Finding strength in Darkest Hour

English actress Lily James takes on the role of Elizabeth Layton, the principal wartime secretary to Britain's World War II prime minister Winston Churchill, in Darkest Hour.
English actress Lily James takes on the role of Elizabeth Layton, the principal wartime secretary to Britain's World War II prime minister Winston Churchill, in Darkest Hour.PHOTO: REUTERS

Lily James, who plays a wartime secretary in the movie, says there have been interesting scripts beyond love stories recently and that actresses have to push themselves to find them

For Downton Abbey star Lily James, starring in Darkest Hour, the latest film from director Joe Wright, proved a welcome break from playing the love interest to a leading man, or a woman seeking romance.

The 28-year-old English actress takes on the role of Elizabeth Layton, the principal wartime secretary to Britain's World War II prime minister Winston Churchill, and it is a role far removed from her recent films Baby Driver (2017) and Cinderella (2015).

"It's great to do a film where I'm not playing a love interest and it's not about romance," says James, who shot to international attention playing Lady Rose in the later seasons of Downton. Despite her rising status, the majority of scripts that arrive on her agent's desk are, she says, "all love stories or action heroes".

Things are changing, however.

"There have been some interesting scripts recently, but I think you have to push yourself to find them," she says. "And in doing so, push writers to write them, film-makers to make them and studios to fund them."

Certainly, Darkest Hour struck her as an interesting script. It comes from the pen of Anthony McCarten who, in 2015, earned a pair of Academy Award nominations on the back of his screenplay for The Theory Of Everything.

He wrote James' part in a bid to afford the audience a closer view of Churchill, a man whose intimate life and true character were, by necessity, far removed from the public gaze.

"She is like the eyes of our movie," explains Wright. "I wanted no blockage between Lily James and the audience."

It is a role that fills the actress with enthusiasm.

"The night they learnt of their victory over Nazi Germany, Churchill turned to Elizabeth and said, 'Well done, Miss Layton, you've played your part,'" she says.

"And that makes me feel quite emotional. Even though it's such a simple thing, it is huge to hear that she played an important role, as so many women did during the war."

James' character was dedicated to her leader and regularly put her own life at risk for the man and the nation.

"I was so drawn in by her," the actress adds. "There are accounts when flying bombs are going overhead and she doesn't go down into the shelter because she carries on with her work.

"She and Churchill often worked all through the night and she asked to be the one secretary that travelled with him. She went to the Crimea, to America, and when she got to America, the guards at the White House said, 'Gee, our girls don't work as hard as you.'

"She was on the front line in terms of what she could be doing to help the war effort. I find that amazing. She was ferociously dedicated to Churchill."

Churchill comes to life on screen via a rigorous and highly acclaimed performance from Gary Oldman, an actor that James says she reveres in real life.

"I was a little intimidated by Gary as an actor," she concedes, "because I think he is one of the very greatest in terms of how he performs and how he magically turns himself into these other human beings."

Similarly, she admits to being just as intimidated when meeting Meryl Streep on Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the sequel to the 2008 Abba-fuelled movie musical, which hits cinemas this summer. James stars as the younger version of Streep's character, Donna Sheridan.

"When I arrived on the set of Mamma Mia!, Meryl was singing," James remembers. "I was almost crying and told myself, 'Right, hold it together, Lily, for God's sake!' There is no one like her and there might never be anyone else like her.

"Like Gary, what she does is almost unlearnable, which is annoying, because I've tried. The amazing thing, and I had this with Gary, is that while it is intimidating, as actors you have to be in the moment together and when it comes to an individual scene, your role is just as important because it's happening together.

"Whether your status in the film is higher or lower, your role in that scene is to make it happen and that is a shared responsibility - or at least it should be. It's a back and forth and with Gary it felt effortless."

While James is a long way from acquiring the status of luminaries such as Oldman and Streep, her star is on the rise and she says she welcomes the power shift that has emerged in Hollywood in the wake of the allegations around sexual harassment that dominated the headlines last year.

"I certainly feel like there is a power shift" she says. "I think that that kind of behaviour and sexual harassment had to change and I am so in awe of these women and men who have come to the fore and bared their soul and their pain for progress."

• Darkest Hour is showing in cinemas here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2018, with the headline 'Finding strength in Darkest Hour'. Print Edition | Subscribe