Familiar to fans of Downton Abbey as Lady Rose Aldridge, Lily James now takes on the role of Natasha Rostova in War & Peace, the BBC’s big-budget adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic.
How relevant do you think an epic story based in early 19th-century Russia is to contemporary audiences?
It resonates really easily. The story is a classic because it’s timeless and universal – it’s about love, families and war. Of course, the settings are different, and the idea of what a relationship between a man and a woman could be is different, too, but the feelings – the lust, the longing, the dreams – are the same. Actually, it has a very youthful, modern feel.
Surely you didn’t read all of Tolstoy’s massive book?
I did. Like most people, I just saw War & Peace as this book I would probably never read that was really long and very epic. And I’m so grateful that I got the job and was able to read this magnificent story and get to know its characters. Every time I followed a different character I was drawn into their storyline. I don’t know how Tolstoy did that – it’s a masterpiece.
How long did it take you?
Some time. I was reading it on the set of Downton Abbey and Maggie Smith would constantly ask: ‘Have you finished it yet?’ Of course I hadn’t – and I’d drop the book under the table just as we were rolling, with this great thud that blew the ears off the sound guys.
Tell us about your character, Natasha. She undergoes quite a transformation through the years covered by the book.
It was a real acting challenge, actually, in terms of where this character needs to go, from child to mother – the demands on me were huge. I love the edge she has. She feels derailed – it’s almost as if she’s bipolar, because she’s so extreme in her actions. But that’s because she is so romantic – she’s growing up and learning.
Audrey Hepburn famously played Natasha in the 1956 film adaptation. How much did that affect you and what kind of person did you want to portray?
Natasha’s story is all about love and youthfulness, and the love story between her, Pierre and Andre was my entire focus. To be honest, I don’t ever go into filming something thinking: “How can I make this different?” I’m going to be different anyway because I’m me, I’m not Audrey Hepburn. So, instinctively, what I took from the book were [Natasha’s] wild, animated eyes, an awakened spirit, a romanticism.
Before I did a scene I would read that section in the book – I wanted to try to be truthful to that.
It has been said that Tolstoy’s characters leave a mark on everyone who plays them.
Yes, the more I read, the more daunting the task became. But it’s true, I loved Natasha’s passion, the way she followed her instincts, and the fact that though she has a careless attitude to most things, she’s still so generous. I really loved playing her.
Filming on location in Russia, in the actual buildings mentioned in the book, must have been amazing.
It was mind-blowing. We got a talk before we went from a historian who told us about Russia at the time of the book. These buildings, he said, would be unlike anything we’d seen before. And I was thinking, “Yeah, but I’ve done Downton Abbey …” But when I got there I couldn’t believe how epic and majestic and rich these locations were. We filmed in Catherine Palace, where the tsar’s ball happened, so to be re-enacting that felt magical. The snow, the backdrop of the Winter Palace [the official residence of the Russian monarchs from 1732 to 1917], it was really moving.