English actress Lily James talks The Tale of Thomas Burberry and working with co-star, Sienna Miller
Directed by Asif Kapadia and reimagining key events that shaped the company's history and values, The Tale of Thomas Burberry captures the brand's 160-year history and the story of its founder in just three minutes. Starring the likes of Domhnall Gleeson as founder Thomas Burberry, seasoned actress Sienna Miller as his fictional first love, Dominic West as Sir Ernest Shackleton (who wore Burberry gabardine for his three Antarctic expeditions in reality), the fashion film brought to life historic moments — including, Thomas's invention of the weatherproof gabardine, dressing the military, and outfitting polar explorers and pilots.
But, it's really actress Lily James that we have our eyes on. She who plays the maverick Betty Dawson, a character inspired by the real life achievements of Betty Kirby-Green, the pilot who broke the world record for a return flight from England to Cape Town in 1937 — in an airplane named 'The Burberry', no less. I met James at the Claridge's Hotel in Mayfair London just before her appearance at the launch party on Regent Street, and the English beauty is every bit the gorgeous girl you see in that steamy My Burberry ad campaign. She's perched across me with the very same red lipstick she wore in the film, a Military Red from the Burberry Beauty lipstick collection. When told that I'm from Singapore, she exclaimed, "My mum lived there when she was growing up, because my granddad was in the RAF and she went wherever he did. He was stationed there for awhile. I really want to go to Singapore. I need to."
Enigmatic and earnest, the 27-year-old actress who appears in the drama series Downtown Abbey and in movies such as Cinderella, is fast becoming an English style star — just like every Burberry girl before her. In our exclusive conversation with James, she chats about working alongside Sienna Miller, her journey with Burberry, and of course, the plans she has for the Christmas holidays.
Describe the energy on set working with Dominic, Sienna and Domhnall and director Asif Kapadia.
Sienna is such an amazingly warm and friendly person and I really sort of look up to her. It was exciting to have the chance to work with her and watch her on set acting. She is so beautiful in this film. It was a whole bunch of actors that I really look up to and was so happy to be able to work with them. It was just a real privilege.
You were wearing pieces that were closely based on the Burberry Heritage Archive of pilot Betty Kirby-Green. What was it like to breathe new life into Burberry's iconic heritage pieces?
It was really wonderful as we approach the scenes as if they were a normal drama, so it felt like a costume that so happened to be Burberry. It was incredibly beautiful and well made. I felt lucky to wear for example, the trench she's in at the train station. It was custom made and was based on the trenches of the time. It was cool to put a twist on the classic Burberry trench.
Did you learn anything about Burberry's heritage or Betty Kirby-Green that surprised you?
Yeah, I didn't know [Thomas] dressed the soldiers for the First World War, and I didn't know he had a connection with aviation. It was great to find out and learn about Betty Kirby-Green, the first woman to fly from Croydon to Cape Town. Apparently, she did apply the red lipstick as she was descending into Cape Town.
The short film felt more like a movie trailer than just another fashion film. There was an affair, a little bit of lust going on; don't you think it could be a full length film?
I know! That has been everyone's reaction and they have been asking when is the film happening, because it is an incredible story of Thomas Burberry and it has been 160 years in the making. It is very exciting that people are going to see that, and that they are going to want more.
Do you think fashion films that are cinematic is a new way for brands to connect with their consumers, rather than just another print ad?
Burberry is obviously this British brand we all know and love, but to see the history and where the pioneering design of the trench coat and waterproof gabardine comes from, I think it adds such a value and beauty to the brand. I think Burberry has such a strong heritage that it's a really wonderful thing to share with the consumer.
Burberry is one of the most relevant and exciting fashion brands today even with its extensive heritage and history. What do you think Christopher Bailey is doing right to bring this quintessential British brand into the future?
I think his recent show just displays his incredible awareness of fashion and British style. He mixes the military with something more elegant and chic. In the latest collection, I loved the boyfriend look with the pyjamas and the layering up with the cool military boots. I think he has such an incredible eye and he is a real artist. In that way, I've never seen anything like what he does for Burberry.
As the face of My Burberry — that was very sexy and different from this short film — how was it working on that perfume ad?
Getting the opportunity to work with Mario Testino, Christopher Bailey and Burberry was just so exciting. The perfume is very sensual, so I really enjoyed showing that side of myself. It was really refreshing actually.
Are there any future collaborations with Burberry in the works?
I hope so!
As an actress, did you ever imagine that fashion would come and knocking on your door, which has catapulted you into this 21st century English style star?
It's crazy — I never ever expected it at all. In fact, when I was at drama school, we had to get headshots. I went to two different photographers and I just couldn't get a good headshot, and I felt so uncomfortable in front of the camera and I honestly thought I would never do still photos. It's been so amazing just working with great photographers and also drawing out yourself. On film, you see the subtleties of a person — the same thing happens in photos.
How are you going to be spending Christmas this year?
I'm going to be with my family, but it is a weird one because my brother just moved to Australia and the rest of us just moved into a new house. It's going to be a Christmas of new beginnings. I'm just going to be missing my brother but it will be good, because I will be surrounded with the people I love.
Now, do you have a Christmas wish list ready?
Well, it would be a chartered private jet to Australia for a day to see my brother for Christmas.
And, are you a giver or a receiver?
I really do love picking presents for people and I go a little bit crazy. I see things and I end up buying way too many gifts. I think I'm a good present picker. With my family, I just know what to get them for Christmas.