'Rebecca' Made Lily James Nervous, Director Ben Wheatley Says

The Netflix original movie Rebecca features a harrowing performance by Lily James. She plays Mrs. de Winter, the new wife of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). As soon as she comes to live with Maxim, the new Mrs. de Winter feels like she’s in the shadow of his late wife Rebecca. 

Director Ben Wheatley spoke with reporters in a roundtable Zoom interview. He described the aspects of the role that made James nervous, and how he helped her manage them. Rebecca is now streaming on Netflix. 

Lily James was nervous about portraying this in ‘Rebecca’

Every time Mrs. de Winter thinks she’s acclimating to her marriage and her husband’s lavish estate Manderlay, something sets her back. Wheatley said the character’s anxiety made James nervous.

For Lily the particular challenge I think is the managing of the anxiety across the movie. As ever, the film is not shot in chronological order so that makes it even harder for her to track it. So there was a lot of nervousness about that. Also, what is the level of tone of the anxiety for the character? There’s a risk that if it goes too far one way then she becomes unsympathetic and you question why you’re following her. If she becomes too strong then it breaks the structure of the story. That level was very difficult to kind of police really. So there was a lot of conversations about that.

Lily James rehearsed to get ‘Rebecca’ right

Wheatley acknowledged that most movies do not afford time for rehearsals. The actors usually have to be ready with their performance when they get to set.

“There was a lot of conversation and really for the first time on a feature for me, a lot of rehearsal, which is a luxury I never really had before,” Wheatley said. “So we had about two, three weeks of rehearsal with all the cast and the writers going backwards and forwards and really interrogating the script.”

The costumes also help tell the story of ‘Rebecca’

James was not alone in portraying Mrs. de Winter’s tension. Wheatley said he worked with costume designer Julian Day to let the costumes reflect the characters.

“In the same way that the characters had an arc across the movie, then the clothes had a similar arc too,” Wheatley said. “For instance, for the Maxim de Winter clothes, they start off as this golden suit at the beginning of the film. It’s almost like he’s the prize that she can win. But by the time they get back to Manderlay, that’s his holiday suit basically. The rest of the clothes are almost like dressing down. You find these aristocrats all wear these really worn out clothes if they’re going around the estate and they’ve got the money to dress down basically.”

If you look closely at the costumes of Rebecca, you’ll see Mrs. de Winter’s evolution too.

“The second Mrs. de Winter would then don this golden Chanel suit by the end of it so you had these kind of bookends of these two kind of gold outfits,” Wheatley said. “The idea was as one starts from the top and goes down, which was the de Winter character. The Mrs. de Winter character kind of goes from the bottom and rises up. Instead of going oh, I’ve got a man, he’s my prize, she is the prize to herself. Then she redefines herself and things like that.”

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