Disney’s new live-action remake of Cinderella—opening tonight!—takes the classic fairy tale to a whole new level. With direction by Sir Kenneth Branagh, costumes by the legendary Sandy Powell and a star-studded cast that includes Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother, Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother and Richard Madden as the Prince, this Cinderella has the perfect mix of girl power, self-acceptance messaging and glittering, gorgeous escapism—and that ball gown!
We sat down with Cinderella herself, Lily James (known for her role as Lady Rose MacClare on Downtown Abbey) to talk about what it was like to take on arguably the most famous Disney princess of all time.
What makes this version of Cinderella feel different from all the others?
I think the relationships between all the characters are deepened by the fact that the characters have a backstory, they have a history, they have a life, so they feel more three-dimensional. One of those key relationships is between the Prince and Ella. It’s very different from the animated version, because you see them meet and they don’t know who each other is. They meet as equals and they fall in love. It’s enriched the whole relationship, and it feels like a true love story.
How did the costumes—especially her iconic blue ball gown—help to get you into character?
I loved everything about the gown. I put it on and I just gasped. It changed how I stood, it changed how I danced, it changed how I felt. I think Sandy Powell is a genius.
What do you hope young girls take away from this version of Cinderella?
I hope that it’s her spirit. It’s this idea of “have courage and be kind,” that your strength, as well as your beauty, can radiate from within and that makes you a strong character. Both the Prince and Ella are strong individuals who are worthy of each other’s love because of their own individuality, and I think that is a good message.
Why do you think Cinderella and other Disney storylines have stood the test of time?
I think people love Cinderella because the story is good. It’s the story of the underdog that has nothing and gets everything. She is rewarded for her goodness, and you can root for that character. With fairy tales, there is a sense of nostalgia: these are great stories. They are stories about good and evil, they’re about love, they’re about hopefulness, they’re about magic, they’re timeless.
What was the biggest challenge about this role?
Probably just dealing with the pressure and expectation that I put on myself, believing that I could be a princess, that I was good enough, or pretty enough. I had great people around me to help me get through that.
You’ve worn some gorgeous outfits on the press tour. Which was your favourite and who is your favourite designer to wear?
My favourite look was the Elie Saab gown. I thought, It’s L.A., it’s the world premiere, let’s go full-out princess, and I think Elie Saab is probably the best designer for that. I can’t tell you who my favourite designer is because I love so many. I love Dolce & Gabbana because they dress for women with curves. I love Dior, it’s so stylish and beautiful and elegant. Today I’m wearing Lanvin and I love it. I’ve got a great stylist.
What was the craziest thing you saw on set?
The ballroom was crazy. It was, like, 2,000 candles that were all lit; it must have taken hours every morning. The whole ballroom was built on the 007 set at Pinewood Studios in England. It was everything: it was the walls, the stairs, the marble, the extras, the orchestra. There were, like, five cameras all on cranes. Ken would let the scene run from the time I arrived to the ball to when I ran out, so it felt like you were doing a play. You could do it in real time.
A main theme in the movie is self-acceptance. Is this something difficult to deal with as a Hollywood actress?
Yes, I mean, the line is, “The greatest risk we will ever take is to be seen as we truly are.” That’s really hard, especially when people want you to be so many different things. And they force their idea of you onto you. It’s really hard to do, but I think that if we do it, we are stronger, better, happier people.
What was your favourite scene to shoot?
The very first scene I shot, at the start with Richard on the horse where she meets Prince Charming. It felt so alive and electric. We were trying to control these horses and control our emotions and it really felt like two young people meeting and making a connection. It felt real, it didn’t feel like a fairy tale at all.
Watch the trailer: