Lily James on ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ and Her Favorite Rom-Com

May 6, 2023

In the new film What’s Love Got to Do With It?, 30-something documentary filmmaker Zoe (Lily James) is thrown for a loop when her childhood best friend Kaz (Shazad Latif) tells her he has asked his parents to arrange a marriage for him. With her romantic life up in the air, Zoe decides to at least get a handle on her professional life, and asks Kaz to be the subject of her new film on modern-day arranged marriages. Though he agrees, as the big day approaches, the two longtime friends slowly come to terms with feelings they’ve let sit for too long.

In this one-on-one interview with Collider’s Arezou Amin, James talks about what drew her to the project, what makes Zoe and her story so relatable, and the fresh perspective What’s Love Got to Do With It? puts on falling in love. She also talks about which scene was the most fun to shoot, whether she would like to direct one day, and what kind of moody music she thinks best suits Zoe.

COLLIDER: So, Lily, my first question is what drew you to What’s Love Got to Do With It?

LILY JAMES: So honestly, the main thing that drew me to the job was the fact that one of my great friends, Shazad Latif, was attached. That was the initial pull. And it was being made by Walking Tide, so I’ve made a ton of films with them and I love them, and I love the experience of working with them. And then, Jemima [Khan’s] script felt like a really kind of interesting, unique rom-com in that it was like such a celebration of culture and celebrating multicultural Britain, and looking at how, in a really beautiful way, how much we can learn from one another and lean on one another. I found that coming out of COVID and lockdown, the idea of being a part of a film like this felt really poignant, and Shekhar [Kapur] is a bit of a legend, so there was that too.

Image Via StudioCanal

Part of the film that really resonated with me is that it treats the concept of romance and falling in love in a much more grounded way than I think we’re used to seeing in rom-coms. Was that also important to you?

JAMES: Yeah. I think that it’s funny to explore the sort of perils of a rom-com within a rom-com. But I do think this film is more of a kind of family drama, comedy, romance, sort of vibe. Yeah, I think that we’re sort of encouraged by society to, you know, this lightning bolt moment where you’re gonna meet the man of your dreams, or woman of your dreams, or whoever of your dreams, and it’s gonna be, that’s it, you’re settled, and you’re done for life. Happily ever after, dot, dot, dot– and that’s just not the case. [laughs]

I think that it explores a kind of more gentle, ordinary – and I say that with such reverence, I think ordinary is just wonderful – way of meeting someone that love can build out of, blossom out of friendship. You need a village of people around you, and whatever that may be, and that is also a kind of great form of love and of support and of happiness, and just that there’s no one way to go about this, there’s no one way to find love, live your life.

You know, for Zoe, my character, I loved that she was sort of struggling in this chaos of like, “How the hell do I be a woman in my 30s, extremely ambitious, focus on my career, but also have a husband? And then also, maybe have children at some point as my biological clock is ticking,” and blah, blah, blah, and all that pressure, and she’s just buckling under it. And I thought that, again, it was exploring that in quite a truthful way within a genre where perhaps it’s usually a bit more kind of rose-tinted glasses.

That’s something I actually loved about Zoe; she’s very sweet, she’s very loving, but she doesn’t have it all together. She’s, I hesitate to use the word messy, but she kind of doesn’t have it together, in a way that feels really real. So, I wonder if you could elaborate a little more on bringing that to life?

JAMES: I really wanted her to feel authentic. I wanted to reflect how I felt in my 30s, how I see my friends, again, within a genre of film where it can’t be perhaps as dark as it sometimes does get [laughs]. But, I did feel like that experience of being unashamed about going on multiple dates and experimenting and being noncommittal, and uncommitted to one person– I think that the thing is, you realize how lonely life can get if you’re not, which is understandable given the pressures of society that you’re like, “I have to be all these things. I have to have it all.” And it’s tough to have it all, and it can be really lonely, and you can put a lot of guards up in order to achieve that.

I think this film is sort of about Zoe letting her guard down, opening up, sort of being less cynical, less judgmental, really, and allowing herself to be moved, changed, affected, [and] grow through the experience of making this film, and really exploring love by these two different cultures. I thought that was something really special about that.

Image via StudioCanal

Talking about filming in general, were there any moments that stood out? You said Shazad Latif is a good friend of yours and the two of you were on the project together, so were there any moments that really stood out?

