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On January 18, the A& E Network will be presenting a miniseries based on Leo Tolstoy’s enduring novel War and Peace, which will be shown simultaneously on A & E, Lifetime and the History Channel.

Set against Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, James Norton (Grantchester, Happy Valley) portrays Andrei Bolkonsky,  a dashing soldier who yearns for glory in the war, but only finds disillusionment. Lily James (Downton Abbey, Cinderella) plays Natasha Rostov, a young girl who desperately needs to marry into a wealthy household in order to save her own family from financial ruin.

Both Lily and James came to the TV Critics tour to talk about taking on this abiding tale.

War & Peace - Lily James
War & Peace – Natasha Rostov (Lily James) ©2015 A&E Television Networks, photo by BBC/Laurie Sparham

Cinderella and Natasha are two classic characters, but they’re quite different roles. What’s it like to go from one role, which is straightforward and linear, to something as complex as this?

Lily: It was a joy. I was so drawn to Natasha because her journey is so vast. She starts off as this young girl who is open, spirited and optimistic, and then her life takes her in lots of different directions, and that openness  leads her to fall in love with the wrong people or the right person.

It was the most challenging role I’ve played, for  sure. But I absolutely fell in love with Natasha when I read the book.

You probably knew Cinderella before you played her. Did you know Natasha before this?

Lily: I hadn’t read the book before, no.

What struck you about her?

War & Peace - Lily James
War & Peace – Natasha Rostov (Lily James) ©2015 A&E Television Networks, photo by BBC/Laurie Sparham

Lily: I remember reading the first passage where you meet Natasha, and I emailed my agent and copied out the words, word for word,. (Tolstoy) talked about these ringlets falling out of her hair, playing with her skirt and these wild animated eyes.

I didn’t understand how Tolstoy could understand a 13-year-old girl like that, and a girl that felt so similar to me growing up, falling in love. It felt so modern and true. And then where that leads her, to such grief and heartbreak, and how she comes out the other end. She’s just intoxicating.

It’s really the most incredible book, and so to be part of this is just so thrilling.

War & Peace - James Norton
War & Peace – Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) ©2015 A&E Television Networks, photo by BBC/Laurie Sparham

James, what was the one thing that you could take from the Tolstoy novel that really helped you play Andrei?

James: It was both a challenge and an aid in trying to communicate all the wranglings of these characters. He writes in these quite cinematic ways. He writes these wide shots, then there is a mid-shot, and suddenly you find yourself in the head of Andrei or Natasha.

These characters are timeless. So whilst it was an incredible aid, it was also a challenge, because you felt like you wanted to communicate it (all), and sometimes the scenes were obviously truncated.

War & Peace - Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano) and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) ©2015 A&E Television Networks, photo by BBC/Laurie Sparham
War & Peace – Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano) and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) ©2015 A&E Television Networks, photo by BBC/Laurie Sparham

As an actor, does the setting and costumes always help you when you’re doing a period drama?

James: It didn’t feel like a period drama, as such, and a lot of that credit goes to Tom and his team. They were really young, dynamic and unafraid and had these glorious moments.

Tom, at the end of the day, would see a beautiful sunset, and after everyone called ‘cut’ he’d say, ‘James, follow me’ and we’d run up a hill, and he’d let the camera roll, and we would have these unscripted scenes, all of which made the final cut.

Lily: And even the costumes, Ed Gibbons, the designer, did such an incredible job. I didn’t wear a corset. He used all these bright colors, and there was just such freedom in the whole piece, which I think was so vital for War and Peace, and to make it relevant now.

Lily James Soundbyte

Lily was asked if there was a special skill to being a ‘period’ actress, as she has become so successful at it. Click here for her reply.