19th century. Russia. The shadow of Napoleonic wars which will cost thousands of lives falls onto the country. But in the centre of a narrative, seasoned with action from battlefields – a love story of three young aristocrats, Natasha Rostova (Lily James), Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano) and Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton), seeking to find true love and meaning of their lives in the new BBC drama.
May 6th, 2015. The rain is pouring down in the streets of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where I had a chance to draw a curtain from the vast production of War and Peace, a Leo Tolstoy’s classic, first published back in 1869. BBC Cymru Wales Drama joined forces with The Weinstein Company, BBC Worldwide and Lookout Point to create six and a half hour intense drama, penned by Andrew Davies (House of Cards, Pride and Prejudice, Mr Selfridge) and directed by Tom Harper (Woman in Black 2, Peaky Blinders). The cast and crew have spent four months in Lithuania, shooting the highly-anticipated adaptation, already defined as the most ambitious BBC project in years. Indeed, there is an ambition. And the cast to achieve it. There are the names of a young stellar generation (Paul Dano, Lily James, James Norton, Jack Lowden, Tuppence Middleton, Aisling Loftus) as well as screen-wolves, inevitably carrying the tag of “impressive performances – guaranteed” (Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Rebecca Front).
The cynical, grumpy and “not so likeable” in his own words, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, is played by James Norton (Grantchester, Happy Valley, Lady Chatterley’s Lover). “What really makes War & Peace so special – it’s a soap opera. It’s really about people falling in and out of love, revenge and jealousy, loss and love. And, of course, we love a good soap opera, especially, if it’s about Russian aristocracy,” sipping a cup of coffee in a hotel conference room in Vilnius smiles the 30-year-old whose admirers started a social media frenzy before the premiere today. Even though recalled as the “Russian Mister Darcy” by Andrew Davies himself, James is convinced Andrei’s character is not about the looks. “If you start thinking about that, you run a risk to start pouting. I definitely don’t want to do that. Andrei is a real bloke. He’s not vain. His costumes are a little more subdued and less glamorous than Anatole’s (played by Callum Turner), because Andrei is not particularly image-conscious and, I think, his attractiveness, his allure to the ladies is something which is unknown to him,” James says. Probably, as for the actor himself. Now, that the pictures of the dark-haired Brit, sporting, as he admits, a period look and wearing breeches are in almost every single magazine, there might be a few excited ladies.
The actor assures that the attraction of Andrei’s portrayal (“It was a challenge and a privilege,” he reveals) lies within its complexity. “He’s a totally different head space to be in. I mean, people that I’m playing, they’re always searching for something. They’re never passive, they’re always very active-forward and frustrated with a lot and they need some sort of resolution,” James reminisces, defining Prince’s journey as “quite Buddhist, stripping away endless layers in life and eventually coming down to this kind of final nirvana which is this divine love.” Understanding what a huge responsibility is to embody a classical character falls onto his shoulders, James recalls not only Andrei’s, but his personal experience as “amazing.” “Everyone’s looking for something, so for me, turning thirty, it’s a wonderful privilege to sort of engage with this incredible character who’s on his journey and sort of compare my own. It teaches a lot about yourself and what you’re really looking for.” There is one thing that mister Norton will try to learn from this life-changing role. “Someone was saying to me, you’re never, never satisfied with your life, you’re always searching for the next job and are worried about whether next job is gonna come. Of course, that’s true. But I’ve managed just to settle down recently, and I think, maybe as you get older, you get less aggressively ambitious and start sort of enjoying what you’re doing. I am learning, perhaps, to be Andrei, to live in a moment.”
James can’t hide his electric smile, reliving one night in Saint Petersburg, when a Russian artist gave his approval to the new Prince Bolkonsky. “We went to see The Cherry Orchard with the Maly Theatre. The personal assistant of the artistic director Lev Dodin asked if we could meet him, so we went backstage. I had this all translated to me as Lev doesn’t speak a word in English. He asked How old are you?. I said 29 and he was Good, good age for Bolkonsky, and then he said No man in the history of War & Peace has ever taken upon Bolkonsky younger than forty, because the circles of contemplation of Andrei are so complex. In that conversation I understood how much of a responsibility it is, it’s their Hamlet. And then, the only English thing he said to me was Hey, good luck,” in a thick Russian accent James says.
