From the story behind her recent engagement to her transformation into a prim British secretary for David Fincher’s latest black-and-white epic, the actor tells Radhika Seth about her extraordinary year.
This has been Lily Collins’s year. When I meet the 31-year-old actor on Zoom, speaking from her home in Los Angeles, she’s fresh-faced and optimistic, with her hair in perfect curls and wearing a biscuit-coloured Biden-Harris sweatshirt. “I sleep in this,” she later tells me with a grin, though the recent US presidential election result isn’t the only reason she has to celebrate.
In September, she became engaged to her boyfriend, writer-director Charlie McDowell. A week later, Emily in Paris landed on Netflix. Created by Sex and the City’s Darren Star and starring Collins as the titular midwestern marketing executive who relocates to the French capital, the show became a cultural phenomenon. But, it’s not the only project Collins has launching on the streaming giant this year. Up next, she’ll appear in David Fincher’s Mank, a glittering tribute to Old Hollywood.
Born in the UK and partly raised in California, the daughter of musician Phil Collins and actor Jill Tavelman was always ambitious. As a teenager, she wrote articles for Teen Vogue and in 2008 covered the US presidential election as a host on Nickelodeon’s Kids Pick the President. She went on to study broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California but acted too, joining the casts of The Blind Side (2009), Mirror Mirror (2012) and Rules Don’t Apply (2016). The latter earned Collins a Golden Globe nomination in 2017 and more high-profile roles followed, in the harrowing anorexia drama To the Bone (2017), the critically acclaimed Okja (2017), the BBC adaptation of Les Misérables (2018) and the crime thriller Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019).
Mank, however, is a cut above the rest. Set in 1940 and filmed in luminous black and white, it tells the semi-fictionalised story of screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz as he struggles to pen one of the greatest movies of all time: Citizen Kane (1941). Known as ‘Mank’ to his friends and played with relish by Gary Oldman, he’s a gambler and heavy drinker who is given one last chance to redeem himself.
In flashbacks, Mank recalls run-ins with starlet Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and her powerful lover, the media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) — both of whom inspire the script — but it’s his British stenographer, Rita Alexander (Collins), whose help he relies on in order to keep working. Holed up on a ranch in the Californian desert, the pair become friends as Mank dictates his masterpiece to Rita. The result is a swooning epic that is close to David Fincher’s heart, as its razor-sharp screenplay was written by his own father, Jack Fincher, before his death in 2003.
Ahead of Mank’s release on 4 December, Collins shares how she got into character, what has got her through lockdown and why she first met co-star Gary Oldman at the age of two.
Mank is such a passion project for David Fincher. How did you first get involved?
“I heard about it a couple of weeks before I was leaving for Paris [to film Emily in Paris]. David is someone that I never thought I’d have the chance to work with. I sent a tape just before I left, and then a few weeks into my job in Paris, I Zoom auditioned. When I found out that I got it, I was so confused [laughs]. I thought, ‘This is so weird. It can’t all work out like this!’ After that, I had to fly back to LA for fittings and rehearsals, but I was shooting Emily — I’m in every scene and I have no days off. So, I flew back twice for 24 hours. I flew on a Saturday morning after a night shoot in Paris, landed on Saturday morning in LA, went to rehearsals, or a fitting, or a camera test, flew back, went to bed and woke up at 5am to be Emily again. It happened really quickly and I couldn’t stop and think about it because the end result was going to be that I could work on both, one after the other.”
Was it dizzying to finish Emily in Paris and go straight into Mank?
“When I flew back to Paris the second time [from LA], they were just starting to film Mank. It was before I finished Emily, but my part didn’t start until I got back. I had two weeks after that, before I went in. But, it wasn’t that hard because Emily and Rita are polar opposites. Not only is Emily bright, bold and a little bit obvious personality-wise, but she’s also in a bright, bold and obvious world, whereas Rita is in a black-and-white world. She’s harder to read, more no-nonsense, more poised in a sense, and British. So, I could disassociate the second I got on a plane.”
What did David want the character of Rita to represent?
