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Lily James battles the undead in ‘Pride & Prejudice & Zombies’

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — For Lily James, the strength of “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” is centered on “the fact that we are uttering dialogue so closely based on Jane Austen’s original novel.”

The film, in which James plays the central character of Elizabeth Bennet, takes the classic book and weaves a new twist into it. Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling novel of the same name, the movie is about a mysterious plague that leads to zombies overrunning England in the early 19th century England and creating war zones all over the island nation.

At any moment, anyone can be turned into the undead, ravenous for a fresh feeding of human brains.

Bella Heathcote as Jane Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" | Screen Gems Photo

Bella Heathcote as Jane Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” | Screen Gems Photo

Joined by co-star Bella Heathcote (who plays her sister Jane Bennet), James added that combining Austen’s language with her characters — now given extreme martial arts training in order to fight off the zombies — “reinforced the points she was making about women in her original novel. … She created these characters who were so far ahead of their time. Yet, the filmmakers, by making them so strong and confident and putting them in this world where they fight zombies, highlighted how strong they are — and how badass they are!”

Heathcote agreed and also said that she understood how Austen purists might be a bit put off by the concept of “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.”

“I’m such a Jane Austen purists myself,” she said. “Somehow because the stakes are so high with the zombies, I think it is all heightened, as opposed to marring the original.”

Of course, while Austen’s women (even without zombies) are strong characters, the author focused on the contradictory situation in which women of her time were stuck.

As James put it, “I think Mrs. Bennet [her character’s mother] brings all that out. She is so ludicrous in the way she is obsessed with finding appropriate — read rich! — husbands for her daughters, we clearly see the mores of the time. It is amusing, but when you think about it, it is also very poignant, because women were so powerless, compared to how we live our lives today.”

Heathcote jumped in to add, “Of course, in our film, it’s even more hilarious, because at any moment the doors could be broken down and a 100 dead zombies could come running through intent on eating your brains!”

Both James and Heathcote exhibit pretty sophisticated martial arts talents in the film, and Heathcote admitted, “I’m a highly anxious person, so that’s why I spent three months working on my kung fu before I even got to set to make the film.”

As for James, she laughed remembering the day she had to film a very intense fight scene with Sam Riley, who plays Mr. Darcy in the movie.

“There was a lot of careful choreography, for sure. But it was so intense and we got into the scene so deeply, I felt sorry for poor Sam. He was so bruised up by the end of it all. I got a bit carried away doing that scene!”

It seemed fair to ask what the actresses thought Jane Austen might think about their film — if she came back to life today.

“First of all, we’d have to hope she’d understand the concept of a film to begin with,” said James with a chuckle. “After all, there were no movies in Jane Austen’s time. But given her very dry wit and subtle sense of humor — exhibited in her writing — I think she’d get it and be amused by what we’ve done.”

Heathcote chimed in with the closer: “After all, this film is all about girl power. I think Jane Austen would really love that, for sure!”