The day before we meet, Lily Collins had what felt like a breakthrough encounter. At the end of a short, on-camera interview, the journalist had asked where she lived. Los Angeles, she told him, where her mother was born and raised, and where she has lived since the age of five, when her parents divorced. He then asked where her father lived. England, and partly in the US now, too, she answered. And what did her father do for a living? After some stifled giggling from the crew, Collins, who has just turned 30, gently explained her parentage. “And the guy just looked at me with the biggest eyes,” she laughs. “He’s like, ‘I’m sorry, what did you just say? Oh God, now I feel silly.’”
She insists that she was very grateful for his ignorance. “I’m so proud of my family, but I have also worked really hard to carve my own path and to not have that define me.’”
The daughter of superstar musician Phil Collins and his second wife, Jill Tavelman, she admits that her famous surname has inevitably opened doors, but insists that nobody has ever “made a phone call” for her. “I did get told that I could have other ways in,” she shrugs, when we meet on a rainy New York afternoon. “but I never wanted to give anyone the opportunity to say: ‘Well, she only got X or Y because of that.’ I knew it would take longer to do it on my own, but it would be so much more worth it.”
Collins’s insistence on carving her own path is now paying off, with two high-profile films – Tolkien, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and the US launch of the BBC miniseries Les Miserables, for which her performance as the tragic Fantine is already creating some early awards buzz.
Tolkien, a biopic of the author’s early life, stars Nicholas Hoult as JRR Tolkien, the philologist and author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Ringsseries, while Collins plays Edith Bratt, his childhood sweetheart and, later, his wife, who was the inspiration for Lúthien Tinúviel, the elvish princess in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. “I had auditioned to play an elven character in one of Peter Jackson’s movies, and I didn’t get it… but I’ve ended up playing the woman who inspired the elven princess,” grins Collins. It is her most mainstream, highly anticipated film to date, and a world away from the romcom roles she was getting five years ago. While there’s a heavy focus on Tolkien’s male friendships – the inspirations for his “fellowship” in his books, Bratt is fully fleshed-out and three-dimensional, too, not some flimsy, token love interest. “She was very creative and very passionate and driven, and he was intellectually stimulated by her,” says Collins. Bratt and Tolkien were both orphans. “At that time women of her status and in her position weren’t really afforded the opportunity to seek higher,” says Collins. “But she encouraged him to continue on his path. It’s very selfless, and, at times, heartbreaking.”