sexism. Since then, Matt Damon, Tobey McGuire, Will Smith, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, Hugh Jackman, Tom Cruise, Gerard Butler, Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum… actually, it would be quicker to make a list of actors who haven’t had to bulk up and strip off.

And now, finally, there are signs that the more insidious sexism in Hollywood may gradually and grudgingly be coming to an end. It’s long been argued by movie execs, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, that films with women in the lead roles don’t make money. None, therefore, were made… so none made money. Bridesmaids in comedy, and in the blockbuster market The Hunger Games and Gravity (though its director initially had to fight the studio to get them to okay a female lead), have demonstrated the fallacy, and execs are, according to the New York Times, taking note.

There’s still a ways to go, and still a big disparity in pay cheques. But, in liberating Hollywood’s women, must we objectify Hollywood’s men? How long before aspiring male actors are simply reading for the part of “Hunky Boyfriend: must be prepared for Shower Scene”?

12 Years A Slave + Downton Abbey = Belle

21 Jun

Ever wondered what would happen if you crossed 12 Years A Slave with Downton Abbey? Oh. You didn’t? All the same, we now have the answer. You get the handsomely shot, impeccably acted British costume drama Belle.

Like 12 Years, Belle is based on historical fact. Unlike 12 Years, which adapted Northrup’s own personal diary, what little is known of the original “Belle” is given considerable embellishment by writer Misan Sagay.

We do know that, as the illegitimate “mulatto” daughter of a British nobleman and a black slave, Belle was raised as one of the family by her great uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, and that she was immortalised in a famous portrait playing with her white cousin as an equal. We also know that, as Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield was called upon to pass judgement on a court case vital to the legitimacy of the slave trade. However the intersection of these stories, and the love interest that impinges on the politics, is pure fiction.

The result could easily have been risible. The searing drama of 12 Years is kick-started by Northrup being betrayed, kidnapped, and sold into brutal slavery. The more sedate drama in Belle hinges, for the first third of the film at least, on her mild irritation at not being permitted to dine with guests at Kenwood House, but only to join them for after-dinner drinks.

But as Belle discovers more about the brutal treatment of slaves, as gradually revealed by the precedent-setting Zong case over which her great uncle is presiding, and encounters genuine, naked prejudice for herself (at the hands of Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy), petulance over class distinctions gives way to a slow-burning and righteous anger. In a deft piece of scriptwriting, she also comes to realise that all women, even noble-born white women, are little more than pampered slaves in the male-dominated society of the late 18th century.

12 Years, as filmed by Steve McQueen, is a genuine work of art. Belle, as expertly filmed by Streatham girl and Grange Hill graduate Amma Asante, is more a work of artifice. But it’s an impeccably realised and structured one, with a career-best performance from the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson as the Earl of Mansfield and a star-making turn from Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle, that by the end arouses in the viewer real fury, and real tears. To say that it comes second-best to this year’s worthy Oscar-winner is by no means a slight. Go see.