Four months abroad gave the actor a chance to experience a new culture as well. James is honest – he loved it. “I’ve never been to the Baltics and I’ve never been to Russia. We did two weeks in Saint Petersburg and then a week in Latvia. And then we’ve been here for ages and I love it. We’ve all kind of arrived to Vilnius, knowing that we’re here for about four months. It’s a real hidden gem and I think it will be discovered soon. Like you can already sense the stag booze knocking on the door, you know what I mean,” he smiles. “Riga is very different. There’s a lot more kind of boozy culture and tourists, whereas here you can find these amazing restaurants, lovely churches. It’s sort of very gentle, very friendly, beautiful without being kind of chocolate boxy.”
As Andrew Davies tackled his part of the challenge to condense more than 1,400 pages into six and a half hour (“We’ve heard that Andrew wanted to make it into four hours,” the actor reveals), did James completed his part and cracked the book? He nods. “Now, that I’ve read it, I can be really smug,” he says. “In fact, weirdly enough, when I did Happy Valley, I carried War and Peace at one point as my character (psychopath Tommy Lee Royce) went into a charity shop to disguise himself. And he picked a red book which was War and Peace. Sitting at that bus stop and waiting for the cameras to turn around, I got through about ten pages.” However, first pages, as the actor says, were “incredibly dry.” “I imagine that’s why people read the first fifty and put it aside. But having got passed that number, it’s a brilliant soap opera. This role has actually been a great excuse to read the book. And now I’m one of those smug people,” James laughs.
A former fabrics and carpentry factory “Audejas” has been transformed into the opulent Count Rostov’s Moscow residence, decorated with extravagant apricot wallpapers, ornate chandeliers, intricate mirrors and splendid portraits of aristocrats. And, indeed, you can get carried away to the 19th century for a moment – feel the smell of the paint of a portrait nearby or hear the harpsichord, located in the corner of the enormous room, playing mazurka. What’s more, in the dim corridors of the set you can see antique furniture, carriages and even mock-ups of dead horses which look so realistic that you get chills under your neck. The reality strikes when just a few metres away members of the crew shout “Tylos, filmuojam” and complete silence fills the studio.
“It all started from the book. I’ve read War and Peace before I got the job which is a great thing. Initially, it was a lot of research, which I started at the end of September in 2014, kind of looking into historical sources, but also really trying to grip the characters and think about who these people were and the kind of world they lived in. We have 900 cast costumes and 700 uniforms to date,” Edward K. Gibbon, the costume designer says. He agreed to open the door to his world, built in the same “Audejas” building. There are the amazing silk and siphon dresses of Russian aristocrats (“I loved creating clothes for Helene Kuragin,” the designer gushes), delicately embroidered coats, furry hats, and of course, hundreds of uniforms. “May I?,” I ask the designer. Given his approval, I lift a green soldier’s coat, delicately embroidered with golden threads. And it is heavier than it looks. “The coat weights about four kilograms,” Edward smiles, revealing that at the peak of the production there was a team of 10 people, working with the impressive props.
How Edward could describe the style of the creme de la creme of Russian aristocracy, Anna Pavlova’s character, played by Gillian Anderson? “She’s kind of the figure-head of the society in Saint Petersburg. We created about six outfits for her. Gillian is gorgeous, very glamorous and confident. Her costumes got elements of forties and fifties couture, so we went for these sort of controlled colours and fifties pastels, like Richard James or Christian Dior couture. She’s quite a style victim,” Edward intrigues. And what will happen to the handmade props after the production will come to an end? “I don’t know. Maybe an auction,” the designer winks.
