Lily James, star of Cinderella, War & Peace and Downton Abbey is a big fan of Pride and Prejudice. She studied it in school and says, "It's a birthright of the British that you love Jane Austen."
When her co-star, Matt Smith, is asked how familiar he is with the novel he says, "Well, I wasn't, really." Not that he disagrees about its influence. "In Britain, Jane Austen is sort of ingrained in our cultural fabric somewhat, so obviously I was aware of the story. And I knew Colin Firth's version, and obviously Joe Wright made a movie, so it was in my ether, but I'd never read it."
Both star in the upcoming film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Yes, you read that title correctly. It's based on the 2009 mashup novel by Seth Graham-Smith that took the British classic and threw zombies into it, because what isn't better with zombies in it?
When James first heard about the undead mutation of the beloved book she was "slightly horrified. Then I read the book and totally loved it," she said during a phone interview. "I thought it was really clever and funny. It worked, and the story survived."
She plays Elizabeth Bennet. In the original 1813 novel, Bennet was already an independent, strong-willed woman "way ahead of her time," James says. But in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, those traits get turned up a notch. Elizabeth literally fights her own battles, having been trained all her life as a warrior capable of cutting down the undead.
"I get really into it and I sort of forget I'm not actually supposed to punch Darcy [played by Sam Riley] in the face," James says.
"So he was quite bruised, and I was quite bruised. But I really enjoyed it."
But while Liz Bennet runs toward danger, Matt Smith's character, Parson Collins, runs away. "He's a bit of a coward," Smith says. He lamented the fact that he didn't get to be more involved with the action in the movie, but he's OK with how the story plays out. "I think it's really brilliant that the women in the movie to get be the sexy kickass ninjas."
Smith is probably most well-known, especially in America, for his starring role as the Eleventh Doctor in the BBC hit Doctor Who. Smith exhibits much of the same humor in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies that made his Doctor so popular, but he stresses that they're very different characters.
"The Doctor can be whatever he he wants, but Parson Collins is very much a man of his time, and I think the manners and the laws and the etiquette are very much part of his personality. The Doctor just does whatever he wants at any time in any place, which is why he's amazing."
There is one similarity between the non-human Time Lord and the awkward clergyman, though. "In some ways they're both sort of aliens in their own world. I think Collins is very much an outsider, and a bit of an alien to the rest of them. Doesn't know where he fits in. He's not really a slayer. I don't even think he's a particularly good vicar," Smith jokes.
Beyond being co-stars, James and Smith are actually dating in real life, which made for some awkward (but fun) moments on set as Collins awkwardly tries to woo Ms. Bennet. One scene in particular, James says, was "one of the weirder moments" of her life.
"It was a fantastic bunch of actors," Smith said of the cast. "And a lot of them were friends before [filming], actually, which was the main call to do the job. We had fun on and off the set, absolutely."
One thing they both agree wholeheartedly on: Being a zombie character wouldn't be worth the hours spent in the makeup chair. "No. No. Never the zombie makeup," Smith says emphatically.
Looking to the future, James says she would love to do a musical, but you'll see her next in Edgar Wright's new film Baby Driver, where she plays a southern waitress.
Smith would like to do some more directing. Or another play. Or some Shakespeare. Or he would love to play "a really juicy villain ... I try to keep myself on my toes, as it were," he says."
And yes, he wants to visit Dallas sometime soon. When confronted about the fact that both he and James recently canceled an announced visit to Dallas Comic Con, he was nothing but apologetic. "I'm sorry to all those people across the board. It's never nice to let people down, especially if they've traveled or paid money. I'm sorry about that."
"But listen, I really love Texas, it's a great place, and I'll be sure to try to make it down."