For the first time in years, Lily James isn't hitting the road for a film project or spending her nights making glamorous red-carpet appearances. There’s a pandemic happening, and the actor, whom you likely know as the rebellious Lady Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey and the defiant heroine in Disney’s Cinderella remake, is quietly quarantining at her London home. To her surprise, she’s actually enjoying being still.
Lily, 31, has definitely earned the downtime. Since her graduation from drama school in 2010, she has been working nonstop, appearing in several hit TV shows and movies and racking up accolades from critics for her extraordinary depth and range on-screen.
Next up, Lily stars as Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, the highly anticipated Netflix remake of Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic novel, which hits screens on October 21. The psychological thriller centers on the doomed relationship between Mrs. de Winter and her dashing husband, Maxim, played by costar Armie Hammer. To fully dive into the emotional intensity of their roles, she and Hammer studied the poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” by Sylvia Plath, which details a heartbroken woman on the brink of madness. “We read that poem so many times, and we found this twisted love story that came out of it. That helped us navigate our relationship in the film,” she says. “Playing our roles became organic and took a life of its own.”
In fact, she became so entrenched in her character’s anguished headspace, it started to take a toll on her own mindset, driving her to experience frequent panic attacks during the months of filming. “I find love so wonderful and torturous at times... It’s just the meaning of life. I lost myself in the character in a way that I hadn’t before,” she says. “It was even frightening, but I just had to breathe through it and slowly shed the role.”
Coming off the intensity of that project, Lily is focusing on what she describes as “getting back to basics”: reassessing her priorities and putting her mental and physical well-being first. These days, it’s leading her to live happier and more openly and honestly. She spoke with us about finding comfort during chaos and her renewed life mottos.
“Without the normal structure of working life, I have to create my own schedule to keep myself motivated. I have found that starting my day with exercise is the key. When I work out regularly, I immediately feel the benefits. It’s exciting to be empowered by that, and it turns into a domino effect. Naturally, I start eating better and stop drinking so much wine. Then I feel more energized in the morning to work out again.”
“In lockdown, I had to make exercising fun; otherwise I would lose interest. I switched up my normal yoga and Pilates for daily dance classes with the Formation Studios. Early on, I learned this fun dance routine and couldn’t stop doing it. The next day, my neighbor called saying, ‘Oh my God, Lily, you played that song for three and a half hours.’ (Related: Jennifer Garner Has Been Doing This Virtual Dance Cardio Class "Every Morning of Quarantine")
I also just started cycling again. I cycled everywhere when I moved to London, until my bike got stolen. Then I started taking Ubers. Recently, I got my bike back, and that’s been such a gift. It’s my bit of freedom to ride without having any direction stuck in my mind. It helps me stop overthinking and just connect myself to the present.
Finding that fun is the main thing for me now. I know I have to stay fit, and I know working out is good for me. But when it actually makes me feel better, rather than just something I’m forcing myself to do, it’s such a difference.”
“Toward the beginning of lockdown, I was cooking all the time. I learned new recipes using fresh vegetables from my garden, such as veggie sweet potato chili, stews, and ratatouille. Over time, I started having days when I managed only enough energy to order takeout, like pizza three times a week. I had to remind myself that it’s OK to indulge sometimes. I don’t try to deprive myself of stuff. If I want to order fast food, I let myself eat what I want to eat. Now I’m striving for a constant balance between the two."
“In general, I’m learning to be more forgiving toward myself. I can get stuck in a bit of a negative pattern, or I can be quite lazy and even sleep until midday and skip a workout. Normally, I would be hard on myself, but this time has been about trying to be flexible and kind to myself and, for the first time, embrace how I’m feeling.”
“Usually, I’m so distracted by life. This is the first time in a long while that I’ve been able to just sit with myself. My favorite thing lately is to lie in a bath for hours and check out under the sound of running water. To unwind, I light candles and add fragrant oils and soaps. It’s so relaxing.
I’ve also been reading a lot of poetry; tending my garden; and going on walks — getting back to the basics. I’m lucky to even be able to do that. This time has been so hard for so many.”
"My instinct is often to pretend, to put on an act of giving off a positive message about confidence. But the truth is that I don’t always feel confident. I’m beginning to realize that ‘Fake it till you make it’ isn’t useful to me at this point in my life. Embracing and owning up to my vulnerability is more powerful. I feel more seen, and not like I’m pretending all the time. That is something I want to focus on maintaining moving forward.”
“When it comes to my work, I want it to be about enjoying the art. I’m at a point when I’m questioning things more and I’m trying to find what makes me happy, even though I don’t think we should search for happiness, because it’s elusive. But I am. It’s the experience of working with people I admire, creating something, and then having a great life alongside it. Not letting my personal well-being take a hit. I value my friends and family so much. When I’m just working all the time, I lose touch with how important they are to who I am.”
“Everything that’s come out of this time, the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, has been illuminating. So much has risen to the surface. I’m just trying to stay open and learn. It’s crucial to focus on what’s important, to grow, and to stay engaged.
I admire people who are truthful. That’s so inspiring, and I don’t think I always have been. I’m going to endeavor to be more truthful. I want to do more activism as well. Right now, I use social media as a tool to spread awareness about causes that matter to me.”
Styling by Rose Forde/The Wall Group; Hair by Halley Brisker/The Wall Group for T3 Haircare; Makeup by Naoko Scintu/The Wall Group for Armani Beauty; Manicure by Michelle Humphrey/LMC Worldwide for Bio Sculpture