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Lily James: 'We are trying always to be happy, but unhappiness is just as real, just as important' 

Lily James 
Lily wears: Jacket, £2,200, and T-shirt, £195, both Victoria Beckham (victoria beckham.com). Earrings, £225, Dinosaur Designs (dinosaur designs.co.uk) Credit: Aitken Jolly 

She’s known for playing warm, fizzy characters, from Cinderella to Donna
 in Mamma Mia!, but are we about to see a different, deeper Lily James? 

This article has an estimated read time of 11 minutes 

Lily James and I are on our knees in her dressing room in the basement of the Noël Coward Theatre, packing away her belongings. It is her last day playing duplicitous, ambitious Eve Harrington (opposite Gillian Anderson in the Bette Davis role as Margo Channing) in the celebrated, sell-out 14-week run of All About Eve directed by Ivo Van Hove. James has two shows remaining – a matinee and an evening performance – followed by a celebratory dinner at J Sheekey.

‘And tomorrow I’m meant to be flying to Croatia to spend a week on a boat, sharing a cabin with [friend and fellow actor] Freddie Fox,’ she explains as we stuff a holdall with teabags, biscuits, sunglasses and a framed picture of her actor grandmother, Helen Horton, who was the voice of ‘Mother’, the computer in Alien. ‘She was so glamorous, like a woman from a 1950s movie, so I had her with me for the run,’ says James. She can’t decide whether or not to go to Croatia. She doesn’t want to let her friends down, but life has been hectic and she yearns for a break.

After the trip she will go straight into two weeks of rehearsals and then filming for Rebecca. She will play Daphne du Maurier’s enigmatic ingénue, the second Mrs de Winter, opposite Armie Hammer, in the film by British director Ben Wheatley, who also made Kill List and High-Rise. And in a couple of weeks there will be the premiere of her new film, Yesterday, a modern-day fable about fame written by Richard Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle.

The film depicts a parallel world in which the music of the Beatles has somehow been erased from the collective memory, except for one down-on-his-luck musician, Jack Malik, played by newcomer Himesh Patel, whose unique knowledge of the Beatles back catalogue enables him to become a singer-songwriter sensation, leapfrogging a bemused Ed Sheeran – playing himself for laughs – and leaving Suffolk for Los Angeles.

James plays maths teacher Ellie, Malik’s best friend and sometime manager, who has been secretly in love with him since they were at school. It is the sort of fizzy, warm and open-hearted character (see also Mamma Mia! Here 
We Go Again, Cinderella, War & Peace…) James 
 plays so well.

Lily wears: Top, £950, shorts, £350, and belt, £1,050, all Fendi (fendi.com) Credit: Aitken Jolly 

‘I have been wanting to challenge myself and not always take these kind of roles,’ she explains as we drink tea (hers in a pink mug with a big L on it). ‘It was one of those parts that I thought, “I know how to do this.” So I was like, “Do I want to do this now? Is this right?” And then I met Danny and he just blew my mind. He is so passionate and engaged. He was already in the top five people I wanted to work with, and combined with a Richard Curtis script… I’ve grown up watching his films on repeat – Notting Hill and Love Actually are part of who I am. So after the audition I rang my agent and said if Danny offers it to me, I am in – 100 per cent in, which wasn’t how 
I thought I would feel.’

Boyle says that he knew James was right for the part after she had read just four lines in the audition. ‘The Americans call it emotionality, and boy has Lily got emotionality,’ he says over the phone. ‘That is where her beauty comes from. People think it is from her physical beauty, but it isn’t, it is actually from her emotional honesty.’

James is delightful company, polite and kind – opening two massive packets of expensive chocolate for us to share – with an easy smile and laughter that morphs into proper snorting. But there has been a subtle shift in the parts that she is drawn to – fewer corsets, more psychological complexity. In 2017, she starred in Baby Driver, a stylised heist movie set in Atlanta in which she played a waitress who lures a getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) away from petty criminality.

In All About Eve, the youthful Eve Harrington reveres, stalks and then supplants her hero, Margo Channing, who has been playing the parts of women 20 years her junior. In real life, James found working with Gillian Anderson instructive. ‘I learnt so much watching her. I act so much from instinct, whereas Gillian sculpted and fine-tuned Margo from day one of rehearsals, like a piece of art.’

