Jazz Tangcay talks to Lily Collins on playing Fantine and having to die on her second day at work.
Lily Collins has played a mother five times on screen, but she’s never had to shoot a death scene. Until Les Miserables. Collins plays Fantine. It’s a part and story that has been told many times before and we all have a relationship with it. Collins’ own memory is like most, knowing it’s a classic that ran on both Broadway and the West End. “It was this beacon of hope,” she says.
What’s so striking about Collins in this version is, the Fantine here is faithful to Victor Hugo’s novel. We learn more about her backstory, rather than just a brief intro before she has her daughter taken away and she dies. There’s more substance to her part and that allowed Collins to make Fantine her own, a version we’ve not seen. Collins talks about dying on her second day of work which as it turns out wasn’t such a bad thing for her. “I had gotten to take her to such lows, that I knew how high to go to make her happy.”
I’m really excited to talk to you because you’ve been a really busy lady.
It’s been a little bit of a mental ride, but I’m so grateful for it. but yes, I’ve been a little bit all over the place.
We all have a memory of the book or the musical. What was your first introduction to Les Miserables?
I think honestly it was the fact that I grew up loving performing in musicals and plays just like a kid. I think growing up in that musical theater world in school or in a program outside of school, it was impossible to not have heard of Les Mis. It just was just that classic back show that high schools would put on, or even elementary schools would allude to, or the acting classes that I would take would talk about. It was this infamous Les Miserables. I didn’t really know what it was, but it sounded like the epitome of all musical theater, and that’s what the goal was.
I remember walking in London in the West End, and I’d see the posters everywhere and I’d see it at the theater. I’d be in New York and I see it at the theater there. It was this beacon of hope. It represented musical theater to me growing up. I never fully understood the story until I saw it I had read studied it at school, but it wasn’t until those days that I actually equated it as to why it was so popular. It really was just the emblem of all musical theater. It was The West End Broadway. It was impossible not to know about it so growing up with that though. It wasn’t like I ever envisioned myself in it. I thought it was the epitome of what you want to do. I didn’t see myself going it. I just thought, ‘Wow, that means that you’re a part of that world if you’re involved in that.’
It was such a special experience to obviously be a part of it. When they made the movie, I had friends that were in that and I felt like I lived through it with them as well. I lived vicariously through them. I think after the movie was made, I thought, Well there’s no way it’s going to be made again.’ Then I got this call about going in for it and it being a TV series without music. I thought, ‘Well, actually if they were ever going to do it again, this is super interesting.’ I didn’t think I’d get it, but I thought I had to go for it.
And here we are. What I love about it, it’s not a musical performance. We really dig into Fantine and her story. What was it like for you to read the script and see her being fleshed out?
I got I believe I only got the first episode originally when the audition came through, so I got that But then, I got the sides for the audition, and the sides for the audition were two scenes. One was the canoe scene with Felix and Fantine being wooed. The other scene was the climactic scene of her being thrown around on the street, begging for her life.
I know. I thought, Well I get it. They want to see the full 360 of the character. No pressure.’ There was less context for me for the second scene, but reading the first one, I thought it was a full, well-rounded version of Fantine that we’re getting to see here. Even in just the audition and the fact that it seems so raw and so visceral in the second scene. And yet, you get to see her young, naive, innocent, in love and happy in the first, I thought this is something totally special.
When I read the first episode, I was getting to read about her in a way that we’ve not seen on screen. You hear song lyrics about how she fell in love, was tricked by a man and had a child. You hear all these things, but the audiences don’t ever really get to see her be happy, smile and have friends and fall in love. I think those are things that only benefit the audience’s ability to feel empathy for her when her story goes downhill because you feel invested in her happiness. You feel invested in wanting her to succeed. I got that from reading the first script.
I spoke to Tom about it, and it was just so obvious that he wanted to show a side of her that hadn’t necessarily been seen before. It had been imagined but hadn’t been seen. It was also a way of taking some pressure off because there wasn’t going to be this direct comparison throughout the entire character’s journey because people weren’t used to seeing her in the beginning. We could establish a new normal for her.
That’s what I really like about it. We’re seeing how she goes through everything so that by the time she dies, you’re so emotionally attached to her. But you shot the death scene on the second day.
What a welcome to work.
I got to meet certain cast and crew group for the first time while on my death bed. That was crazy because I’d never done a death scene. Having never done a death scene and to go straight to the death of the character that so many people, night after night have seen her die, she’s not some random character. Her spirit carries the story on. It’s literally no pressure but all the pressure in the world.
I was fretting doing it that way around for obvious reasons. But it actually was amazing. I’d done Tolkien and had a tiny tine break and went straight into Extremely Wicked. I had a week in between that and moving to Brussels. I was running on overdrive. Ironically, I didn’t die in Extremely Wicked, but then I went straight into dying on this. I was tired. I was emotional. I was freezing. It was the dead of winter in Brussels. The environment really lends itself in enabling me to be in the right state of mind. I like that we actually started in the darkest of times for her. I got to really come back to life and in the summertime in a happy place because then I had a long break. It’s almost like I got to regain myself throughout the experience as the character.
I was able to use everything that I was feeling – the nerves of the new job. The unfamiliarity of everything. When she was dying, everything was hazy for her and she was trying to figure out where she was.
There were all the symptoms that I to Google and study and do research. I put little things in there like choking on blood. It was all these that I never thought I’d have to think of at the same time. I’d have to remember a British accent too. And then, I’d remind myself while all that was going on that I had no front teeth so I have a little bit of a lisp. There were so many things to think about, but then once that scene was done and once the first month of filming was done which was the second part of episodes two and three, I had gotten to take her to such lows, that I knew how high to go to make her happy. So to really give that stark difference – starting in the middle would have been the worst. You don’t want to start in the middle ground. You want one or the other so that you can make the other one as strong as possible. And so, it actually ended up kind of helping me.