“Nikolai is a very fun character to play. I think, he’s what you wish you could be as a young man back then. He spoke about seven languages, rode horses, fenced and went to endless dinner parties. He’s very well-read. Also, he has other things, like a really bad temper, which is always quite nice to explore,” Jack Lowden says. He is playing the eldest son of the Rostov family, an anxious young man who embarks on a war as he wants to make his family proud. Is his character changing as the story develops? Jack doesn’t think so as in the end Nikolai is “still sort of flamboyant, quite angry man that he was when he was seventeen.” As for his character’s affections, they do change over the period of time given – from a love oath to his fragile cousin Sonya (played by Aisling Loftus) to a fascination to princess Marya Bolkonsky (played by Jess Buckley) who learnt how to stand her ground after the death of her father. “Which one of the girls you would pick in real life?”, I ask. “I like Maria because of what she goes through and you know, she comes from it with a massive bit of balls. Not just Nikolai’s. She grows up.”
Even though the actor honestly admits that he is not keen on reading novels (“I’m not a big fan,” he says), Jack thought that the story is enchanting and universal as it is about “boys chasing girls, chasing boys, who are chasing girls, who are chasing boys.” “I used to read War and Peace on a tube and sit opposite guys reading magazines. And I knew what they’re thinking,” he winks. Excited about embarking on a war, Jack was also given the opportunity to show off his dancing skills. “I am alright. My brother is a ballet dancer, so he’s got the dancing genes in the family. He lives in Sweden and dances with the Royal Swedish Ballet. As me and my brother come from Scotland, I must say that the Scottish country dancing classes, which were compulsory at school, are quite similar.” Is there a slight chance that Jack feels nervous before showing his dance moves to the world? “I’m wearing a lot of clothes, so you can hardly see what my legs are doing,” Nikolai laughs.
“I did actually ask for Dolokhov, because I knew a little bit about the story. And he’s a really interesting character – vital in the elements of war. I mean, he’s fearless. Dolokhov runs into battles and axes people to bits. And at the moment he’s not fighting, he creates trouble or what society deems trouble,” Tom Burke, who is playing the chaotic and ferocious troublemaker, says. As the actor points out, Dolokhov should not be painted in dark shades only as while bringing catastrophes into people’s lives, he puts them on a right track. “He has a philosophy on life which is don’t get married and only have affairs with married women. He has an affair with Pierre’s wife, he cheats while gambling with Nikolai on a great deal of money, but in a way he doesn’t do anything. I mean, he pulls Pierre out of his marriage, which was unhappy. That is my defence of the character,” Tom smiles.
The actor believes that there is always something more to distill from classics such as War and Peace, however, there is one problem. “People say period dramas are beautiful, because they look beautiful. In the meantime, you can forget why the story is beautiful. I think pain is beautiful. I think suffering can be beautiful, if it’s done in a creative way, but that often gets pushed to one side, because it becomes all about the beauty of the looks. You can inhabit these stories even more deeply. And also, some of the older versions, which I think are brilliant, they’re very much of their time. I believe, there’s always a way of making it more about now.” And is Dolokhov a present-day persona? “He is. I knew a guy like him when I was growing up. That guy was kind of entrepreneurial and then he messed things up. Dolokhov is one of those people who survives all the way through the book.”
When I first meet the 31-year-old Paul Dano (Love & Mercy, 12 Years a Slave, Ruby Sparks), he’s listening to his iPod, just outside his trailer nearby the “Audejas” factory, dressed as Pierre Bezukhov (“I wouldn’t wear these clothes in real life, as it just seems a lot of work,” the actor admits) who is an outcast with a revolutionary mind. As Andrew Davies will say during our interview in London, choosing Paul was a brave decision, but how does the actor feel being American in a British cast? “I don’t ever think about it. Ever. I’ve made friends and we’ve been in this together for quite a while. I think, the only hard thing is that I have a much longer flight home,” after returning to the hotel in the centre of Vilnius Paul says.
A fan of Russian literature (“Anna Karenina is probably one of my favourite books,” the actor reveals), Paul has found Tolstoy’s classic comparable to real life. “You have to keep reading it. You could be twenty pages in a battle sequence, slogging through it, and all the sudden something magical happens. In sort of the way life is. All the bad and good is in the book, but there’s something about the light that prevails the darkness.” There is a lightness in his embodied role for sure as in the premiere of the first episode gasps the audience, crowning Paul’s Pierre as one of the most loveable characters of the series in the first hour of the show. “Is Pierre changing a lot through the story?,” I ask. “He just sort of keeps trying and failing to find a purpose. I don’t know if I want to say what he learns, but Pierre tries to find out who he is and do something extraordinary. Sometimes the things that we think will make us happy – they don’t. So how does one be happy?”
