Lily Collins chats with Christopher Hooton about her humble beginnings, latest Netflix movies and fascination with old-school Hollywood

Lily Collins has had a busy year, appearing in Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes biopic Rules Don’t Apply, Netflix’s biggest feature film yet, Okja and starring in one of its latest indie films, To the Bone (streaming now) – the story of a girl dealing with anorexia. I caught up with Lily Collins on a warm Tuesday afternoon at the Corinthia Hotel in London.

There’s common ground here, you studied journalism right?
Yeah I went to USC. Broadcast Journalism and Communications.

I’ve always ultimately wanted to be directing and I’m trying to segue into that – with you, was it the case that you studied journalism and did a little after college, but the hope was always to go into acting?
Yeah, I always knew that I wanted to act. But I was always super intrigued about asking questions and seeing human nature and human response and knew it would better inform me as an actor. And then, taking that on camera, I could better understand my angles, what it was to edit, how edits happen and how to take direction. There are so many facets of the industry I think can be applied to other areas you wouldn’t necessarily associate them with. So having those skills is really important because a lot of people in the field you end up in haven’t necessarily had the type of experience you’ve had. It can give you an interesting perspective I think.

You’ve done some wild stuff in journalism, I read that you covered the 2008 presidential election for Nickelodeon!
[Laughs] Yeah. It was really fun – I got to do the ’kids pick the president’ campaign which – I was 18 at the time so it was my first time voting, I had a lot of questions myself, so I got to go out in the field and ask questions for the kids but also for myself, which was interesting. I got to be there for the inauguration and all the parties afterward and the conventions too, it was crazy.

You know that Nickelodeon kids’ president poll has only been wrong like twice! It’s a more accurate predictor than many broadsheet polls.
No way, that’s so funny!

So with To The Bone, you had personal experience of anorexia, right? When you were approached about it were you immediately like ’yes, I want to draw on it’ or was there a wariness and you weren’t sure whether you wanted to make that part of your life something to put on the screen?
So I was sent the script by my team who didn’t know my association with it [anorexia] at all – they just thought it was an amazing opportunity for an actor. I’d ironically just written a chapter in my book about my experience with eating disorder a week before, so I was already reliving it by reading journals from that time period. It was like the world in a kismet situation saying ’this is something that maybe you need to expand upon, something you can may bring to more people – start a larger conversation.’ Before I read the script I was hesitant to step back into those shoes when I’d gone so far away from them but I also figured it’s about telling a larger story, so I gave it a shot and when I did it hit me in the gut – the writing was so spot on; I could really relate to some of the experiences in it. It was witty and had this dark humour that I think only someone who’d gone through it could write. It was semi-autobiographical for Marti [Noxon, the writer-director] so that made total sense, and when I finished it I called up right away and was like ’I have to meet with somebody about this.’ I met with Marti who had no idea about my connection with it whatsoever; we started talking, had a little bit of a lovefest and I explained to her my association with it and what I could relate to. And that was it really, I went home and expressed to my team my hopes of her liking me and she expressed her hopes of me liking her and it was kind of like a marriage from there.

A film like that needs the humour doesn’t it, otherwise it can get a bit morbid.
Yeah, it’s already a dark subject matter so you want to make sure you have lightness in there. Also, there’s a real truth to dark humour being used as a deflection from issues, especially with this kind of topic, you don’t want to address the elephant in the room, you just want to deflect, deflect, deflect. I personally used dark humour or in general in that way and so did Marti. My character, Ellen, is very sarcastic and fun and witty – she’s a bright young women who got a lot of darkness in there.

And the scenes where you looked very emaciated, I’m guessing some it was body doubles, some of it was VFX?
So some of it was me, some was a young woman who was in recovery, and they kind of molded the two of us together. The shot at the end is obviously not me that’s CGI, but it’s a dream sequence so you can kind of allow that.

You obviously had to stay really thin for the role as well, was it weird having to go back to the kind of behaviour you’d put behind you, in terms of really worrying about what you eat?
It was, but what was weird about it was someone else telling me what I could and couldn’t eat. It wasn’t about the satisfaction of me controlling it, it was actually being held accountable by a professional. And I started to go like, ‘well maybe I want to eat that,’ and I had to remind myself it’s for a greater purpose. So, I wanted to eat, whereas before it would have been me telling myself I didn’t. It was interesting being held accountable throughout the process; I had a lot of people supporting me to help me through it. But also, I feel proud of the fact that, because of the regimen and supplements I was on as well as constantly eating throughout the day, I never forgot my lines, I was never late and never skipped out on work or was ever overly tired, and I had a great time shooting. I think a lot of what propelled me forward was that I was so passionate about the story and determined to get through it, make it to the end and have that feeling of pride. I knew the greater purpose of the story was much bigger than myself and that there was potential for change after this movie or at least a conversation starting about the subject matter, so I didn’t want to mess it up. Obviously, it was a little bit of pressure, but sometimes pressure can be good.

So what is the healthy way they recommend actors to get down to a small size for roles?
There really isn’t a recommended way. I know other actors who would literally eat a piece of fruit a day and smoke a lot and drink a lot of coffee, and that was totally not the vibe I wanted – I don’t even smoke – so I don’t condone that and, I reminded myself they’d hired me as an actor, not for the potential of what my body could look like. And so, it was just about limiting certain food groups, having smaller portions, lots of water and just the basics really. But always having supplements with every meal as well to make sure your body is functioning properly.

