Lily James has undoubtedly made her mark in the world of film with her varied choice of characters in a myriad of films. She first burst onto the scene with her acting brilliance playing the title role in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. The young actress has gone on to give outstanding performances in films like Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, Darkest Hour, Rebecca, and her featured role as Lady Rose in the Golden Globe and BAFTA award-winning series Downtown Abbey to name a few.
Her newest film, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, is set to hit the big screen on May 5th in the US. Directed by noted filmmaker Shekhar Kapur with a script by Jemima Khan, this layered romantic comedy also stars Shazad Latif, Emma Thompson, and Shabana Azmi.
Let’s set the scene with the trailer:
In this special interview, the lovely Lily James, passionately and with smiles and laughter, talked with Stacey about this wonderful film. She shared her process for finding her characters and working with director Shekhar Kapur to delve deep into this tale. She touched on doing scenes with Shazad Latif and the Titans of Cinema Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi. Plus, so much more. Read on to see what she says about love and What’s Love Got To Do With It!
What was it about this project that made you want to play this role in What’s Love Got to Do With It??
There were several factors that made this really appealing to me, and it also ended up really being a precious experience.
One of which is that Shazad Latif is one of my great friends. I have known him for some 10-12 years. I met him fresh out of drama school. I used to sleep on a mattress at the end of his bed in his flat in North London. (Laughs) We were able to build on such a strong bond and the natural chemistry that we have. That was a real joy.
Also, I love Jemima Khan. The script she has written where everything is from personal experience – it is such a love letter to Pakistan and a multi-cultural Britain. It is a celebration of culture and understanding each other’s cultures, and not being afraid. What a beautiful gift it is to be able to celebrate that in a film.
Plus, Emma Thompson was my mum! This was with Working Title, where I have made several films before.
We had been in Covid, and all I wanted to do was work and see friends. So, this was really a collaborative wonderful experience coming out of a really dark time.
Was acting something you always wanted to do?
I don’t know if I wanted to act; I wanted to perform. I don’t know what that really means other than, I guess, as a kid, when I look back at videos – I am such a show-off. I am always doing poems, speaking in funny voices, or dancing or singing. I think I loved expressing myself in a creative way. It felt like a natural place for me to exist within my family. I don’t know. I thought it was maybe singing or dancing, but I really didn’t know. Acting came a bit later into my life, in my early 20s, and I found that is really where I felt most in sync.
So you play Zoe, and she is quite a complicated character; she goes through quite a character arc throughout the film. How do you find your characters and become them?
It is always like a weird moment of synchronicity, where you pick these roles that sort of are something you are either wanting to explore or something you’re rejecting or something else; it just ends up happening that way. You always find yourself in a character, I think, no matter how dark or how much of it’s a fantasy, you sort of find your way in and make it personal. That’s how I like to do it anyway. That’s what I like to do; I like to bring myself as much as possible to every role. So there was a lot in Zoe – being a young woman living in London and trying to figure out how to balance life, relationships, your ambition, family, finding your community. I love that line in the end that ‘Everyone needs a village. No matter how you decide to live your life, you need people to lean on’. That felt really authentic. And the experience about motherhood – do I want children, do I want to freeze my eggs – was something I thought was interesting to explore in a mainstream commercial film.
I think one of the interesting things is that when you are an actress, in a scene you feed off another actor, you look into their eyes, and it is a lot of reaction. Now that, of course, happened in this film, but in a lot of it, you are behind your camera just filming. So how do you get yourself into a place of reacting that way behind the camera without having anybody directly opposite you or in a scene?
It was really wonderful actually because I was really shooting it. A lot of the footage I got on that camera is in the movie! So I was really shooting it like a documentary style. I had a couple guys in the crew, one, in particular, Julian [Bucknall]; I have worked with him since Darkest Hour and Mamma Mia, he is the focus puller. He is just like one of my great friends now. He was always teasing me actually (laughs) but also teaching me, along with a couple other guys in the crew, how to work the camera and look believable. I had a documentary filmmaker alongside me trying to guide me. So I was seeing through the lens, and you get this really personal view. I mean, you are not looking in their eyes, but you get a very personal point of view through the camera. I sort of felt like a DP (director of photography). So she was really able to fall in love with Kazim, fall in love with Shazad’s character through the lens. I think it allowed her the space to do it because looking in his eyes, you are like, oh, he is my friend; he is getting married, and then through the lens as a filmmaker, she is sort of able to really look at him and really look at another human being. It was voyeuristic but also romantic.
Of course, this is being directed by the incredible Shekhar Kapoor
I know I know, I know (with a big smile)!