“Rita is, of course, a real person, but there’s little information to be found about her, other than the fact that she’s a stenographer from England and her husband was in the war. I think I saw two photos of her. So, in terms of creating her persona, it was about what she represents for Gary [Oldman]’s character, because he’s at his most vulnerable when he’s with her. They’re each other’s confidantes. For a woman of that time and in that position, Rita was very bold. She believed Mank was capable of more than he himself did, and she’d remind him of what he’d promised to do. He needed that extra kick sometimes. David wanted Rita to have an innate sense of goodness. I loved that there’s not a romance between her and Mank — it’s a soulful friendship that neither expects.”
How did you work with Gary Oldman to build that familial relationship between Rita and Mank?
“I’d actually met Gary when I was about two years old on the set of Bram Stoker’s Dracula . My dad was in Hook  and those two films were being shot on the same lot in LA. Then, years later, at the Heavenly Bodies Met gala [in 2018], I was at the valet and saw Gary and his wife Gisele [Schmidt]. I told him how much I admired him. Who would have thought that years after, I’d be playing this character who so admires his character? On Mank, we’d laugh and joke around between takes and then when they said ‘action’, he’d just go back to being Mank. I’d have to pinch myself sometimes because I’d forget that I had to respond. He was amazing.”
How did those intricate period costumes help you get into character?
“Rita isn’t a Hollywood starlet, so she’s not done up all the time, but she wants to look presentable. She has little jewellery, she wears small heels but also brogues, and she’s slightly more sporty sometimes. She wears suits, but [often] they’re quite dishevelled — for instance, if Mank and Rita have been up for hours writing and they’re sweaty. David would say, ‘Don’t touch them up unless you’re adding more sweat. Don’t make them look perfect.’ I liked the idea of roughing up that time period.”
Your other Netflix project, Emily in Paris, is one of the most talked-about shows of 2020. Why do you think it’s managed to capture the zeitgeist in the way that it has?
“We all want to travel. We all want escapism. Being an American in Paris is not a revolutionary idea, but right now it’s impossible. The gift of meandering around a foreign city and losing track of time is something that we all miss. In Emily in Paris, we had [stylist] Patricia Field on costumes, so you know you’re going to have a treat for the eyes, and Darren Star, who always [turns] the cities [his shows are set in] into characters in themselves. The show has a sense of humour, a silliness and a brightness to it, and I think it hit at a time when we all needed it the most. We all want to laugh and smile. I think there’s hope on the horizon [now] and the show leans into that.”
Now that the second season has been confirmed, what are you hoping to see more of?
“I really hope to see Emily spend more time with her co-workers at [the marketing firm] Savoir outside the office and get to know them and [her friend] Mindy [Chen, played by Ashley Park] more. I also hope Emily’s French improves as she continues to grow within her company as a useful and more positive asset, while of course still always finding herself in funny situations. I’d love for her to start to feel more at ease in the city and dive deeper into life as more of a resident than a visitor. But, who knows what will happen.”
You’ve had an eventful lockdown in that you got engaged. What was that moment like?
“It was totally surreal. It was a complete surprise and you can tell from my face [in the Instagram post]. I’m not that good of an actress [laughs]. I knew from the moment we got together that I wanted to be with him, but I didn’t know when that was going to happen. We were on a road trip, which we love to do with our little dog, and he’d planned the whole thing. There were no other humans around for miles and miles. It was so beautiful and now I get to be a fiancée and get into the planning of it all. I’m really excited.”
From your Instagram, it also looks like you’ve been surfing a lot recently?
“[My fiancé] Charlie’s been surfing since he was a kid. He’s so great at it and a really good teacher. He taught me how to surf during quarantine. It’s cool because it makes you strong. You have to be balanced when you’re up on the board and you’re not in control, so you just have to let go, be calm and roll with it. I feel like that’s a perfect metaphor for right now. Also, I’m a Pisces — I love the water.”
What’s making you feel hopeful for the future right now?
“The [US] election results and the idea that we’re headed towards four years of hope, not hate. I don’t think I’d ever been as involved and invested before. With Obama’s  election, I was covering it for Nickelodeon and I was involved because it was my first year of voting, but this year I wanted Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to win so badly. I’ll never forget the moment it happened. With these results, we’ve proven that we can use our voices collectively. And, how crazy is it that this was an American election that [felt like] a global election? I had friends in England sending me videos of them celebrating. It’s so powerful and such a relief.”
‘Mank’ is on Netflix from 4 December 2020.