Lynn Collins—The Merchant of Venice—12/11/04

Julliard-trained thesp Lynn Collins warmed up in Hollywood with a couple of small roles in biggish movies (50 First Dates and 13 Going on 30), but now she's set to take the biz by storm. Displaying her classical chops as Portia in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Collins announces that she's here to stay. To prove it, she'll be starring in a Merchant-Ivory production, then headlining a biopic of Charlotte Bronte. I spoke with Ms. Collins at the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco on December 11, 2004.

Groucho: So you're a relative newcomer to film.

Lynn Collins: Yes.

G: How did you deal with the possible feelings of intimidation...with a big part in a big movie, and Shakespeare, no less?

LC: Well, I had trained at Juilliard—which is a classical training program—and my first job professionally was Ophelia opposite Liev Schreiber's Hamlet. And then Sir Peter Hall directed me in Romeo and Juliet at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, so as far as Shakespeare was concerned, I really felt like, you know, I'd put my time in and knew what I was doing. If you ever can know what you're doing in that arena. But as far as, like, you know, the celebrity of it was concerned, Al had specifically seen this audition tape that Michael had seen and fought for me, fought for, you know, them to hire me, so it was definitely—when I met him, working with him, there was this feeling of his total support behind me which made it a lot easier for me to sort of do my best and not be intimidated.

G: And am I right in thinking that you responded to a casting call? What was that process like?

LC: I originally auditioned for Jessica, which is a smaller part in the play, and Michael saw the tape and said that I blew him away and then proceeded—then put myself on tape for Portia at his request. And then he showed it to Al and the producers, and they all loved it and so they, as a team, proceeded to try to convince the financers for about three months that they didn't need an already established movie star.

G: Uh-huh. Portia's a much-beloved character. Kelly McGillis said that the most, challenging part of the role was tracing her development from a girl into a woman.

LC: Yeah.

G: How did you see the development of your character through the story?

LC: That's so interesting she said that because it was something that, early on, I sort of realized—that journey—and probably one of the reasons why Michael cast me is because I hadn't really done that yet myself. I hadn't—you know, I was very much a girl, naïve in a sense, sort of, in ways, when he hired me and through the journey of rehearsing and doing this movie, I definitely had to claim my intelligence and power in a way where, I think, before I wasn't even aware I hadn't done. So, in that way, it's something like you can't fake, you know.

G: The trial scene is obviously a big showcase scene in the play. How did you approach that scene in terms of what Portia walks in with? How prepared did you feel she was for that, and how much happens to her during the scene?

LC: The courtroom scene was, by far, the most difficult part for me, going into it. I think we—the main thing that sort of spurs Portia into going to Venice and basically risking her life—because in that time period a woman was killed if she dressed as a man in this way—was her love for her husband Bassanio. And, you know, she has a sneaking suspicion that there could possibly be something going on that she doesn't really understand with Antonio. But the truth is she is very learned and through Bellario, her cousin, she has access to this sort of masculine government, in a way. But I think the way at least that they've edited it and what I can see in my own performance is that she starts off incredibly nervous and sort of, you know, gets on her feet, but when she's on her feet, then she starts to see the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio really clearly. And it's one of her flaws that she really sort of goes overboard with everyone, you know. She takes all of them to the limit, and I could only, you know, as an actress, find that if she was sort of angry, in a way. But it was very hard during rehearsals. There was one point where Al was on the ground and he was breaking down, and I went up to him—basically went to help him up—and everybody was like, "No, that's not the right choice," because that's what I would do, but not what Portia would do. So it was difficult.

G: I wanted to ask you about your character's attitude towards Shylock, encountering him in that setting. Righteously indignant? Or is she mostly concerned with the end result for her husband?

