Lily James On Road Trips, Waiting Tables & Being A Brit In Hollywood

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
There's a line in the upcoming summer blockbuster Baby Driver that sums up how many of us feel at this time of year. "Sometimes all I want to do is head west on the 20 in a car I can't afford with a plan I don't have," says Debora, played by British actor Lily James, more than once. Indeed, when the sun's blazing down, lunchtime drinking is no longer a sackable offence and 80% of work emails are met with an out-of-office reply, it's tempting to pack it all in and take a spontaneous road trip far away.
But if that's not possible and you have, er, actual responsibilities, you could do a lot worse than head to the cinema to watch the aforementioned Baby Driver. From British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), starring Ansel Elgort as protagonist Baby, Kevin Spacey as a crime lord, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Lily James, the film is two hours of pure escapism. The "action-musical" – so-called because of its gripping, fast-paced car chases and electrifying soundtrack – is both a classic all-American car movie and a charming romance between Baby and young waitress Debora.
Until now, James was arguably best known for her part in Downton Abbey and title role in the 2015 Disney film Cinderella, so Baby Driver marks a bold departure for the 28-year-old from Esher, Surrey, hailing a move away from pretty dresses and the dawn of a new stage in her burgeoning Hollywood career. Refinery29 spoke to the actor about music, American accents and hitting the open road.
Hi Lily, how much do you identify with your character, Debora?
I identify with her a lot. There’s something missing in her life and she’s working in a diner and rattling around but really hasn’t got much going on. She lost her mum and there’s this hole [in her life] and she’s trying to fill it and hasn’t found who she wants to be or what she wants to be or what she wants to do. I think that’s the reason why, when this guy walks in and this crazy world descends upon her, she’s so impulsive and she’s like, "Right, I’m going with you". I’m quite impulsive and she’s a real dreamer, she loves music. You feel like she’s an old soul, so there was a lot for me to latch on to.
Debora doesn’t really ask Baby what he’s up to. Do you think you would have been as unquestioning as she is in those circumstances? Would you have just gone along with it like she did?
Well, I think that probably all would come later. I think it’s credit to how brilliant Ansel’s Baby is in that I don’t ever question, as a member of the audience when I watch it, that he’s a good, kind-hearted person and I think she can really see that. She can see that he shouldn’t really be in that world and I think it’s more to do with her own boredom with life as much as it is to do with the fact that she’s fallen in love with this guy, that she’s like, "It’s better than rattling around in that diner for the next 25 years".
What was it like working with Ansel? How did you manage to build such great chemistry?
I don’t know – it’s funny, we found it really easy. I think it’s credit to Edgar Wright – his script is really beautifully written and constructed and he’s really clever. He’s such an amazing storyteller and he does it through images and shots, so he makes us care for Baby and then Debora and then puts them together. He’s manipulated it all, so I think our chemistry is real – not to give too much credit away, we owned it [laughs] – but I do think Edgar was very clever at constructing that.
Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
How did you manage to nail your American accent? Did you do much training, or base it on anyone in particular?
I worked with an amazing dialect coach who I absolutely adore and we really drilled it a lot. It was the most I’ve ever worked on an accent. I tried to stay in an American accent throughout the whole shoot and Ansel was brilliant – he helped me slip into Americanisms and I tried to slip into his rhythm.
Are there any words or phrases you find particularly challenging?
I hate saying "holla". Like, "If you’ve got any questions just holla". It’s just like, I would never say that. A lot of words, even "Baby" and [for "Mary"] they say "merry", they don’t say "mare-ee", and I had to say "Mary" about 10 times in one speech so I was like "merry, merry, merry".
There are a lot of action-packed scenes in the film. What were they like to shoot? Did you do your own stunts?
Edgar had such a clear vision in his head and and he’s so amazing at editing. The editor, Paul, was on set doing it as we shot which was incredible, so you could go up and see what you’d just done, but it means it’s covered from a lot of angles. There was a lot of like, "Turn and scream" or "Turn and jump", so it’s hard to keep a sense of momentum and continuity to it all, so I struggled with that. Also, we were doing night shoots outside in a freezing cold car park in Atlanta. I had some stuff that was really high up, where I had to wear a rope, and I did a lot of driving at the end, but nothing that was too extreme really.
Did you do any physical training for the film?
I wanted to go and work in a diner. I wanted to get a waitress job because I worked in a pub when I was 18 for a year or so when I went to drama school, but I never waited tables. But I didn’t end up having time.
Debora is so polite to the customers…
Yeah, that was something I thought about – in America the service is obviously so different. Waiters want their tip and can live off their tips. Obviously in America they tip so well. When I was in America doing press, in LA, I watched the waiters and they are mostly actors. Everything is so sweet and kind and you’re like, "Oh my god"…
Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
I always wonder how they find the energy. Do you find it quite tricky as an English person in Hollywood to maintain all that energy and politeness?
There’s a lot of energy and there’s a lot of “We love you”. If producers loved me as much as they said they did, I’d be working non-stop for the rest of my life, but that’s not gonna happen. I also find that you get your meal and they come back at least three times and go, “Is everything ok? Are you enjoying your meal?” and [in my head] I’m like "I would be if you would let me eat it" [laughs].
Do you drive?
I don’t have a car in London but I did pass my test when I was 17. I was so eager to learn, I wanted the freedom and independence, but I haven’t driven in the last few years so I think I’d be a bit nervous.
Where are your favourite places to drive?
Well I just drove on the weekend, not me but my boyfriend [actor Matt Smith], to Palm Springs and we went to Joshua Tree, which was incredible and it was very Baby Driver-esque. We were DJ-ing in the car and playing all these really great tunes while driving in the desert. There were all these massive wind turbines and we were listening to [composer] Max Richter – he did Shutter Island and stuff – we were playing this music and driving through the desert, it was very epic.
What’s your favourite music to listen to?
I’m going to Glastonbury this weekend. Oh my god, I can’t wait. I’m very excited about seeing Radiohead and I’m excited to see Liam Gallagher, yeah loads of stuff. I’ve recently been listening to Imelda May – she’s amazing. I love Elbow – I’m obsessed with their album Little Fictions.
What did you think about the portrayal of women in the film? There are only two main female characters and not many others – do you think there could have been more of them?
Erm, no, I think the story is told brilliantly and I think Darling [played by Eiza González] and Debora are two very different women – you’ve got my character, who’s much more the heart and quite pure, and then you’ve got Eiza’s character, who’s firing double machine guns and is as badass as the rest of the men in the gang, but still maintaining this femininity which I liked – her using her sexuality but in a very cool, powerful way. So, you know, the more women the better but for this, I think it rocks.
Baby Driver is in UK cinemas from Wednesday 28th June.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series