British actress Lily James was only a few years out of drama school when she landed the role that would change her life, playing Crawley cousin Lady Rose Aldridge in mega-hit U.K. costume drama Downton Abbey. Hollywood soon beckoned, with the relatively unknown James thrust into the limelight when she was cast as the lead in Disney’s 2015 live-action remake of Cinderella. More high-profile roles followed, in such films as Baby Driver, Darkest Hour, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, and Yesterday.
In October 2020, James made headlines yet again — but not the good kind. This time around, she found herself in the midst of a tabloid scandal, when Britain’s Daily Mail published photos of the actress affectionately kissing her married co-star, Dominic West, with the two appearing to canoodle while getting romantic. The ensuing scandal led West to do some marital damage control, while James reportedly cancelled not one but two scheduled TV appearances.
Yet in the midst of this controversy, the showbiz career of the talented young actress has continued to soar. That said, there’s a lot that even diehard fans may not know about her, so buckle up and prepare to learn all about the untold truth of Lily James.
Lily James is not really Lily James
Lily James was not always known as Lily James. She changed her birth name, Lily Thomson, as a way to honor her father, James Thomson, who passed away in 2008. As James revealed in an interview with The Telegraph, her father — described as “an actor, a musician, an entrepreneur and his daughter’s hero” — was “so artistic and so bold. He had such a wild time.”
He was living in Los Angeles in the 1970s, the newspaper noted, when he was involved in a horrific car accident that left him badly scarred. As James explained, her father “suddenly went from a romantic lead to a gangster” onscreen. Looking back, she believes that her beloved dad discovered a renewed thirst for life after coming so close to losing it. “There was so much life in him. He was brilliant,” James added.
Sadly, her father was just 54 when he died of cancer. In a 2015 interview with the New York Post, James reflected on her role in Cinderella, portraying a character dealing with the loss of her father. “It’s weird when you get roles that coincide with your life,” James admitted. “Cinderella touches on loss, and there was definitely a strong sense of grief.”
Acting is literally in Lily James' DNA
Embarking on a career as an actor is something that seems unattainable to some, but for Lily James it was more like stepping into the family business. Not only was her late father, James Thomson, an actor, but so was her grandmother, Helen Horton.
According to Horton’s IMDb page, the Chicago-born actress immigrated to the U.K., where she racked up an extensive roster of screen credits extending back to the early 1950s. Among those credits: Bill Murray’s 1984 drama The Razor’s Edge, Superman III, portraying a variety of different characters on British comedy series The Benny Hill Show, and providing the voice of the spaceship’s computer, Mother, in the 1979 sci-fi thriller Alien. “When I tell friends who are into sci-fi, they’re very impressed,” James told The Sun of that particular role.
Horton passed away in 2007, shortly before the death of her son, James’ father. Interviewed by The Telegraph, James admitted she was thankful that her grandmother was spared from enduring the death of her son. “A lot of my family died in the space of five years, but I am glad that my grandma died before my dad,” said James, “because if she had seen that…”
Downton Abbey made Lily James too famous for the Downton Abbey movie
The role that truly placed Lily James on Hollywood’s radar was jazz-loving flapper Lady Rose Aldridge on Downton Abbey. When the Downton Abbey movie finally came out in 2019, however, Rose was nowhere to be seen. Series creator Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame cleared that up in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
“She can’t be [in it]; she’s in every other film at the world at the moment,” Neames joked. Meanwhile, Fellowes added, “Lily is now a big star, and it would’ve been incredibly difficult for her to find time in her schedule to come and play essentially a supporting role in Downton when her career was in a different place when she was with us.”
For her part, James spoke with People about her absence from the movie. “I’m sadly not [in it], but I’m so excited for it — I’m going to be front row,” she said. However, James told the magazine that “it wasn’t schedules” that kept her from being in the Downton Abbey movie, but the fact that there was “no space” for her minor character. “I would have loved to have come back for a scene,” she said.
Lily James initially auditioned to be one of Cinderella's wicked stepsisters
Lily James caught her big break when Disney cast her in the titular role in the studio’s 2015 live-action adaptation of its animated classic, Cinderella. Landing the part proved especially surprising for the actress, considering she had initially auditioned to play one of Cinderella’s stepsisters and not the iconic fairytale princess.
