Lily James is really, really excited to breathe.
Since her breakout role as Lady Rose MacClare on Downton Abbey in 2012, the 28-year-old English actress has starred almost exclusively in a slew of high-profile period pieces—read: corset-confining—including 2015’s live-action Cinderella and BBC’s War & Peace. But with her latest role in Edgar Wright’s much buzzed-about film Baby Driver, James has finally arrived in the modern age.
“It was heaven,” James told me last week. “That waitress outfit was pretty tight, but I would breathe, which was a change. And it was great. I really wanted to do something contemporary, which felt like an escape. It was breath of fresh air to get into 2017.”
The highly stylized film, which focuses on a getaway driver named Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, in the midst of his final heist, is in fact just that—a breath of fresh air. “In a world of a lot of franchises and remakes, it’s an original story and the characters are really unique; I feel kind of bowled over by Edgar and the movie,” James said. “When I saw the finished movie with the cast, I was like, ‘This movie is so cool, I can’t believe I’m in it.’ It feels really iconic and I think it could be a real cult classic, but it’s mainstream enough that anyone and everyone can enjoy it. It’s got romance and action and comedy—it’s kind of genre-less.”
In the film, which is in theaters on Wednesday, James played Deborah, a Southern waitress whom Elgort’s character quickly falls for, prompting him to leave a life of crime. “She’s a total dreamer,” the actress said of her Deborah. “She’s lonely, and yet she’s optimistic. She kind of rattles around in this dead-end diner job with only truck drivers to talk to. You get the feeling that she’s a bit of a drifter and doesn’t know what she wants or what she’s about, and then this guy walks in and she kind of finds a purpose. She’s just a really genuine person.”
The role also saw the Brit ditch her usual posh lilt (see: period pieces) in favor of a twangy Southern accent. “I really worked on it,” said James. “I had this amazing voice coach, and I really focused on the character because being American isn’t just the voice. We really spent ages on it. Half of my family is American, so I do feel like I have American blood. But I’m still working on it.”
It helped that the filming was in Atlanta, where James and the rest of the star-studded cast, including Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Hamm, spent four months last spring. “It was a really fun shoot,” said James. “The cast is insane, and they would bring boomboxes and play music on set. Everyone would sing. If I remember correctly, there was a lot of Michael Jackson.”
As with many of Wright’s previous films, including Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, music is integral—the movie comes off as something of a long-form music video featuring everything from The Beach Boys to Beck to Simon & Garfunkel. In fact, when James first received the script, it came with a playlist attached. “This little icon would come up and if you clicked it, it would play the song from that scene,” she explained. “I’ve done musicals before where, like Baby Driver, the music is key, but I’d never seen that before. I read it twice that way and then went to Spotify and made a playlist. And I still listen to the playlist.”
Another new addition to her listening rotation? Ansolo, Elgort’s side EDM project. “I hadn’t heard it before but while we were on set, he was writing new music and would play me ideas. He’s got this endless supply of music. Like our characters, we kind of hung out and talked about music.”
As we talked, James was packing for a trip to the Glastonbury Music Festival, which took place over the weekend. “I just can’t wait,” she said. “I’m going to pull over, buy lots of alcohol and pour it out of the glass bottles into plastic ones because you can’t bring glass, toilet paper, and Wet Wipes, because that is how you wash for three days. It’s been a long time since I had some time to really let my hair down, and I love dancing, so I can’t wait to just dance around a field with my friends and my boyfriend… I’m going to go see Radiohead, and Liam Gallagher, and Laura Marling. I’ve always loved her. I feel really nostalgic because I spent most of my late teens listening to her, and when I put on certain tracks I can remember being in the halls of my university. I love the power of music in that way.”
And as for her festival style? “Usually I haven’t really gone into the full Glastonbury dress code thing, but this year I have. I was in Palm Springs and came across all of this old thrift and vintage stores and managed to buy some pretty cool and outrageous outfits. Which, of course, look really good when you are in the shop and then we got home and I was like, ‘Oh, I just bought lingerie. That’s not an outfit.’”
Sure beats a corset, though.
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Lily James attends the UK premiere of Fast Girls at the Odeon West End on June 7, 2012 in London, England.
Lily James attends The Laurence Olivier Awards at The Royal Opera House on April 28, 2013 in London, England.
Lily James attends the Cinderella premiere during the 65th Berlinale International Film Festival at Berlinale Palace on February 13, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.
Lily James attends a screening of Disney’s Cinderella hosted by The Cinema Society And Stuart Weitzman at Tribeca Grand Hotel on March 8, 2015 in New York City.
Lily James attends the Cinderella Moscow premiere on February 16, 2015 in Moscow, Russia.
Lily James attends the premiere of Disney’s Cinderella at the El Capitan Theatre on March 1, 2015 in Hollywood, California.
Lily James attends the premiere of Cinderella at Roppongi Hills on April 08, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan.
Lily James arrives at the Entertainment Weekly celebration at Float at Hard Rock Hotel San Diego on July 11, 2015 in San Diego, California.
Lily James attends the annual Charles Finch Filmmakers Dinner during the 67th Cannes Film Festival at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on May 16, 2014 in Cap d’Antibes, France.
Lily James attends the European premiere of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies at the Vue West End on February 1, 2016 in London, England.
Lily James attends the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.
Lily James attends the premiere of Screen Gems’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on January 21, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
Lily James attends the W Magazine celebration of the ‘Best Performances’ Portfolio and The Golden Globes with Audi and Dom Perignon at Chateau Marmont on January 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
Lily James attends the Burberry show during London Fashion Week Spring/Summer collections 2017 on September 19, 2016 in London, United Kingdom.
Lily James hosts an event to celebrate the launch of My Burberry Black at Burberry’s all day cafe Thomas’s on August 22, 2016 in London, England.
Lily James attends ‘Up Next: The National Theatre’s Annual Fundraising Gala” at The National Theatre on March 7, 2017 in London, England.
Lily James, wearing Burberry, attends an event to celebrate ‘The Tale of Thomas Burberry’ at Burberry’s all day cafe Thomas’s on November 1, 2016 in London, England.
Lily James attends the “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art Of The In-Between” Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 1, 2017 in New York City.
Lily James attends the Glamour Women of The Year Awards 2017 at Berkeley Square Gardens on June 6, 2017 in London, England.
Lily James attends the De Beers Grand Opening at Harrods on June 8, 2017 in London, United Kingdom.
Lily James attends DuJour’s Summer Issue Cover Party with Lily James presented by Belvedere Vodka at Beauty & Essex on June 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Lily James attends the Premiere Of Sony Pictures’ Baby Driver at Ace Hotel on June 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Lily James attends the European premiere of Baby Driver on June 21, 2017 in London, United Kingdom.