Meet Lily James, the Feminist Cinderella

Can you fall in love with a prince and still be a strong woman? The Cinderella star on her film’s subversive message—and why that waistline controversy needs to go away.

Jonathan Olley/Disney

Lily James knows she’s living every little girl’s dream. There’s the glass slipper, sure, and that gorgeous ball gown, too—CGI’d waist or otherwise. But as the 25-year-old star of Cinderella tells it, she’s experiencing a different kind of wish fulfillment.

“People talk a lot about, ‘You’re a Disney princess! You’re Cinderella!’ and this and that,” she tells The Daily Beast from the carriage (in this case a private car) that’s whisking her from one ball to another (in this version of the fairy tale, events in an exhausting Disney press tour). “But for me it’s all about the fact that I worked with Cate Blanchett and was directed by Kenneth Branagh. That’s the Cinderella story for me.”

It’s a refreshing message from the girl who’s been labeled, incessantly, a “real-life Cinderella” in the weeks leading up to Friday’s release of the new film. For all the ways her life has uncannily mirrored that of the saintly girl with the dainty feet, and certainly for all of the jaw-dropping, Cinderella-inspired looks the self-described “tomboy” has been wearing on red carpets, being cast in the narrative was inevitable.

But that the real ball is sharing the screen with an Oscar-winning actress tells you all you need to know about James and this film’s “take” on Cinderella.

It reflects our society’s evolving relationship with fairy tales, too. Who has time to wait for their prince to come? Shouldn’t girls work to achieve their dreams without the help of a fairy godmother? And isn’t it hard to properly kick ass while wearing glass slippers that won’t stay on your freaking feet?

Sometimes life sucks, and you have to deal with it. And if you maintain a good outlook on life while doing it, and you work hard, maybe one day you’ll star in a movie with Cate Blanchett. The fabulous ball gown? That’s just gravy.

Fairy tales have gotten a bad rap in the modern age, where feminism reigns with far more power than a princess could ever hope to have. In revolt, Hollywood has gone into overdrive twisting fairy tales and their happily-ever-afters with dark backstories, moody leading ladies, ferocious action sequences, and villains that are as sympathetic as the pure-of-heart heroines.

Because of that, “people have been really intrigued about what makes this Cinderella different,” James says. “The psychology behind our version of Ella.” This Cinderella, then, is a radical response to that movement.

Amid our obsession with revisionist tales, it’s a boldly traditional telling. It certainly has something to say about feminism, survival, and taking control of your own destiny. But it is also unapologetic about the sweeping romance, hopeful magic, and desire to love that made fairy tales so ridiculous and wonderful and escapist in the first place.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot and actually got in a debate with one of my friends about it,” James says about the modern backlash against fairy tales. Her friend passionately rejected the idea that a girl needs a man to save her, the resounding critique against the “message” fairy tales send to young girls.

Obviously, James rejects that idea, too. “But, to me, growing up I watched Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid and what struck me—and still does when I re-watch them—was that these are girls that dream and want to see the world,” she says. “They’re free spirits—free thinkers—and they don’t really obey what they’re supposed to be doing. That’s what I took from it: a sense of adventure and a sense of abandon. They’re so full of hope. I found that infectious, wanting to dream and see the best in the world.”

Her Cinderella, she insists, is strong, something that’s hard to argue with as she weathers a litany of unjust abuse from Blanchett’s wicked stepmother with dignity and grace. You have empathy for her, but you never pity her—a nuance that’s a testament to the character’s strength and the strength of James’s performance.

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“She’s not waiting around for a prince to rescue her, and she’s dealing with life as best as she can,” James says. “She’s following what her parents taught her about having courage and being kind. And she’s finding happiness and joy in her life despite the sort of horrible circumstances that she’s in. When she meets the prince, they meet as equals. I feel like she enriches him as much as he enriches her.”

In the Disney film, there’s the insinuation that of course Cinderella wants to be with the Prince because, hey, he’s a prince! Why wouldn’t you want to be with him? But the happily-ever-after doesn’t come in this Cinderella until Ella is certain that she’s loved and appreciated on her own merits—not because she looked pretty in a ball gown—and that the Prince is worthy of her love. “Will you take me as I am?” she asks him, and he asks in return.

“I also love that in that moment she calls herself ‘Cinderella,’” James says. “She takes the name that was created to keep her down and belittle her and uses that name as strength and power. ‘Yes, this is who I am. I’m this girl. Take me or leave me.’ It’s a moment that I feel she’s empowered, but at the same time that’s a moment that is hopelessly romantic and magical.”

