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Lily James talks ‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

Lily James stars in the new

Lily James stars in the new "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jason Merritt

You might not recognize Lily James without the corset. The young British actress with the lilting voice has made a name for herself in recent period dramas like “Downton Abbey” (playing spirited cousin Rose) and “War and Peace” (as Natasha, Tolstoy’s romantic heroine, in the miniseries currently airing on A&E, Lifetime and History).

Less predictable is her next corset caper, with its what-you-see-is-what-you-get title “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” opening Feb. 5. Yes, Jane Austen fans, get ready for, er, some tweaking of the revered literary classic, which finds our plucky Elizabeth Bennett (James) juggling both the dashing Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) and a ravaging band of the undead. Luckily, Liz and her sisters (including willowy Bella Heathcote) are trained in the martial arts and are packing daggers.

A Surrey native, James, 26, now lives in London.

I worried Jane Austen might be rolling over in her grave, but after seeing the film I think she might be amused.

Yes. Without being too serious about it, I think any writer would be flattered that their work is still being played with and reinvented, and brought to a younger generation. I also think we’ve left the heart of her story intact — the idea of women being strong, strong-willed and forward-thinking. It’s girl power, and Jane Austen was certainly down with that.

Why do you think you’re the queen of period pieces right now?

I dunno. Am I? [She chuckles.] I guess, if you’re seen as one thing, people cast you again in similar roles. I’ve loved playing these literary characters. These incredible heroines. I’m lucky — I feel all their strength rubbing off.

What kind of martial arts training did you get for “Zombies”?

I’d been filming “Downton Abbey,” and was exhausted, drinking too much tea, eating too many biscuits. I just started trying to get strong again. I worked with a great trainer who had me pushing cars and stuff. He was relentless.

Pushing cars?

Yeah, in the car park where I used to live in South London, I pushed a car. To be fair, it was a very small Smart car. Then I started boxing. And then all the Bennett sisters got together and we were like this ninja crew, learning the choreography and stunts. I hope to do more action and fightin’ — I loved it.

Given your training, who do you think is tougher — Elizabeth Bennett or “Downton’s” dowager countess?

Oh my goodness. That’s a good question. I think, the dowager countess, for sure.

Yes, I imagine Maggie Smith might have some good karate kicks in her.

She could ward off the zombie population, for sure.

Is it true you listen to certain kinds of music when preparing for a role?

I do. I try to create a little soundtrack for my character. For Liz Bennett, I listened to a lot of FKA Twigs, and Radiohead — up-tempo songs that had a real heartbeat and momentum. Liz is such a fighter, with so much buzzing around inside her. So music that got the adrenaline flowing was useful.

And you listened to Whitney Houston for “War and Peace”? What’s the connection there?

Well, I’m a huge Whitney fan. If I just catch the last 10 seconds of “I Will Always Love You” in the car, I cry. For “War and Peace,” Natasha is such an impassioned young lady, and I found if I listened to “I Have Nothing,” or “Run to You” — one of those big power ballads — I immediately felt invigorated, emotional, which I think worked for Natasha.

Yeah, I’m a huge Whitney fan myself.

On set, there’s a lot of time when you’re waiting around between scenes, and the right music keeps the momentum going. I listen to it when I’m reading the script or in the makeup trailer. It drowns out all the outside noise . . . and anything in my head, if I’m feeling anxious or nervous.

I hear you’ve got a new movie coming up — and it’s not a period piece.

Yes — it’s called “Baby Driver.” I play an American waitress.

Have you ever been a waitress?

I’ve been a bartender at a pub near where I grew up. I basically pulled pints. I loved it. I like hanging out with . . . drunk people. [She laughs.] But, God, it’s exhausting. The pub would be packed — absolute chaos. And I had to do all the sums in my head. It was very, very traumatizing sometimes . . .

Good preparation for the chaos of show business, maybe?

Sometimes it feels quite overwhelming, but I think things are falling into place. And I’m really pleased with the film projects I’ve gotten. I’m glad I’m doing such varied work. I just hope I can pull it off.

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