This story, like many set in the never-ending stress dream that is 2020, begins with technical difficulties.
“I should be better at this point,” Lily Collins tells me when we finally manage to connect over Zoom. “I still find myself floundering,” she says, referring to the mechanics of our new normal: virtual interviews and FaceTime photoshoots, a once foreign vernacular that includes ring light settings and meeting room codes.
Despite the admitted at-home learning curve, Collins’s comfort with communication (of any form) is clear. Appearing on-screen in a pale pink sweater with shoulder cut-outs, her long brown hair parted down the middle and flowing unreservedly across her chest (the way the YouTube tutorial tells you it should — but it never does), she seems at-ease, eager even.
It feels like a clapperboard has been slammed shut, “action!” called on the first take of the day. Collins’s energy is high and her answers profuse — words spilling out in a race against the 60-minute clock that is our conversation. Of course, this isn’t the first take of the day — minutes before our interview Collins was finishing up another, and just hours later she was playing a game of faux tennis on her mother’s court for our photoshoot. Then came the virtual premiere of her new Netflix film, Mank. Even in this state of quarantine, the action never stops.
On the rare occasion she has been able to slow down, she’s dedicated her time to self-reflection, as this period marks the longest stretch of the 31-year-old’s adult life that she’s spent at home, temporarily liberated from the upheaval of international press tours and on-location shoots.
Still, anxiety has snaked its way through the past nine months, affecting Collins more profoundly than ever before. And though the demands of her career have made communicating from afar with friends and family something of a norm, it’s still difficult to reconcile socializing through a screen with someone who lives a short drive away from her home in Los Angeles.
“There's such a sadness there,” she admits, her facial expressions and eyebrow lifts dictating her response as much as her words do. “It would be lovely to be able to utilize that time [now] that we have it, to see friends, to see family, to have these amazing experiences and adventures together. Yet it's obviously not that.”
On paper, these are the practiced responses of an actress whose media-training began before she could vote. But after reading Collins’s 2017 memoir Unfiltered, her passion for connecting to others and imparting the lessons she’s learned present on every page, it feels to me that these sentiments, however obvious, are just intrinsically Lily. One-word answers aren’t her style — soul-baring five-paragraph meditations are.
Adding to the bittersweetness of a year spent at home, Collins has a lot to celebrate these days. One week before the launch of Netflix’s wildly successful Darren Star comedy Emily in Paris, Collins announced that she and her director boyfriend Charlie McDowell were engaged.
“A lot of our friends and family [were] like, ‘Thank you for giving us something to look forward to.’” Future mother-in-law Mary Steenburgen, for one, is “over the moon.”
“I think these past months have been so clouded in darkness and negativity,” Collins continues, “and anything positive and anything filled with hope and light is something we want to cling on to.”
Collins, a self-proclaimed optimist, isn’t letting the restrictions of the pandemic dampen her and McDowell’s excitement. “We're celebrating together,” she tells me matter-of-factly, as though this answer is obvious (which I suppose it is). “The most important thing is that we're just so excited. We don't need to have something in order to celebrate how excited we are. You’re still able to share in the excitement, it’s just in a different way.”
Like millions of Americans, Collins and McDowell were imbibing the cocktail of election-induced anxiety and excitement that had us in a state of near-zombiedom, prisoner to our screens for almost five days straight while we awaited the final word from our news anchors of choice.
“I just became so fascinated and I couldn't turn it off,” she says of election coverage. “I’ll never forget it.”
On Nov. 7, when Joe Biden was declared U.S. President-elect, Collins posted photos of herself and McDowell, sweatpants-clad and posing before their television, arms raised in celebration as CNN spelled out the victory on-screen.
Before Collins was an established actress, she was a teen journalist. In 2008 she worked on Nickelodeon’s Kids Pick the President campaign and even covered President Barack Obama’s inauguration the following year. But despite her early involvement in politics, it wasn’t an area she felt particularly knowledgeable about.
