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Double duty: ‘Emily in Paris’ star Lily Collins plays the audience’s proxy in ‘Mank’

Lily Collins portrays Emily in the Netflix series “Emily in Paris.” (Stephanie Branchu/Netflix)

Actor Lily Collins has two projects in hot rotation on Netflix these days. She’s the Emily from Chicago who takes a job in Paris in the fan favorite series “Emily in Paris,” recently renewed for a second season, and she has a pivotal supporting role in David Fincher’s Oscar-magnet biopic “Mank,” playing “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s typist/secretary Rita Alexander, who also serves as something of a moral compass as arguably the most “regular” person in the Hollywood fable.

I hope you’ll indulge me for just a couple of paragraphs before we proceed with my conversation with Collins.

In June 1991, I interviewed Phil Collins as he was starting the North American leg of the “… But Seriously” tour, at a time when Collins was regularly cranking out top 10 singles and filling arenas. (His monster solo album “No Jacket Required” got its title from Collins being turned away from Chicago’s Pump Room because he was told the jacket he was wearing didn’t meet restaurant standards.)

In the piece, I noted, “Collins’ second wife and their baby are touring the world with him, and he’s in a different place emotionally than he was when he wrote ‘I Don’t Care Anymore.’ ”

That baby was Lily, now 31 and playing a Chicagoan in Paris who caused a bit of a stir when she dissed Lou Malnati’s. I’m not going to turn our Zoom chat into a Zoom Malnati’s and offer to send some deep-dish Lily’s way, but I do start our talk by noting Emily’s friends in Chicago say hi.

“Oh, my God, that’s so funny, that’s so true, hello!” comes the reply.

Time for “Mank” talk.

Lily Collins as Rita Alexander and Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in a scene from “Mank.” (Courtesy of Netflix)

“What I love about Rita is she’s not a Hollywood starlet by any means, but she is fascinated with the industry,” Collins says. “But at the same time, she’s been hired to do a job with a man who is very much a part of the industry, so she’s kinda (walking) that fine line of being a professional who’s trying not to show she’s fascinated with his world, while at the same time she’s undeniably fascinated with it. I (do agree) she’s the moral compass of the film in a lot of ways, and the eyes and ears of the audience, as well. There are moments when you just want to shake Mankiewicz and say, ‘Come on, get over it. … This is what you promised. This is what you can do …’ I think Rita does that for the audience; she holds him accountable. She stands for so much more than a stenographer.”

Collins’ character of Rita has a husband fighting for the British in a world war America hasn’t yet joined, and as she worries for his life, it’s a reminder there are much bigger things in this world than a controversial Hollywood movie.

William Abadie as Antoine Lambert and Lily Collins as Emily in “Emily In Paris.” (Carole Bethuel/Netflix)

“Playing her reminded me we all need a Rita,” Collins says. “We all need that person to kind of remind us when our heads are in the clouds … and in Rita’s case, having a young and fresh perspective can sometimes alter one’s views, and I think Rita does that for Mank. She reinvigorates him in a lot of ways and inspires him.”

Conversely, just when Rita thinks she has Mank pinned as being the very stereotype of the narcissistic, booze-soaked, star-crossed, badly aging former wunderkind, she learns some surprising things about Mank’s facility for quiet, noble, even heroic doings. “I think Rita’s the perfect person to see that, and show the audience,” Collins says, “because she does have these deep-seated morals. So, for her to digest that information – it shows we can be inspired by someone (about whom) we thought we knew everything. She thought she had him all figured out, but she’s not too prideful to prohibit herself from acknowledging she didn’t.”

Fincher’s vision for “Mank,” in all its silver-tone black-and-white glory, includes a bounty of lavishly produced outdoor scenes capturing old Hollywood, but Collins’ scenes are almost all inside, with a maximum of four characters – and many feature just Gary Oldman’s Mank and Collins’ Rita. It’s almost like a stage work.

Lily Collins as Rita Alexander in “Mank.” (Courtesy of Netflix)

“We were in this very secluded space that we didn’t leave, and most of it near Mank’s bed,” says Collins, whose scenes take place as Mankiewicz is rehabilitating from serious injuries suffered in an automobile accident. “And it just recently hit me, this is not too unlike quarantine, in the sense that everything is inescapable, and he felt trapped, and if you think of her as this metaphorical figure, this mirror to hold him accountable for all his actions and insecurities … we can all relate to having a Rita within ourselves. We’ve all been trapped in a sense in our homes, we’ve all had to face our day-to-day lives without the distractions we would normally have, and we’re all having this voice in our head that’s reminding us of what we need to focus on and how we need to get through things.”

Collins was still filming “Emily in Paris” in Paris when she got the role in “Mank,” and there was some overlap during which she would fly from France to Los Angeles for a day before having to return to the “Emily” set. “It was difficult to figure out the scheduling of it all, but they’re such different characters that I found it more manageable to decipher between the two of them. If they both existed in modern day and had similar accents, I think I would have mixed up lines.

“But there’s no way Rita would say anything Emily would say. There’s just no way.”

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