I know one obviously draws on one’s own life with every role to an extent, but did this movie feel different because it was something so close to you, did it feel easier to tap into the emotion when you were in the scene?
It definitely was a dissimilar type of experience for me and, watching it back, I can spot the moments where I’m actually having revelations of my own in the movie as myself, because the way Marti wrote the script is so accurate and there are things I’d never been open to talking about or ever really spoken to a professional about. The therapists in the house talking about why people stay in disorder or what we like about it, for instance, was so spot-on and creepily similar to my mindset at the time that I was just in awe that someone understood me, and that’s what Ellen’s going through in that moment, you know, someone’s caught me out’.

I really was so present in this movie that I allowed myself to have those moments of clarity and they just happened to be captured on film. Like the scene in the bathroom where my step mom makes me step on the scales, take my clothes off and she takes pictures of me and asks me if I think they’re beautiful, I didn’t know that Kerry Preston, the actress, was actually going to use the iPhone and take a photo – I thought she’d turn it around and there’d be a blank screen – but she took a photo of me and it shook me in that moment because I was faced with something that I just hadn’t seen in myself. When you’re in disorder you don’t see yourself the way that everyone else does really, it’s distorted, so that was a real moment that shook me as Ellen but also as Lily. To the Bone provided me a lot of those ’aha’ moments.

Did you see the whole furor about Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why?
I know that there was controversy surrounding it, but I think when you take any subject matter that is so relevant today people are really afraid to talk about, or don’t know how to talk about, there’s always going to be negative attention because it’s uncomfortable. With 13 Reasons Why, that’s something they set out to do from the start, this [To The Bone] was something that we’re indebted to Sundance in that they acquired and wanted to distribute it. In both situations I think it’s to be applauded that they’re taking risks on subject matter like that, because I think in order to start conversations about them you have to take the taboo out of it, and in order to do that you have to put it out into the universe in some way, and entertainment is a perfect platform for young people to pay attention. I think Netflix is really bringing change because conversations turn into change. There’s going to be negative attention with anything that people consider uncomfortable.

“I think in order to start conversations about them you have to take the taboo out of it, you have to put it out into the universe in some way”

It was weird to me because it seemed like everyone was coming from a liberal standpoint, but what they were asking for was essentially censorship, for the approach to be ’let’s just not talk about suicide and pretend it’s not happening’.
Yeah, not talking about it’s not going to help. I wrote a book last year and the whole point of it was for readers not to feel alone, and in order to not feel alone you need to be able to share experiences with people, and that comes from opening yourself up and talking about what can be quite terrifying. The idea that you’re not alone also promotes the idea that asking for help is not a weakness, it’s a strength, and I think so often we consider needing help as meaning we can’t handle things ourselves, when really we’re just seeking out someone else to understand us, and I think these shows and this movie is a way of doing that.

I’m always interested to ask actors how they feel about social media, because with so many industries now it’s become an accepted part of things and is just expected that people use it. I was talking to Alicia Vikander a few weeks ago and she was saying how she prefers just not to have it at all; I know you’re on Twitter and other mediums, how do you deal with social media and how much do you engage with it?
It’s interesting, I was pretty against social media at the very beginning, because I love old Hollywood actors and actresses – the mystery around them. A real mystery and like, studios kept them secret. I was talking to Sir Michael Parkinson recently on his radio show and he was saying how it started at the very beginning of people being allowed to even go on talk shows. They didn’t come with publicists, they’d never done it before and there was almost no censorship because they just wanted to share things. And now it’s interesting because you can more easily control what you put out there and what you don’t. The journalist in me always loved relating and socialising and connecting with people, but there came a point where I needed to make a decision to stop that being my focus and really focus on acting – an audience are only really going to believe me as a character to an extent if they don’t know me as Lily that well.

Instagram was the first place I went to because I could express my love of photos and I thought well, photos speak for themselves and I can just add a little caption, but it created this positive environment for young women supporting each other that I wasn’t expecting and it was that interaction that inspired me to write my book because they were all telling me their insecurities and their experiences assuming I couldn’t relate because I was an actor, whereas that was the furthest from the truth, I had just never really been open about it before. I wrote my book to basically say, ’wait a second, I actually can relate completely to you and I wanted my voice to be unfiltered, which is the title of the book, and also the photos in it to be unfiltered.

It’s difficult, I really enjoy social media – certain forms of it – because I get to connect with young people around the world and really use my voice in a way that hopefully encourages others to as well, but also you do risk opening yourself up too much. I think if you can get a grasp on a balance, then that’s a really good thing, it’s healthy. It’s not easy, but I think I’m finding that balance and grateful for the interactions I’ve had on social media. That said, I don’t like, check it all the time, I’m not constantly tweeting and updating everything – Instagram’s the one I feel like I really curate because I love photography and visual art.

Instagram’s weirdly my favourite one too, even though on the surface it seems all about façade.
Exactly, it’s a lot of fast-paced opinions and that’s great that people are using their voice but, personally, I think photos for me say more.

I haven’t heard much about The Last Tycoon in a while, is that still happening?
Yes! I shot the first season like a month ago and it comes out this summer. I’m hoping people like it and that we go to a second season which would be amazing. It’s fun; it’s the golden era of Hollywood and we get to really dive deep and go dark in it as well.

I can tell old school Hollywood is obviously in your interest what with Rules Don’t Apply as well.
I know. I’ve really got the period stuff covered I guess, that’s why it’s been fun to do To The Bone and Okja and go outside of the box people might put me in, because that’s the last thing I’d ever want as an actor. I want to keep switching it up, to surprise them but also mainly to keep myself guessing.