Not Just a Pretty Face

In an exclusive phone interview, we talk to Lily Collins about her film roles and what led her to take on her two most recent – and very different – ones.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

In an exclusive phone interview, we talk to Lily Collins about her film roles and what led her to take on her two most recent – and very different – ones.

My Reading Room

Technology can be a b**ch sometimes, especially when you’re trying to reach across the planet, through different time zones, to get from Singapore to Rome at a decent hour. It was 2.30pm here in Singapore but 8.30am in the morning in Rome, where Lily Collins is on vacation. The actress was taking a well-deserved break after her back-to-back roles in two films. Our interview is meant to happen before Lily checks out of her hotel and hits the road, so time is of the essence. But the phone isn’t cooperating.

Of course, without technology, a lot wouldn’t be possible, in particular Lily’s last two movies, Okja and To The Bone. Both projects are “playing” on Netflix – the former was produced in-house, while the latter was bought at Sundance. It shows just how far the video streaming site has come.

This has also been a pinnacle year for Lily Collins. On top of the two films, the actress-model launched her autobiography Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me in March, and starred in the TV series The Last Tycoon by Amazon Studios.

Known for her porcelain skin, doe eyes and those eyebrows that rival Cara Delevingne’s, you might not have known Lily was also a writer; even as a teen, she wrote for the likes of Seventeen and Teen Vogue. Perhaps this is why her book has been so wellreceived. It’s an honest, no-holds-barred look into her life, and probably as much as you’re going to get, since the 28-year-old likes to keep her private life, well, private. 

Nevertheless, in her latest film To The Bone, she plays a character with anorexia, an eating disorder she was familiar with as a teenager. While the film has courted controversy for “romanticising” the disease, Lily is firm in her belief that it was made with the right intentions. She speaks to us about her motivations and how that has translated on-screen.

You’ve made some pretty interesting career choices. Do you actively seek out roles like these? 

I definitely always set out to pick roles that are a little surprising for an audience to see me play, but I also like to keep myself on my toes. A lot of those parts I’ve gotten that I’m really proud of are the ones I’ve had to fight for, that I’ve had to audition for, and go through the process to prove I was the right person for the job. It’s been incredible to play such a range of diverse women.

Which has been your favourite role to date?

I had such an amazing experience on Mirror Mirror playing Snow White. That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The costumes, the hair and makeup, the production, working with Julia [Roberts] – everything was so massive. That was incredibly fun.

Which has been the hardest?

I feel like my favourite roles aren’t necessarily just the ones that look fun from the outside. Like, playing Ellen in To The Bone was the most personal [role] I’ve ever played and the most important. I’d also say it was the most difficult, just because the role was so close to home and on such an important subject matter. When you play a role like that, you want to make sure this will only bring about positivity and conversation, as opposed to something negative. Ellen was definitely a tough character with an incredible amount of layers – I wanted to insert myself in there, but also keep her separate as a character, so there was a fine line there that was interesting to navigate.

Let’s talk about Okja. What was filming that like?

That was wild! The director, Bong Joon-Ho, is so incredibly genius at what he does. His vision is unlike that of anyone I’ve ever worked with before. He basically gives you a comic book explanation of what your character is going to do in the movie. I think shooting the movie felt the way it looks on-screen. It was kind of crazy. We shot for five weeks in South Korea, and Joon-Ho is so revered there that we were able to shoot in the most amazing locations, and allowed to do so much more because of who he is.

Do you feel streaming companies like Netflix are changing the film industry?

I’m never going to not like going to the movie theatre. I like seeing things on the big screen with friends. It’s a spectacle, an event. But just like when the conversation started about movies being shot on digital versus film, the world is changing. The way we receive our media, our entertainment; it’s all about instant gratification now. Streaming companies are also being extremely edgy, more so than old networks, because they’re consumer-driven. They can go a bit further with their content, which should be applauded. I hope that by allowing Netflix and these streaming services to have a place, it doesn’t cancel out the “going to the movies” experience because that’s so wonderful. But I do think there’s something great about being able to watch certain products in the comfort of your own home. 

“I’m never going to not like going to the movie theatre. I like seeing things on the big screen with friends. It’s a spectacle, an event...”

My Reading Room
My Reading Room

Let’s talk about To The Bone. You said it was quite a personal experience. Can you tell us more about that?

I was writing the chapter on my eating disorder around the same time I got this part, and that for me was the universe saying, “This is something quite important for you to talk about.” As a teenager, I suffered from an eating disorder and knew the ins and outs of MY experience, but everyone has their own process of recovery. When I got this script, I related so much to the character that I felt like whoever wrote it must have also gone through it, because they got the humour and the facts.

What do you mean?

When you’re going through the disorder, it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a human being, you’re still yourself and still have your personality. In the movie, you see a sense of lightness about her and that’s the truth – it’s not all darkness all the time. As an actor, you search for ways to relate to your character, so in a sense, I felt lucky to be able to relate strongly to Ellen, because it’s a very touchy subject matter to understand and portray.

Was there an ongoing discussion on how best to portray the issue?

There was constant conversation with the director Marti Noxon, not just for me, but for the whole cast and crew, and it really helped. She was basically an open book. She was there every step of the way to hold hands, to explain things, to affirm, re-affirm, confirm. She made us feel protected, supported and trusted, which is very important for a subject matter like this.

Do you have a favourite line or scene from the movie?

I love the idea that seeking help is never a weakness but a strength. That to me is something Ellen learns along the way. It takes someone finally realising they need help in order to see help as help. As human beings, we sometimes think what we can’t handle makes us weaker, but acknowledging that need actually makes us stronger, and that’s a beautiful way of putting it. And it can really save your life like in Ellen’s case. 

“As a teenager, I suffered from an eating disorder and knew the ins and outs of MY experience, but everyone has their own process of recovery.” 

Lily loved her role as Cinderella
in Mirror Mirror.
Lily loved her role as Cinderella in Mirror Mirror.
My Reading Room
My Reading Room
Lily lists her
role in To
The Bone
as her most
to date.
Lily lists her role in To The Bone as her most challenging to date.

You’re generally quite a private person, so what made you decide to be quite open about your eating disorder – both with the movie and your book?

As young people, we tend to think our problems are just our own and that you’re alone in a lot of what you’re going through. Until you speak out and understand or have other people you can relate to, you feel alone. When someone else [speaks out] and you can relate to that, it can relieve so much stress and make you feel like a part of something. It can give you the ability to talk about things that are important and help you work through them yourself. So I felt that if sharing my story helps to open some doors or make a conversation louder, that’s a good thing.

I’m approaching 30 in two years and I want a family someday. I don’t want to take all these things I hadn’t really talked about into the next phase of my life. I also feel like I’m someone who needs to be held accountable for my actions to move forward. So while this is accountability on a big scale, it’s really just a way to share my stories and help other young people to feel less alone.

Was there a chapter in the book that was the hardest and scariest to write?

Probably this one [on eating disorders]. Because for so long, there was this image of perfection I was seeking. And I didn’t want to put out anything other than that. But it’s so far from the truth because no one is perfect. So the idea of outwardly admitting it, even though it’s not the prettiest thing to admit, was scary. Anytime you speak your truth you have to do it because you want to, not because of other people’s reactions. Sometimes, that plays into it and makes you worried. But I think it’s a good thing that doing something that scares you can give you this energy. I feel that’s what ultimately frees me. 

Images TPG/Click Photos Text Compiled By Karen Fong.