Lily James has said that her latest role, as Mrs. de Winter in the Netflix remake of Daphne du Maurier’s classic Gothic novel Rebecca, left her with panic attacks as she struggled to extract herself from the character’s “difficult headspace”.
“I found it really hard to let go of the character [de Winter]. She’s really bullied and gas lighted, she lives in a difficult headspace. I kept having panic attacks after it finished, I couldn’t shake it off,” she commented, adding that she expects the Ben Wheatley-directed film to be “very different” from Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning 1940 adaptation, though she hasn’t viewed a cut yet.
James was speaking in a BAFTA masterclass held at the 2019 International Film Festival & Awards Macao (IFFAM). During the talk, in which she charmed an attentive audience of local and international delegates, she also discussed how the cast of Downton Abbey had influenced her career and helped build her confidence. James recalled how, on her first day on set, a group led by Maggie Smith hid behind furniture and then jumped out to gave her a surprise welcome.
“I learned to do screen acting in the most high-pressured environment – I felt like I couldn’t make a mistake on Downton Abbey. But on the other hand it was the best opportunity I could ever have been given, it’s such an ensemble piece, so I was learning from the best straight away,” she recalled.
It was while shooting Downton that James auditioned for the lead in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella feature for Disney, which went on to be a box office smash. James recounted how, when she got the part, fellow Downton actor Hugh Bonneville delivered a speech fully in character to congratulate her on landing the part.
“I’ll be forever grateful for the job [Downton], we’re still a family,” she added.
Discussing the lessons she has learned in her career to date, James said that building her confidence while also being able to feel vulnerable has been key.
“Everything you do has to challenge and frighten you. Helena Bonham Carter told me it’s ok not to be ok, to have a breakdown, to cry – it lets people know you’re not a robot,” she explained. “It can be so difficult, the relentless filming every day, getting up at 5am – doing that for months can become too much and that’s ok, as long as you’re still a good person and good to work with and don’t turn into a diva.”
“Actors have to have really thin skin to let emotions out, but you have to have really thick skin to deal with success,” James continued, “When you get a rejection, let it hurt for a couple of hours and then let it go, it wasn’t meant to be.”
Looking to the future, James said her ambition is to have more creative influence on some future projects. In one of her upcoming roles, she is set to executive produce alongside acting duties, and she is also looking to option a book to produce herself.