Lily is the cover star of ELLE UK! She will be featured in the magazine’s upcoming December 2021/January 2022 issue. Lily discusses fame, Emily in Paris and more.
Photoshoots > Photoshoots from 2021 > Session #008
Lily Collins has been famous since she was a teen, garnering awards, accolades…and her fair share of column inches. After the enormous success of Emily in Paris, she tells Alice Wignall why she’s finally taking control of her own story
ELLE UK – It’s a grey morning in Soho when Lily Collins and I meet for breakfast. She flew in from LA the night before – the plane was delayed, Heathrow was a mess – and though she’s had some sleep, she definitely needs caffeine, because there’s this interview to do, not to mention a cover shoot. Fortunately Charlie – that is, Charlie McDowell, her very new husband of all of 16 days when we meet – has given the heads-up on a coffee spot not far from the hotel, so we head out into the chill of late September in London.
She might be tired but she’s perky, chatty, and glad to be home. ‘It’s been almost two years,’ she says. ‘And usually I would be coming back a lot. And Charlie too – before we even knew each other [his father is the British actor Malcolm McDowell]. We would come during holidays or for vacations and we came here together last at Christmas two years ago. So we’re both like, “Oh my god, it’s good to be back.”’
It sounds surprising coming from a long-term LA resident, but she did spend the first few years of her life living in the Surrey countryside (her mother, Jill Tavelman, is American; her father is English, and is also Phil Collins) and she insists that her native country is where she feels most at home. ‘I am British,’ she says. ‘I mean, I’m both, but I associate more with being British. When I play roles with British accents, there’s something about it that feels like I’m speaking naturally, even though I’m having to put it on.’ She laughs at herself, fully aware that she sounds totally American. ‘Whenever I land here, I feel like I’m coming home. Especially after not being able to for years. Just even hearing the accent when we boarded the plane [yesterday], there’s just such a comfort in it.’
It’s true that if you didn’t know better you would probably place her on this side of the Atlantic: with her delicate features, serious expression and excellent eyebrows she seems way more period drama than Pacific beach babe. And then, of course, she’s also made a home – and a name – for herself as Paris’s most famous fictional ex-pat resident, as the titular Emily in Paris, the second series of which is coming this month. For filming, she spent four months this summer living in the city, starting while it was still enduring Covid- related curfews. ‘It was very empty when I first got there,’ she says. ‘And there weren’t any Americans around because they weren’t allowed. So that felt even more strange, because the only accents you would hear were French – which was also really lovely.’ But at least, thanks to filming during a pandemic, she was able to throw herself into city life more than ever. ‘I definitely got to know it better this time around, just because I wasn’t taking a lot of public transport because of regulations for filming. So I was walking a lot more. Charlie is great with directions and exploring and had marked places [to visit] all over Paris, even before I had the show. And so we were constantly walking and exploring. And, you know, our crew is all French. And so is most of our cast, except for Ashley [Park, who plays Mindy] and I. So you get to experience another side of Paris with them.’
She lived like a local too, eschewing a hotel for her own apartment, with ‘really sweet neighbours’, and making friends with other local dog owners (her dog, Redford, came along for the ride). ‘Though it’s weird because everyone has dogs but they’re not allowed in so many parks. One of the only places near us we could let him off the leash was in front of the Louvre. We’d be telling him “You’re so lucky, you’re going to the bathroom in one of the most chic places ever.”‘
Collins is, unsurprisingly, tight-lipped on the details of series two, except to say that there are new cast members, more screen time for supporting characters, and a focus on ‘female camaraderie’. (How exactly this squares with Emily – spoiler! – sleeping with her friend Camille’s boyfriend, Gabriel, at the close of the last series remains to be seen.) But seen it surely will be: on its release in October 2020, series one went straight into the top 10 of most-streamed Netflix shows, watched by 58 million households in the month after its debut. Its fans loved it for its frothy escapism (never more necessary than as the nights drew in for the first long winter of the pandemic); its critics – especially French ones, quelle surprise – railed against its ‘unrealistic’ depiction of Parisian life.