I read that you all did a lot of rehearsals, table reads and worked together to develop the characters, so what is it like working with him?
Shekhar is just such a curious, very deep artist who really wants to delve into characters and moments. He is just all about storytelling. All about connection and all about intimacy, really. I was a huge fan of his work. We spent hours and hours of long text messages talking about life, spirituality, relationships, and love. Where I was at in my life, where he was at in his life, and how we could align in this project. I know he did the same work with Shazad on a really beautiful level. So yeah, it was a lot of rehearsals, so even in a film that is a family rom-com genre, he was always about delving for the truth of moment to moment. I think that gives extra depth that may not have otherwise been there had someone else been at the helm.
Jemima was the same. Jemima was there every day. I love her. She was so dedicated to this story, telling it faithfully and honestly and reflecting Pakistan and London in a way that she felt was truthful.
It is being billed as a rom-com, but it is so much more. It delves so deeply into many aspects, truth, family, friendship, love, and are you in love and what love means.
Yes! And it explores religion. It looks at cultural traditions and even more, Eastern tradition versus Western, and actually, versus is the wrong word; it is not about either/or – it is about exploring both and seeing what we can learn. And we can always learn something. You know, we don’t really have any answers. There are no answers when it comes to love. (Laughs) So, we’ve lured you in with what’s love got to do with it, but we don’t know. But it definitely is a nonjudgmental exploration of love and the many ways to find it. I think there is something really celebratory about there being millions of arranged marriages across the globe that are extremely successful. We use these dating apps; some are successful. There was just something refreshing about this take on it, you know. It is one take. It is one look, but it is something we enjoyed exploring.
Now you are starring opposite the outstanding Emma Thompson; what is it like to stand there on set and do a scene with her?
I mean, it is just like very surreal. (Smiles) There are moments in your life where you’ve stood opposite someone you absolutely adore and worship (laughs), and now she was playing my mother. She exceeded every single expectation, and my expectations were already extraordinarily high. She is just a magnificent human being. So generous and so caring. She brings everything to every moment. It was just a magic experience working with her. We were so honored to have her be a part of the film, honestly. From the read-through on, she was just absolutely hilarious. (Laughs) And, for both Shaz and I, she took us under her wing. She is just a very special person.
What was it like to act with and watch the brilliant Shabana Azmi on set?
What a legend! It was like the Battle of the Titans with Emma and Shabana. I was just totally blown away by Shabana. There is just this depth in her eyes, where you look into her eyes, and you’ll completely fall into them. Again, having someone of her caliber, her skill, and her beauty in our movie elevated it so much. This sort of pain in her eyes, the love in her eyes… just added so much more depth and color, and truthfulness to this story. I was sort of taken aback. Actually, my favorite moment in the entire movie is when she goes and visits Kaz at the hospital toward the end of the film, and she says, ‘As a mother, I pray extra for my children. I love you more, and I just want you to be happy.’ I get chills just thinking about it because it was so profound what she did. Shazad, too, actually. It was a stunning moment of cinema and acting.
I love the line falling in like and walking into love. For you, what does that mean?
You know, I think we are, and god love cinema and god love a rom-com, but I think we are sort of perhaps conditioned to believe, and I am a hopeless romantic, that there is going to be this THUNDERBOLT and you are going to be like AHHHHHHH. You know, the heavens are going to part, and you are going to meet the man of your dreams or the woman of your dreams or your whoever of your dreams, and that will be that. And it’s not often like that in life, or it doesn’t have to be. I think this is really appreciating those gentler ways of falling in love and those, maybe, more ordinary ways of falling in love. And I think as I am growing older ordinary is so wonderful. (Laughs) Being content is so wonderful. (Smiles) I think it celebrates finding love in all these different ways, not just in the movie way. Which is funny because we are doing that in a movie… (smiles)
With all these references to all these great rom-coms, which I absolutely loved!
That is what is clever about it when you really look at it; there is more to this than meets the eye, for sure.
What’s next for you?
I have a few things coming up. I have a few films about to come out. Finalmente l’alba, an Italian movie I did. Providence this cool movie I did with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Himesh Patel. I did this film, The Iron Claw, last year with A24 with Zac Efron, which Sean Durken directed. I am really excited about those movies coming out and seeing what they are like… who knows (smiles). I am just shooting in New York right now for a movie called Relay with Riz Ahmed and director David Mackenzie. It just started the day before yesterday, so I am, like, gasp! So that is what I am doing.
I thank Ms. James for the wonderful conversation, it was truly a pleasure to talk with her.
What’s Love Got To Do With It? releases on May 5th. Having seen it, I can say you don’t want to miss this great film.