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The breakthrough: Lily James, star of 'Cinderella'

The English actress, formerly of "Downton Abbey," talks about how the remake of Disney's animated classic deepens its princess.
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    "Downton Abbey"'s Lily James takes on the title role in Disney's lavish remake of |Jonathan Olley

Where you’ve seen her: The young English actress was the rebellious Lady Rose MacClare on the last three series of “Downton Abbey.”
Where she is now: Playing no less than Ella, a wealthy scion who becomes the lowly Cinderella in Disney’s lavish live action remake of their 1950 animated classic, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Where she’s going: She goes period — again — as Elizabeth Bennet in the film version of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” and she’s in the still-untitled next film by “August: Osage County” director John Wells, starring Bradley Cooper, Jamie Dornan and Emma Thompson.

You originally went in for one of the wicked stepsisters. It’s a bit of a change starting out evil and playing 100 percent decent.

I didn’t think the sisters were evil. I thought they were funny. They’re just pathetic. I though it’d be fun to play them because there’s such humor in them. And I liked the idea of playing Cate Blanchett’s daughter. [Laughs] The ostensible lead character is a bit quiet, but when I started reading Ella, it felt like there was so much more there than I thought. It sat right. And I decided playing Cate Blanchett’s stepdaughter was just as good.

How did you view this incarnation of the character, especially compared to the one in the 1950 version?

I thought she was a strong character, actually — quietly inspiring. In the past in animated films, she’s just this princess. She’s sweet and talks to animals and sings like an angel, blah blah blah. This version has so much backstory and she has so much strength. You see her struggle and see her grow into a woman. You see her grief, the loss. She’s a deep character. There was a lot to explore. If you have a really evil character you explore why they’re that way. Ella is so good you just had to do as much exploring to figure out why.

That definitely doesn’t happen in the original.

She’s quite a passive character. You think, “Why doesn’t she fight back?” We still wanted to make her a strong character and find reasons why she does what she does.

A lot of fairy tale films these days take the fractured fairy tale route, like “Maleficent” retelling “Sleeping Beauty” from the perspective of the sympathetic villain. This is a straightforward retelling of the story.

Those films make the story feel fresh and new, but I like that here the change came from within, from adding depth and truth to the characters, rather than spinning the story on its head or adding a gimmick. Not that I think that’s a bad thing to do with these stories. It’s great to mix things up. I love that this is quite a faithful retelling.

Kenneth Branagh is perhaps not the first person you’d think of to handle this. What do you think he brought to the project that was unique?

He directs with such warmth and lightness of touch. He knows how to tell an epic story but with a real sense of intimacy — stories about families and human connections, but done with a real flair. He kept it feeling magical but also made it feel real. Whenever I would be overwhelmed by having to be Cinderella, he just brought it back to the story and the moments and the relationships. He’s a real master at orchestrating everything and keeping everyone on the same page and the same movie.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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