Lily Collins' new film is facing up to reality of anorexia

‘To the Bone’, Netflix’s tale of anorexia, has stirred debate, but star Lily Collins says she has brought her own experiences to a film that raises awareness, writes Helen Barlow

Lily Collins in a scene from upcoming Netflix drama 'To The Bone'

LILY COLLINS might never escape the tag of ‘daughter of singer Phil Collins’, but the 28-year-old actress has chiselled out her own claim to independent fame.

In January, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her starring role in Warren Beatty’s film, Rules Don’t Apply; she can be currently seen in Netflix hit Okja; and is about to star in To The Bone, another big-budget offering from the streaming network.

Like her character in To the Bone, and like her director, Marti Noxon, on whose autobiographical story the film is loosely based, Collins suffered from anorexia in her teens. She was writing her own autobiographical book, Unfiltered: No Shame, Just Me when Noxon approached her to do the film.

“I was writing the chapter on my experiences with eating disorders and it was like the universe threw the script at me, telling me this is something I need to bring to more people. A lot of people feel it’s too taboo to talk about, yet we all know someone who’s either gone through it or knows someone who has, so it’s way more relatable than people assume.”

She hit it off with Noxon right away. “I felt like I’d met my soul sister,” Collins recalls. Noxon, directing her first feature, had a sister in arms.

“There’s never been a feature film about eating disorders before and it was a very challenging role,” Collins says. “But I felt very strongly about doing it.”

The film is controversial, with the trailer prompting various organisations to express concerns that it might glamourise or trivialise anorexia. While Collins knew there would be debate, she says their aim was to dispel misconceptions and raise an awareness about the differing causes of the eating disorder.

Noxon, a former writer on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, brought a little romance and “what she terms gallows humour” to lighten up the otherwise very serious, and very real, story. Before we meet her in the film, Collins’s 20-year-old Ellen has already been to four treatment facilities, and now, at the fifth, is in the hands of an unconventional doctor, played by Keanu Reeves. He runs a Los Angeles-based group home, where Ellen agrees to spend at least six weeks, with a mix of other girls with varying problems, as well as one male resident, ex-Londoner, Luke.

Alex Sharp, who plays Luke, points to the strong female involvement in the film. “To the Bone is autobiographical, it’s written and directed by a woman, it’s starring all women, apart from me and Keanu, who are in lesser parts, and it’s produced by women,” says Sharp, 28, who, like Collins, is playing much younger.

“I wanted to be involved, because it’s important and we’re moving in that direction of telling more women’s stories.

“Also, I was interested because, after I started looking it up and discovered there are anorexic men out there, I thought it would be cool to give them a voice in a way that’s not clichéd.”

Sharp says his “annoying, try-too-hard, confused, bisexual ballet dancer, who’s been injured,” is very different to Ellen, though she triggers something in him and they become friends. He says he bonded with Collins.

“We went through it together. She was losing weight, as well. We came out of it feeling really, really close to each other, after what we’d gone through.”

“Nothing felt incredibly unhealthy,” Collins says. “I was eating, I was surrounded by a medical team and some amazing women, including my own mother. I’m not someone who likes scales, never have. I don’t like standing on them. I don’t like looking at numbers. They never gave me an amount of weight to lose. It was all about how willing I was to go there.

“Luckily, we also had hair, makeup, and wardrobe to assist, and so I never put myself in a dire situation, but it was a significant amount of weight.”

When ellen looks her skinniest, it wasn’t Collins, she notes. “We used a body double, who’s in recovery, to help with the sculpting of that shot,” Collins says.

The film has been a kind of therapy for Collins. “It’s been interesting to have a lot of young women come up to me and tell me their stories, so it was like it was ok to talk about, all of a sudden.

“I thought ‘I’m 28, I want a family one day, and I don’t want this thing to continue to hold me back’.

“Maybe I’m someone who needs to be held accountable for certain things, in order to move past them. That’s why I needed to tell it in my own way and in a way that I felt comfortable doing. There was a fear, but, at the same time, the reasons that I started the disorder when I was younger don’t apply to me anymore,” she says.

Collins is happy with the more meaningful kinds of projects she’s been doing of late.

In Okja, she plays an animal activist who helps take on the Miranda Corporation, and their creation of genetically modified giant pigs, by helping a young Korean girl reclaim her pet pig from slaughter.

While Collins says she doesn’t eat red meat — just chicken and fish — she becomes perky as she recalls the dog she had when growing up. After all, cute and cuddly Okja has the nature of a giant labrador.

“I had a childhood dog that was my best friend and I know I would have done anything to get him back,” she says. “I would have gone across the world to get him back.”

She appreciates Okja’s lush country landscape, because when she wants to relax, she just thinks of her retreat in rural England.

“I still have the house where I grew up to go to. There’s a bench next to a lake and I envision myself sitting on that bench, looking at the lake, and I just calm down.

“I live in Los Angeles and, of course, I can go on a hike, I can find nature.

“But that bench is where I go to in my head. If I have the opportunity, after filming, I fly there to the family house for a week or two. It’s just my happy place.”

  • To The Bone is available on Netflix from Friday, July 14

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