JAMES: Actually, you know the last scene, we were in the tree house, we were about to do a long night shoot, and so everyone sort of like braces. It’s like, “Here we go, we’re gonna be here until five in the morning, and it’s gonna look really pretty on film, but we’re freezing, and we’re sat in a tree house, and this is quite hard.” And then we just – because Shaz and I have this great love for one another and great history – we literally did that scene in this wide-tracking shot, like, three times, and then Shek was like, “We’ve got it.” We were like, “What?” And he decided to do it in this one shot. Then, for insurance, because you know those people – producers – go, “Oh no, you can’t only do one shot,” we did a couple of shots from behind, but we shot the whole scene in an hour or two.

It was a really long scene, and there was just something so magical about being brave to commit to the scene in that way. Shekhar was like, “Start whenever you want. Look in each other’s eyes and just speak when you’re ready to speak.” And we had to kiss! Which was super weird [laughs] because he’s such an old friend, so that was kind of hilarious, but yeah, it was really nice. It was a really beautiful filming moment.

That was the scene that was going to take until five in the morning, and you got it done in three takes?

JAMES: Everyone was like, “Yes! We’re going home at 1AM!” [laughs]

I love that.

JAMES: I always– I love the joke of, like, at the end of a long night shoot, “Can I just have one more, please?” And the crew are like, “No!” I’m like, “Ha ha, just kidding!”

On the flip side, what would you say was the biggest challenge in filming? Was it having to kiss an old friend of yours? Was it something else?

JAMES: No, you know what? It’s funny, when you are in the moment, when you are on the scene, actually kissing him just felt supernatural because we were both in our characters. But afterward, you’re like, “Ha ha ha, that’s funny.”

What was the most difficult thing? I guess wanting to feel authentic as a documentary filmmaker. I mean, that wasn’t really the focus of the movie, and that wasn’t what the story was about; however, I still wanted to seem convincing. And that was fun because there were some guys in the crew who would help me out, who I’ve worked with on several films, like the focus pillar and stuff, and they’d be like, “This is how you do it.” So I had a little support network.

Image via Studiocanal

Speaking of your career, in general, we’ve seen you play the romantic lead a lot, the ingénue a lot, and then branching out in things like Pam & Tommy, but I’m wondering if there are any genres that you haven’t done yet that you would really like to sink your teeth into?

JAMES: I’m doing a thriller right now. I just started filming this week in New York, and so that’s really cool. It’s me and Riz Ahmed, really different. I did a really cool film last year called Finalmente l’alba, it’s an Italian movie, and I play more of a snappy, snipey, weathered actress who sort of – God, that’s an awful word, weathered, [laughs] it’s like messy – but in the experience of like, she’s sort of done it all and she kind of has lost her joy. So that was really fun.

I realized I like playing quite big characters, characters quite far from myself. But yeah, I really want to do different genres. So horror– I like genres, heavy films, so like, Pam & Tommy was so fun because it was just so much to lose myself in, and so much to latch on to in style. I’d love to do a big horror. I love physical stuff, so I’d love to do something sort of exerting, in that respect, that you really need to train for. And there’s so much I wanna do, I basically just want to do something totally different every time.

It’s tough. Especially, I think, as a woman, or especially as a young woman. You kind of get seen one way, and it’s hard to break out of that, but I think that’s improving. I think that’s really changing.

In the vein of genres, tying into that, are big-budget tent-poles something that interests you? Like the MCU, DC, Star Wars, that kind of stuff?

JAMES: Yeah, I’m interested in anything that’s a challenge. As I said, I would love to do something surprising, something– I love big characters, and those really exist in that world. I mean, you get to really transform.

I’m kind of at this moment in my career, I feel, in a really lovely way, kind of settled into who I am – it’s finally happened [laughs] – and I feel confident in my choices now. I kind of know what I want and what I don’t want, so I’m really excited. I’m feeling less pressure to do what I should do, or really need to succeed more and more and more. I kind of feel settled, which is really refreshing. It might change next week, who knows? So, I’m kind of really excited to see what comes my way or have projects that I really fight for, and I’m really open to whatever form they may come.

Bringing it back to What’s Love Got to Do With It?, specifically the scenes where Zoe is filming Kaz for her documentary. Obviously, that camera has that layer of artifice, like he’s always very “on” when he’s talking to her on camera, but then they do also learn a lot about each other. I was wondering, as an actor, what is it about being on camera that you think exposes somebody’s truth, or does it expose the truth?