LC: (Pause.) I think—okay—in the end, I think it becomes: she's on a high because she is in—you see her claiming her power throughout that scene. (Pause.) I think the consequences of what she's done you don't really see yet. And you don't see in the play. I think that's one of the nice parts about the play is that you're sort of left to go, "Hmm, well what else is she gonna do here?" And again, I don't think Portia is in any way anti-Semitic. I don't think that she has any sort of—I don't think she has any sort of even opinion about that. You know, she never—she never suggests him changing his religion in any way.

G: Right.

LC: She's just talking about mercy. That "Here, I'm giving you an opportunity: save yourself and save him, as a man." I think it's more, for her, it's the men that she is opposing. Cause you see she's totally unbiased. It's not like Shylock versus Antonio. She has no, sort of...that's not only something that she's doing in the courtroom, but that's really how she is. She doesn't feel either-or, necessarily. She's just trying—there's a higher theme that she believes, which is interesting because then she takes it so far. You know, it's very complex. (Laughs.) And I love the fact that it's flawed, and that she's flawed, and that perhaps if she wasn't so young, if this wasn't the first time that she'd sort of played with this kind of energy and power, maybe it would have turned out less extreme. (Laughs.)

G: Hm. On a lighter note, what guides Portia to Bassanio? What is the attraction there, for you to motivate yourself as an actress?

LC: Well, she just—you know, this is what's easy, sort of—the romantic part of it...all females can relate to, you know, desiring the, um, ideal of a man. And I think that's what Portia does. She's probably met Bassanio once and probably never spoke to him. And she has no choice as to who she's going to marry, so of course she's going to idealize this guy [and] put all of her energy into what she would see as the choice that would give her life the most happiness. So she builds him up, builds him up, builds him up, and, in the end, sees that he's not what she thought, but she still loves him. And, you know, who knows how long the relationship will last at this point! (Both laugh.) It is a sort of—I've definitely, in my life, felt that and experienced that where you—it's more like you love to love. You love to desire more than it is about that specific person.

G: One of the hallmarks of this film is the natural-speech approach to the language, and coming from your previous experience, what was that like? Was it an adjustment for you or something that you had always pursued, specifically?

LC: I—let's see, how do I answer this? I mean, as an actor I'm very—I'm interested in being as well-rounded as I can. Even like in my own personal style, it's something that—I have a conglomeration of a lot of things. And doing Shakespeare: it's interesting because you learn so much about culture, so to have an accent was very easy for me—you know, Julliard sort of trains you for that—plus it's another step where you can...really change, you know, as an actor. It's interesting: how someone speaks is so indicative of who they are, as how they walk and, you know. But as far as doing Shakespeare on stage versus on film, on stage, you know, you're—both of them use the same amount of energy, really—but on stage your energy field—you're pushing it way out and the details and the internalisms are very much for yourself because an audience can't necessarily read that. They can feel it in a way, but it's not really for them. On film, you have to take that energy field and keep it closer to you because the camera picks up everything. So what you would have to do with very big gestures, you end up—first of all, they'll—that line will be cut and it's only in the eyes, you know. Which is totally different, but just as gratifying, and Michael was very specific about making sure that we all kept it—kept far away from the sort of Shakespearean acting, because if we went into that, it was very clear that it was because we weren't sure what we were saying or feeling and that would then make the language unaccessible for an audience. As long as we were really diligent about keeping our emotions and thoughts pure, true, and honest, in the sense of what an actor does to make something convincible, then it ended up being really fun to do.

G: Can you describe the extent of rehearsal for the film and what that process was like?

LC: The rehearsal process was, by far, the most difficult part for me. We have two weeks in New York, two weeks in London, and we primarily needed to rehearse the courtroom scene, 'cause that's sort of the most difficult scene to film, and it was the scene that we least had a grasp on. And it was just brutal because you're going into this process: it is a film, but it is a play and it is Shakespeare. So we were the beginning, really unsure of how to even go about it, you know. And it ended up being very frustrating for Michael because he was expecting to see what he was going to shoot, but because it was a play, and what actors do is sort of flounder until—you know, you make mistakes in order to not use the process of elimination. And although we could have, without rehearsal, just given him a sort of surface-level performance, if you are given time for rehearsal, what you end up doing is really sort of blaring it and assimilating it in a very powerful way that allows you, when you're shooting, to just not be snappy and not have to think about the acting part of it because you've already done that. Had we not had rehearsal, this film wouldn't have gotten made because you just—you didn't have any time. Such a guerilla filmmaking, you know.

