When it came to casting the part of Young Donna in Universal Pictures’ new romantic musical, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the filmmakers knew whomever they chose would have some very big overalls to fill.
Lily James, known for her astonishing work in films from Baby Driver and Cinderella to her star-making turn in Downton Abbey, takes the character to an unexpected level. “Lily embodied the spirit of Donna; she was minxy and perfect to play her,” raves producer Judy Craymer. “I know she had a long hard think before taking the role because playing a younger Meryl Streep is a challenge for any actress, but she immersed herself in the idea. This was a chance to work on a beloved musical, and Lily has a pure, beautiful voice.”
While it was of course important to the filmmaking team that their Young Donna remind audiences quite a bit of the Donna we know and love, mirror image was never crucial to the production. Producer Gary Goetzman explains just what James accomplishes: “Lily transcends whether you think she looks exactly like Meryl or doesn’t; that doesn’t matter. She brings that young Meryl character in such a strong, aggressive and beautifully acted way.” He echoes Craymer, raving: “She’s a tour-de-force, and what a singing voice. She is a fabulous actor.”
To have the support of producers and ABBA frontmen alike meant everything to James. Still, the number-one nod of approval she needed was from Donna herself. Meryl Streep shares that she was deeply moved by James’ interpretation of the character. “I knew Lily from Downton Abbey, where she plays a demure blonde with a naughty tinge to her character, and I thought, ‘She’s perfect.’ But then when I saw the film, I had no idea that she had these singing chops and was such a fantastic performer and dancer. Her spirit is what I hope Young Donna was; she really captured it.”
Streep appreciated the character study James had given Donna, and loved that the young actress had watched Mamma Mia! The Movie at least 10 times in preparation to step on set. She even had Donna’s signature hands-in-overalls move down pat. “Lily has that dancing energy in her voice,” reflects the performer. “There are some people who stand there and sing, and there are some people who sing from the bottom of their feet and shake the rafters. She’s amazing, and did a great job.”
James found the opportunity both thrilling and challenging: “This is such a huge role to take on because Donna as a character is so beloved, and Meryl Streep is the best actress of all time. I couldn’t have been more excited. The life, power and the spirit of that woman is so intoxicating. I have loved the opportunity to show who Donna was before the point that Meryl takes over, before she has her heart broken by Sam and before she was left on the island with a baby.”
James first saw Mamma Mia! in the West End when she was a child. “I loved Mamma Mia! so much when I was growing up because the music is just mind-blowing. The more you listen to it, the more you love it. You know the songs so well, but woven into this story are characters that you fall in love with—who are all so imperfect, colorful and full of life. It is an unconventional story, fun and unapologetic.”
Telling the story of Donna back when she “used to have fun,” James says of her character: “You see Young Donna as she is leaving University in Oxford. You get a real insight into her diary, following this flighty girl who wants to see the world and isn’t satisfied with the norm. She wants to break free and find herself. You see her meet these three men and the journey that ultimately makes her the Donna we all know and love.”
Naturally, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is building on the phenomenal success of the previous film, and James respects all that have come before her to make this magic. “This movie has the same feel and tone of Mamma Mia! The Movie. It has the must-have classic ABBA songs you’d expect, but also some less well known songs that are also hits. We are back on Kalokairi and the characters we fell so deeply in love with in the first movie are all back. On top of that, you get to see these characters when they were younger, and there is something heartfelt, funny and satisfying about that.”
Now playing in Philippine cinemas, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is distributed by United International Pictures through Columbia Pictures.