Ten years ago, actress Lily Collins was on vacation in Cannes with her family when she first saw the Grand Palais. “I remember seeing the steps and thinking, ‘One day maybe, that would be amazing.’ And now, I’m walking the steps, linking arms with my co-stars. It is such a crazy, magical experience!” beamed Collins, 28, catching a break at the Carlton Hotel, where her film Okja, premiered to raves the night before. It is the newest film from Korean director Bong Joo Hoo, and follows Mija (An Seo Hyun), a young girl in South Korea whose best friend Okja, is a friendly gigantic pig. But when an evil food company, headed by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) and Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhall), takes Okja into captivity for experiments, Mija sets out on a rescue mission with the help of Red (Collins) and Jay (Paul Dano). Collins, fresh off Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, wasn’t the slightest bit overwhelmed by the Cannes experienced, but she did admit it was a lot to take in. “Premiering a film here is surreal, I’ve never seen so many photographers in one space—the music, everything, it’s so strange. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
So this is your first Cannes!
Yes, it’s so fun, but it’s so much. There’s really never a dull moment. it keeps you guessing— you’re like, what am I going to do next? What else can I fit into my schedule?
Did Tilda Swinton or Bong Joo Hoo give you any advice about the festival before?
Tilda was saying it’s going to be unlike anything I had ever seen. She told me to just soak it all in. I was talking to Paul and Jake about what happens after the premiere, when it all finishes— there is either clapping or booing, and you have a camera on you, and your seated in the center of the cinema. They were prepping me on when that might happen, so when the credits finished I was gearing up. It’s the strangest thing, all of a sudden the camera films you to witness the audience’s response. And I just looked at my co-stars, like ‘This is so strange!’ It’s like a fish bowl; you’re in the middle of the theater. Director Bong has been on the jury before, and Tilda, Jake [Gyllenhaal], and Paul have too, so they’ve been giving me some pointers. I’ve also been running into people at the festival that I know, who have been so helpful in reaffirming the fact that it’s mental.
It is a total whirlwind! Tell me how you ended up nabbing the role?
I was sent the script, and I read it, and I just thought it was the most bizarre, interesting, complex, material I had read. I heard it was about a little girl and her pig, but I was thinking, ‘That’s the broadest version of what it’s about.’ There is so many different conversations being had in the script, I thought I should at least give it a shot. I put myself on tape, and director Bong loved the tape, and came to Los Angeles and I met with him, and we had a meeting at 11 a.m.; he ordered ice cream. That’s when I thought ‘I really love this guy.’ He just told me he really loves ice cream. We had great conversations about the character, and my ideas with it, and I left that meeting and that was kind of it.
Did you know Bong before signing on to the project?
I didn’t personally know him. Two years ago was the first time I had ever sat down with him, I went to Korea to see him, he was the most fun, loving hilarious kindhearted man, and he’s a total genius. You can’t not get along with director Bong, he’s so infectious.
Did he have any special directorial techniques?
Yes, he makes a comic book version of the script before we go on set. He storyboards everything, so for every shot in the script he draws out what he envisions it to be so he really is just a film nerd who loves doing what he’s doing, and he’s a genius at it. But when you meet him he’s a giant teddy bear.
Tell me a bit about your character. I know you play Red, one of the heads of the Animal Liberation Fighters group, helping Mija save Okja…
Red is the only girl in the ALF, and she represents the female energy in the group. She’s a scrappy, passionate feisty young woman who hangs with the guys, but she is really the emotional connection to the character of Mija, when we try to help Mija rescue Okja, she has that feminine nurturing energy. The bigger picture is the cause. She can empathize with Mija as a young woman. But also with Okja, a female pig. Throughout the movie when Okja is being tormented, and there’s a scene when she’s taken to this lab, and she’s paired with this male pig to mate, and it’s you get so much emotion from Red. She really empathizes with Okja as a female. This movie isn’t just about a giant pig, it’s about so much more. Bong is a very female driven character creator; he loves writing for females. His female characters are always very complex. He really loves female roles, so to be a woman in one of his films is a huge honor, because he writes them so interestingly.
What was the best advice he gave you on set?
It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, really, because he knows exactly what he wants, so you go into it completely trusting his vision and knowing he’s going to be able to capture it, and then you really trust yourself because you’ve had all these conversations beforehand about what it is that he wants. He kind of just lets you do your thing. And if you stray away from something he sees the character doing, he’ll bring you back, but he does it in such a fun way. He really just created a fun and trusting environment, and when you’re playing a character that’s so different than one you’ve played before, or it’s a story about a girl and a giant pig, you want to make sure the filmmaker is creating an environment that’s very nurturing and trusting where you’re willing to take risks.
Could you personally relate to the main theme, which is the bond between man and animal?
Yes! I had a dog named Billy growing up. I got him when I moved to L.A. as a birthday present from my mom and he helped me when I had just moved here. It was always ‘Billy and Lily.’ He passed away when I was about 23. So I completed understand the bond between man and human. Okja is like a human being herself. She’s Mija’s best friend. Mija is so young, she’s 13. To show a strong, young, female character like that in a film is so important. I do a lot of teen empowerment work and I speak at engagements where there are 15, 18 thousand kids who are hungry for change. So to see this girl who is under 18 portraying that is very empowering, and very timely. We spent a lot of time together. She matured in front of our very eyes. She spoke no English at the beginning but by then end was great at it! She’s wise beyond her years.
Whats next for you?
Netflix bought my film at Sundance, To the Bone; it’s about a young woman suffering from anorexia. It’s the first big feature film done about eating disorders, which I think is so important since it’s still so taboo to talk about. So that comes out in July. And I just finished The Last Tycoon series for Amazon, which is launching this summer as well.