Lily James: Having the courage to be who you are feels radical, even now
Battling through the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns has left many of us feeling desperate to escape, see the world, and have new experiences.
This is why actress Lily James, 32, believes her latest project, The Pursuit Of Love – about two best friends keen to discover who they are and live life to the full – will particularly resonate with people right now.
“This will be a wonderful show for people to watch, because it’s such a celebration of life,” elaborates the Surrey-born star, famous for Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! and Cinderella.
“And it’s so funny; there’s the satire and the wit and the honesty, and a bohemian lifestyle that I think is very provocative and intoxicating. It will be really fun for people to watch.”
The three-part BBC One series – adapted from the treasured Nancy Mitford novel of the same name – sees James play the charismatic and fearless Linda Radlett, while Emily Beecham takes on the role of her cousin, Fanny Logan.
Written and directed by actress Emily Mortimer – who also stars in the series as Fanny’s mother, The Bolter – the romantic comedy-drama follows the misadventures and adventures of the two women who, consumed by a desire for love and marriage, are on the hunt for the ideal husband.
As the story progresses, Linda decides to follow her heart, to increasingly wild and outrageous places, while Fanny settles for a steady life – putting their dynamic friendship to the test.
Set in Europe between the two world wars, social and political divisions split the nation, and the duo’s diverging choices raise personal questions that remain intensely relevant today.
The show – which also stars Dominic West, Dolly Wells, and Andrew Scott – is both moving and comical in its exploration of its timely themes: freedom, love and sex, and the mystery of the human heart.
And James – who can also be seen in recent Netflix releases Rebecca and The Dig – addresses how everything about Linda feels “radical, because she lives life so honestly, and she’s unafraid”.
“She has all this passion and fire and energy, but no structure to put it into, because she wasn’t educated, and the restraints on women’s choices were so great,” she says.
“And yet, she still carves out this life following her own heart and making great sacrifices. The courage to be who she is feels radical, even now.”
She continues, passionately: “It’s difficult to watch the story of Linda at times – when she abandons her daughter. That feels brave, radical storytelling in itself. You don’t see that portrayed [often].”
She hopes viewers will have “sympathy and empathy and understanding” for Linda’s choices, and for them to be demystified, addressed and examined.
“There’s even postnatal depression in this; there’s a lot of stuff that feels so deeply important and brave to tell.”
At its heart, The Pursuit Of Love is a story about friendship – as depicted mesmerisingly by the lead cast members – and Beecham, 36, who was born in Manchester, talks enthusiastically about how Fanny feels towards Linda.
“Fanny’s rather in love with Linda, as lots of people are. Her life becomes a lot more enhanced around Linda,” notes the star, who is best known for 2017 film Daphne, the Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar! and US TV series Into The Badlands.
“Everything becomes more exciting and vivid – it’s like she has this different part of her personality that breaks out when she’s with Linda, which she normally hides.”
James has been involved with making an adaptation of The Pursuit Of Love a reality for a couple of years, because her agent had the rights to the book.
“It’s the first time I’ve been involved in something since its sort of genesis, and I adored it,” she says.
“I just feel so connected to it. I’ve been involved as a producer, throughout, particularly in the pre-stage. And then after we shot, I’ve been involved in the edit, and that’s been a gift, to be heard and listened to and be involved in that creative side of it.
“It gave me such faith, as an actor, being involved in these conversations where you realise, if you have great producers and a great director, every line is discussed, every beat.”
“Lily and I and Emily [Mortimer] also had a very open and honest discourse about the characters and what each thing means in friendship, and secrets you have,” Beecham says. “It really helped find nuance, and I love these complicated women.”
“I felt we really lifted each other up and revelled in our differences, in our own lives,” adds James.
“There was such collaboration, such respect, and people really felt empowered to do their roles. Everyone was reading off the same page.”
Were there any titbits of advice that Mortimer – whose acting credits include HBO series The Newsroom – shared, that automatically made the stars click during the filming process?
“Oh God, so many things,” exclaims Beecham.
“I read something that Emily Mortimer had said in an interview years ago, that she used to be a bit embarrassed about being an actress, that it wasn’t a very noble pursuit,” she follows, thoughtfully.
“But then I think she said that she worked with Jane Campion [New Zealand screenwriter, producer, and director], on this particular scene where she just had to be so vulnerable. I think she actually had to be unclothed… From then on, she just thought, ‘It is a noble pursuit’.
“It takes a lot of bravery, to show things in yourself. And because of that, she is so generous and lovely and encouraging – and it’s so wonderful to have somebody like that, who really understands what it feels like to try to show these raw human beings.”
The Pursuit Of Love starts on BBC One on Sunday, May 9.
The best videos delivered daily
Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox