On the surface, everything about my lunch date with Lily Collins appears normal. We’re dining in the outdoor restaurant of one of L.A.’s most storied hotels, frequented by Hollywood legends like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, and famous for its ivy-lined walls, currently filtering in L.A.’s seasonless sunshine. But there has been nothing “normal” about the year of 2020, as the entire world grapples with a deadly virus, and the words “pandemic” and “contagion” spell out our reality (instead of an apocalyptic film featuring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow). This explains why Lily, dressed in a pewter Maje blazer and dark jeans, is palpably hesitant when the hostess leads us to our table in the center of the outdoor space, flocked in every direction by groups of chattering guests. Los Angeles has only recently eased its dining restrictions to allow for outdoor service, and thus, something as “normal” as an afternoon lunch interview carries with it the added weight of months of social distancing, optics, and the unease of safety protocol (are the tables really six feet apart, I wonder…).
“This is the first time I’ve eaten at a restaurant since quarantine started,” Lily whispers to me, eye wide as we sit down. She seems slightly shell-shocked, which is understandable since the beginning of quarantine was in March and we are now dining together at the tail-end of October. I flag down our hostess and request a quieter, more socially-distant table. Luckily, there happens to be one in another area of the restaurant, and as we sit down, Lily visibly relaxes with a sigh. “I’m sorry, it’s just that I haven’t been around this many people for so long,” she apologizes, swirling liquid Stevia into her hot black tea. “It was a lot.”
Now that we’re alone(ish), I begin to experience what can only be described as the Lightness of Lily. I can’t pinpoint what it is exactly—her openness, easy laugh, or maybe just her smile—but there’s an unmistakable aura of happiness emanating off of her, made more noticeable by the fact that it’s so rare to encounter this type of joyful lightness during such a difficult year. Seconds after sitting down, she immediately dives into stories about her road-tripping adventures with her fiancé, writer and director Charlie McDowell. “It's the best way to create a sense of adventure,” she tells me earnestly. “You're taking yourself from A to B. You're part of nature. We go camping and we're in the middle of the Redwoods or driving through cities that we never would have gone through before.” She credits these road trips and moments in nature for keeping her grounded as everything else in the world feels so uncertain: “You're literally breathing in clean air. You're not feeling at a loss of creativity and you’re doing things with your hands and getting outside and building fires, and feeling really at peace in a time when there's just been so much darkness.”
Each time her fiancé comes up throughout our interview, Lily's face lights up. The pair was recently engaged during one of her aforementioned road trips through Santa Fe and Sedona, and though it happened after only a year and a half of dating, Lily says she wasn’t surprised at all by how quickly it happened. “I’ve known he was ‘The One’ since the very beginning,” she says frankly. “All my friends joked with me at first. They're like, ‘How can you know’ I'm like, ‘I know. I just know.’” When the proposal happened—which she describes as “a surreal moment that you just replay over and over in your head”—she said yes without hesitation. She beams as she tells me this, then stirs her tea: “Can I just say? Honestly, I’m so excited to be a wife.” I ask her to expand. “I don't think of it in any way, shape, or form to do with whether or not I'm a feminist,” she clarifies. “To me, it's more like, I can't wait to be with this person, and now we get to plan something that we'll have for the rest of our lives.” When she explains it like that, it’s hard to argue. The Lightness of Lily—it flickers stronger.
The fact that Lily Collins became a household name in 2020 has nothing to do with the pandemic, and yet everything to do with it. In October, Netflix released a saccharine-sweet, Darren Star-helmed show called Emily in Paris, which—in case you’ve been recently kicked off your family’s Netflix account and somehow haven’t watched—follows the life of Emily Cooper, an overly-earnest beauty marketing executive who moves to Paris for a new job opportunity. What follows is a fun, frothy journey of self-discovery as she learns how to handle the clashing of American brashness and Parisian subtlety in every aspect of her life, from work to romance. Copious shots of Paris’ charming cobbled streets, the extravagant Grand Palais, and, of course, a glittering Eiffel Tower moment helped satisfy the wanderlust (or perhaps fanned the flame) within us during a year when most people haven’t been able to travel overseas at all. That, coupled with Emily’s brightly color-coordinated wardrobe (unironic beret included), made Emily in Paris a rainbow-swirled, glitter-flecked treat millions eagerly devoured 10 months into a year that was mostly grim, heavy, and gray. It’s no surprise that it quickly became the number-one show on Netflix globally, or was just recently confirmed for a second season—Lily’s Instagram post announcing the second season received over 500K likes in 12 hours. “It was so crazy,” Lily says with genuine wonderment when I ask her about the show’s reception. “To me, it just translates to: people needed an escape. They're able to get that wish fulfillment of travel when they watch it. They can laugh and smile. And I don't know what I need now more than ever other than smiling and laughing.”
She has a fair point. And though both the show and her character Emily have now been criticized, discussed, and analyzed endlessly, Lily is adamant that Emily—"basic" as she may be, Eiffel Tower keychain be damned—is empowered in her own right. “Emily is very much the woman of now, who is just as much of a romantic as she is a work-driven girl,” Lily says. She calls Emily “unapologetically herself” and someone who finds passion in her work. “I love to work, too,” she affirms. “The fact that sometimes that gets a bad reputation of like, oh, you're too focused on work. No, I find romanticism in my work and I really am passionate, and I love to do what I love to do.” In fact, she says that playing Emily may have been the best thing to happen to her before going through a pandemic, even if she didn’t realize it at the time: “She has a steadfast, passionate way of being like, ‘Okay, I'm going to figure this out.’ She almost subconsciously prepared me for what was coming. You're going to have to pivot, you're going to have to do things differently, you're going to vote differently...I think she filled a bank of optimism within me that I would then be able to cash out during COVID.”
If Emily is a sunflower—home-grown, All-American, and charmingly obvious—then Lily’s latest character Rita Alexander is a bluebell—British, prim, and hardy. Lily joins Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried in the new David Fincher-directed film Mank, inspired by the life of Herman J. Mankiewicz as he wrote Citizen Kane and set in the backdrop of mid-1900’s Hollywood. In the film, Rita is Mank’s stoic secretary and script transcriber; her serious demeanor is the complete opposite of Emily’s buoyancy (as is the film itself, which is shot in grainy black and white). Rita is responsible for keeping Mank off the wagon, encourages him when he grows frustrated, and ultimately becomes a confidant who helps him complete the monolith, Academy Award winning manuscript.
Acting alongside Gary Oldham, Lily says, was a career highlight. “It was everything,” she gushes. “There were so many moments when I'd have to remind myself I was in a scene, because I'm just sitting there going, ‘Oh wow,’ soaking it all in. But when you're opposite someone who's been at the top of their game for the past 30 years, it truly elevates you to be at the top of your game, in whatever context that is, in all aspects.” The fact that Lily plays both Emily and Rita so believably is made even more impressive by the knowledge that she was flying 11 hours back and forth from Paris to Los Angeles every weekend during the filming of Emily in Paris to rehearse for Mank. I ask her if it was difficult to turn off Emily and emote Rita, and vice versa. “The time periods are so different, and the subject matter and the themes and the genre,” she responds. “So for me, finding that character was just such a different process than Emily. Also removing myself from Paris and back to L.A...it was like I could leave Emily there, and then come here and have Rita.”
If you first got to know Lily through Emily in Paris, it’s easy to assume Lily and Emily are similar. Lily is instantly open, warm, and outspoken, like Emily. Or perhaps, given the fact that Lily’s father is British music legend Phil Collins and she spent most of her childhood in the English countryside, you’d think Lily is more like Rita. Even she tells me, “I definitely feel more British than American in a lot of ways. I’m drawn towards British period dramas and British female authors...Whenever I play a character with a British accent, I feel so weirdly connected to myself in a different way.” But the more Lily talks, the more you glimpse the different sides of her beneath her cheery exterior—the softer parts, the jagged parts that are never quite as obvious as a first impression, but are what make a person who they are. Because though I can feel the Lightness of Lily emanating across from me at the table, there are also dark times from her past that she doesn’t shy away from discussing.
As the daughter of Collins and his then-wife Jill Tavelman, Collins grew up with a certain level of notoriety, amplified even more so by her decision to become an actress. After a breakout role in the Sandra Bullock-helmed film The Blind Side, Lily went on to star in young adult blockbusters such as Mirror, Mirror and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. She quickly rose to beauty icon status (her brows...enough said). A beauty contract with Lancôme soon followed, and seven years later, she still serves as ambassador (during our lunch, she raves about the brand’s Génifique face mask, crediting it as a plane staple for keeping her skin hydrated during her jaunts between Paris and L.A.). But Hollywood’s shiny cellophane exterior was a very different world than her bucolic countryside upbringing in England, and as her fame grew, so did a gnawing sense of self-criticism. “I was definitely trying to be the version of myself that I thought people wanted to see,” she reflects. “I had a people pleaser quality and I didn't allow myself to reflect on, how do I feel, what do I want to say? How do I feel comfortable being me?” The more she focused on what others perceived and wanted, the harder it was to keep sight of who she was. “I think because I'm so introspective and reflective, I’ve in the past tended to look so inward that I take things out on myself,” she says. “I was in a bad relationship where I felt definitely quieted by that person. And it wasn't encouraged to gain more of a voice or use my voice more.” Her intense self-scrutiny manifested in an eating disorder and a period of painful insecurity and self-doubt, which she documents in her book Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me. “My lack of control turned into: how can I control myself?” she says.
