Once Upon A Time In Paris
Lily Collins planned a wedding while producing and starring in Season 2 of TV's guiltiest pleasure. What can't she do?
This year, Lily Collins was the face of two elaborate productions. The first is the bigger, bolder, and brasher sophomore season of Emily in Paris. The second: her rustic, Victorian-meets-Americana-inspired open-air wedding in September at a remote wooded resort on Colorado’s Dunton Hot Springs. The event was small, and nothing was fussy (although her Ralph Lauren gown did take almost 200 hours to make), and something about it felt epic.
Maybe that je ne sais quoi was the fact that Collins never saw the venue ahead of her big day. She was, of course, in Paris, where the 32-year-old had flown at the height of the pandemic to star in and produce the second season of a splashy, romantic series that many people said was too splashy and romantic, on location in a city whose joie de vivre was decidedly muted. When filming began on Season 2 in May, there were still 7 p.m. curfews, and only markets and pharmacies were open. In her off-hours, she was choosing a menu she couldn’t taste and decor for a wedding in a space she’d never seen.
“I was in the midst of planning it while shooting the show, nine hours ahead. Finishing filming and then Zooming with people and answering emails,” Collins tells NYLON. Still, she felt like it would work out, and it did. On Sept. 4, she married filmmaker Charlie McDowell, 38, who now is sitting just outside Collins’ Zoom frame in the sun-filled, bohemian guest cottage where they’re currently staying on a friend’s Southern California property. “[It] was very exciting and great; it was just all happening at once.”
Collins has experience occupying two different worlds simultaneously, and not just because she’s an actor. She’s been doing it in life since she was 5, when she left her native England behind for the States following her parents’ divorce. Her father is famed musician Phil Collins, making the Lily certified Hollywood royalty, so much so that she was presented as a débutante at Paris’ le Bal, a common coming out celebration for celebrity spawn. However, as her Instagram reveals, Collins is as comfortable deep in the mountains as she is in her adopted city of Beverly Hills. She Zooms in a simple, light blue Oxford shirt, but when our conversation turns to the Hitchcockian supernova she embodies for the photos accompanying this story, she exclaims, “I loved the whole thing: the wig, the vibe, the clothes.” Her career, too, belies what one might call a comfort with range: After cutting her teeth on projects as dark as they come (To the Bone; Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile; Okja), she’s now playing the latest addition to the Hollywood canon of basic bitches.
Emily probably grew up having Carrie Bradshaw posters on her wall.
When Emily in Paris premiered on Netflix in fall 2020, the heroine’s low-stakes travails and seemingly too-good-to-be-true opportunities turned out to be exactly the piled-high spoonful of sugar that viewers needed to help stomach the reality of quarantine. The second season, which premieres Dec. 22, is still heavy on wish fulfillment — it takes place in a COVID-free world, for one thing — but all is not hapless gaffes and pains au chocolat. The focus is on the fallout that follows Emily finally boning down with Gabriel, her snack of a French chef neighbor, in the Season 1 finale. The emotional arc is reminiscent of the latter half of Sex and the City’s third season, when Carrie begins an affair with Big. (Emily in Paris’ creator, Darren Star, was also the mastermind behind SATC.) Morally, the audience knows these couples shouldn’t be together: Big is married; Gabriel may or may not be fully broken up with his girlfriend, who also happens to be Emily’s close friend Camille. But that’s also why we want to see them together. “She's in no way mimicking Carrie's life,” Collins says of the comparison, though she concedes, “Emily probably grew up having Carrie Bradshaw posters on her wall.”
Emily is a Carrie sun sign with a Charlotte rising. Like Carrie, she can be a bit slippery when it comes to affairs of the heart. In the span of one season, we watch her have sex with a 17-year-old, date a client, and yes, sleep with Gabriel. Then there’s the homoerotic flirtation between Emily and Camille that’s been subtlely doled out in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments since they accidentally kissed on the lips when they first met. “When I read that, I was like, ‘So, is this going to go anywhere?’” Collins recalls. “I remember the writers being like, ‘Don’t know.’”
Much more has been made of Emily’s “Charlotte” side: the earnest, naive, and ringarde elements, the indefatigable cheerfulness. “A lot of the qualities that Emily has, if you put them on paper, would seem so annoying,” Collins says. But she is protective of her character, whom she sees as the opposite of two-dimensional. “To have someone be optimistic, bright, and bubbly — it's sad to think that people would look and go, ‘That’s a lot.’ They’re such beautiful qualities, and the fact that she can partner that with being vulnerable and asking for help and making mistakes — she’s not infallible,” Collins adds, and to be fair, she never claims to be.
These particular critiques are also gendered. Objections were few when male coming-of-age fantasies like Entourage consisted of an uber-attractive 20-something moving to a new town to be met with fame, fortune, and sexual conquests aplenty. But not everyone was willing to buy into the female-driven fantasy Emily in Paris was selling. For Collins, the over-the-top aspect of the show reflects the awe her character feels living it. “I think that this is a heightened reality for Emily, to be moving to Paris, and what she experiences and what she sees,” says Collins, who studied broadcast journalism at USC and still forms her consonants like she’s practicing for the anchor seat. For what it’s worth, some of the classically Parisian pratfalls that American audiences have called out as evidence of the show’s let-them-eat-cake obliviousness happened to Collins while she was living there, from stepping in dog shit to going a week without hot water in her apartment. “It’s just that when you put them all together in a TV show that also aesthetically looks the way it does, it's a little less believable.”