Though surely that’s exactly the point: the joke is far more on Emily and her Clarendon-filtered, influencer-aesthetic vision of what her existence in France is meant to be like, than on the French people she encounters who view her with anything from irritation and disdain to affection and baffled amusement.
Nevertheless, Collins says, changes are being made for series two in response to criticisms of the first, especially around representation. ‘For me as Emily, but also as a producer on [the show], after season one, hearing people’s thoughts, concerns, questions, likes, dislikes, just feelings about it, there were certain things that spoke to the time that we’re living in and what’s right, and moral and correct and should be done. And [that was] something that I felt passionate about. [The producers] all believed in the same things. And I really wanted diversity and inclusion in front of and behind the camera to be something that we really put our focus on, in a lot of ways. Hiring new people in front of the camera, also giving new storylines to different characters, which was really important.’
This seems to me to be a typically Collins response: she cares, she’s conscientious, she’s self-critical. She describes herself as someone who ‘has always bopped around in her head’ and she does give the distinct impression of a person whose mental engine is always running at full tilt. Take her response to lockdown: ‘I hadn’t been home for that amount of time for a very long time, and without knowing what’s next. It was very valuable time for me to spend with my now-husband and our dog, to be able to just exist and take the time to just sit and be quiet. Because I am someone who innately feels guilty for not doing something. I love to work. I’m a doer. So also I was able to kind of transfer what one considers work into self-work. I am also someone who is a huge advocate of mental health, of therapy, of meditation, of journaling, whatever it is that speaks to somebody in their process of finding out who they are, or bettering oneself or learning about oneself and expanding their mind and heart. So I really used that time for deep, deep, deep, sometimes very uncomfortable reflection, because we were having to stop and look at things. Working on myself as an individual, in a couple, in work, as a friend, as a daughter, just all those things, all the different sides, without distraction. I remember at the beginning of lockdown thinking, There’s going to be two core ways in which this goes. At the end of it am I going to have proof that I did something during it that has bettered me? Or am I going to have kind of wished for the world that once was before this and just tried to get through?’
Also, she learned to surf.
As well as being self-reflective, Collins is also incredibly verbal: the full response to that last question ran to 712 words and five minutes five seconds of tape. Once she hits her flow, it’s hard to get her to stop, and that seems typical too: her whole life seems to have been powered by a relentless energy.
‘I’ve always been an extremely passionate, driven person,’ she agrees, ‘whether that’s in school, or even within friendships. Like, if I’m gonna be your friend, I’m gonna go above and beyond and do what it is I can do to be there for you.’ Even before her first film role (in The Blind Side, alongside Sandra Bullock, in 2009), she’d been working for years – modelling, auditioning, writing (including a column for this magazine’s one-time sister publication, ELLE Girl), TV presenting.
She sounds like a woman on a mission. ‘I was,’ she confirms. ‘I always wanted a voice of some sort. Not in the sense of being ‘the voice of a generation’. I just wanted to connect to people. When I say I want to do something I’m going to do it, I don’t just talk about it. And that manifested as a 10-year-old, a 12-year-old, a 16-year-old, when I first started. I think of myself, you know, pitching talk shows at 16 years old to rooms of executives who thought I was crazy, because I looked like a child.’ She pauses briefly. ‘Well, technically, I was kind of a child.’
It’s clear to see how this has served her, delivering a career that has ranged from romantic comedies (Love, Rosie) to high drama (the BBC’s Les Misérables) to critically acclaimed biopics (Mank) via Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for Rules Don’t Apply and Emily in Paris, but in other ways has been hard going. In her book (oh yes, she’s also an author), Unfiltered, a collection of essays which she published in 2018, she’s open about the difficulties of dealing with perfectionism that has both fuelled and felled her throughout her life, most obviously manifesting in an eating disorder in her teens.
I ask her how the two things reconcile in her head: her fear of failing to meet what she believed to be the acceptable standard, and her desire to work in an industry where reaching that standard is impossible. No matter how good you are, how beloved, how entertaining, there will always be somebody happy to tear you down.
