Entertainment & Arts

Lily James 'wants to be an action hero' after zombie role

Lily James in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Image copyright Lionsgate
Image caption Lily James says she wants to put her training to good use by playing more action heroes

She is best known for period dramas - having been seen most recently in War and Peace and Downton Abbey.

But now that she's wielded a dagger and showed off her martial arts moves to dispatch the undead as a very modern Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Lily James wants to play action heroes.

When a film starts with the line "it is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains", it is clear this is going to be no ordinary period drama adaptation.

'Heat of the moment'

The corsets and courtship are still there, but so is a horde of the undead, rampaging through the 19th Century countryside and the world that Jane Austen fans hold so dear.

"When I heard the title, I was a bit confused," admitted James. "I was slightly cynical about the idea of putting zombies into Jane Austen, but literally within a few pages of the script I was sold and I loved it.

"I thought, what a fresh, exciting, fun way to revisit this story. And it was this idea of being an action hero - I just loved it.

"I want to be an action hero forever more."

Image copyright Lionsgate
Image caption James admitted that she may have punched Sam Riley (centre) 'for real' during filming

One of her main sparring partners was Sam Riley, who plays Colonel Darcy, with their verbal battles as imagined by Austen made rather more physical.

"When I was hitting Sam, I would get a bit carried away," James confessed. "He was really gentlemanly, and wouldn't tell me until after.

"But I was really going for him a bit hard, so he was pretty bruised. You get caught up in the heat of the moment and the adrenalin. You forget you're actually not meant to punch them for real."

She says she was more inspired by films like The Terminator when preparing for the role, rather than re-watching famous adaptations of Pride and Prejudice.

"I needed Liz Bennet to feel quite tough," explained James. "So I watched Linda Hamilton in The Terminator and Angelina Jolie and tried to channel their strength."

She also watched YouTube clips, forwarded to her by her trainer, to see the "grace, skill and accuracy" needed in martial arts.

Image copyright Lionsgate
Image caption Bella Heathcote wants to see more classics reinterpreted like the Jane Austen mashup

Putting this spin on the story brings Liz Bennet, as she prefers to call her, up to date and makes the story "more modern", said James.

"She's breaking the mould, she's not giving in to that structure in life. She's already such an independent, fierce character, and in this version even more so, because she's a fighter - so it's total girl power, total strength."

Australian actress Bella Heathcote, who plays "sensible" older sister Jane, agreed it was "great" that the Bennet sisters are the ones who save the day in the new film.

"It's pretty rare for one woman to be the heroine, let alone five of us," she said, adding that while "everyone said it could have been horrible having five girls all together", there was no cattiness within the group.

She insisted Jane is "still the nice girl" in this version, "but she gets to kick ass and kill a few zombies".

Austen 'would love it'

Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novel was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 41 weeks.

This film adaptation had been planned since 2009 but there were delays due to changes in the cast and crew, including the role of Elizabeth, which was originally lined up for Natalie Portman - now producer of the film.

Some Austen fans may not appreciate their beloved romance being infiltrated by brain-guzzling zombies, but James said the point of the film was to reach out to people who may not otherwise "engage with the classic".

"I think we've taken Pride and Prejudice and handled it with absolute love and care," she said. "We're all huge fans of Jane Austen and we've been incredibly sensitive and the story is the heart of the movie still. The characters and the action is propelled by the brilliant plot."

Image copyright Lionsgate
Image caption The Bennet sisters accessorise with swords, as well as bonnets, in the new adaptation

Heathcote agreed that classics are there for the taking when it comes to bringing them up to date for a modern audience.

"I feel like people shouldn't be precious with them," she said. "They're not precious with Shakespeare - they do all kinds of interpretations and settings.

"So why not do it with all the classics? Because otherwise, they're going to be dated and going to be forgotten."

And what would Austen herself have thought? "I think she'd have loved it," said James, adding that the author "had a great sense of humour".

Much of the humour in the film comes from Parson Collins, played by Doctor Who star Matt Smith - who is James's partner.

"He just improvised and made everything up," she said. "I was laughing so much, he was so funny."

Critics unconvinced

The end of the film hints at a sequel - and James and Heathcote both said they would love that to happen - but critics have not been entirely convinced.

Mark Kermode wrote in the Observer that the mash-up "lacks bite", the Financial Times said "the title is the funniest thing", Variety thought it "awkward and unsatisfying", and Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian said it "seems like it's just laughing at Austen".

But the Radio Times described it as "perversely clever", saying it "works like a charm", and Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent gave it four stars, saying it was "energetic and occasionally inspired".

James is currently in the US, filming Baby Driver, in which she plays an American diner waitress.

But perhaps she shouldn't stop the Shaolin martial arts moves training just yet - after all, there's still Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters ready to be adapted.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is in UK cinemas now.

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