G: The challenges of character and language are obvious. What were some of the unexpected challenges of shooting this film?

LC: (Laughs.) Trying not to eat too much pasta so that I could still fit in my costumes. (Both laugh.) (Pause.) Y'know, the main thing for me, which goes back to Portia's journey, was really owning being the best that I could be and not apologizing for it and, you know, with all these men. And really having to stop using my beauty or sexuality or, you know, naïvety and instead use, you know, my intelligence and talent and knowledge that I had was really an emotional experience for me and...incredibly life-changing and transformative. And just really, like, after the shooting was finished—those three months were so—such a whirlwind for me that when I actually came down from it, it ended up being really difficult for me for about a month and a half.

G: For the layperson, can you describe some of the techniques that you might use to focus or concentrate on a film set when you have to sort of hurry up and wait?

LC: I knit a lot. I find that—at the beginning of my brief career, as it is (laughs)—at the very beginning, I would really try to be on set and be able to hang out with everybody and talk, and I just found that, at the end of the day, I would just be in tears because I'd be so exhausted. So you really sort of have to keep—you know, as an actor, our instrument is our spirit, our heart, and you have to keep it—keep yourself still in some way. Especially with this production where it was very stressful. I had to go to a Zen place, which was sort of, in a way, like, detached from everything that was going on. (Both laugh.)

G: I've heard the set described as intense. What was the particularity of that intensity?

LC: It's just we—you know, financing was going to be pulled at any moment—

G: Ah.

LC: And we did not have time—like, we did not have enough time to shoot this movie. It's just amazing that it's come together. So, you know, you'd have five, six shots planned in a day, and at the end of the day you'd have ten minutes to do a shot that was, you know, a seven-minute shot; you'd have one take and that was it. And under those extreme circumstances...what's ironic is the greatest creativity has come from it, in some ways. But in that process, it really is so stressful. I mean, your adrenalin level is always piqued. You know, the fight or flight. The chemicals racing through our body must have been insane.

G: (Laughs.) Well, I did want to ask you about those other iconic Shakespeare roles that you've played. How did you approach the role of Ophelia when you played her opposite Liev Schreiber?

LC: (Laughs.) Well, I just went crazy, of course! I had a big crush on him, so it was easy to be obsessed with him and, you know, his rejection of me to drive me into insanity. (Both laugh.) No, I think that was a very—that production was very avant-garde. Andrei Serban approached it with...very much about symbolism and it was given—not only does Shakespeare give you a structure that you create within, but then we had this other structure of [Serban's] concept put on top of it, so there was a lot of confinement. And in some ways that gives you—I do enjoy boundaries. It could—it's very specific where you go, like a director—I need a director to tell me exactly what they want. It's the vagueness where I tend to—you know, then I'll just spread out like mercury and, you know, you won't be able to see anything. But—so in that way, I had few choices, really, to go from, and emotionally you have to fill all these very, sort of, expansive ideas. (Laughs.) And because it wasn't placed in a particular time period, there wasn't necessarily research to do. So it was more about, you know, just trying to survive in that one, too. (Both laugh.)

G: Well, the character seems ill-equipped.

LC: Yeah, yeah. It all—like, it's funny: at the end of a project, I can always be, like, "Wow, isn't it funny how life sort of mirrors," and you know you—that's really interesting. As actors we—it's—yeah, we're probably—most of us are probably, you know, imbalanced in some way. (Both laugh.)

G: Do you have a tendency to—when and if you do look back on a project like that—to second-guess yourself and think, "Wow, well, I would do that so differently today?"

LC: Oh, yeah, it's the brutal part of, you know, the finite quality of being a human being.