For a moment, she seems uncharacteristically lost for words. ‘I’ve never had someone put it like that,’ she says, ‘and this is part of what I’ve been thinking about and learning about myself and pondering on and going, what? Why? Why do that? But it’s true.’ She thinks for a moment. ‘I think I thrive in sometimes difficult situations, under pressure. When I have to deliver, I find it within myself to deliver, even if I’m nervous, anxious, fearful. But there was an element of trying my best and striving for perfection when I was younger, and trying to do that in a space where it’s just not possible. Because there was probably an element of me that wanted to succeed in a very difficult situation.’
Proving herself in that daunting arena was doubtlessly made more complicated by the fact that she came freighted with baggage: just like any ‘child of’, she had to negotiate two types of celebrity at the same time – her own fledgling fame and her father’s global stardom. It’s clear from reading other interviews she’s done that while in her own words and her own work – like her book – she’s happy to talk about Phil, when it comes to answering questions from others she’s less keen. I ask her if this is also to do with control – of the narrative, and whose words are telling the story: hers, or those of a journalist she just met.
‘I’ve always wanted to be my own voice,’ she says, ‘and own my own truths and own my own story. And I’m someone who likes to think a lot before they speak. Because I know that there are so many thoughts going on in my head, and emotions and feelings that I don’t want to, for want of a better word, word vomit before properly understanding things myself. And so if someone speaks on my behalf, without me having done the real thinking or work, things can sometimes get lost in translation and misconstrued.’
There’s also just the simple fact that when you’re a young actor, trying to establish yourself, it’s burdensome to have every mention of your name tied to that of an Eighties musician – even if he happens to be your beloved dad. ‘Starting out, when I was younger, I had lots of things taken out of context in interviews,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t be a more proud daughter, a more loving daughter. Like, it’s my dad! I love him and I am in awe individual, I’ve always wanted to be me, and to have my own path and my own journey and my own failures and successes and all those things, like any individual wants. And, at the beginning, when I hadn’t done any of those things yet, I was anticipating people only being interested in my family. Of course, that’s the way in which the world works and a lot of media works. But I got frustrated being asked those questions. It didn’t mean that I didn’t love or respect my dad, it doesn’t change how I felt about my family. I just really didn’t want that to be my narrative.’
But her narrative is changing. Not only because Phil is arguably now father to the more-famous Lily, but because her life is shifting. She returns to this theme often, talking about how she is no longer driven to meet impossible standards. ‘Because at what cost, right? When you realise that perfection is not perfect and you can be perfectly yourself, that everyone’s version of perfect is different and perfect is boring, and all those things. I think it’s really now just about doing the best that you can and not going crazy, and having boundaries about how much do you give of yourself, how much do you save, how much time do you spend stressing and worrying and being fearful of stuff that is completely out of your control. You can be scared that you won’t be perfect. And then you realise what you thought you wanted is not what you wanted. Like, I don’t want to be perfect.’
Perhaps the pandemic helped, in a strange way – ‘You know, I want a family and I want to not have my personal life be affected by the amount that I love to work. And so it was time well-spent for me to be able to not work and all of a sudden really think about all the other things about myself, not myself as a character’ – and perhaps so did getting married. She certainly glows when Charlie walks by our table – ‘Love you!’, she calls – and talks happily of their recent wedding: ‘I never planned birthday parties for fear of other people not having fun. But I just decided that the wedding was my thing. I was like, “No, you know what? This is going to be great.”’ It took place in the Colorado mountains, and her Ralph Lauren dress was inspired by her ‘Western Americana meets British Victorian’ Pinterest board.
But that’s too neat. It’s clear that Collins is still putting the work in, but now it’s about creating the kind of life she really wants, not the one she thinks she should have. So this isn’t a case of a happy ending, really, but a promising new chapter; one that’s being written by the protagonist. She might not know what’s coming in the next chapter, but that’s OK. When it comes to the important stuff, Lily Collins has it all under control.
HAIR: Ken O’Rourke at Premier Hair and Makeup. MAKE-UP: Polly Osmond at Premier Hair and Make-up using Lancôme. NAILS: Michelle Humphrey at LMC Worldwide. SET DESIGN: Gillian O’Brien. FASHION ASSISTANT: Grace Clarke