Cinderella and Downtown Abbey actress Lily James tells us about her role as Natasha Rostova in the new BBC historical period drama, War and Peace
Based on the novel by Russian author Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace is a story of three young people set against the epic backdrop of Russia’s wars with Napoleon. Ahead of its premier in South Africa this Sunday, 26 June on BBC First (DStv channel 119), we catch up with the Hollywood heroine on playing the beloved literary character Natasha Rostov.
What was it like to be asked to be in War and Peace which is such an iconic masterpiece? Was it an extra weight on your shoulders or a job just like any other?
It’s been a unique job; very special. But when I was asked to audition for it I had never read the book. I knew it was a big deal but I wasn’t too aware of it. I didn’t know the plot and I hadn’t seen any adaptations of it. But when I began reading the book I fell in love with Natasha. And I read the scripts too and realised then what a responsibility it was in playing her and I did feel a huge weight, a sort of pressure, then. But the director, Tom Harper, was really good. He was directing this epic story and he directed out of sequence, so one minute I was 14 and then I was 13, and we were filming in Russia, Lithuania and Latvia and yet he was so relaxed. I never saw him shout. He kept a sense of joy and humour about it all, which I think is really important even when you are doing very heavy, sad stuff. And the great actors in the cast helped. Everyone was so brilliant. Paul Dano is just so incredible as Pierre.
Andrew Davies describes Natasha as the most romantic character in literature. Do you agree and what makes her so romantic?
I would completely agree. I think she is a crazy romantic! As a young girl she is in love with love and she doesn’t know what it is yet but she’s fascinated by it. In episode one she sees her brother Nikolai kiss Sonya and it’s like she can feel it but she doesn’t understand it. She loves to sing and I think she has learnt romance through music and dance. She is so passionate and she feels things really intensely and I love how she goes from such extremes, not only in her story and her journey, but from every moment. She goes from laughter to tears in an instance because she is so romantic. And I think her idea of what love is and what it should be is why she gets so lost along the way.
Was it daunting for you that Audrey Hepburn played the part of Natasha in a 1956 movie adaptation?
I love Audrey Hepburn. When I was at drama school I was so obsessed with her that I got the box set of her films. But I hadn’t seen her do War and Peace and I’m really glad because I don’t know how you can then try to do it yourself.
Did you manage to finish the lengthy book?
Yes. I loved it. I was cast early so I had a long time to read it. I was amazed at how easy it was to read. Whenever I got to the passages about Natasha, my heart soared. I just think she is so incredible. I wanted to capture all the different sides of her, even the things that aren’t very likeable on the page, such as her vanity. When we were filming, if there was a mirror in the room I would try to look at it because I love how Tolstoy said that when she looks in the mirror she thinks she is the most beautiful girl in the world.
Having enjoyed playing Natasha so much how did you feel on the last day of filming?
It was the most emotional ending to any job I have ever done because it was a long shoot – six months – and we had gone through so much. For all the lightness and joy there is in Natasha, there is such darkness and the last scene I shot was where Natasha and Sonya are on the balcony and they are singing and she is falling in love, thinking about Andrei. And, despite the fact that we were by this huge motorway, so it was very loud, it was really beautiful! It was dark and we were on this balcony in the moonlight and it was the perfect finish and we were really emotional when it was over.
Did playing a teenage girl make you reflect on your own life, growing into adulthood?
Natasha made me think a lot about being young. I remember that I said to my mum once, ‘I don’t think anyone has been in love as I am.’ And that is so how Natasha felt, so I tried to remember that feeling. And I love how she is the centre of her world. Everything is so important to her and I had a sense of joy whilst playing Natasha. She is so extreme. And I really liked that there is an edge to her, which I tried to capture too, so she could go off the rails really easily.
Were her dresses nice to wear?
I love wearing the dresses. I think they helped so much in playing the role. I didn’t have to wear a corset and so they were quite comfortable. And I got great coats and fur hats, which was so necessary, because it was freezing when we were filming in January.
Did you run off set and straight to a hot water bottle?
Yes. It was freezing. They production department sent us this mass email about hyperthermia and how to avoid it and I was like, ‘What?!’ Sometimes my feet and my toes were wet through and completely frozen.
What was your most memorable scene?
Dancing with James Norton, who plays Andrei, in Catherine Palace near St Petersburg in episode 3 at the Tsar’s Ball when Natasha and Andrei fall in love. The whole room is covered in gold. It sort of blinds you for a minute and the orchestra was playing and I was waltzing with James along with hundreds of Lithuanian extras. It was beautifully choreographed and really romantic. As we spun round, everything was a golden blur. It was very dream-like and magical.
Was James a good dancer?
James is a very good dancer. He really committed to it. He’s a perfectionist when it came to the dancing and he really led me, which was refreshing. It was interesting because I had done a big romantic dance inCinderella but this one did feel different.
It must have been lovely to have been allowed to film inside the majestic Catherine Palace and other historic buildings.
Before we started filmed we had these big chats with an historian who told us all about Russia at the time. And he said, ‘You can’t imagine how grand and beautiful and opulent the buildings are.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I can. I’ve done Downton Abbey.’ And then I got there and I was like, ‘Oh, what? Is this real? The gold!’ It was so extravagant. And so that helped with this idea that these characters are wafting around in these huge houses.
Is Natasha quite a modern character?
I think so. When I was reading the book I wondered how Tolstoy managed to understand this young girl. I think that because the central actors were young it felt very fresh. It’s about love – which is for everyone. It’s universal. In addition, there are explosions, there are horses and there are battles. It’s so fast paced because we’ve only got six hours. Andrew Davies has been so amazing in being able to condense it like he has because he had to get a lot into a short time. He’s managed to make the pace feel similar to the book, which I think is a huge achievement.
You did some horse riding for War & Peace. How was that?
I did side-saddle, which is hard. I managed to stay on but we were riding horses that were a little bit frisky and it got a bit tense at times. Some of them were trained film horses but most of them were not.
Do you like fashion?
I love fashion and I do think that I’ve been influenced by all these characters – especially playing Lady Rose inDownton Abbey. I’ve really taken on board how you dress and match things. My sense of style has definitely improved.
Don’t miss the first episode of War and Peace premiering this Sunday, 26 June at 20:00 on BBC First (DStv Channel 119).