British actor, Lily James delivered a masterclass in charm and good humor at a seminar on Sunday at the International Film Festival and Awards Macao.
Questioned on stage by one of the festival’s senior programmers, James brightly chatted her way through eight years of a screen career that has taken her from “Downton Abbey” to “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” via “Cinderella” and “Baby Driver.”
Although James was born into a family of actors and musicians, and says she got the performing bug very young, she told the Macao audience early on: “When I look at ‘Cinderella’ I feel like a little baby.”
James said that her first loves were music and singing, not acting. But going to London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama put her firmly on course for the stage. “It was classical theatrical training, they didn’t do much screen training (in those days),” she said.
During 40 minutes of gentle grilling in Macao, James dropped a string of acting tips, which she credited to more experienced mentors encountered while doing the job, and a succession of winning anecdotes gleaned from rubbing shoulders with the greats of stage and screen.
She was filming the “Downton Abbey” series while simultaneously trying to land her first major movie role. “I auditioned like 7,000 times for Cinderella,” before being persuaded by her agent that she wouldn’t get the part, so she should relax and have fun. Then, having landed the role, “Downton” star Hugh Bonneville gave a congratulatory speech in character as the Earl of Grantham.
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Helena Bonham Carter taught James that “it is OK to breakdown, to cry, to let people know that you are not a robot. It is OK to struggle.” “Cinderella” producer, Allison Shearmur, who died last year, showed James a way to be stronger. “She taught me to stop apologizing, and ask for forgiveness, not permission,” said James.
And, while James admitted that she always wanted to be the center of attention, she also said that learning to deal with stardom was often not easy. “There were times I’d actually try to edge out of shot” while filming “Cinderella,” James said.
“You have to have thin skin, in order to reveal yourself. And really thick skin to deal with failure, or success,” she said. “(Acting) is not just a job. It is something you feel you have to do.”
James explained that she still gets nervous before a performance, and said that sometimes it can be difficult to let go.
She recently performed opposite Gillian Anderson in a stage version of “All About Eve,” portraying “a dark, angry, pathological liar for 14 weeks, 8 times per week… If there was a magic porthole at 7.20pm that I could have gone through I would have taken it,” James said.
She recently shot a Netflix version of mystery drama “Rebecca,” with British director Ben Wheatley taking over the mantle from Alfred Hitchcock. “I found it very difficult to let go of the character. I had panic attacks for weeks after,” James said.
But if self-control has been an issue in the past, James seems resolved to tackle it by taking on more responsibility, possibly as an executive producer. “I’m trying to get the rights to a book. I would not write or direct (the adaptation). But I would want to produce,” she said.