G: (Laughs.)

LC: I still—there's been moments where I've been lying awake in bed and—you know, I did Romeo and Juliet—and I'd be like, "That's the way!" You know, like, years—like, it's, you know, two years after. I'm just like, "That's what I should've done. I should have thought of it in this way," or, you know, even looking at this movie, being like, "Wow. I should have done this. I should've done that. It's a great lesson, spiritually, because you have to realize there's nothing you can do to change that. That is the past, which doesn't exist anymore, and all you have is now, and if you would have known that then, you may not have [given] the same performance. And I know that, in the moment of now, I'm always—you know, as long as I keep myself,present and aware and—which is what I've tried to do most of my life—then I can be proud of what I've done. (Laughs.) You know.

G: (Laughs.) About Juliet...obviously she's impetuous. Do you think she is genuinely in love? Or is that merely a tragedy of infatuation?

LC: You know, it's love. Then it goes back to the question of, like, what is love? I think, you know, there's something in a relationship, this sort of mirror quality, that you meet someone who mirrors you, and you fall in love with that in a Narcissistic way, and then three months after the oxytocin wears off and, you know, and the sex stops being as hot, then you start hating that mirror, because you start seeing the dark aspects of it. They never got to that point, really. I mean, there's actually one moment where—the way I interpret the scene, you know, the nightingale scene, which is after they've had sex for the first time—there is that moment of, sort of, you know, "What are you doing?!" You know, that weird, weird tension that goes on there. So I don't know. I think she—what else would she do? What else would she obsess over at that age, you know? I've definitely—when I was that age, I was madly in love...

G: We sort of addressed this earlier, indirectly, but for 400 years, critics and viewers have made cases for and against this play having anti-Semitic elements to it. Did you find that—in going through the film, [the] process of understanding the play—that was an easy or hard question to answer?

LC: Well, if you look at the facts, we don't know whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. What we do know is that he was drawing a portrait of his day.

G: Mm-hm.

LC: I don't think he also makes commentary on it, when you look at the text, because every character is flawed, and you sympathize with everyone at one point. If it's interpreted—at least, for an actor's point of view, that's the way we all saw it. It has—I mean, without a doubt it's been a vehicle for anti-Semitism, and it's—you know, it's why it's controversial because I think there was a production in the Third Reich and they used—I mean, what's poignant to me and what I hope at least my generation walks out with is, you know, this is 1595, and Michael's hope—he was bent on this being a slice of history, not a commentary. And I hope that my generation walks out going, "Okay, that was 1595, this is 2005. We're more barbaric." It's not about Judaism and Christianity, although they are part of this whole, sort of, you know, combustion of people being intolerant of what other people believe. I was raised in Singapore for six years where I was a minority, and as a Christian—my family was Christian, although that's not my faith right now. (Laughs.) Just want to reiterate that.

G: (Laughs.)

LC: You know, where I was exposed to Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam. I was raised by a Muslim woman, you know. She's my ummo [Ed. "Mother"] for, you know, the time that I was there. And so this sort of—for me to be working on this project that deals with intolerance and prejudice and racism and sort of the barbaric qualities of humanity is really important to me because it is—my philosophy is: I don't understand it. I really don't. Especially, you know, how similar most of the religions are. And this whole idea of trying to—I had death early on in my life. A sister died, and then I had two grandparents back-to-back die, so I had to ask the big questions very early on. You sort of, you know, just keep going. And I just don't understand how—and we're all the same. I mean, we all have the same desires, feelings. You know, there's no feeling that any one human being can have that the person next to you isn't capable of having and there's—it's so complex in that way because, you know, I was on this—well, let me finish this thought. We're all the same, we're all one, and yet, this sort of path to find that feeling that we all seek is what divides us. It's fascinating to me and actually, like, the most depressive thought I have. And so I've actually really enjoyed talking about this, you know, because I feel like it's appropriate today to show that we haven't changed, and it's only getting worse and really, really dangerous right now, in a way that it wasn't necessarily then. You know. Fuck somebody cutting out somebody's pound of flesh; I mean, we're massively destructing each other for, you know, these religious opinions, and that's what they are. It was on a—you know talking about the oneness, the quality of: how can you kill yourself? Because that is what the other human being is. Just like, you know, in a relationship: the other human being is you. It's just a mirror. There's this moment where—we'd been on a plane the whole time—and there's this moment when we were flying into Denver when we were over the mountains and really like—all of a sudden the plane dropped, and then it was like boom-boom-boom. It was really frightening. And, you know, you hear people kind of go, "Oh! God!" And then this sort of, like, extreme peaceful feeling came over the plane. And that was so profound to me because you think, "We're so capable of that, of—". And you felt everyone just sort of, like, connect. It was just, like, "Right, if we're going down, we're going down together." And it was one of the best feelings I've ever had in my life. And then also it makes me really sad, because, you know, why not on a big scale? That's possible. On a global scale, that could be. But we would all have to, like, release so much, that nobody's willing to do right now.

