NEW YORK (AP) — Many people find the idea of reading Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" to be daunting, but not Lily James.
When she was cast as Natasha in a miniseries based on the novel, she was working on a live action remake of "Cinderella" directed by Kenneth Branagh, who told her, "Reading 'War and Peace' will be one of the great joys of your life.'
"He is right," said James in a recent interview. "It is the most beautiful, wonderful story ever told, I think."
"War and Peace," also starring James Norton and Paul Dano, is being broadcast on A&E, Lifetime and the History channel. Part three debuts Monday.
James, 26, says she "really just used the book like a bible. I carried it around with me everywhere. I was scribbling and writing down all the bits about Natasha that I loved. Every time she turned up on a page, my heart would start beating faster."
The miniseries introduces viewers to Natasha as a 13-year-old girl who is "very young, very open, very naive; very spirited." The miniseries spans 15 years, and James says she most enjoyed playing an older Natasha.
"The second half of Natasha's journey was what I was really drawn to," she said.
"She's this really tragic heroine. ... And she goes to such depths of despair and punishment. She punishes herself for the choices she makes and in such an extreme way, and I've never dealt with material like that before so it was a real challenge."
James dons a corset once again in her next film, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," opening Feb. 5. It's based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith.
"I was very confused when I found out they were putting zombies into Jane Austen," said James. "It's the true, classic story but set in this zombie apocalyptic world and that does wonderful, weird and terrifying things. ... I challenge anyone to go and not have fun."
James is best known for her role of the romantic, fun-loving Cousin Rose on "Downton Abbey," now airing its final season on PBS' "Masterpiece."
Creator "Julian Fellowes is a genius," she said. "How he has woven his web of stories and characters and kept people wanting more and following in love with the characters, he doesn't let you down. (Fans) won't be disappointed" with the series' conclusion."