Lily Collins talks animatedly, using her hands to emphasize points in between dainty bites of salad.
Lily Collins takes thoughtful pauses before giving her answers, completely ignoring her club sandwich and side of shoestring fries.
Lily Collins barely speaks to me while utterly destroying a rack of ribs. I am very uncomfortable.
This is all fantasy at this point, as I’m not yet at my scheduled lunch, stuck instead in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I know she’s on a strict schedule so I’m already trying to fan-fiction the food part in my head, using the usual actress-interview Mad Lib. The rib option seems unlikely just given what I know of her as a Chanel-vetted model and fashion plate and former teen journalist. Also, I don’t think the hotel in Beverly Hills where we’re meeting up even does barbecue.
As it turns out, neither she nor I are super hungry, so we both get green teas. Later I find out that she’s not much of a meat eater and feel good being wrong about the rib thing, especially since she’s wearing a glittery, cream colored top.
In a few hours, Collins is headed directly into the unholy people-stew of Comic-Con to promote The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, the first installment in the latest fantasy-teen-serial-turned-hopefully-massively-popular-film-franchise.
The 24-year-old English American will play Clary, a girl who discovers in the current Young Adult trend that she’s not an ordinary person but a “Shadowhunter” whose supernatural ability involves killing demons in black leather and not-terribly-sensible shoes.
“I didn’t have a goth phase,” she admits, although she’s dabbled in the occult-ish. “My mom and I would always visit churches when I was traveling, and I was always interested in the darker side of things and the darker side of fairy tales.” For someone who probably doesn’t wear knee-high boots and carry a sword in her off time, she sounds genuinely enthused about Comic-Con. “I’m excited. I wanna see all the madness and be a part of it but also witness all the crazy.”
While comparisons to Audrey Hepburn might feel easy (or at least, preemptive), they’re not completely off, so it’s easy to picture her on a sweaty convention floor and think, “Oh no.” But in addition to a couple of prestige films (The Blind Side, The English Teacher), she’s done her share of cosplay. Perhaps you caught her in the vampire thriller Priest or in one of the two Snow White-based adaptations released in 2012, Mirror Mirror. (That was the sunnier, goofier one with Julia Roberts.)
“I’ve always loved fantasy. I grew up reading these kinds of stories and just disappearing in my own head,” she says dreamily, pausing to remove a little vial of liquid Stevia and dribble it, tincture-like, into her tea. “I loved Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen novels, anything that’s out of this world in a way. Even though Jane Austen novels are very realistic, they still have this fantasy about them.”
Collins knows Austen country pretty well, having divided her time between Los Angeles and the English countryside (her dad is that Phil). The provenance shows in both her manner and her accent, which sounds Californian, punctuated with airy peaks of Surrey.
“I know I sound very L.A., very American,” she sighs, but says she considers England home as well. Her first role was on a U.K. sitcom (at the age of two), and she’s just come from trotting out her British accent in the indie comedy Love, Rosie, in which she plays a “hot mess” and at times, a careworn 10-years older.
In the flesh, she’s chic and pretty and earnest with just a touch of corporate polish: unprompted, she mentions a fondness for doing press and junkets. I’d be tempted to call her out on this but it’s somehow eminently believable, even coming from someone staring down the possibility of you-can’t-go-to-the-mall-again levels of fame.
Megastarlets seem to come in two iterations: reluctant and reticent except for the occasional obscene gesture to the paparazzi, or accessible jokesters who laugh so you can see all of their teeth. Halfway into our talk, I’m making mental notes not to write the phrase Lily Collins is not your typical starlet. But as artificially headline-ready as it sounds, it’s an assessment she’d probably accept.
She volunteers that she’s not a drinker; she eschews the club scene and says her favorite part of the pub culture in Dublin was the camaraderie and the lack of pretense. She speaks with special nostalgia for the practice of finding someplace after work to “just go sit.”
All of this—the tea, Comic-Con enthusiasm, the sitting—could almost seem reactionary, a voluntary way to recuse herself from coming off like a movie star, especially given her background in journalism, which she studied at USC and honed as a reporter for the likes of Teen Vogue, the LA Times Magazine, and Nickelodeon.
But there’s something about her that just seems, for lack of a better term, untarnished, as though she was raised in an actual cottage in the forest. She clearly adores her parents, who come up organically every few minutes. When I point out how often she mentions her mother, she allows that they’re “best friends” but adds a little smile of self-effacement, as if she understands how wholesome she sounds.
If her poise seems practiced, it doesn’t feel artificially acquired. She’s a canny interview because she’s been on the other side of the tape recorder, and discusses her photo shoot from the perspective of someone as comfortable taking pictures as posing for them.
“I take my camera everywhere I go when I’m filming or going on location.” She says she favors pictures of machinery and architecture in various monochrome, although she brushes off my suggestion that she join Instagram and really up her inanimate object filter game. After the briefest flirtation with Twitter, she no longer “does” social media.
Acting props aside, fashion too is obviously her thing. She admits the occasional misstep, but she hews close enough to the classics so that the overall effect is one of almost unimpeachable chic, although she won’t take all of the credit for any it-girlyness.
“As much as I love helping pick out clothes for other people, I think it’s so difficult when I can’t even figure out what is totally my style.” She shrugs. “I think it takes a really good eye to mix prints, and the stylists who I work with are incredible…I can go, ‘I don’t know,’ and then try it on and say ‘Oh, my God you are so right,’ but I could have never put it together.”
Dressing herself, she opts for the classic and feminine, but she’s not risk-averse.
“I like to have fun and experiment and only recently in the past year and a half, I’ve started to try being a bit edger…Not overtly sexy, because I would never do that, but a classy refined version of sexy, just a bit older.”
She points to the tastefully shredded denim she’s wearing and explains, “I’m a bit schizophrenic in my fashion. One day I’m wearing ripped jeans and lighter tones, and the next day I want to be really dark and edgy.”
She wouldn’t call herself edgy, per se. When she brings up a love of John Hughes films, I ask her which member of The Breakfast Club she’d be, and she picks Molly Ringwald without much hesitation. “I wouldn’t say I’m preppy princess by any means,” she counters. “…I think that I have a bit more of an attitude.”
One would hope so. She mentions her fondness for privacy several times, enough that there’s reason to wonder what will happen if Mortal Instruments goes Twilight-nuclear, and she can no longer comb even the most remote French flea markets in peace.
“I think there is something great about seeing someone as a character because you don’t know them that well as themselves,” she says, explaining her aversion to actors over-sharing on social media. “I like to be able to watch movies and not know too much about someone personally. I don’t want to be tainted by thinking, ‘Oh my god, they had the best pasta last week.’”
It’s telling that her idea of a social media overshare is someone having great pasta. But lest you underestimate her, she is, after all, a trained demon slayer. If a blooming career in fantasy films has given her anything, it’s extensive combat skills.
“Um, yeah, I think I could probably hold my own in a knife fight,” she says, and I believe her.