Lily James Taps Her Inner Meryl to Become a Dancing Queen

Lily James

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!’” said Ms. James, who eagerly detoured on her way to the Glastonbury Festival in England to audition for the film. But after learning that the part was hers, she got a case of cold feet.

“I really panicked about taking on the role of Donna after Meryl had so magically and vividly brought it to life,” she said. “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,” opening July 20, Ms. James flashes back as 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.

Flash forward to the present, where her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is honoring her mother with the opening of the Hotel Bella Donna. Then a storm blows in, and its name is Cher.

Ms. James, 29, first captured the attention of Americans 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 waitress in “Baby Driver.” And on Aug. 10 on Netflix, she’ll star in “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” as Juliet Ashton, a British author who journeys to Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, in 1946 to write about a book club formed during World War II when the islands were occupied by the Nazis.

On her way to catch a flight from London to Stockholm for the “Mamma Mia!” premiere, she cheerfully chatted by phone about the perils of channeling Ms. Streep and the power of Cher.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

First things first: Where did you get your 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 mom. 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 realize that following this quite rigid structure allowed total freedom within the music and the performance.

How does one prepare to play Meryl Streep?

[Deep inhale and exhale] 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 favorite actress.

Then there’s Cher.

That was wild. I brought my mom in the day Cher was singing. And me and my mom 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 mesmerizing.

Do you have a favorite scene?

There’s a moment when I meet Bill, the young Stellan Skarsgard 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’ve read that you’ll be starring as Eve Harrington opposite Gillian Anderson’s Margo Channing in “All About Eve” on London’s West End next February.

Well, I’m going to hold off before I speak because I’m not actually sure what I’m allowed to say yet. Dot, dot dot.

How about the new Danny Boyle-Richard Curtis film I hear you’re in?

I seem to be going through all the great iconic bands. It’s centered 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.

At least the World Cup will be over by the time “Mamma Mia!” opens. Have you been watching?

Oh my god, yes, religiously. I’m not usually [a soccer fan] but I’m a Chelsea fan, which I have to be because my brothers and my dad are hard-core fans. But the World Cup, I just can’t help but feel so invested. Nothing in theater can achieve that level of drama, where anything can happen, and commitment and power. It’s art. And other than “Mamma Mia!,” what gets a crowd like that leaping to their feet?

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