“It wasn't something that I felt comfortable really talking about because I just wasn't as educated on it,” she says. “It didn't feel right to talk about something I didn't know a lot about.”
That changed when she met McDowell, whose passion for the topic inspired her own.
“[He’s] taught me so much,” she tells me. “It's been so incredible and broadened my mind so much to just be open to educating myself and to have a partner who is so supportive of that.”
“It's felt really positive to grow in that way, I have to say. And not being afraid to vocalize that on social media and really use that platform in a way that I hadn't before.”
Remaining on brand with a focus on positivity and Emily in Paris-style bon mots, Collins encouraged her followers to vote. “Couples who vote together stay together,” she captioned an image of herself and McDowell holding their absentee ballots, both wearing an aesthetically pleasing shade of beige. “You’re never too young to start getting involved, educating yourself and using your platform,” she advised her teen fans over the summer, posting a throwback photo of herself reporting from the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
And with Georgia’s runoff Senate elections looming, she says her political activism is still “very much alive.”
Rows of glittering vintage cameras sit behind Collins, a display that instantly reminds me of the aesthetic-obsessed Emily Cooper, the titular starry-eyed millennial abroad whom the actress brought to life in Emily in Paris.
The show, which relies heavily on its Parisian setting, is the definition of escapism, compounded of course by the fact that we (with the exception of the private island jet-set) truly cannot escape.
Were Emily to live in our pandemic times, Collins imagines she’d have her hand in something innovative. “She's so creative and resourceful that she probably would have created some sort of company,” she says. “I wouldn't put it past her to come up with some crazy startup, but then she goes back into the office and it's like, she has this product that now is blasted everywhere.” Mon dieu!
Emily in Paris was recently renewed for a second season (an elusive reward from quarantine-era Netflix), and moving forward there are changes to be made.
“I think that there's a big opportunity to include more diversity into the show — behind the scenes, in front of the camera — and there are conversations we're having about that,” Collins says thoughtfully. Emily’s friend Mindy (Ashley Park) and colleague Julien (Samuel Arnold) are among the few non-white members of the ensemble cast. “Inclusion is something that's really important to me and after everything that's happened these past months, it's been illuminated to me in so many ways of how we can globally do better.”
The show has been subject to criticism, with naysayers lambasting everything from the series’s adoption of French stereotypes to the characterization of the privilege-shrouded Emily herself.
Collins prides herself on being a good listener — though I can assure you she’s also very good at the talking part. But there’s a difference between being actionary and reactionary, she tells me (twice, actually), and as a first-time producer she’s finding that balance.
“People are always going to find the good and the bad in anything, and because we have the ability to do a season two, you can't take everything into consideration,” she says, noting that with just 10 episodes under 30 minutes each, they weren’t able to explore every topic they’d hoped to cover in season 1. “Everything's not always going to be everyone's cup of tea.”
And while it’s not her job to make Emily something that it isn’t, she sees value in “playing around” with changes. “If it still doesn't work, at least you can say you tried.”
Her ability to confront criticism with such eloquence was honed at an early age, as she watched her father, musician Phil Collins, navigate an industry that necessitates a high level of exposure — and, with it, an abundance of outside negativity.
“It takes a real bravery to be vulnerable as an artist and to put yourself out there and to take your passion and take it to people around the world — to see my dad do that, I always really admired that,” she says.
But that vulnerability comes at a price, as anyone with 22 million Instagram followers (and counting) can and will tell you. She knows not to read the comments — that’s How to Be a Celebrity 101 — but Collins’s first-hand knowledge of what it means to give a part of yourself to the public is probably more nuanced than most.
“As applauded as you can be, you can also be torn down,” she says, a faraway look clouding her face as she continues on. “I admire anyone that can stay centered within that experience.”