Then, came a saving grace—a role that reminded her of her higher purpose. To the Bone, a film from Netflix released in 2017, documents a pivotal period in the life of Ellen, a young woman struggling with anorexia. “When I got that script, I had just written the chapter in my book about my experiences with eating disorders,” she says. “So, to then have this script come into my lap, which mirrored the same subject matter at a time in my life when I was finally able to talk about it, was one of those very rare meta moments when your craft and your life mold into one experience—where you know they're going to aid one another and say something bigger than you thought you could say.” She recounts the many messages she received from fans after the movie debuted, thanking her for shining light on the reality of eating disorder recovery and playing such a vulnerable character that made so many of them feel seen for the first time ever. It marked a turning point for her. “That experience—to have my job turn into something that was part of the healing process for not only me, but to viewers—was really powerful,” she reflects. “Maybe that's why I tended to be drawn towards darker, more introspective characters—I see so much healing through characters like that.”
Healing through darkness seems to be an overarching theme for all of America in the second half of 2020, as we pick up the pieces from a tumultuous election, racial upheaval, and economic crisis brought on by a global pandemic. In many ways, quarantine has amplified things we’ve previously been able to push aside—with less physical distractions, we’re forced to face our secret fears and doubts. Lily recounts how, in the beginning of the pandemic, she would wake up some mornings and just cry all day. “These days, we have less voices of people physically around us, but more voices in our own heads—and that's sometimes even harder,” she says. “You're sitting within your thoughts going, well, what do I do with all this? Who are these people in my brain? We're finding ourselves with this feeling of having no control—so, how do I stay sane, stable, and centered without reverting back to my old ways?”
Her secret, she reveals, is simple: relinquish control. “I was always thinking about the past or worried about the future, so for me letting go has always been a big thing,” she says. Surrendering to the process is what ultimately helped her emerge from her dark period, and it’s a concept that continues to help her navigate the uncertainty of 2020. And perhaps it also explains the Lightness of Lily; the unbridled joy she exudes in a way that only happens after a person is completely comfortable in being still with themselves—someone who has sat with their pain already, felt its prickly corners, and set it free. That, plus a mix of dopamine-inducing podcasts (she recommends former monk Jay Shetty’s On Purpose, in which she was a recent guest, and The Happiness Lab), reading (she often posts excerpts from the aptly-titled The Art of Letting Go on her Instagram), and therapy, of which she’s a strong advocate. “Self-help isn't selfish—it’s self-love,” she says simply. “With therapy, I just want to know more about myself to make myself a better person, so that I'm a better friend, daughter, fiancé, future wife and mother—all of those things. I don't think there's a thing as too much introspection. You have to do the work.”
Without the need to control, she tells me that she’s finally been able to tap into her true self again—”the young Lily in the countryside in England” who craved adventure and spontaneity, who had a voice, and didn’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations. When I bring up the Black Lives Matter movement, she’s quick to vocalize the importance of speaking out while acknowledging privilege. “Those conversations with ourselves, with our friends, or with our family are so awkward and hard, but they're the ones that promote the most change, and we have to do it,” she says. “I think if we allow shame and embarrassment of not knowing what we ‘should have known’ prevent us from moving forward and learning more, we'd be missing out on so much growth.” On the adventure aspect, she describes her current state as “very experience-driven” and less focused on material things. “I’ve learned so much about myself through my experiences, as opposed to what I accumulate,” she says simply. It’s part of the reason why she’s pushed herself out of her comfort zone and started surfing, coached by her fiancé, a seasoned surfer himself. As she describes her first surfing experience, an almost too-perfect metaphor emerges, and should perhaps best be kept in her own words for full effect:
“I can't tell you the last time as an adult I tried something new, putting aside the fear of failing publicly. And so it was kind of really freeing again, this feeling of physically letting go. You're sitting on the surfboard and you're going, ‘I'm actually really out of control right now because the wave and the board are going to take me.’ You can’t predict the wave. I literally see one coming and I'm like, ‘Oh, stand up.’ It’s the act of letting go—the art of sitting still in the moment, looking at the waves, appreciating where you are. Sometimes a whole horde of dolphins just comes by and is right there and you're going, wait, that's a form of meditation—I’m just so here. And then once you get up—if you get up—it's so freeing. You feel so strong, because you’re like, my core is centered. I'm balanced. It's this cool, emotional and physical balance of strength and surrendering when it comes together in one moment and you're going, I feel so proud of myself...I got up.”
In ancient Chinese philosophy, the concept of yin and yang illustrates how seemingly opposite forces can be complementary—and in some cases, accentuate each other as they interrelate. Take, for example, an American girl in Paris and a British secretary in Hollywood; the countryside of Surrey and the lights of Sunset Boulevard; pain and comfort; joy and grief; strength and softness. We’re all made of dualities, but it’s the intricacies between them that make up our truest parts. Look between Lily’s, and you’ll see someone happily surrendering her next chapter: floating, light, and free.
Photographer: Emman Montalvan
Creative Director: Hillary Comstock
Beauty Director: Faith Xue
Makeup Artist: Fiona Stiles / A-Frame
Hairstylist: Gregory Russell / The Wall Group
Manicurist: Thuy Nguyen / A-Frame
Stylist: Sue Choi
Production Assistant: Caroline Hughes
Booking: The Talent Connect Group