Instead of bending to the criticism in Season 2, the show’s creators doubled down, leaning all the way into the confectionary quality that made Emily in Paris so undeniably watchable in the first place. Famed stylist Patricia Field, who continued working as the costume consultant on the show instead of reprising her role as the costume designer on SATC for the new reboot, dialed up the fashion risk-taking from a 10 to at least a 15. Collins marveled at the trust Field placed in her. “[She’d] ask, ‘What do you want to wear?’ I never thought that I'd be asked that from someone who is so iconic,” Collins recalls.
The two first met when the actor visited Field’s New York City-based gallery ahead of filming the show’s first season. “We had a little preliminary get-to-know-you and fitting, which helped a lot [to have] her sizes, her energy,” says Field, who describes the look she created for Emily as “very Emily as well as very Lily. Emily and Lily are kind of … she was cast really well for that role.”
Next, the series cast Zola screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris as a fierce — in every sense of the word — fashion designer who becomes a friendly foil to Emily. “He had spoken out about the fact that he was a big fan, which was so lovely, and I was so surprised,” she says of the very online playwright, whose praise for the show stood in contrast to the Twitter commentary of the it-crowd he travels in.
It's so nice to be able to finally say that I'm a wife.
“I like joy — I think that’s surprising to people given the work that I write — but the work I consume often has so much lightness to it,” says Harris, who recently tweeted that he “manifested” his way into appearing on Emily in Paris and would now like to do the same for Squid Game. “When I was watching [Emily in Paris] I was like, ‘This is so fun. Why is everyone so upset?’”
Harris found the EIP cast very welcoming — “They’re like in this weird French boarding school out there, so I’d get to come in and bring some fun” — but working with Collins surprised him in an important way. “When I first got to Emily in Paris, there was sort of a weird translation issue around my hair and what I needed for my hair as a Black performer. When Lily found out she was like, ‘You do know I’m a producer, right?’ and immediately went into producer mode, texting and calling everyone, making sure that I felt comfortable for my first day on set,” he says. “Actresses who have had the wild privilege and access that she’s had through her family lineage, there’s an idea that these people are frivolous or dilettantes — and it’s 100% not true of Lily. It’s such a delight to meet actresses who want to be advocates for people with less privilege or less power than them.”
McDowell, who Collins first started dating in the summer of 2019, joined her for a couple of months during filming. Her favorite memories from their time in Paris together are of taking long, meandering walks through the city with their mixed-breed rescue dog, Redford (whom McDowell momentarily pops into the Zoom frame to introduce). Sometimes Harris came over to hang out. He says the couple’s relationship “made me want a better partner to my boyfriend because they're such a model for that kind of love. … Their house is a house of laughter and intellect and deep collaboration and mutual admiration.”
During a break in shooting, McDowell and Collins traveled to Copenhagen and loved it so much that they added it to the itinerary for the three-and-a-half week honeymoon they just returned from. “It was very much an adventure, foodie trip that is atypical of a honeymoon. It was really experience-driven,” she says of their Scandinavian tour, which included “these incredible places that are very eco-friendly and about sustainability, embracing nature, and what is indigenous to the area.”
Their Labor Day Weekend wedding was also a return to nature, one that gestured to the British-American heritage that McDowell shares. “It was very reminiscent of the rolling hills and forests in England. We're both dual citizens, so it was something that we wanted to lean into,” Collins says. It was an intimate ceremony — just their close friends and their famous families. McDowell was born to celebrities, too: He’s the son of actors Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm McDowell, and the stepson of Ted Danson. (Though a recurring viral gag of his might make you believe McDowell is actually Andie MacDowell’s son.) “It's so nice to be able to finally say that I'm a wife, [but] sometimes it makes me feel very old,” Collins says before trailing off, blushing, and taking a moment to look over at McDowell, who’s kicking his foot toward the screen in playful agreement.
The newlyweds are also colleagues. McDowell directed Collins in Windfall, a movie about a young couple who arrive at a vacation home to discover that it’s been robbed. Up next, they’ll work together on Gilded Rage, which explores the infamous murder of investment banker Thomas Gilbert Sr. in 2015. As 18 months of lockdown taught everyone in a romantic relationship, there's a reason people used to keep their professional and personal lives separate, but for Collins, so far, so good. “I was actually surprised that I was able to really separate him as a director and also as fiancé,” she says. “It was so collaborative and fun to go to work and be trusted by each other, and to also take a break from it when you get home and just kind of watch a show and tune out.” Foot waving aside, boundaries are evident. Asked to weigh in on what surprised him most about working with Collins, McDowell is still playful but concise: “This isn’t my cover, OK?"
Collins makes space for all of her passions like someone who has never found doing so particularly difficult or strange. That may be why her least favorite question about Emily is one entertainment reporters asked a lot the first season: Is she a workaholic or a romantic? “I was like, 'She doesn't have to be defined by one thing. She loves her job and she also loves love,'” Collins muses. "She's the modern woman."
Top Image Credits: Chanel clothing, Christian Louboutin shoes
Stylist: Danielle Goldberg
Hair: Gregory Russell
Makeup: Fiona Stiles
Manicure: Thuy Nguyen
Set Designer: Robert Ziemer
Bookings: Special Projects
Videographer: Alex Van Brande