As well as other members of the cast, he did not look at the older screen adaptations of the story (“I didn’t feel a need to look at any Pierres,” he states), but why does he think War and Peace has endured for so many years? “Probably, just because of the scope of it, the scope of humanity in it. Somehow Tolstoy has captured an interiority that is really modern and timeless. He really seems to have a window of how we feel. And you know, he asks some pretty big questions, like why we live and how to live.” There is also a storyline of love which was not abandoned by Tolstoy as Pierre’s and Natasha’s story has been longly described as one of the greatest in literature. Paul nods his head. “They’re two special spirits, and it takes many hundred pages for them to find each other. You wouldn’t have that feeling if it was a two-hundred page novel. At the end, I think you’re just really happy for them after all they’ve been through and who they become.”
What prop from the set Paul would like to take with him to the other side of the pond? The actor pauses. “There’s one thing… I wouldn’t take anything for myself, but I might take one thing as a gift to someone else. I’ll just say there’s a portrait and I think I might take it. Which? I am not gonna say it.”
Lily James who plays the “crazy romantic” Natasha Rostova, had a year to remember. She made both girls and grownups believe in magic as Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, finished shooting the horror comedy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where she’ll portray a kick-ass zombie killer Elizabeth Bennet (yes, the same Jane Austin’s Elizabeth, but with a twist). What’s more, this spring Lily will grace the West End stage, embodying Juliet Capulet. But tonight she’ll reveal why Natasha Rostova is one of the most lovable heroines in the world literature. Lily agrees, as it’s been a true joy for her to be in Natasha’s shoes. “You see such a huge journey in Natasha, from a child to a woman. You see all of her flaws, all her mistakes and how she thinks. And it’s unabashed. I love that she looks in a mirror and goes oh, I am so pretty, but yet you still love her, because she’s got this huge heart, beautiful soul and she lives instinctively, in a moment. And it leads to an absolute disaster ,” James laughs, reminiscing that she started reading Tolstoy (“I found it addictive,” Lily says) while she was still working on Downton Abbey. “Everyone was laughing at me, because we were sat around the dining table and then, just before the team shouted aand action, you could hear the heavy book falling on the floor.”
Even though this is not the first time Lily is portraying a period drama character, she still felt daunted by this role. And not only because the alerting production emails about hypothermia (“Me and Aisling got those and we were scared,” she laughs joyously during our interview in London). “I understood that all I can do is read the script, absorb it and then bring myself to it, and that’s the only thing I can do. I can’t do anything else. I can’t try and play something that I’m not. And also, you know, it’s about growing up. And I am twenty-six, so that’s very much part of my journey or my recent journey – falling in love for the first time or feeling lust for the first time.” As she had a deep connection with such a complex character, Lily admits she felt quite unstable. “In the morning I was playing fifteen-year-old full of life and then before lunch I’ve done Natasha I wish I was dead,” the actress laughs. How she coped with the challenge shooting various scenes from different episodes of the drama every single day? There’s a story involving a shoe box to her solution. “I have bought some shoes and there was this fold of card inside, which was really long. And I used it. I even went onto the back of it,” Lily smiles. “There was so much to write down, because every detail is important. It’s been so great, though hard and quite terrifying at the same time. I have no idea whether my performance has gonna have any sort of linear.” Spoiler alert – it does.
As there is a pinch of danger in Natasha’s life, the British actress went extra miles to portray it as authentically as possible. Lily starts laughing, but after hushing herself down, she begins the tale about … leeches. “We had these fake leaches as well as a jar with the real ones. And Tom, the director, said I’ll put one on my arm if you put one on your arm. I love challenges, especially thrown by a man. And I said yeah, why not. I was trying not to laugh. I was supposed to be depressed, but I was sort of giggling. And we left them on, we did a few takes. Afterwards, my hand really bled, so then the next sort of week my costumes were altered with long sleeves, because my arm was still bleeding.”