It sounds like it was not just physically draining where you’re being dragged across the street of Brussels, but mentally too because you’re doing this, dying on your second day at work and physically transforming and it’s such that you totally make her your own.
Tom was very adamant about not having me feel the pressure of anything that had been done before. He said, he didn’t want me, or really any of us re-watching the film or the musical. It was all about the text and going back to the novel and really just basing it on Victor Hugo’s work. He wanted us researching women of the time, symptoms of the time, or diseases she would have caught. He wanted us to look at what it would have been like socially, politically, emotionally, spiritually, religiously and all those things to really get into the mindset of the time period and of the characters that Victor Hugo wrote and not necessarily the music that had been created. When we did that and just hearing him say, “I don’t want you re-watching these things.” He was saying.”I don’t want you to do what has been done before. I don’t want you to recreate a performance that someone has been known for.”I loved that, but he went out of his way to say that. She has something new because we’ve never seen her in this way. You really have the ability to set a new normal and a new precedent for what she’s like younger, and therefore, if you establish this new version of what she is younger or at least just your version, then organically you’re going to grow into the version that is your own when she’s older because you’re transitioning storywise. You’re not going from your version when she’s younger, to copying someone else when they did it when they’re older. Because there was no music, it really allowed as you said at the beginning, for all drama all the time.
There are moments that you don’t ever really capture in the other performances that have been done. Even the nuanced moments between Jean and Fantine in the factory, they’re quick glances. There’s so much more that can be done when you’re not having to rely on a score necessarily. The score is brilliant and it’s so beautiful, but it’s been done so many times that it needed to be something fresh in order for audiences to want to get invested. Also, not everyone loves musicals, so it was a way to give a new audience an entrance into this story that maybe they would have just kind of turned away before.
You’re also playing a mother in this, what was it like to do it here in this role?
[laughs] I think I played a mom five times now and the kids range from newborn to ten or twelve-years-old. It’s so funny because I get to have this experience of being a mom and then I get to give them back at the end of the day. It’s the strangest thing, and I feel like I’m getting great practice.
It’s interesting not being a mother myself obviously. My mom and I have had such a strong friendship and bond ever since I was little and she is my best friend. I always reference that relationship in preparation for playing a mother. I put myself in her shoes and imagine my child as me. In this project, when Fantine gives her daughter up to protect her daughter from a life that she doesn’t want her living. She gives up her morals, and she gives up of herself for the betterment of her daughter it’s like I could imagine my mom doing that and what would that feel like? I can imagine my mom going through the emotions or even the emotion I physically as Lily would go through knowing that my mom is doing that is all things that I can use to emotionally pivot to use in a scene even though I have not experienced that because I have that strong bond. I know what it is I would want my future kid and me to have, so I think that that’s really helpful. The basics of knowing how to hold the baby and make the babies stop crying, those things are things that I think I’ve got going. I think we’re good on camera. It was another element and another layer to add on top of the story for obvious reasons makes us feel even more empathy for her.
How did you take a mental break off from Tolkien to Extremely Wicked and then Les Mis?
It was a crazy eight months. Extremely Wicked was only been about a month of filming. I was there for a month which was really intense. I came back and had a week and then packed and left for Brussels. That was about five months. But I went out for a month and a half, then in the middle of that had about a month, and then went back for another month.
It was easy to go slightly crazy, but I think having Les Mis happen at the end was the best because I was so exhausted. There was just so much that I was feeling and all the work was catching up to me which really helped me ultimately finish the story line at the beginning of the show. She’s at her worst. Having that little break in the middle of filming and then going back to the happier times in her life was so perfect because it was helping to phase me out of that slump.
Brussels at that time was just so beautiful and everyone out on the streets and there were festivals. I also went traveling on the train and traveled to Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Paris and London. I traveled as much as I could. I got to have like a vacation with my friend right after and we went all around Europe, so I was in Europe for a really long time. I’m going to be there again when I shoot a TV show this summer which I love did you just get on a train you go you can cover so many places in the span of like what would take you to go from Downtown to Santa Monica. [laughs]. You can be in a medieval castle, or you can be Downtown at the Staples Center. It’s crazy how fast you can travel around.
I had such fun with the cast and crew in Les Mis. There was this thing, and I think it’s a Belgian thing, but every Friday a different department on the movie whether it was the Grips, or hair and makeup, the AD department would throw a themed party every Friday. They try to one-up each other so they are these big festival parties every Friday on set. There was one week where we were shooting a lot of the intense death moments and by Friday, there was a Mexican siesta with strobe lights, taco trucks and smoke machines. They just like to celebrate life there, and it was the perfect counter-balance. All the things that I do that tend to be darker material always is that the experience of it is one where everyone tries to make it the opposite because no one wants to be living and breathing that feeling 24/7. You do it on set and afterward, everyone is so happy to be there, and that really helps me stay sane.
Is there a genre that you want to do now? You’ve done the dark. You’ve got the TV show coming up, is there something you want to do?
That’s the thing. I’m so excited because there’s humor. I get to be silly. It’s romantic and it’s lighter. I’m so excited because I love Darren Star all the characters he creates and I am really excited to go and play a character that is not having panic attacks every day or is not dying. She is fun-loving, intellectual, goofy, silly and funny and that is something that I’m just really excited to bring out of me more and have audiences see that. I do love dark subject matter and I’m so grateful to give the get those opportunities but it would be lovely to balance that out.