As anyone who loves Transparent or Mozart in the Jungle can attest, some of the best television isn’t happening on TV at all. Amazon, for one, has been amping up its programming and just last week debuted the brilliant pilot for The Last Tycoon. Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last, unfinished novel, the show tells stories surrounding a fictional movie studio in 1936, during the Golden Age of Hollywood (bonus: Mad Men‘s costume designer Janie Bryant brings the era to life and the fashion is so good). Among the stars are Matt Bomer, who plays Monroe Stahr, the dashing studio executive, and Lily Collins, who plays Celia Brady, the ambitious 19-year-old daughter of the studio head.
The Last Tycoon is Collins’ first work since she starred in the 2014 rom-com Love, Rosie. She spent time working on the Warren Beatty film Rules Don’t Apply, out this fall, and deliberately taking time off. “I think I deserved a bit of a break after that one, but I also wanted to reevaluate the types of projects I really wanted
to do and what I felt passionate about.” She calls Tycoon writer and director Billy Ray a “visionary” and partially credits him as one of the reasons she decided to do a foray into TV. “It just seemed like a really amazing nugget of gold to happen upon. I read it and it kind of just took over my brain,” she says.
Here, Collins chats more with ELLE.com about her new role, the time she wanted to be a talk show host, and her love of vintage fashion.
What kind of research did you have to do for the role?
I had read [The Last Tycoon] before, ages ago, so I reread it. I saw the movie version with Robert De Niro. I really just kept reading about the period as much as I could. I love watching old movies anyway–I grew up with my mom watching old movies and being immersed in the history of old Hollywood. So, for me, it felt like home. [My character Celia’s] mentality, her sass, spunk, and intellect is something that I could draw from many women in my life but also many real people that I had read about over the years.
They’re not necessarily of the ’30s, but Katharine Hepburn, obviously Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, and Lana Turner.
What were some old movies you liked?
Well, I was really big on all of the Audrey films like Funny Face, Roman Holiday. From a totally different period, I loved all the John Hughes films, those were my staples I watched with my mom, and then all the Bob Hope Road Tos…, I like all the Marx Brothers films. It was just kind of an array—some were black and white, some were early color, it just was all about for me watching films that told stories in such a different way that they allowed the camera to linger on people’s expressions and faces longer and tell stories in a slightly more romantic way, as opposed to kind of maybe the fast paced-ness of today.
Celia as a character is really strong. She declares she doesn’t want a “country club life” and is pretty forward about her desire for [Matt Bomer’s character] Monroe. Did you find that surprising about her, especially since she’s based in the ’30s?
I think part of why she pursued him or why she was so forward about it was that she grew up with a father that was very vocal and very blunt and gets what he wants done in the studio because of his powerful voice. I think the mom is also very encouraging of her speaking her mind, she obviously comes from an older generation, so when she was Celia’s age, she wasn’t allowed to speak out like that. So she’s encouraging her daughter to use her voice.
For Celia, her love of Monroe far surpasses the girl-loves-boy theme. I think she respects him so much in terms of his vision and his demeanor and what he stands for and his heart, she is just not shy. She’s rough around this guy and she loved him all her life, but now she’s finding her womanhood, and she’s not afraid to use it—and that may be to her detriment at some point, but I think as viewers it allows us to see this funky, sassy girl, who is vulnerable at times. She’s really a sign of what’s to come in terms of women and their drive and what will soon be a very strong period of important, vocal women working as well as voicing their opinions among the men.
She’s also pretty ruthless about her career ambitions. There’s a scene where she pitches her movie to the studio executive–have you ever gone after something you wanted like that?
Oh, gosh. Starting at 16 years old I was in boardrooms of older executives pitching talk shows. I wanted to be the youngest talk show host for a really long time. I would go into these boardrooms and just stand there and pitch like [Celia] did, mostly men, like 40 and 50 years old, and I would just go on and on and on and I was so passionate. I felt like I had great ideas and some of them I think were great, but it was just timing and it wasn’t the time yet for young people to really have a voice in media. It was before YouTube and Instagram. So, I was never afraid of going after what I wanted, and making that known, and being vocal about it, just like Celia. In that regard I was like, Oh yeah, her tenacity and determination is totally something I can relate to.