James was drawn to the role of Eve because she felt it tapped into things she recognised in herself. ‘The need to try to feel full and wanting more. But that can end up being a negative rather than positive. It’s too fast, it’s too quick, it’s too toxic. It will never be enough and makes you unhappy.’

She explains that her bubbly persona doesn’t always reflect how she feels, that it is something she has learnt to put on, to conceal anxieties, stress and self-consciousness. ‘I can operate quite well in a certain level of who I am, but there is a part of me that I find harder to communicate.

Lily James photographed for Telegraph magazine. Lily wears: coat, £3,059, Givenchy (givenchy.com). Earrings, £155, Bar Jewellery (barjewellery.com) Credit: Aitken Jolly 

‘I think that is how I have learnt to cope with work and the press and life. It is a mechanism, but then the divide sometimes feels like it gets too big between who you are and who you show to the world… and then I think, “Is it all in my head? Am I this person or am I that person?”’

Lily James was raised in Esher, Surrey, with two brothers – one older, Charlie, and one younger, Sam. It was a semi-rural childhood, outdoorsy and adventurous. Her mother, Ninette Thomson, was a travel agent who gave up work to look after her family. Her father, James Thomson, was an actor, a musician, an entrepreneur and his daughter’s hero. ‘He was so artistic and so bold. He had such a wild time. There were periods of his life when he went at it hard, like in the ’70s when he was an actor living on Sunset Boulevard with a musician friend, when everyone was taking acid.’

Around this time, before he had a family, Thomson was in a terrible car crash. ‘My dad had big scars over his face and his shoulders. The scarring was so bad he suddenly went from a romantic lead to a gangster.’ He nearly died, so it must have felt like he had been given a second chance. ‘There was so much life in him. He was brilliant,’ says James. He made the world fun and fantastical for his family, with stories and music. ‘In all our home videos I am singing and he is playing the guitar.’

Lily wears: jacket, £1,050, trousers, £490, and shirt and shoes, prices on request, all burberry (burberry.com). earrings, £225, dinosaur designs (dinosaurdesigns.com) Credit: Aitken Jolly

James Thomson died of cancer in 2008, aged 54. This came on the heels of the death of his brother, Lily’s uncle, Bruce, who had motor neurone disease, and of her grandmother, who had gone back to America to care for her son. ‘She died just before I got into drama school,’ says James. ‘I remember I was working at The Albert Arms [in Esher] with my brother. My parents arrived at the pub and told us and it was really sad. A lot of my family died in the space of five years, but I am glad that my grandma died before my dad, because if she had seen that… it was like our whole family was suddenly…’ James pauses.

Her mother held the family together. ‘I haven’t always been the easiest daughter and life can be so hard, but she is the most amazing mum, kind and dedicated and my support in everything. I love her so much.’

James went from the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where she befriended Freddie Fox, who introduced her to the agent Angharad Wood. She changed her name from Lily Thomson to Lily James to honour her father (the screen saver on her phone is also a photo of her dad).

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Once she left drama school she quickly began to win roles – in ITV’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl with Billie Piper, and as Lady Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey. ‘I was definitely thrown in at the deep end,’ she says of Downton. ‘The first scene I shot was with Maggie Smith. I was so in awe. She gave me a Sarah Bernhardt book, which I treasure.’

It was on the set of Downton that James learnt she had won the part of Cinderella in Kenneth Branagh’s reworking of the fairy tale for Disney. She was delighted, covering the walls of her bedroom with images that made her feel like Cinderella, writing diaries in the voice of the character, but it was a tough part, particularly the scene in which Cinderella is told that her father is dead. 
‘I couldn’t really go there. Sometimes there was coldness to me around that.’ James says that for a time she closed herself off from her sadness and feels like this affected her work. ‘I was trying so hard to just hold on to something. I think I became a bit tough. As an actor you can’t do that.’

It has been over a decade since her father died and these days James finds it easier to talk about him. ‘Sometimes when I speak I feel relaxed, like talking to you and knowing that you understand [my father died a year after James’s], I feel completely at peace and calm. But there are other times when I feel more on edge. If I have to explain something then I can get really upset. It is almost like you feel embarrassed for other people or you have to protect them. We are trying always to be happy, but unhappiness is just as real, just as important an emotion. And if you are closing yourself [from it] you are closing yourself off from other people.’

