SPOTLIGHT March 2015: LILY JAMES, Actress and Ascending Star

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awfjspotlightsmallsmallThis month’s choice for AWFJ’s SPOTLIGHT is Lily James, a star on the rise who is living out her own Cinderella fantasy as the belle of the ball in Disney’s sumptuous live-action iteration of the classic fairy tale. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the highly anticipated film opens on March 13. Read on…


lilyjamescinderellagownsmallLike many young girls, James acquired a childhood fascination with Disney princesses. As she recently told Interview magazine, “I was completely infatuated with all of them, especially Belle (from Beauty and the Beast). I had the little slippers and would parade around the house before my brothers would sort of beat me up and shattered my dreams of being a princess.”

Thanks to Hollywood, however, her dream has been restored. James initially auditioned for one of the nasty stepsisters but her blond locks (the natural brunette dyed her hair for her Downton Abbey duties) led the casting director to suggest she should also try out for Cinderella. And, voila, her wish was granted. She says of bringing to life the beloved character in the lavish Kenneth Branagh-directed film, “I feel that responsibility in every respect.”


lilyjameshorseEarly reviews suggest that her Cinderella is not as much of a revisionist update of female-driven fairy tales as Frozen and Maleficent. Still, there are hints that her orphaned lass, left to be raised by her imperious stepmother (Cate Blanchett as a gleefully evil fashion plate), is no pushover. Empowerment arrives in equine form as Ella feels free of her servitude whenever she is atop a steed.

“Once I got the part, Ken asked if I could ride because he had this idea that she should be on a horse a lot,” James told Interview, adding that she began riding lessons four months before shooting. “It actually ended up unlocking a lot of her character. The act of riding gave her strength and womanliness … because, in a way, she’s passive. Putting her on a horse gave her a power and strength that she needed to be a rounded character and someone you could look up to.”


lilyjamesdowntown1lilyjamesdowntown2Fans of TV’s Downton Abbey already know this British beauty as Lady Rose, the great niece of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, who has settled down quite a bit since her original appearance as a flirtatious jazz-club regular known for reveling in scandalous behavior.


The graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London inherited her love of performing from her father, musician/actor James Thomson, who died in 2008. “He did every single accent under the sun and would read bedtime stories,” James told Interview magazine. lilyjames1smaller1 “He read all the Harry Potters up to the last couple of ones – I read them myself. My dad’s creativity and storytelling – he could sing and play guitar – was kind of my inspiration.”

James initially concentrated on TV, making her professional acting debut in the 2010 BBC series Just William and as a Poppy in ITV’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl in 2011.

On stage, she was acclaimed as Nina in The Seagull and Desdemona in Othello. The Daily Mail raved about her work in the Shakespeare tragedy: “Poise, diction, allure – she has them all.”

Her first film appearance was as Korrina in 2012’s Wrath of the Titans.


James, 25, has plucked the plum part of Elizabeth Bennet in the Jane Austen horror spoof Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is expected to be released this year. The actress, who took over the role once filled by Natalie Portman, exhibits a refined yet captivating screen presence similar to that of Keira Knightley, another Brit who portrayed Austen’s Elizabeth in the 2005 zombie-free version.

The actress already has a couple other tasty projects on her plate. She joins Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Uma Thurman in a yet-untitled movie about an ambitious London-based chef (Bradley Cooper) who aims to open best restaurant in the world. The film is being directed by John Wells (August: Osage County).

James dons period costumes once more in the coveted starring role of Natasha Rostova in an ambitious six-part miniseries of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, a BBC-Weinstein Company co-production due next year

lilyjamesbuckets2Why we chose her: In a short period, James has managed to be a standout in the crowded Downton Abbey universe as a progressive female symbol of change. Her Lady Rose was initially introduced as a jazz-clubbing flapper who resented the staid aristocratic lifestyle of her privileged family, especially her contentious mother. But Rose has since has come to represent a more broad-minded and magnanimous view of the world, showing charity to Russian refugees and marrying a Jewish man.

In Cinderella, when she puts her foot into the glass slipper, she brings to life the fantasy of a princess romance, but James also steps up to express the orphan girl’s real needs for personal freedom and respectful relationships. James’ Cinderella has depth and when speaking about the role, James seems besotted with her character: “She is so close to my heart.” Girls of all ages are likely to feel much the same.

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Susan Wloszczyna

In her nearly 30 years at USA Today, Susan Wloszczyna interviewed everyone from Vincent Price and Shirley Temple to Julia Roberts and Will Smith. Her coverage specialties include animation, musicals, comedies and any film starring Hayley Mills, Sandy Dennis or hobbits. Her crowning career achievements so far, besides having Terence Stamp place his bare feet in her lap during an interview for The Limey, is convincing the paper to send her to New Zealand twice for set visits, once for The Return of the King and the other for The Chronicles of Narnia and King Kong, and getting to be a zombie extra and interview George Romero in makeup on the set for Land of the Dead. Though not impressive enough for Pulitzer consideration, she also can be blamed for coining the moniker "Frat Pack," often used to describe the comedy clique that includes Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Her positions have included Life section copy desk chief for four years and a film reviewer for 12 years. She is currently a contributor for the online awards site Gold Derby and is an Oscar expert for Previously, she has been a freelance film reporter and critic, contributing regularly to, MPAA’s The Credits, the Washington Post, AARP The Magazine online and Indiewire as well as being a book reviewer for The Buffalo News. She previously worked as a feature editor at the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A Buffalo native, she earned her bachelor's degree in English at Canisius College and a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.