Meet Our Winter Cover Star: Lily James

It’s hard to imagine Lily James cycling through the streets of London on a city rental bike, but that’s exactly what the actor, known for playing a member of the aristocracy in Downton Abbey, a fairy-tale princess in Cinderella, and a young Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, has been doing for the last few months. And she’s been doing it while wearing “tracksuit bottoms and a jumper,” (that’s British for leggings and a sweater) no less. The 34-year-old star has been commuting to rehearsals for the West End play Lyonesse, which she stars in alongside Kristin Scott-Thomas. “I’m completely and utterly terrified. I cannot believe it’s happening,” she tells me from her backstage dressing room. In the play, Scott-Thomas plays Elaine, a reclusive actress, who, after a mysterious 30-year absence, is ready to tell her story. James plays Kate, the film executive recruited to help her do it. “At its core, it’s about storytelling: who owns the rights to your own narrative and who gets to tell it,” she says. At a time when misinformation spreads like wildfire online, the play’s theme feels particularly poignant.

Full look by Balenciaga; earrings and rings by Cartier.

Lyonesse showcases James’ return to the West End and her first time acting since the strikes began, and the experience has pushed her out of her comfort zone. There are no retakes, only singular opportunities to get one’s point across. And on those daily bike rides, James gives herself little pep talks. “I am very frightened, but I feel really energized by that and I think that’s a really exciting place to work from,” she says. “At least that’s what I keep reminding myself…” This is far from the first time James has been challenged, however. In 2022, she starred as Pamela Anderson in the FX television series Pam & Tommy, which was met with ire from Anderson herself, who felt exploited (the film covers the theft and subsequent scandal of her infamous sex tape with then-husband, Tommy Lee). Anderson, however, held no ill will towards James, who she later invited to the premiere of her biographical documentary, Pamela, a Love Story.

Full look by Dior; ring by Cartier.

Meanwhile, the play has been a crucial creative outlet for James during a year of writer and actor strikes that have largely put Hollywood on hold (the strikes do not affect theatre productions). “There’s such a ripple effect of what this has meant for so many people and their careers and livelihoods, so I’m hoping it can get resolved soon,” she says of the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, which, as of the time of printing, had reached a stalemate. “For me, it [underscores] the importance of creating—we all love what we do and making art, and that needs to be supported,” she says. The long pause from business-as-usual inspired James to start her own production company. “Work feels so precious to me now after the strike, so when it all starts back up again, I want to work with people that are inspiring and on the same page and can really creatively be aligned,” she says.

Full look by CHANEL.

In another twist of fate, The Iron Claw, James’s highly anticipated forthcoming film, received an “interim agreement,” which allows independent productions with no direct ties to members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the film is produced by buzzy independent entertainment company A24) to continue filming and promoting through the duration of the strike.

“There’s this tough femininity to Pam that cuts through and resonates with Kevin, and they have this beautiful bond that was really wonderful to play with Zac.”

Lily James
Full look by Prada.

The film tells the true story of the Von Erich family, which produced a dynasty of Texan professional wrestlers with legendary reputations and a “curse” that led to them to tragic ends. James stars as Pam Von Erich, the wife of Kevin Von Erich, who is played by a nearly unrecognizable, bulked-up Zac Efron. “While living in this masculine, aggressive world that he lives in for his sport, Kevin really finds salvation in his family,” says James. “There’s this tough femininity to Pam that cuts through and resonates with Kevin, and they have this beautiful bond that was really wonderful to play with Zac.” Though Pam is based on a real person, little information exists about her online, so James and director Sean Durkin worked together to create her character in a way that was respectful, but of its own design. “Sean is such a huge fan of wrestling, so I know it meant so much to him to get the family and the story and do it justice,” she says.

Full look by Louis Vuitton.

The Iron Claw’s cast is comprised of a veritable who’s who of up-and-coming actors, including Harris Dickinson and The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White, who both co-star as two of the Von Erich brothers. “They worked so frickin’ hard. I couldn’t believe it when I saw their physique, their ability to wrestle, and to inhabit those characters,” says James. “I entered into the world and they’d already started filming, so for me, it made it so easy.” The film’s timeline spans the seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond, which is recreated in sure-to-be-iconic proportions. The shag cuts and bouffants featured in the trailer went viral upon its release. “The aesthetic is incredible because it just looks so legit,” says James.

Full look by Victoria Beckham.

James is no stranger to switching up her look. Off camera, she is something of a beauty-head, with her own massive stash of makeup and skincare products that allow her to feel transported. “I love that beauty feels like self-care and wellness,” she says. Despite a busy schedule, she keeps up her morning and evening routines, which consist of essential oils, moisturizers, and involving all her senses in an olfactory experience. “I find it healing,” she says.

Full look by CHANEL.

During breaks from rehearsals, the actress is also busy renovating her London home. And when asked what her ideal day would look like in her hometown, she lists off a dizzying list of activities, taking her from a jaunt through Hampstead Heath Park to brunch to the pub to the cinema to a cocktail bar. “But equally, at the moment because I’ve been working so hard, a dream day would be waking up, laying in the couch with a book and cup of tea, and not moving,” she says. “And watching Love is Blind or Bachelor in Paradise.”

Photography by Royal Gilbert
Styling by Rebecca Corbin-Murray (The Wall Group)
Makeup by Valeria Ferreira (The Wall Group)
Hair by Halley Brisker (The Wall Group)
Stylist Assistant: Thea Byrne, Nicola Goodwin
Photo Assistants: Ellen Kydd, Jakub Gloser

The Iron Claw has received an interim agreement from SAG-AFTRA for publicity.