While admitting how she loves the costumes with no corsets (“I felt free with these dresses,” Lily gasps), would she choose a costume as a takeaway prop from the set? “That’s easy. I’d pick the tiara which I wore to the Tsars ball. It was created by Russian designer Petr Aksenov. His jewellery store is what they’ve believed to be the Rostov’s living room upon in Moscow.”
I meet with Lily again on December 14th, four hours before the first episode premiere for the press and the cast, held at “The May Fair” hotel in London. Just before she hits the red carpet in a stunning Alexander McQueen ensemble, I ask how is she feeling now, when the project is signed, sealed and delivered. “Weirdly, it was the most emotional ending to any job I’ve ever done, because it was a long time, we shot for six months, and we’ve gone through so much. All the lightness and joy there’s in Natasha, there’s such darkness in her as well. The last scene I shot, I get quite emotional speaking about it even now, was when me and Sonya were in the balcony. Natasha was singing and falling in love, well, not for the first time, but thinking about Andrei. It was very beautiful and emotional. We all felt that we’ve gone through something very special.”
79-year-old Andrew Davies is the mastermind screenwriter behind House of Cards, Mr Selfridge, Bridget Jones Diary and, of course, War and Peace. Wearing a black tuxedo, two hours before the London premiere of his newest adaptation, mister Davies reveals how he managed to distill one of the greatest classics which was “surprisingly easy” to do. “I thought it would be more daunting, but I’ve adapted more daunting books. And Tolstoy writes great central scenes. I started thinking who do we care about in the story most and who are the most important people in it. I thought they are Pierre, Natasha, Andrei. Of course, I care about other characters greatly. I love Nikolai, I am fascinated by Dolokhov, I am intrigued by Helene and Anatole, but those three, Pierre, Natasha and Andrei are the epicentre,” Andrew Davies admits, as well as disagreeing with a point that he is turning the story into a modern tale. “It’s not turning into. It’s modern. The characters feel just the same as we do – they feel the same desires, the same frustrations.” With not revealing too much, mister Davies is undoubtedly right. As Andrew was encouraged to develop the scenes in a way he wanted, there will be some provocative shots in this period piece, involving the liaisons dangereuses of a brother and sister, poorly dressed entertainers fleshing their flesh, vodka parties and even a real bear. Perhaps, it is a revelation that people in the 19th century were possessed by their human weaknesses and desires even more than today.
Is mister Davies imagining particular actors in the roles of the protagonists in his adaptations? “Usually, when I start writing, I don’t think about a particular actor at all. Sometimes, during the writing process or by the time I’ve finished, I will think, oh yes, I am beginning to see this person in the part. But that’s very dangerous, because when it comes down to the casting, it often turns out that these people are not available. I’m very thrilled with the way we got the casting of War and Peace,” he says. “I had seen Lily James in Downton Abbey and I thought she’s quite nice, she’s okay. And then I saw this girl auditioning for Natasha. I thought, I’ve never seen her before, she’s f…ing wonderful. She was very intense, very passionate, and I said who is this? She’s blown me away and it can’t be the same girl from Downton, I don’t believe it. We all said she has to do it, she has to be the one.” The writer admits that casting Paul Dano, who comes “from an indie movie culture”, was a risk which paid off. “His Pierre conveys a feeling like he’s not a hero, like he’s somebody who’s a bit of an outsider and he looks a bit of a fool. And gradually, we get to love him and root for him. I certainly hope so, I hope the audience loves him. Otherwise, we’re all f…ed.”
Andrew’s wish is already coming true as the first episode was welcomed with gasps in the audience – “We want to see more”. Undoubtedly, the childish naivety of Natasha fascinates, the “darcyesque” prince Andrei endears and the clumsiness, mixed with a revolutionary mind of Pierre’s, impels you to care about him. Could this be one of the best period dramas of 2016? See it for yourself tonight, 9 PM on BBCOne. As far as I know, my Sunday evenings have been sorted by the new generation of War and Peace.