“I actually originally went in for one of the sisters, to play Anastasia,” James revealed in an interview with ABC’s Nightline. “And I had this awful pink-orange jumper and my hair had been dyed blonde with big brown roots.” It was her dyed-blonde locks, she said, that led the casting director to tell her, “Oh, you should read for Ella while you’re here.”
As James said of her decision to audition for a stepsister role to the New York Post, “I thought it would be interesting to play an off-center character who doesn’t have to be pretty.” However, after what the Post described as “six grueling auditions,” she was finally awarded the role of Cinderella. “I am completely aware of how lucky I am,” James admitted.
The tragic truth behind Lily James' difficulty with onscreen death scenes
While Lily James was excited beyond reason to land the lead role in Disney’s Cinderella, she admitted that one scene in the film hit uncomfortably close to home: when Cinderella discovers her father has died.
“I couldn’t really go there. Sometimes there was coldness to me around that,” James told The Telegraph in 2019, confessing she had shut herself off from the grief of her own father’s death as a coping mechanism, but worried that this might affect the purity of her performance. “I was trying so hard to just hold on to something,” she explained. “I think I became a bit tough. As an actor you can’t do that.”
As more time passed since her father’s 2008 death, James added that it was becoming easier to open up about him. “Sometimes when I speak I feel relaxed … I feel completely at peace and calm,” she explained. “But there are other times when I feel more on edge … We are trying always to be happy, but unhappiness is just as real, just as important an emotion. And if you are closing yourself [from it] you are closing yourself off from other people.”
The surprising reason Lily James tried to steer clear of Baby Driver's director while shooting the film
Lily James was promoting her film Baby Driver in 2017 when she made a stop at Los Angeles morning show Good Day LA. During the interview, she was asked about her waitress character’s American accent, and whether she would revert back to her usual British accent between takes.
“I actually tried to stay in the accent, ’cause it was too confusing,” James admitted. “And I tried to stay away from the director, Edgar Wright, who’s British, because I’d just soak up his sounds. I’d be like, ‘Stay back!'”
Finding that accent, James revealed in an interview with Refinery29, did not come easily. “I worked with an amazing dialect coach who I absolutely adore and we really drilled it a lot,” she said. “It was the most I’ve ever worked on an accent. I tried to stay in an American accent throughout the whole shoot and [co-star] Ansel [Elgort] was brilliant — he helped me slip into Americanisms and I tried to slip into his rhythm.”
The reason Lily James' favorite charity is so close to her heart
Followers of Lily James on social media will likely have noticed the occasional reference to the Motor Neurone Disease Association, a charity she’s described on Instagram as being “close to [her] heart.” The reason was made clear in a 2019 profile on the actress in The Telegraph, which noted that her uncle, Bruce, passed away from the disease, which the association describes as “a group of diseases that affect the nerves (motor neurones) in the brain and spinal cord.”
In fact, James is patron of the organization’s North London branch. Her association with the group has led her to become involved in such initiatives as hosting a charity screening of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, and lending her visage to a billboard in London’s Leicester Square in support of a special event celebrating the MNDA’s 40th anniversary.
James’ billboard promoted a special exhibition featuring artwork that had been created by “people living with or affected by motor neurone disease,” and proclaimed that “Lily James supports arts by people with motor neurone disease.”
Lily James' first love is the stage
Just a year after her 2010 graduation from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Lily James began performing onstage in London. According to her London Theatre Co. bio, early roles included Nina in the Southwark Playhouse production of The Seagull and doomed Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello at the Crucible Theatre.
More stage work followed, which ultimately led to her breakthrough in Downton Abbey and the successful film career that came after. Through it all, however, James has been insistent about carving out some time within her burgeoning Hollywood prospects for theatrical roles. This was evident in 2016 when she starred opposite Game of Thrones‘ Richard Madden in a West End production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also directed her in Disney’s Cinderella).
In 2019, James returned to the stage for a West End adaptation of 1950 film All About Eve. She played the title character, a conniving young actress who betrays her mentor, veteran thespian Margo Channing (Gillian Anderson of The X-files). “I loved playing the villain and exploring that side of myself,” James told the Evening Standard of the role. “Eve is such a complex, brilliant, screwed-up person.”
