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Through the Looking Glass

Lily Collins in Amazon's The Last Tycoon

Lily Collins in Amazon's The Last Tycoon.

If Lily Collins wasn’t real, F. Scott Fitzgerald might have invented her. Even now in 2017, the Fitzgerald-esque golden girl components are all there—you wouldn’t be surprised if Nick Carroway or Dick Diver came across Lily somewhere in the first 100 pages of The Great Gatsby or Tender Is the Night: a wealthy young actress coming into her own this summer, with eyebrows that could be described as vivifying and athletic, the daughter of English pop star Phil Collins—a modern woman who has both modeled and written for fashion magazines.

Which is why the 28-year-old Collins seems born to play one of Fitzgerald’s strongest female characters, Celia Brady, in Amazon Studio’s new series-length adaptation of his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.

Collins is doing press for the series in New York when she reaches me by phone. “Oh, you’re in Minnesota right now?” she asks, delighted to be reminded of Fitzgerald’s boyhood home. “I was just on an elevator with somebody else from Minnesota and they were telling me how dreadfully hot it is there.” She says it’s unseasonably cold in New York, but that she likes it because it reminds her of her true home, the English countryside. “I definitely feel more European at heart, deep down,” she says. She volunteers that the favorite bits of her formative years, the moments that put her the “most at ease,” were spent in West Sussex, in locales that looked like those from any Jane Austen movie or British period drama. “But I grew up in LA, so it’s a little bit of a mix there.”

Collins’ parents divorced when she was 5, and she was raised by her mother in California. “I grew up surrounded by old Hollywood,” she says. “My mom was born and raised in Los Angeles, and she was the president of the Beverly Hills Historical Society and on the foundation for the Greystone Mansion, which is ironically [the home on which Fitzgerald’s] Brady household is based. I used to run around there as a kid.”

In the show, Celia Brady’s father, Pat Brady—modeled by Fitzgerald on Louis B. Mayer—is played by Kelsey Grammer in full double-breasted 1920s movie-mogul mode. Pat’s business partner—and Celia Brady’s love interest—is the dashing wunderkind Monroe Stahr, portrayed on the show by Matt Bomer as a driven Don Draper-esque genius. Stahr was based on a man Fitzgerald worked for and greatly admired in real life, Irving Thalberg.

Collins throws out a spoiler alert before explaining that the television show quickly diverts from the book’s plot. “Yeah, of course, in the first episode you see her pining for him, but Celia moves right past the Monroe Stahr thing,” she says. “This is not about a young girl hooking up with some guy.” In fact, Collins sees Fitzgerald’s tragic inability to finish The Last Tycoon as an opportunity for the storytellers on the Amazon version—Billy Ray, Chris Keyser, Scott Hornbacher and A. Scott Berg—to branch out in different directions.

“I think it’s so wonderful to be given material like this and to roll with it, really,” she says. In the show, Louis B. Mayer will be his own character, and episodes will also feature Golden Age stars such as Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich. “Obviously, I studied history and I know all about this period,” Collins says, “but there’s so much information there that people don’t associate with the golden age of Hollywood, whether it’s where women stood during the Great Depression or the role Nazi Germany played and so on. It’s so fascinating that each of our characters gets to explore this in their own way.”

Collins is sincere in her admiration for her character: “[Celia] is so passionate and determined to pursue what it is she believes she’s capable of,” she says, “and she wants to start from the ground up. She loves and respects and admires her father’s work, but she wants to do it on her own—and, yeah, I grew up with a similar situation, where I very much respect, appreciate and admire what it is that my dad has done—but Celia doesn’t back down easily and she’s not afraid to stand on her own and assert her opinions.” In some ways, Collins sees Celia as a sassier version of herself. “I think she’s ahead of where I was when I was 18 or 19,” she says. “I don’t know if I was as vocal.”

When I remind her that she was writing for Seventeen Magazine by the time she was a teenager and beginning her movie career with a role in The Blind Side, she cedes the point. “Oh, I definitely had a voice,” she says. “And I just wrote a book about all that I was doing at that age. But I definitely feel like this is the most bold and vocal that I’ve ever been.”

Collins’ book, out last spring, is titled Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me. It’s not so much a memoir as a collection of essays delving into how her early success was disrupted by an eating disorder that became progressively worse. “It was something I never talked about, but was going through for a very long time,” she says. “I just felt like to lay it all out there and kind of talk about my insecurities . . . would make others feel less alone.”

Earlier this summer, she starred in Marti Noxon’s To the Bone, portraying a young woman battling anorexia. Collins says it was one of the most challenging things she’s ever done—she had a full-time nutritionist on hand to make sure she was safe—and that ultimately the movie served as metatherapy. “When you’re living in disorder, you don’t really see what it is that other people see,” she says. “You have a distorted view of yourself, a distorted body image. I have a lot of those experiences on the movie that mirrored real life feelings and it was such a strange, beautiful, weird experience that not a lot of people will ever get to go through.”

In a way, with her book and her movie and her Amazon series, Collins is moving through the looking glass. “When your life’s mission—to speak out about something—mirrors a job,” she says, “and you get to kind of mold the two together and learn about yourself, that’s a gift. I mean, it’s bizarre and strange but purely therapeutic and magical, and I had a lot of those moments.”

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