That’s the progressiveness of this Cinderella. Empowerment and romance aren’t viewed as mutually exclusive. Ella is allowed both.

In an interview this week with The Daily Beast, the film’s screenwriter, Chris Weitz, spoke on the idea that a modern Cinderella must “say something,” and that “something” better be feminist. He concedes that the girl power on display here is not as overt or physical as, say, Katniss Everdeen or even Elsa from Frozen.

“It’s not necessarily a very contemporary idea of a hero,” says Weitz. “She’s not aggressive and she doesn’t really fight back, and that’s what we want from our heroines nowadays, to kind of bootstrap them. But she has tremendous inner resources.”

But it’s that quiet power that makes the feminist ideals of this Cinderella all the more slick and sly. In fact, to better tap into Cinderella’s inner strength, James considered reading up on Gandhi to be as integral in preparing for the role as the horseback-riding lessons and costume fittings she partook in.

“It’s the idea of his nonviolent resistance and way of engaging the world,” she says of Gandhi. “This is a fairy tale and Ella is rewarded for her goodness. But even if she wasn’t, there is happiness in her world. It comes from within.”

Inner strength and patience are values James knows well.

A graduate of London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama best known for her role on Downton Abbey as Lady Rose, the series’ resident rabble-rouser, James’s journey to the ball has been nowhere near as whimsical and precocious as her on-screen counterpart’s. Twists of fate both so tragic and so destiny-defining they could source their own fairy tale contributed to her landing the Cinderella role.

Her father, Jamie Thomson, lost his battle with cancer in 2008, an experience that gave her an unfortunate poignant connection to Ella’s story. “I can’t go into too much, because it’s too emotional for me,” she says. “But I think that often art imitates life and affects life, and you end up having to go through things that are quite close to the bone, but that’s all part of it.”

A more pleasant turn of fortune, however, came during the Cinderella audition process. James had originally turned up to read for the role of an ugly stepsister. The natural brunette had lightened her hair blond for Downton Abbey, however, and was asked to read for Ella. Thanks to a flattering dye job—and nailing a rigorous audition process—James soon found herself at the ball, wearing that iconic gown.

That iconic, oh-so-controversial gown.

Wisely, Disney has been using images and footage of James in her breathtaking Sandy Powell-designed ball gown to market Cinderella. It’s a dazzling costume. Unfortunately, there have been accusations that a little too much magic was used in the look; that James’s appearance was digitally altered to make her waist look smaller.

The outrage is somewhat understandable. Cinderella should be a role model for young women. What kind of message does it send about body image if James’s already itty-bitty waistline is made to look even smaller? However, the outrage, at least according to James, is unnecessary. She maintains that there was no digital alteration.

“I find that the fullness of the skirt makes the waist look smaller,” she says about the dress. “And I pulled it in a corset. For me, it’s hard because I feel like that costume is one of the most beautiful costumes I’ve ever seen. It’s sad to think that people are looking at it in a negative way.”

“I’m proud of that dress,” she continues, adding for good measure: “I’m a healthy girl.”

The scrutiny James has had to answer to in the wake of the controversy might now be an example of life imitating art. She’s being thrust in front of the public in a spotlight far harsher than she’s ever received before, representing the whole idea of not just being a princess, but a bona fide movie star—and all of the pressure that comes with both.

“One of my favorite lines is when Cinderella is getting out of the carriage,” James says, reflecting on the mirror between her own life right now and what Ella goes through in the film. “She says, ‘I’m frightened, Mr. Lizard. I’m just a girl, not a princess.’ I really understand that. When I felt very nervous and felt the pressure and felt like I couldn’t do this—that I’m not beautiful enough or this enough or that enough or made a mistake—I felt like those would be things that Cinderella would feel, too.”

“I can’t help but see her as just a girl,” she says. “She’s only a princess at the end of the movie.”

That may be true, but James’s reign as Hollywood royalty is far from over.

In the midst of the whirlwind press tour for Cinderella she’s been shooting a miniseries based on War and Peace. And later this year she’s rocking a corset on-screen again, albeit in wholly different circumstances, to play Elizabeth Bennett in the big-screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. “I loved fighting, learning those scenes, getting strong, getting to kick the shit out of zombies,” she says, laughing.

How far have princesses come? Well, Cinderella just said that.