INTERVIEWING Lily Collins is a little like meeting a very polished Miss World contestant.
She’s rather charming, groomed and favours accentuate-the-positive answers. For instance, when her friend Kristen Stewart landed Snow White And The Huntsman at the same time as Collins won the lead playing the same character in Mirror Mirror, she says her first reaction was excitement as to how their different princess films would turn out.
Collins learned to be wary of detonating verbal mines from an early age, since she’s been around celebrity all her life. When she was one year old, an entire gigful of people sang Happy Birthday to her. When she met Julia Roberts on the set of Mirror Mirror, the Pretty Woman star told her they’d met before – when she came on the Hook set as a toddler. Uncle Elton, her babysitter, turns out to be Elton John, and You’ll Be In My Heart, the big ballad in Disney’s Tarzan, was originally written as a lullaby for her by her dad, 80s pop mainstay Phil Collins.
To be honest, you’d never guess Phil and Lil were father and daughter since she seems to have inherited most of her looks and her light American accent from her mother Jill Tavelman, who split from Collins when Lily was five.
Up until now, Collins has favoured mainstream pictures. Her big break was as Sandra Bullock’s teenage daughter, making house room for the informal adoption of an underprivileged football star in The Blind Side. Three years ago she was Taylor Lautner’s supportive girlfriend in his first non-Twilight picture Abduction, and last summer she ascended to leading lady status while getting her hair pulled by a dastardly Roberts in Mirror Mirror’s feisty reboot of the fairytale.
Stuck In Love is an intimate, independently made drama about a family of writers unable to develop successful romantic narratives for their own lives. The film struck a chord with Collins, since throughout her teens she favoured two careers: journalist and actress. Aged 15, she wrote her own column in teen mag Elle Girl. Three years later, she became a reporter for Nickelodeon, covering the 2008 US Presidential campaign for the show Kids Pick The President. Later she studied broadcast journalism at the University Of Southern California.
“I’ve always loved writing. I wrote a book when I was younger, and I have a screenplay that I’m working on, although I’ve parked it for now because I want to be able to write it when I’m completely focused,” she says. “But I still carry a notebook, and I research character traits for roles. So I’m still a writer at heart.” This gives Collins a view of both sides of the press. Famously, her father had a few brushes with the tabloids, including being falsely accused of tax evasion, and equally falsely, reported to have dumped Lily’s mother by fax.
“I grew up knowing the pros and cons of putting your life out there publicly,” she says. “So much has changed since the 70s and 80s when it comes to acting and being in the public eye. We’d go out to a restaurant and there would be five or six people. Now there’s a lot more, plus social media, and this desire to bring other people down. It just seems so much more mean now, and I don’t think my dad is so aware of that, so I’ve been teaching him a lot in terms of what certain things are like nowadays, and struggles I’m facing. He just keeps telling me, ‘I’m not worried about you. You’re smart enough not to let other people dictate how you live your life.’ ”
Collins and her father are close – she spends summers with him in Switzerland – and he has been supportive of her film choices, although her latest character has been a challenging watch for him, since she goes through a bad girl phase of seducing a succession of unworthy losers who are just thrilled to be in the room when she removes her underwear. “Kissing scenes aren’t easy for my dad,” she says, admitting that he finds her removing her top onscreen to be “awkward”.
If celebrity DNA was all it took to make it in Hollywood, Rumer Willis would be a three times Oscar winner. Instead, Collins says casting agents have been openly hostile at times to the idea of casting “Phil Collins’ daughter”.
“I’ve had to prove myself,” she says. “But I’m driven and I would love to make my own mark on the world.”
Her father officially retired from showbusiness two years ago, but during his career he dipped a toe into acting several times, including a rolled-up sleeves scallywag in the TV show Miami Vice, an early children’s film called Calamity The Cow, and the lead in Buster, a rather odd comedy based on the Great Train Robber, Buster Edwards.
“Not many people know my father was an actor. He was the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, and was in a film called Frauds too. It’s interesting talking to him about acting, how much you can get turned down, and how not to take that as a discouragement. It’s nice to have that element to relate to for us both. He’s more music, but he did act and it’s a passion for him.”
Collins talks protectively about her father, but refuses any “gossipy stuff” about high-profile boyfriends such as Zac Efron, and currently Jamie Campbell Bower, who was in also in Twilight, played King Arthur in the TV series Camelot, and has just finished filming The Mortal Instruments with Collins. However, she goes out of her way to praise one ex-boyfriend, Twilight werewolf Taylor Lautner, who she credits with teaching her about grace in the public eye when they worked together on Abduction.“We’d come back from a long day filming and there would be hundreds of fans, all with books and wanting photos,” she recalls. “He always made time for them, and was always very graceful. I admired that so much. Sandra Bullock was the same on The Blind Side. The crew loved her, and she knew everyone’s name.”
In more recent times, Collins has also found role models that have encouraged her to be more assertive. “When I was doing Mirror Mirror, Julia wasn’t afraid to ask questions – like, “What’s the shot? Which one is coming up next? How is this outfit being framed? Where’s the lighting coming from?” It was all so she could perform the scene in a more precise way. And on Stuck In Love, Greg Kinnear was specific about his props. We had a small scene where he walks in on his son who is alone with a girl late at night. The fact that he had a bowl of cereal wasn’t scripted, but Greg said, ‘I’d be downstairs because I was hungry, and I would have a bowl of cereal, which makes it more real but also comedic.’ Things like that as a young actor, you wouldn’t think to assert yourself and say, ‘I’d like to have that prop’. I love to watch this stuff. And I learned that the worst they can say is no.”
At 24, Collins is poised to make a breakthrough of her own this autumn with The Mortal Instruments, a demon-hunting adventure film that hopes to spawn a franchise to rival Twilight or Harry Potter. Based on the first of Cassandra Clare’s best-selling young adult series City Of Bones, the progress from page to screen has been a long and bumpy one, over three years and two directors, but Collins had read the books and never lost faith.
Finally last year she got to dye her hair red to play warrior Clary Fray. She also brushed up her fighting skills to include martial arts and knife skills. So is she good in a fight now? “I’m good at getting bruises,” she laughs. «
• Stuck In Love is out on Friday