Honestly, Lily James was scared.
“I didn’t want to screw it up!” the Cinderella alum confesses. “Meryl portrayed her so perfectly and created this magnificent woman who is so beloved. I wanted people to feel that this girl could grow up to be that woman. I had to do her justice.” (Weaving between past and present, the ABBA musical focuses on how she met the potential dads to Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie.)
To calm her nerves, the Brit, 29, channeled Donna’s carefree spirit. “I just thought, I have to be her,” adds James. “I have to dive in headfirst with total abandonment and just go for it. In the end, the opportunity outweighed all the anxiety.”
The dancing queen — “I’m a diehard Mamma Mia fan” — gets in sync with Us.
Us Weekly: How did you go about emulating Meryl and her performance?
Lily James: I watched the first movie more times than humanly possible. I know every sigh, every hand gesture, every eye roll! I’d parrot along in my living room like a lunatic and hoped those characteristics and the range of her voice found their way into my performance.
Us: How is Donna different than most heroines we see today?
LJ: She has three love interests and has sex with all of them. It’s usually me that plays the love interest! I was so clear when I got the part that that had to be celebrated. I was so worried producers would try and dampen it down, but we embrace it. And even though it’s the ‘70s, she’s someone women relate to. She sleeps with Bill after Sam because that’s what you do: rebound with a hot blond guy! So many of my friends are like, “God, we love Donna!” She just feels real.
Us: Could you live her vagabond lifestyle?
LJ: Yes, there’s part of me that just wants to give it all up, especially when I was 20 and so hungry for exploration. I was just in Greece and there’s a bookshop called Atlantis Books. It’s the only one in Santorini. I lost hours in there! I would love to go to a hot, beautiful island somewhere, work in a bookshop and dodge the normal rules of life. So I understand that feeling and that yearning for your own paradise. I gained a lot from playing Donna and inhabiting that space of being so bold and ballsy and totally in the moment. It was very inspiring.
Us: There’s a lot of emphasis on Donna and Sophie’s unbreakable bond. How do you relate?
LJ: My mom is the most beautiful woman who puts everyone else before herself. What I love about Sophie and Donna is they’re like two peas in a pod. They go from total joy to screaming at one another, which is exactly what my mom and I are like [laughs]. Mamma Mia is so captivating, but I think people keep coming back because of that central relationship.
Us: The performances are fun, but intricate. Were there any mishaps during filming?
LJ: There was endless stuff going wrong! They should make a compilation of them. I ran into a lighting stand and broke my little toe, so when I was filming “Waterloo,” I was on crutches and painkillers. I had to hop my way through it. The dancers were like, “Oh God, we break our toes all the time. You just have to keep going.”
Us: Going into the film, were you nervous to meet this jam-packed cast of stars?
LJ: They actually made me feel totally welcome! Christine Baranski snuck in on me and the Dynamos rehearsing “Kiss the Teacher.” At the end, she burst into applause and gave us her approval, which meant the world to us. And Amanda, I just absolutely adore her. Listening to her sing at the read through was so surreal because her voice is so beautiful and pure.
Us: And Cher makes a cameo! Has it hit you that you got to sing with such an icon?
LJ: It was the best high of my life. There were fireworks, spandex and these legends who I’ve admired — and we were all dancing together. There was a moment when we were all marching to “Super Trouper” and I was just like, “This isn’t really happening.” Pierce Brosnan was saying that last time it was criminal how much fun they had. I think the same applies to this.
Us: Is singing your first love or is it acting?
LJ: Yes, singing and dancing are my first loves. This film reminded me of that. I really felt at home.
Us: Would you ever record an album?
LJ: I don’t know about that! I don’t want to sing Christmas songs [laughs]. But I would love to go down the Broadway route. I don’t know if I can hack eight shows a week, but it’s something I’m definitely open to.
Us: What’s your favorite ABBA song?
LJ: That’s really hard! I love “What’s the Name of the Game” and “Mamma Mia.” There’s something so powerful in that song and it feels so good to sing. ABBA enters your brain and your heart and it never leaves.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again hits theaters Friday, July 20.
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