Lily James is distantly related to Meryl Streep
Lily James took on one of her most high-profile roles when she starred in the 2018 sequel/prequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, playing the younger version of Donna, who was iconically portrayed by Meryl Streep in the 2008 original.
However, the actresses share more than just playing the same character — as the Mirror reported, they’re also distantly related, ninth cousins thrice removed. According to the outlet, both stars are descended from a common ancestor, Henry Howland, who passed away in 1634. When presented with this info, Streep was ecstatic. “I love it. Absolutely wonderful news to hear I am in any way related to this delightful person,” she said of James. Revealing that she and James wore the same outfits in the film, Streep added, “What a kick to find we share jeans and genes.”
Speaking about the film to The Hollywood Reporter, James admitted that stepping into a role played by arguably the most acclaimed actress of her generation was daunting. “It was kind of overwhelming at times,” admitted James, who revealed that she used to obsessively listen to recordings of Streep from the first movie “and walk around like a madman, mimicking her.”
Lily James admitted to making 'mistakes' in a poorly timed interview
Lily James was just a year out of drama school when she won accolades for her performance in a 2011 stage production of Shakespeare’s Othello, co-starring with Dominic West and Clarke Peters — both of whom had previously starred in HBO’s The Wire. West and James reunited in 2020 when they were cast in BBC One’s TV adaptation of the novel The Pursuit of Love.
Scandal ensued in October of that year when the Daily Mail published paparazzi photos of James and her married co-star kissing while together in Rome. Page Six reported that West and wife Catherine FitzGerald subsequently appeared together outside their home and declared their marriage is “strong,” and that they’re “still together.”
However, an interview that James gave before the scandal broke featured some comments that, in retrospect, seemed unfortunately timed. Speaking with Harper’s Bazaar, reported the Evening Standard, James said, “I think I make mistakes all the time.” She added: “I think that it’s better to throw yourself in and make mistakes with an open heart. If your instincts are right even if they’re misguided, or if you’re open, you know, you can recover from your mistakes and learn from them.”
Lily James keeps her love life private, but it seems complicated
In 2014, Lily James began dating actor Matt Smith, known for his roles in Doctor Who and The Crown. In late 2019, The Sun reported that the couple had split, with sources indicating the hectic schedules of the two in-demand actors were to blame. In May 2020, however, The Sun claimed they had reconnected while in lockdown, their busy lives suddenly slowed as the pandemic paused film and TV production.
However, the situation was further complicated in July 2020, when the Daily Mail published photos of James exiting a London party with Captain America star Chris Evans, with the pair taking a taxi to his hotel at 1 a.m.
James has not commented publicly about those photos, nor the aforementioned ones with Dominic West. As for James’ relationship with Smith, days before her scandalous photos with West emerged, sources cited by the Daily Mail claimed that she and Smith had split permanently. According to the outlet’s insider, the relationship “just isn’t working and they have mutually decided to just close this chapter of their lives.” James, the source went on to allege, found it “quite tough being with another celebrity.”
An inside look at Lily James' multi-million net worth
Lily James has starred in some box-office blockbusters, including Disney’s Cinderella (which grossed more than $542 million worldwide) and hit musical Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (which nabbed $395 million globally). Meanwhile, Celebrity Net Worth pegs James’ fortune at about $4 million. If that figure seems low by Hollywood standards — especially given the half-billion box-office take of Cinderella — The Hollywood Reporter may have an answer.
According to THR, Disney has a tendency to lowball salaries for its princess actresses. Emma Watson, for example, earned a reported $60 million for the Harry Potter series, but was paid just $3 million for Beauty and the Beast (which earned nearly $1.3 billion worldwide). While James’ Cinderella salary wasn’t made public, a clue to how stingy it may have been can be found in an anecdote from THR, claiming Disney refused to “to pay for [James’] mother to sit alongside her in first class.”
As a Hollywood lawyer told THR of Disney, “They are cheap with everyone.” The reason: those films already have a built-in fanbase so strong it almost doesn’t matter who’s cast. As a result, another source explained, Disney “has the luxury to not have to put a star in there.”
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