JAMES: Wow, such a good question. There’s kind of this enigma about being on camera, I think. What I find– because there’s this thing that my acting coach, he calls “red light fever,” like where the camera starts rolling, and perhaps you get more nervous suddenly, things feel more considered, suddenly you are acting, and that’s what you have to lose. And if you can just exist, the camera just picks up on something so profound. I don’t know how, or why. I don’t know. I guess it’s the magic of filmmaking, the magic of the lights, the magic of the camera angle, the vision of the director, how it’s moving, the breath, even, of the camera. You feel vulnerable, it’s exposing, and so you see something of humanity that, perhaps, in real life you miss. It’s such a focused point of view, so you can really pick up on something essential in a moment, whereas in life, it’s all kind of, it’s too 360, it’s too dispersed into space. I’m sorry, am I just talking absolutely–? [laughs]

No! No, because it’s focused in, right? The ambient world isn’t interfering with it.

JAMES: Yeah, and you’re really being told where to look by the filmmaker, and I think that is really powerful, and I just love cinema. I love looking at people down a lens. It’s so voyeuristic in a way, you get to just really stare at people. I think that was really wonderful as Zoe, she got to really look at Kaz, like really see him, which must be the experience of [directors of photography]. It’s really an amazing– you can really glimpse on the truth of someone, and their soul, in a way, if you’re brave enough to really reveal that. It’s really hard, and it’s sort of what you long for as an actor, to be able to do that.

Image via StudioCanal

With that in mind, with you enjoying the process of looking at someone through this lens, is directing something that you would like to do someday?

JAMES: It always has been, honestly. I really feel like I understand, I think maybe because I trained in theater, that was my first passion, is still my passion. And I feel like that really teaches you about storytelling, and I’m useful in an edit. I started producing a bit and I feel like I can really take a wider view of a story, and then a macro view when it comes to– I think actors are the best to know about their characters, and sometimes we get so left out of that process and I really don’t understand why. If you’re able to be objective, if it’s coming from a place of vanity, then of course, it’s just not useful.

Even like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, one of the films I did really early on – amazing DP, Remi [Adefarasin] – I would go, “Hey, why don’t–?” Not that he would ever listen to me, he’s like one of the great filmmakers, but I felt like I could see things visually, and that’s never left me, and I definitely want to do it. I just want to find the right story to tell, and I don’t know what that is yet.

So winding it down then, we’ve talked a lot about cinema, but pivoting slightly to music, if you had to describe Zoe in a song, what song do you think describes her?

JAMES: Ooh! [sings] “What’s love got to do with it?” No, I’m kidding! Oh, there’s so much of her. I’m loving Laura Marling at the moment. There’s like a tortured kind of passion about Zoe, and also maybe a bit of Arcade Fire because it’s a real beat. So I’m giving you artists rather than songs, sorry.

That works, they have a certain sound that represents her.

JAMES: And then, because there’s something sort of angry in Zoe, especially at the top, something kind of like fierce, there’s like a bum, bum, bum, something with a heavy beat. I actually always listen to music a lot for characters. What’s that, “I am a master hunter…?” There’s a Laura Marling song, maybe it’s “I Was an Eagle,” or something. That would be pretty good for Zoe.

My last question, we talked about this kind of being a bit more than just an average rom-com because it’s mostly through Zoe’s lens. That said, what is your favorite rom-com? Do you have one?

JAMES: Do I have one? I love rom-com’s, I’m not gonna lie. I guess Notting Hill. If Noting Hill comes on telly, I’m not turning it off. I mean, in fact, any Julia Roberts rom-com, I’m not turning it off. Any Julia Roberts film, I’m not turning off. I love Four Weddings and a Funeral, too.

I mean, I have to say, I think Richard Curtis, of course, is the king of rom-coms, and one of the most surreal, brilliant moments is when I got to work with him on Yesterday, but also on Mamma Mia!. And I remember sitting around a table with, now, new friends and sort of family almost, and Richard just stood up and gave a speech where he spoke about me. I’ve never been more blown away in my life that this man that I’ve admired for so long was talking about me, and I love him very much. And so, I think any Richard Curtis rom-com, basically. With Emma Thompson, too, Love, Actually!

What Love Got to Do With It is now playing in theaters.

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