Lily Chloe Ninette James (née Thomson; born 5 April 1989) is an English actress. She studied acting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and soon began her acting career in the British television series Just William (2010). Following a supporting role in the period drama series Downton Abbey (2012–2015), James had her film breakthrough by playing the eponymous role in the fantasy film Cinderella (2015). She went on playing Natasha Rostova in the television series War & Peace (2016) and in 2017, she starred in two critically and commercially successful films—the action film Baby Driver and the war drama Darkest Hour.
James was born Lily Chloe Ninette Thomson in Esher, Surrey, the daughter of Ninette (née Mantle), an actress, and James "Jamie" Thomson, a musician. Her grandmother, Helen Horton, was an American actress. She attended Tring Park School for the Performing Arts and subsequently went on to study acting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, graduating in 2010.
Her television credits include Ethel Brown in the 2010 BBC production of Richmal Crompton's Just William, Poppy in the fourth series of ITV's Secret Diary of a Call Girl (2011), and the rebellious Lady Rose in the last episode of series three of Downton Abbey. Lady Rose later became a main character in the fourth and fifth series of the programme. James also appeared as Lady Rose in the series finale.
In 2011, James played Taylor at the Young Vic Theatre in Tanya Ronder's stage adaptation of the novel Vernon God Little directed by Rufus Norris, Nina in Russell Bolam's modern adaptation of The Seagull at Southwark Playhouse, and Desdemona in Daniel Evans' production of Othello at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, alongside Dominic West and Clarke Peters. Quentin Letts wrote in The Daily Mail: "We may have a new star actress on our hands. ... She left drama school only last year, yet she practically sweeps all before her as Desdemona in this Othello. Poise, diction, allure – she has them all. ... Her character’s love affair with a much older husband is completely believable."
In 2012, James played the role of Katrina in Play House and Marijka in Definitely the Bahamas in a double-bill written and directed by Martin Crimp at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London as part of the theatre's fortieth anniversary. Charles Spencer of The Telegraph wrote that "it is performed with a persuasive mixture of mischief and deeper feeling by Obi Abili and Lily James, the latter combining a mixture of neuroticism and glowing sexual allure that proves extraordinarily potent." James played the role of Korrina in the Warner Brothers film Wrath of the Titans and starred in Fast Girls, written by Noel Clarke, centred around a group of young female athletes competing in the World Championships.
James played the titular character in the 2015 live-action Disney film Cinderella. The film was released on 13 March 2015. James was photographed by Annie Leibovitz as Cinderella, in the blue gown her character wears to the ball, for the December 2014 issue of Vogue. James also made her singing debut in the film's end credits, covering "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" from the 1950 animated film.
In 2016, she returned to television in the 2016 BBC historical drama series War & Peace, playing the character of Natasha Rostova. She also starred in her second major film, playing the role of Elizabeth Bennet in the action-horror filmPride and Prejudice and Zombies, a parody of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. It received mixed reviews and failed to break-even at the box office. James played the role of Juliet in the Garrick Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet directed by Rob Ashford and actor-director Kenneth Branagh in 2016.
In 2017, she played Debora, the love interest of the main character Baby, in the action film Baby Driver; starred as Elizabeth Layton, a secretary to PM Winston Churchill, in the film Darkest Hour; and headlined the World War II drama The Exception, playing a British agent posing as a servant to the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II. James is set to portray the younger version of Donna Sheridan in the sequel to Mamma Mia!, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.