It takes someone special to fill Meryl Streep‘s shoes — or to plausibly play someone in whose shoes Queen Meryl will follow, eventually — but Lily James managed to charm audiences as Young Donna in the Certified Fresh summer hit Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
A decade after the film adaptation of the jukebox musical, Streep, Amanda Seyfried, and co. returned to the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi — Skopelos, Greece doubled for Kalokairi in the first movie but filming moved to Croatia in the second — for a film that ended up being both prequel and sequel to the original.
Here We Go Again tells the origin story of how Young Donna (James) met the three suitors who, in one summer of love, could’ve potentially fathered her daughter, Sophie (Seyfried). Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, and Stellan Skarsgård reprised their roles as Sophie’s potential hot dads, with Hugh Skinner, Jeremy Irvine, and Josh Dylan as their younger selves.
James, who grew up going to musicals with her family, never thought she’d star in one, let alone be featured on an international chart-topping album with Cher. (The Here We Go Again soundtrack hit No. 1 in eight countries, and No. 3 in the U.S.) Her next project is not a musical, per se, but is a music-influenced film from Richard Curtis.
When the actress caught up with Rotten Tomatoes ahead of the film’s home entertainment release — it’s available on streaming and Blu-ray now — she almost went with a list of her five favorite movie musicals. Instead, she discussed her Five Favorite Films of all time, her next projects, and the importance of feel-good movies.
I love Titanic. It’s one of the first films I remember really being taken aback by. Any time I’m at home and if I see that film, whatever point it’s at, I have to watch it ’til the end. I got nodules on my voice and I realized I could do the ‘Jack. Jack. Jack. I’ll never let go, Jack.’ And I realized I could do it cause I’ve ruined my vocal chords and I could gain that talent, so there we go.
I love musicals. I could just do my five favorite musicals, actually. Grease I had on cassette tape and I used to pause and rewind and write down the lyrics of the songs. Like “Hopelessly Devoted” — I’d pause it and then I’d write it down and then I’d play it and then I’d pause it and I’d write down the words so I could sing along. I used to write in my diary and spray perfume on it like Rizzo does when she sprays the perfume on the thing. I just, I knew every word. John Travolta is just — oh my God, doesn’t get any better.
Julia Roberts is just everything. My mum was obsessed with Richard Gere, like literally obsessed. My mom introduced me to that film really early and I’m so glad she did. I love when [Roberts] goes into the shop and is like, “Big mistake. Huge. Huge.” I guess, in a way, now you think, “Oh, it’s like the Cinderella story and they probably wouldn’t even make that movie anymore; it’s not a strong message,” or whatever. But I think that’s just nonsense. It’s such an amazing film, and I think Richard Gere and Julia Roberts had this electric chemistry, and Julia Roberts is a goddess. I love the bit where she goes, “But when does it ever work for anyone? I mean, when? When?” Like, a man saving you from your destitute life. And Laura San Giacomo thinks about it and she goes, “You know, Cinde-f—ing-rella.”
That opening section at the wedding, it takes its time. Those movies at that time, I think, are some of the best movies in the world. I think it was the caliber of actors that existed then. Those actors, I think, are some of the greatest, and the type of filmmaking that happened then was something so special. It’s so character-based and story-led. None of the big blockbuster crap. Not that blockbusters are crap! But you know what I mean.
Rotten Tomatoes: You were debating between Pretty Woman and Notting Hill, and you wanted to give Notting Hill a shout-out.
I just worked with Richard Curtis and he is one of my favorite people on the planet. I think that he is a genius, and I thank god that he exists because he’s given us so much. I think that’s why I wanted to act, just to be a part of those kind of films, to be honest — those ones that are so heart-lifting and the joy and the comedy and the quirkiness of those movies.
RT: The Richard Curtis movie is a musical, right?
It’s actually not a musical. You’d think it would be ’cause it’s the music of the Beatles, but it’s not a musical. At all. I don’t even know what it is. It’s sort of its own genre. But I suppose it’s like a comedy-drama vibe. Hamish Patel is just out of this world. He sings a lot of Beatles but he’s pretty much the only one.
RT: Would you do more musicals? Clearly you grew up appreciating them.
It’s so funny. I kind of lost my love for them because I was so focused on acting, and I went to drama school and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. But then I think back on it, it’s so obvious. The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Cabaret, Grease — all these films were the films I literally grew up on and knew every word to. So, it’s obvious that is actually something in me that is my total passion and I kind of neglected it. Well, not neglected it — I just sort of forgot. And then doing it just feels so right.
And The Wizard of Oz and even, like, I know they’re not musicals, but the old Marilyn Monroe films where they sing, like Some Like it Hot. There’s something, I guess, in me. I would love to do Cabaret on stage.
RT: I think that one reason people loved Mamma Mia is because it’s nice to be reminded of the joy in life. Musicals are the embodiment of that.
Yeah. It’s abandon. It’s a sort of freedom of spirit. It’s a sense of humor. I think that’s why people love karaoke, right? Because most people, maybe they have to be drunk, but they like it because you get up, and suddenly you’re singing to a load of drunk people and you don’t care and you let your hair down. And I think musicals are like that, you know? It’s people going, “I’m gonna sing because words aren’t enough, because I’m that committed.” There’s an escapism, and it’s infectious.
RT: Did you ever think that you would be on an album with Cher?
The other person my mum was obsessed with was Cher. If I think of two people that my mum spoke about on a daily basis, it’s Richard Gere and Cher. So to be in a film on a soundtrack with Cher is just — I still can’t get my head ’round it. Cher gave each of us a necklace that says, like, “Dear Lily, Love Cher.” And Mamma Mia 2 on the back. It will be my most prized possession for the rest of my life. That’s my family heirloom, done.
RT: Have you just had ABBA songs stuck in your head for the past two years?
Yeah, pretty much. But that’s pretty much been my life anyway. My present since I was a kid and could only sit on my dad’s lap, he used to take me to the ballet. And he used to have to put, like, three pillows on my seat in the theater. I’d sit and I’d watch and I’d be in a pretty frock. That evolved into going to musicals, and every year we’d get on the train to London with my brothers who’d be like, “Ugh, for god’s sake.” They wouldn’t tell me where I was going, and my present was to go and see a musical, and I saw Mamma Mia.
RT: What do you think about the reception of the film this summer? People seemed to really embrace it.
I feel so proud. I love the film. There’s a lot of things about it that are really beautiful. It’s a film about loss and grief. I think it’s a film about mother-daughter friendship. There’s a lot in it that cuts deep, as well as just being a total laugh. It was cool, the reaction. I was traveling around Italy for a month and I met a girl on a train with a backpack and she said to me that it had really inspired her to go traveling. She was, like, 20. And people that say, “I’ve seen it three times.” “I saw it with my daughter.” It makes you feel good. I really love that.
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! is available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming.