After Lily James took on weighty roles in Darkest Hour and War & Peace, her agents weren’t so sure she’d entertain a decidedly less cerebral offer: playing a younger version of the dancing queen Donna Sheridan – a role made famous by Meryl Streep – in the sequel to Mamma Mia!, the 2008 musical blockbuster built around songs by the Swedish pop group Abba.
“I was like, ‘Are you crazy? It sounds great!’” says James, who eagerly detoured on her way to the Glastonbury Festival to audition for the film. But after learning that the part was hers, she got cold feet.
“I really panicked about taking on the role of Donna after Meryl had so magically and vividly brought it to life,” she says. “I panicked about the singing and the dancing and the time to prepare. And then I finally decided to bite the bullet.”
In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, James flashes back as young Donna, an effervescent Oxford graduate who meets not one but three dashing young men on her way to the Greek isle of Kalokairi and ends up pregnant, father unknown.
James, 29, first captured people’s attention in 2013 as the spirited Lady Rose in Downton Abbey before twirling through the title role in Disney’s Cinderella in 2015, and riding shotgun last year as a southern American waitress in Baby Driver. On her way to catch a flight from London to Stockholm for the Mamma Mia! premiere, she cheerfully chats by phone about the perils of channelling Streep and the power of Cher.
First things first: where did you get your singing chops?
Well, my dad was a good singer. He was in a band called Two Way, with the actor Anthony Head, and had a record. He sang and played guitar, so I guess it was from him. Not my mum. She’s pretty tone deaf.
You’d already sung in Cinderella. Were you nervous about auditioning?
I sang a few songs – “I Have a Dream” and “Mamma Mia” – and went into a room with the choreographer, the producers and the director. So it was a really scary room. But I was such a big fan of the musical, and I’d seen it a lot when I was younger, and I loved the movie. I just felt like it captured the heart of what the stage production was, and that’s hard to do – keep the same essence and vibe, and keep people jumping up and down.
What’s it like to shoot a musical where the songs are enormous hits?
The very first thing I did was go to Stockholm and record my songs with Benny [Andersson] and Bjorn [Ulvaeus], and suddenly I was in Benny’s studio and I was singing Abba songs in front of Abba. So that happened. And Anthony Van Laast is the choreographer and he’s just the best – a magician of movement. Initially, I sort of was like, ‘No, I don’t want to be told what to do. I need to be an actor where you just figure it out’. And then I slowly began to realise that following this quite rigid structure allowed total freedom within the music and the performance.
How does one prepare to play Meryl Streep?
Well, I tried to be really proactive about it, just to show that I’d done all the work I possibly could. And I watched the movie thousands and thousands of times and tried to mimic her mannerisms and capture what I thought the essence of Donna was and what Meryl did.
And when you finally met?
Our paths didn’t cross that much because of the nature of the film. But she seems just really rooted and cool and generous. But you know, she’s Meryl Streep, so she walks in a room and it’s amazing. She was singing in this chapel, and I knew I was about to meet her and I started to cry. It was just too much to get my head around. And I told myself to pull it together. She is my favourite actress.
Then there’s Cher...
That was wild. I brought my mum in the day Cher was singing. And me and my mum had this amazing image of watching at the monitors in a dark corner of Pinewood [Studios, near London], just shaking. It was very surreal, this front row, private, intimate gig of Cher’s. Her voice is so overwhelmingly powerful and rich, and when you hear it in the flesh, it’s mesmerising.
Do you have a favourite scene?
There’s a moment when I meet Bill, the young Stellan Skarsgård character played by Josh Dylan, and we dance on the boat on the way to Kalokairi. And there was this magical week when every day we were in the Adriatic Sea [in Croatia], which was just glittering, and dancing on this beautiful boat and Abba was blaring out and it was just too good to be true. Every day on wrap we got to jump into the sea, and the sun would be setting as you’d return home. That’s what I think is so special about the movie. If it’s your cup of tea, it’s just joyous.
I seem to be going through all the great iconic bands. It’s centred around a world where there’s only one person left who can remember the Beatles’ music. It’s not a musical but it’s got a lot of music in it, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I’m not[singing but Himesh Patel, who’s the lead actor, will blow everyone’s mind when they hear him.
© The New York Times
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