G: Hm.

LC: It's so sad.

G: Well, I hate to move us from the profound to the profane...

LC: (Laughs.)

G: But I wanted to ask you about beginning to taste fame and what that's like: the red carpets, the fans, and the arduousness of speaking to the press. What perks and pitfalls have you encountered so far?

LC: I think the biggest pitfall is that you can start to believe it. That you can start to think, you know, "Oh, I'm—I'm more special than Tom, Dick, or Harry because people want to take photos of my dress," you know, or...It became very clear to me with all of this that it's very important to surround yourself with people who will ground you, and be, like, you know, "Your shit stinks too, sweetheart."

G: (Laughs.)

LC: Like, doesn't matter how beautiful you can look on a red carpet. But you know, the perk to it is: as actors, we're sort of royalty of America, and the world, and you have an opportunity that if you have strong beliefs for positive change, or if you have ideas to inspire large groups of people, you have the opportunity to do that, through becoming well-known. But it's—you know, it's interesting. I've also seen some moments where I'm like, "Wow, that person is addicted to this kind of attention," can be like a drug, you know. I mean, you see it happen. I personally like it for that fact, that it will hopefully allow me to do—to go even further to do good. And, you know, it's nice to be, to—you know, we live in a material world, and it's nice to be able to have a Taurus.

G: (Laughs.)

LC: I love food and clothes and jewelry, so it's nice to be able to play with those things. But you constantly have to remind yourself of what it is.

G: Mm. Lastly, I'd like to ask about some of your upcoming projects, what you've been working on.

LC: I actually haven't worked, yet. I start the next Merchant-Ivory film in January. That's a modern piece, and I do play an American, and I'll be in India filming that. And then I'm going to play Charlotte Bronte in a movie about her life. But this year's been really difficult because I've had a lot of opportunities that, you know, I'd never had before come up, but because we hadn't seen the film, my manager, my agent, and I, we sort of felt like we have an opportunity, if what everybody had said was true, to really shape a career of respectability and integrity that for me was going to allow me to become not just an actress, but somebody who's—who was respected in the business. And then for me, that would allow my to do other things in my life, like, you know, write and teach and form, you know, foundations for other things. So: very important to me that I don't—that I didn't just take anything that was coming just because all of a sudden it was coming! You know?

G: Right.

LC: So I'm excited about these two projects because they—you know. Going to India, never been, and that's probably going to change my life in major ways. I may not come back! (Both laugh.) No, I'll come back for Charlotte Bronte. And of course, that's a woman who, again, she was in this society where she was trapped in so many ways and her only outlet was through her, sort of, creativity. And the sort of, you know, the difference between who she had to be and who she actually was is really exciting, and the screenplay is fantastic, so I'm excited about that.

G: Well, it's been a pleasure chatting with you.

LC: You too, thank you. Happy holidays!


[For Groucho's review of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, click here, and for his interview with Michael Radford, click here.]