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Lily Collins on Les Miserables, Playing Fantine, and Tolkien

From award-winning screenwriter Andrew Davies, the latest dramatic adaptation of Les Misérables (airing on Masterpiece on PBS) is a six-part epic story that delves deep into the many layers of Victor Hugo’s story. Exploring the cat-and-mouse relationship between Jean Valjean (Dominic West) and Javert (David Oyelowo) with a modern relevancy in its powerful themes, plotting and characterizations, all set against the backdrop of France at a time of civil unrest.

During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actress Lily Collins (who plays the tragic seamstress Fantine) talked about the incredible experience she had making Les Misérables, the unexpected way they shot the episodes, why it was a gift to get to explore all of the characters so much deeper with the extra hours to tell this story, her first introduction to the story, and staying in Europe to explore some of the surrounding areas once the shoot wrapped. She also talked about her experience making Tolkien and what a huge The Lord of the Rings fan she is, as well as her desire to do comedy, even though it makes her nervous.

Image via Masterpiece on PBS

Collider:  You’ve certainly been amassing a very interesting collection of characters.

LILY COLLINS:  Oh, thank you! I know. My friends are like, “Couldn’t you maybe just do a comedy?” And yes, it’s a dream. I wanna do a comedy. Something more lighthearted, for a second, would be nice.

Is comedy something that you’ve actually tried to actively seek out?

COLLINS:  No, it’s something that I now am wanting to put out there. I would love to do a comedy. I love comedies. I love old school comedies, and new comedies. In order to appreciate the darker stories, it’s always nice to have the lighter. My friends hear about all of these filming experiences, where I’m off on these different locations, shooting these characters that have tragic stories, or that have tragedy but end in positivity, and they’re like, “Just do a film that we can go to, on a Saturday night, and watch and laugh about it.” One day, I’ll get there.

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Does comedy make you nervous?

COLLINS:  Yes. There are so many different forms of comedy. There are so many ways to make someone laugh, and sometimes things are not funny. It’s a different world. But just like being surrounded by David [Oyelowo] and Dominic [West] on [Les Misérables], to be surrounded by the best comedians would only teach me more. I feel like it would maybe help raise my game, with the ability to improv. When you’re faced with anyone at the top of their game, it makes you wanna be better. It also just helps you be more in the moment ‘cause you’re not worried about what they’re thinking. They’re just on it, and that really helps. With [Les Mis], some of the dramatic moments, where my character is having to flail for her life and begging for her life on the floor, I can’t think about any of the peripheral distraction. You just have to be so focused in on the other person, when that person is giving you everything. Whether that’s in comedy or drama, it’s a huge gift ‘cause then it allows you to just give of yourself, so much more. It’s a blessing. Comedy is just a different beast, but it’s still a beast that I wanna be able to be a part of.

Image via Masterpiece on PBS

When you finished this, what did you go do?

COLLINS:  It’s interesting, in the beginning, I was really quite frustrated with the order that we were shooting this in, but then, I actually ended up loving it. I did Tolkien, in the end of 2017. Then, I did the table read for this in January 2018, went straight home to L.A. and packed, and then went off to Kentucky and did Bundy (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile). Then, I went back to L.A. and had three days, unpacked and re-packed, and then went to Brussels and started shooting this. I had no idea where I was, but I honestly think that helped so much. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile was dark, so going from that mind-set into this one was really helpful ‘cause it wasn’t like I was shooting some comedy and had to backtrack, all of a sudden. My second day of filming on this was the deathbed scene in Episode 3. I literally started at the end of Fantine’s life, in the dead of winter, and then go back in the summer, where I then had Episode 1, when you meet her, and she’s young, naive and falling in love. At first, I thought, “Oh, my god, I’m starting this at the end. No pressure there. I don’t even know where I’ve come from, to know where I’m ending.” I didn’t think that was ideal. But then, it actually turned out to be perfect ‘cause not only was it minus temperatures and snowing, and she’s wearing minimal clothing, but I looked so sick and decrepit. I had never really spend that much time in Brussels, so I was feeling all of these feelings that Fantine would have been feeling, which was brilliant. I try to use my surroundings and my feelings for the betterment of the character, and I got to take it all the way to the end and see the worst, before stepping away for about a month and going back in the summer, when it was 95 degrees, and sunny and beautiful. When I went back, I got to shoot all of her beginning, and because I knew how bad it got, I got to make the happy side 10 million times happier, just to show the distinct polarities between the two. I think starting in the middle would’ve been the worst because not knowing where you started or where you’re ended would mean that you wouldn’t know how far to take it. I was so happy to end in the summer, on a happier note, because I was more back to myself than I would have been, if I’d ended with the death sequences. I was already in Europe, so I just stayed in Europe and took a little vacation with a friend of mine. We went to Italy, and attended a film festival and just detoxed a little bit. And then, I went back to L.A.

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It seems like it would have been so hard to end with her death, and then have to walk away.

COLLINS:  It would have been too finite. I would have needed to completely revamp myself and come back to some reality. But because I had that break, in between, to go back home before going back in the summer, I was able to become excited to go back, knowing it would just be a completely different environment. I was gonna have friends because Fantine has friends, so there were gonna be younger people that I could go exploring Brussels with. Also, during the summer, I found out that you can just take trains and hop around to different castles and explore Brussels for the beauty of what Belgium has to offer, as opposed to holding myself away and being somewhat depressed because Fantine was depressed. I didn’t want people visiting. I was like, “I love you mom, but please don’t come visit me because I think [the isolation] is actually really helping.” She’s alone in the world, so I was like, “I’m just gonna hole away, for a second.” It required that.

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