Collins is rarely at a loss for words, but when she does occasionally take a beat to respond, sipping from a straw in a handled mason jar, the answer is often already written across her Audrey Hepburn-esque features. I imagine this demeanor translating on set: eyes alight, hands in motion, internalizing as much as she is externalizing.
Vehement as critics of Emily in Paris may be, fans are just as zealous. Emily became a popular Halloween costume just weeks after the show launched. And Collins, experiencing the series’ success from home, was “blown away” by the support.
The pandemic forced her to skip the typical deluge of red carpet events and quick trips abroad. Instead, Collins was left with an experience that felt more genuine.
“It's not some crazy ride that you're on,” she says. “You're actually in your home, in reality, with your person, having the realness of doing dishes, taking out the trash … and while all of these things that you do in your daily life are happening, to also hear how something that you've created with people is doing and is kind of hitting the zeitgeist ... it's just a really humbling, grounding way to experience it.”
She’s in the middle of her second major virtual press tour with another Netflix project, David Fincher’s Mank. The film, set entirely in black-and-white to mimic the style of movies from the era, follows Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he struggles to write what is now considered one of the greatest films of all time. Collins plays Rita Alexander, Mank’s stenographer and, increasingly, his confidant.
Collins felt well-versed in the trappings of old Hollywood going in, thanks in part to her childhood. “I feel lucky that I grew up in a household that very much embraced and encouraged old movies, old comedians, old Hollywood actors and actresses,” she tells me. I picture a young Collins curled up on a velvet loveseat in a room filled with vintage movie memorabilia, giggling to herself as a Three Stooges comedy plays on a projector above.
“A lot of people of this next generation may not have even heard of Citizen Kane. Some people won't even know who Audrey Hepburn is. And for me, I grew up in a house [where there] was just so much emphasis and enthusiasm on the past and old Hollywood. That was super prevalent within my childhood.”
The glamorous early decades of the film industry have proven pervasive in Collins’s work as well, first with 1930s-set serial adaptation The Last Tycoon and then Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes-inspired romance Rules Don’t Apply.
“I felt like, ‘Oh, I know a lot about this period.’ And then I read the script [for Mank] and went, ‘I don't know a lot about this period. There's actually a whole other layer to this that I didn't know,’” she says of the story behind Citizen Kane’s inception.
Collins’s role isn’t large, but it’s vital. Rita’s a foil to the typical ‘30s ingenue — she’s outspoken, assured, and, like Collins herself, always willing to see the best in others.
“She really holds [Mank] accountable in ways that are quite daring because she could get fired,” Collins tells me. “She uses her voice and expresses herself to Mank, because she sees his potential. She truly believes the best in him and wants him to succeed. I'm somebody that will keep giving of myself to the betterment of somebody, because if I believe in them and I see that potential, I'm just always going to want to cheer them on and root them on. And I feel like that's at the core who Rita is.”
It’s almost jarring to see Collins as Rita, a thematic 180 from the ebullient American in Paris who hashtagged her way to the top of myriad Netflix queues this fall. But as someone who tore through Collins’s filmography in a matter of weeks, shedding a tear as a frail Fantine struggled to vocalize her final words in BBC’s Les Misérables miniseries, clenching my fists as Liz Kendall confronted her longtime boyfriend Ted Bundy in prison, begging him to admit to his crimes in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile, I can attest that Collins has never been just one thing.
But she’s not doing the work she does for my assessment, or yours.
Critics be damned, Collins leans into the importance of being proud of what you do, and the pitfalls of picking projects, like Bachelor contestants, for "the wrong reasons." If there's any through line between Collins, Emily, and Rita, the "listen to your heart" approach is certainly it.
Photographer: Max Hemphill
Photo Assistant: Nick Caiazza
Stylists: Rob & Mariel
Hair Stylist: Gregory Russell
Makeup Artist: Fiona Stiles
Visuals Editor: Kelly Chiello
Special Projects Editor: Peyton Dix
Beauty Editor: Kayla Greaves
Fashion Editor: Samantha Sutton