With Himesh Patel in new film Yesterday Credit:  Jonathan Prime / Universal Pictures

In April, James turned 30. She celebrated by inviting 15 of her school friends to a performance of All About Eve, followed by a dinner at Mark’s Club, where she played the dinner-party playlists that her father had recorded on to cassette tapes for her mother years before, featuring artists like Edith Piaf, Nick Drake and the Stones. There was also a ‘big blowout’ party at The Box nightclub in Soho. ‘I took over the downstairs… 
I could barely speak for a week afterwards.’

James is relaxed about being 30. She has always looked forward to reaching an age when ‘you know what you feel, what you want, what you are about, when you don’t have to try to be something’. She says she feels more grounded than she did in her early 20s. ‘As I get older I want to settle into a life that feels like it has continuity. Sometimes I am just desperately scouring my diary for a day that coincides with Matt.’

James performing on stage in All About Eve Credit: Jan Versweyveld

Her partner is the actor Matt Smith, whom she met on the set of the anarchic period film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. At the time there was a sort of geekish glee about Doctor Who dating Cinderella. ‘It was like a weird sci-fi universe,’ says James. And as a couple they do have a combined charisma that is electric, lighting up the room when they walk into a party, her all arms and hair on the dance floor, him insisting that everyone comes along with them to the next bar, the next club.

The couple live together in a rented flat in Tufnell Park in north London, where dinner tends to be ‘by Deliveroo’, or something from the local butcher, ‘but we have to ask them how to cook it’. And on those rare days off together (if they have avoided ‘getting so excited about having a day off that you drink too much the night before so the day off is a total write-off’), they might go to a pub in nearby Hampstead with actor friends like Douglas Booth, Richard Madden and Jenna Coleman, an art exhibition (the last one was Picasso at Tate Modern), or the cinema. ‘Our local has sticky carpets and people eating sweets really loudly, but I love it.’

With her mum, Ninette, and younger brother, Sam, 2016 Credit: Rex Features

James hopes that the next stage in her life will be buying somewhere, possibly in the countryside. She will not be drawn on whether this house purchase will be with Smith, or whether they will be getting married and having children any time soon. ‘There is more interest because we are both in the industry, so you have to be more protective. It is a weird thing to say, but I feel really proud that there aren’t too many photographs of us online. We don’t really do many official things together, because it feels like that [the relationship] is just for us.’

But James does say that a family is something that is vitally important to her, and more than anything she is looking forward to being a parent, to creating a life for her children that is full of ‘freedom and mystical worlds. I can’t wait for that, it is so exciting.’

In the meantime, she wants to continue taking her career in new directions, challenging people’s perception of her. She is excited about the role in Rebecca, reading the book again to immerse herself in its manipulations. ‘It is told in the narrator’s voice, so really she could be anyone. Just because she says, “I was so nervous,” doesn’t mean she was. It ties in with how I am feeling at the moment – that there is a surface and then there is something else.’

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in 2016 Credit: Sony via AP

James is also planning to set up a production company with Marene van Holk, a friend from drama school. The company will be called Titus, after the ‘twisted and ugly’ plant they had in the flat they used to share. She wants to set up the company partly so that she can be part of the creative process from the start rather than just turning up in the middle and getting ‘a little lost’ in someone else’s creative vision. At first, she imagines, it will just be small theatrical productions, with actors that she has known for years, one of whom might be Matt Smith.

‘I would really like to work with him. He is an extraordinary actor, the way he can transform… But I am looking for an artistic experience that feels right and raw and correct and deep and a journey. Something that feels really fulfilling. It would not be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, let’s put it that way!’

We have been talking for over an hour and the bell calling James to the stage has gone twice. ‘Oh God, I’ve really got to go,’ she says, changing out of her Sandro tea dress into tracksuit bottoms and a striped top. ‘But you don’t have to rush, stay as long as you like,’ she says, leaving me in her dressing room with the boxes of champagne that she will be giving to the cast and crew once the last show is over.

James (centre) in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again with Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies Credit: Universal Pictures

When we talked about her father, James told me that she believes ‘you go alongside with them regardless’, that our lost loved ones are still with us, watching us. In which case, James Thomson must be very proud of his talented and passionate daughter, who honours his memory by living life to its utmost. And yes, she did go to Croatia.

Yesterday is released on 28 June