What did you do when you were told “no”?
I just took the “no” just as “no, not right now,” not “no, this isn’t for you.” I accepted that those people didn’t see my vision the way that I did, and that was okay and I’d move on and someday someone would. Everything happens for a reason and, of course at times it’s very discouraging, but at the end of the day you can’t take it personally and move onward because if you let it sit with you, then it starts to eat away at you and you’re allowing someone else to steal your excitement. No one wants that. It was a long process of learning that.
We have to talk about the fashion in ‘The Last Tycoon’ because it’s absolutely incredible–what was it like working with [costume designer] Janie Bryant?
Oh my god, she’s so fantastic. I love her accent, I love her demeanor, I love her aesthetic and her eye. She’s like a ball of fire—she’s so sweet. She’s very much like Celia. She’s got this Southern charm and femininity yet she’s so tenacious and she speaks her mind and she knows what she wants—she’s brave and she’s a hard worker, and I just really respect her so much. Every detail, like the nuances of the outfits and every centimeter or millimeter counts when you’re dealing with her clothes you know, and she really sources the most amazing vintage clothing—the colors I would have thought wouldn’t have worked on me, she just foresaw making me pop and I trust her implicitly. I think she’s a wonderful person.
And had you seen her work in ‘Mad Men’?
Oh, yes, oh, yes. When I heard that she was doing [Tycoon], that was another draw for me. What she did on Mad Men for years was so amazing. It’s really hard to do period in a way that is not caricature-y and in a way that makes it still relevant to today, and I think she does that. She has all those nuances and the little small details that no one would maybe notice, but they’re there, and they make you as an actress feel better, and you carry yourself differently, and she gets that.
What do you love about old Hollywood fashion?
I just love the fact that everyone gets dressed up to do the most menial things, like it just takes such respect in the way that they look, especially with women. [I like] that the whole body shape of all the dresses are so feminine and curvaceous and very attractive, and the fabrics were beautiful. Everything was, I think, more handcrafted. I mean, I know we have obviously couture today in fashion houses that are very well and beautifully crafted, but the normal clothes that were so accessible to everyone also seemed to be that way back then. I think everyone just looks so put together, and it’s just fun to run around in those kind of clothes, and all the under layers, although they’re really annoying to put on because there’s so many. They make you stand differently.
So you have to wear 1930s undergarments?
There’s like everything—and so many layers of it and they’re all very tight!
How would you describe your own personal style compared to what you wear on screen?
I’m a little bit more comfortable. I love wearing jeans, and I don’t wear stockings, which is what they wore [back then], everywhere. I like to be comfortable but I also like to look put together all the time. I don’t wear dresses all the time–it’s nice to save those moments for certain occasions and to make it feel extra special. In the ’30s, every day was an event. And, as much as I love that idea, I think nowadays it’s nice to have the differentiation of when you dress up and when you don’t. I think it makes it a little bit more special.
You’ve said that you love vintage shopping–any favorite era?
I used to love going for the ’80s. I would go find a bunch of vintage tour t-shirts and the Levi’s jeans, and big jackets, oversized coats. I’d also go kind of ’70s retro-y. But now when I go, I’ll [take] whatever I see and I’ll mix and match with my own wardrobe. I never go with something in mind. I like having an array of generations in my outfits!
What’s your favorite funny memory from shooting?
I remember I was doing that pitch with Monroe, we did it a couple of times and I was getting really, really into it and [the director] Billy [Ray] yelled “cut!” and he came over and said, “Brilliant, I loved it, but did you hear yourself go a little ‘Cookie’ in there?” He was referencingEmpire and apparently as I was pitching, I just went full on Cookie. He said, “You got so into it, but you got so modern that you were giving me such sass—you took me out of the ’30s…but it was brilliant!” It was just so funny, me standing there, in the Biltmore Hotel dressed in the 1930s going full-on Cookie.
Watch the first episode of The Last Tycoon for free on Amazon.
Published on June 26, 2016