Jason Wiese | Reporter
From Print [Feb. 2, 2015] | Lindenwood Legacy
What could arguably become Lily James’ biggest role to date is the lead in the last film she ever thought she would do.
“I thought it sounded terrible,” said the star of “Downton Abbey” and Disney live-action remake of “Cinderella.” That was until she read the script, “and thought it was wonderful. It’s bizarre how it works, and it’s rare that you get a script that you sort of love that much. It was pretty exciting.”
James stars as yet another iconic character in classic English literature, but not in the sense that most people would normally assume: Elizabeth Bennet in the modern classic “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” director Burr Steers’ big screen adaptation of the New York Times bestseller that combines the beloved 1813 novel by Jane Austen with the darkly comic mind of Seth Grahame-Smith.The Victorian romance/zombie thriller mash-up was published in 2009, after Grahame-Smith had taken Austen’s original romantic social commentary, which had already entered the public domain, and rewrote it to set it in an alternate 19th century-England in which the world has already endured the rise of the undead.
“You get Jane Austen and you get ‘Pride & Prejudice’ and that story, especially the love story: Liz and Darcy and Jane and Bingley. That all really remains the heart of the story, and it’s a romance, it’s a drama,” James said. “But then throw into that, every time you’re maybe getting a bit bored, a big zombie attack so it really just makes it very a, sort of, exciting romp and quite scary and funny, and I don’t know. Somehow it just all holds together, doesn’t it guys?”
She is asking her co-stars, Matt Smith, Bella Heathcote and Douglas Booth. Heathcote, the Australian actress playing Elizabeth’s sister, Jane, chimes in.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s like Austen but a bit less nutritional value. A bit more candy on top.”
James is almost gigglish when referring to the film’s inventive source material, which could be considered a more literal interpretation of the book.
“Liz Bennet gets to beat the crap out of Darcy which is really a sort of a physical expression of all her sexual frustration,” James said. “That’s a very basic analysis, but it was just interesting how the zombies kind of contributed.”
Matt Smith, who rose to fame as the 11th actor to portray the titular role of Doctor Who, plays clergyman Mr. Collins and also believes that zombie fiction was a decent alteration to Austen’s work.
“I think because there are zombies in the film, somehow, eternally, that allows you to… make bold choices because the laws of the universe are slightly heightened and the characters that exist in it can therefore be slightly heightened, I think,” he said. “And I just think it’s interesting as well.”
Douglas Booth, who plays Mr. Bingley in “PPZ”, saw the film as a family affair of sorts.
“What was different was, there was actually quite a lot of us who knew each other before,” the English actor recalled. “We’re really good friends and made really great new friends… It was just such a joyous job.”
Some of the cast’s favorite moments working on the film occurred during pre-production as they underwent months of training to prepare for the film’s many sequences involving characters fighting zombie attacks
“I did about three months by myself in L.A. and got really into Kung Fu,” said Heathcote, detailing how she prepared for her character’s aggressive side.
“We had such a fun time… beating the crap out of zombies who were very frightening on set,” James added.
By turning Austen’s female protagonists into warriors, “PPZ” may be Hollywood’s next successful attempt at typically male-targeted content with a strong sense of female empowerment.
As James insists, “Jane Austen would love girl power and so would Jane Austen purists.”
Perhaps, the world will discover if James’ claim rings true, unless, when the film is released in theaters Friday, Feb. 5, the next epic battle will commence: the romantic against the bloodthirsty.