"I Am Zero To Bitch" & Other Delightful Revelations From Lily James

Photo: Maarten de Boer/Contour by Getty Images.
It is basically a rite of passage for an English actress worth her salt to don a corset and tackle a period piece. And the best of the best — Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson — usually find their way to a script based on the wise and witty words of British literary treasure Jane Austen.

So it went for Lily James, star of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which opens February 5.

But this film is not your grandma’s Austen, nor does the Downton Abbey and Cinderella actress play just another Elizabeth Bennet. P&P&Z is based on the best-selling mashup novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, which unleashes the undead on the landed gentry of early 19th-century England. Here, James' Lizzie has to sort out her feelings for Mr. Darcy (played by Sam Riley) while slaying some seriously nasty creatures. “I would never have attempted to do Liz Bennet in just another movie, because why? It's been done so well," James told us recently in Los Angeles. "But this is just so incredibly different. It’s zombies. We had total license, every single one of us in this film, to not try to recreate, or feel afraid of stepping on anyone's toes or being compared. It ended up being so much fun.”

Fortunately for us, James — who's also the lead on the A&E miniseries War & Peace — maintained that upbeat attitude when it came to attacking our questions about this tale of blood-spattered bonnets.
Jane Austen is one of the most revered writers in history, and her books, especially Pride and Prejudice, have been adapted numerous times. Elizabeth Bennet is among the most beloved heroines ever. Did any of that stress you out at all, going into this movie?
"I hadn't heard of Seth's work, so when I saw the title, it gave me pause. I just thought, Ugh — god, no. And then I read it, and all my concerns vanished. Why I think Jane Austen would like it, is that these Bennet sisters, Liz in particular, were so forward-thinking. Liz was so independent, fiercely strong‑willed, and further than her time. And so in this context, it just pushes that even further. And it's almost like the fighting's a physical expression of Liz's inner conflict and her dissatisfaction with her life. So I think without going too deep, it actually shone lights on some parts of the story in a more exaggerated way.

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Photo: Courtesy of Screen Gems.
Lily James (center) and Bella Heathcote in "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."

Who's your favorite incarnation of Lizzie and Mr. Darcy? Why?
"I loved Colin Firth before — who doesn’t? — but now my Darcy is Sam Riley. I really, really think Sam is just the most wonderful Darcy. He's so strong. There's an arrogance, but he's so vulnerable underneath. And when you look at his eyes… [Shrugs and rolls her eyes.] He is sexy in a leather-jacket kind of way."

Pride and Prejudice
and Pride And Prejudice and Zombies both delve into the idea of how women are supposed to act. The "female arts" include things like cooking, painting, dancing, playing music, writing long letters, and speaking several languages. Which of the so-called female arts do you excel at and which are you hopeless at?
"I am terribly, terribly unorganized. I can't multitask. My mind isn't very practical. I'm really good at cooking. I'm really good at singing. These are all things that I don't think are women's things anymore. Everyone can do whatever they want to do."

I loved Colin Firth before, but now my Darcy is Sam Riley. He is sexy in a leather-jacket kind of way.

Lily James
Are you a fan of the zombie genre? Of all the incarnations — Night of Living Dead, 28 Days Later , Shaun of The Dead, The Walking Dead, Warm Bodies, World War Z — which type of undead would you have the least chance of taking down?
"I would not want to meet the 28 Days Later zombies. They're fast — and mad. Filled with rage, those. Like, Jesus, there's no reasoning with that kind of zombie. I loved Shaun of the Dead. I liked the funny zombie clichés. I'm more the sort of rom-com, period-drama girl, so it was interesting and different doing this. And I have to say, I just loved it. And it made me want to do more action. I want to be a superhero. I really enjoyed that strength — I felt so powerful."

Should the zombie apocalypse ever happen in real life, what skills would you bring to the table that would come in handy and keep you alive?
"I am always prepared. I think I'm good at, like, sussing out a room and being like, 'Right. I'm going to get this wire [grabs the phone cord from the table] and strangle that zombie! Meanwhile, I'm going to slam this chair on his head and put this hot tea in her face.' I'm sensitive to the potential threat. I'm highly, highly strung. And I’ve got some fight training now, thanks to this film."

Because of the zombies, most of the fun, frivolous stuff of that era, like balls, long solo walks in the forest, and card parties, go by the wayside. What frivolous, fun thing would you most miss if you had to spend your time training and saving the world?
"I would miss going to the pub, because that would be tough. I would miss going on walks on Hampstead Heath. I'd miss, like, going and doing the groceries. I'd miss everything. The little things would be hard to let go of."

Photo: Courtesy of Screen Gems.
Heathcote and James.
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Cinderella, Lady Rose, and Lizzie B. are all independent and feisty. Is this a trait you share with them? What gets your goat and brings out your feisty side?
"I have a terrible temper. I inherited it from my dad, and it's like, naught to 5,000 miles in one second. I'm working on it, though."

In America, we call that zero to bitch in 60 seconds.
"Yeah, I am zero to bitch, like, totally. I like that saying. I am pretty feisty, but that's a good thing, I think. I like that about myself. For the right reasons, I'm very passionate. So I often say things to people and they're like, 'That was mean.' I wasn’t trying to be. I was just talking about it. I'm not feisty, I'm passionate. That's my hashtag."

A lot of your acting gigs have taken place in past decades. If you could travel back in time, where and when or who would you visit?
"That’s one of the best parts about the job of acting — like, a time machine. I just did War & Peace, and we shot at Catherine Palace in Russia. We got to go beyond the ropes and act like we were really living there so it was beyond what you get to see as a tourist, and I loved that. But if I could really go back, I would go to America in the '30s or '40s to a smoky jazz club. I'd love to have a listen to Billie Holiday live. And I love all that in-at-the-hips-out-with-the-tits [style]."

Now, that’s the hashtag of the day.
"That was a good one." [Laughs]

What’s next?
"I start filming in a few weeks. I'm doing Edgar Wright's new movie, Baby Driver, and I play an American chick, a young waitress. She's actually Southern, so I have been working on my accent. She's cool. I'm just stoked. I never used the word stoked before."

Sounds like you are already well on your way to nailing American speak.
"Totally, dude. Oh, I just did it again."
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