Lily James Talks Playing a Young Meryl Streep and the Secret to Her American Accent
"I also had a soundtrack of Meryl Streep doing every single line she does in the first movie," recalls James. "I used to listen to it and walk around like a madman, mimicking her."
Prior to starring in the sequel of the star-studded musical film Mamma Mia!, Lily James was a "self-confessed, hard-core fan" of the stage production, having grown up listening to ABBA, the Swedish pop group that lends its musical stylings to the show's soundtrack.
When the Baby Driver star was cast to play a young Donna in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again — stepping into the shoes of a character originally portrayed by Meryl Streep — James embraced the challenge head-on. From mastering Donna's American accent to rehearsing with the Dynamos for six weeks straight, "I felt happier than I've ever felt," the British star recalls.
The film functions as both a prequel and a sequel to the original Mamma Mia!, as it flashes backward and forward in time from 1979 to present day. Directed by Ol Parker, the film explores the backstory mentioned in Donna's diary throughout the original film, depicting how she met Sophie's three possible fathers.
Since its release July 20, the summer blockbuster has grossed an impressive worldwide total of nearly $90 million.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the James all about her Mamma Mia! experience.
Were you a big fan of Mamma Mia! prior to getting cast?
Yeah, I really was. I listened to ABBA as a kid. My dad created these cassette tapes and ABBA was always on there. And then I saw the show when I was about 10 years old, and I've seen it so many times [since]. As a kid, my birthday present was always to see a musical in the West End, so it's very surreal to me to be a part of it.
Tell me about stepping in the shoes of Young Donna. How much inspiration did you draw from Meryl Streep's portrayal of the character?
It was so much fun to try and think about what Donna would be like at 20, having so much to draw on from this magnificent woman and character that Meryl Streep created in the first movie. She's so fearless and brave and can kind of take on life head-on. I just love it, and I watched the film over and over and over again. I gave it my all, and I just wanted to capture the essence of what Donna was and is. I just kind of had to try and own it. It was kind of overwhelming at times, but I focused on playing a young Donna rather than a young Meryl Streep, which made it a bit more managable.
Rehearsing for a musical like this takes a lot of work. It's almost like Mamma Mia! bootcamp. What was that experience like?
My being cast to rehearsing [happened in] a really short space of time. We had six weeks of rehearsals and just sort of went straight in with the choreographer Anthony Van Laast, who is just a genius and has choreographed everything you can think of. It was pretty grueling and intense rehearsals, where it would be myself, Alexa [Alexa Davies] and Jess [Jessica Keenan Wynn] — the Dynamos — and we had to learn all the choreography and become really in tune with one another. We really wanted to own what it would have been like to be in the Dynamos and to feel like we were in a girl band. Then I went to record with Benny [Benny Andersson] and Bjorn [Bjorn Ulvaeus], who composed all the songs, which was a few magical days working with half of ABBA. And then Ol Parker, our amazing director, who spent so much time with all of us. He's so generous, and he wrote the script as well, so he just knew exactly the story he wanted to tell and where to focus with each character.
What was it like for you to join such a massive ensemble cast?
I think if you ask any of those actors about their experience on the first film, they'll unanimously say that it was a really unique, special job and that jobs like that don't come around very often. I think Meryl Streep even said that it was criminal how much fun they had. And the same thing happened again. We all were flung together, and I think with an awareness that we were doing something joyous and we're not taking ourselves too seriously. We're getting to sing in the sunshine and frolic around getting to perform ABBA songs. And they really welcomed us — the original cast. They really trusted us with the characters and shared it with us. There was never a sense of "us and them," even though we didn't share scenes together. We all felt like one big company. It is surreal looking around and seeing them. There's Pierce and Colin and Christine and Julia. It's a mad lineup of actors.
You've starred in several American films throughout your career. What's the secret to mastering that American accent?
Oh, God. I just work at it because I hate it when accents sounds phony. I've probably still got a long way to go to completely mastering it. I have a great coach that I work with and my father was American. I had American family, so I do feel like a part of it [is in] my history and blood. I also had a soundtrack of Meryl Streep doing every single line she does in the first movie. So I used to listen to it and walk around like a madman, mimicking her. I know every line she says in that film by heart. And while I wasn't able to re-create her voice — I guess I tried — I did try to pick up on rhythms. Meryl, in that film and in all her work, has a huge range. She's so expressive with how she uses her voice, and yet remains entirely natural and truthful. It's kind of unbelievable how she does it so effortlessly.
If you were in Donna's shoes, which potential father would you choose in the end?
Well, I wouldn't choose Harry because he's gay, as much as I love him [Laughs]. And I guess I wouldn't be able to choose between Bill and Sam. But all three of them are just adorable. It was so great having to do a story where I got to sleep with three different men. And the fact that the story celebrates a young woman who's in control of her choices and is sexually free. There's no shame in it. It's something that's celebrated, there's no apology for it. It's something that feels super modern, and isn't a story that we often see, especially in a musical. In a way, it's kind of revolutionary. As a character, I found Donna so modern and empowered and refreshing.
After seeing the scene in the film when Donna and the Dyanmos sing "When I Kissed the Teacher," many fans on the Internet are speculating that perhaps Donna was somewhat of a bisexual icon in her time. What do you make of that?
God, wow! I had no idea. That's amazing. That's so interesting because I never thought about that. I think in a way the song was more of an act of rebellion, rather than literal. It was sort of like two fingers up to the establishment, and she breaks out of her valedictorian gown, being the first female valedictorian, and breaks out into a rock song. But that's pretty cool. I kind of love that. I think it just shows what it can mean to everyone and all sorts of people. I love it to be celebrated in that way. I'm sure Donna would have been up for it.
Tell me about what's next for you. Any upcoming films or new projects?
I just finished shooting a movie with Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis, which was all centered around the music of The Beatles. It's not a musical but it's kind of a comedy/love/music story. I loved working with Danny Boyle. He's one-of-a-kind in his approach and passion and is a real visionary. For directors I've always wanted to work with, he's in like the top five. And a film called Little Woods that just premiered at Tribeca that got a release, which was really exciting. I'm not entirely sure when yet, but I'm really proud of that film. Then, I'm taking a bit of time off over the summer, which I'm also equally excited about.
You definitely showcase your singing ability in the film. Did you always dream of being an actress, or did you ever consider singing as a career?
I love singing. It was something that I did a lot as a kid and through my teens. At one point, I did think that musicals was perhaps the way I wanted to go, but I'm really glad that I slightly changed paths and focused on acting. I think that will always be my sort of home and my passion, but I'm really passionate about singing, too. I grew up watching movies like My Fair Lady and Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz. So to be a part of a musical is really fulfilling and really rewarding. I felt happier than I've ever felt, really.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.