Once upon a time, there was a princess named Lily Collins – showbiz royalty via her father, the musician Phil Collins. After her parents divorced when she was 5, she was raised in the kingdoms of England and Switzerland (with her father) and Los Angeles (with her mother, Collins's second wife, Jill Tavelman), where she dreamed of reigning in Hollywood.
At 15, she began fighting dragons – that is, auditioning for roles – and three years later, was rewarded with a plum one: She played a privileged princess of the American South, Sandra Bullock's daughter in The Blind Side. Then, at 22, Collins landed her first major lead, Snow White in Mirror, Mirror, a cheeky update of the classic fairy tale, in which the heroine is a self-actualizer who trades her gowns for pants, learns to duel and ends up saving the Prince ( The Social Network's Armie Hammer) rather than vice-versa. Yesterday it opened far and wide.
(Coincidentally, Julia Roberts, who co-stars as Snow's evil stepmom – and in a case of life imitating art, is hanging tooth and nail onto her title as Queen of the Screen – was also 22 when she headlined her breakthrough fairy tale, the Cinderella-as-hooker story Pretty Woman.)
Now Collins's ascendancy has been made manifest in the hallowed Hollywood tradition: with a huge billboard on Sunset Boulevard featuring her flawless face. "I was at the Coffee Bean on the Sunset Strip, getting a drink, and the people at the counter said, 'You're behind us,' " Collins remembered in a phone call last week. "I turned around, and there was a massive building with Julia and I plastered across it. I pretty much screamed."
Yet somehow the fact that Collins, who turned 23 a week ago, was calling from a carriage (well, a limo) that was whisking her from an appearance on The Tonight Show to a flight to North Carolina – where she's co-starring as daughter to Jennifer Connelly and Greg Kinnear in Writers, "an independent dramedy about a dysfunctional family of writers" (is there any other kind?) – doesn't seem to rattle her. For a girl whose wildest dreams are coming true, she sounds preternaturally calm.
"I'm more aware of the pros and cons of having your job or your passion be public than someone who's not had my background," she says. "I'm just doing what I love, and this is the weird result that comes from it. But nothing quite prepares you for when it's you."
She's had more schooling in fame than most – in addition to having a pop-singer father, she did some time as a journalist. She wrote a "New York Confidential" column for the British edition of Elle Girl magazine, covered the 2008 U.S. presidential election for the TV channel Nickelodeon and majored in broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California. "It definitely made me more comfortable," Collins says. "I know how many levels of bosses there are to answer to when you're asking questions, and I know that it's your job to ask the awkward questions. But it's also very weird now to be on the other side of it, because I can feel questions coming."
No wonder many of her answers are straight out of the PR handbook: Her hero is her mom. Her parents' advice was, "Stay true to Lily." Roberts and Bullock were "incredibly nice." And a rival movie due in June, Snow White and the Huntsman, "couldn't be more different" from hers. "We were aware of the other project, but we didn't worry about it," she says, batting away the issue like a badminton pro with a birdie.
This year's dual Snow Whites are part of not one, but two raging trends: the ubiquity of fairy tales on screens big and small, and the popularity of take-no-prisoners female heroines.
Examples of reworked fairy tales include the NBC series Grimm – a cop in Portland, Ore., hunts down supernatural beasts disguised as humans – and the ABC series Once Upon a Time, where a host of cursed storybook characters live as small-town Americans. In last year's films Red Riding Hood and Beastly, the former turned the big bad wolf into a werewolf, and the latter transformed the Beast from Beauty and the Beast into a high-school Goth. Next year will bring Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and trailers for Snow White and the Huntsman are already playing. These films and shows update their familiar archetypes to reflect and assuage the anxieties of North Americans. In a world spinning out of control, full of neighbours who are not what they seem, these stories offer some comfort – though they may be dark and scary, at least we know the outcome.
As to the girl heroines, unless you spent last weekend under a rock, you know that The Hunger Games showcases a major example – Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an archer who uses her supernal wits and skills to survive a deadly gladiatorial contest-cum-reality show. That film's North American opening-weekend gross, $155-million (U.S.), set a spring box-office record and suggests that the planned trilogy will be a worthy successor to two other billions-grossing fantasy franchises, Twilight (human girl chooses between vampire and werewolf lovers) and Harry Potter (teen wizards of both sexes save the world).
It seems that boys will go to films headlined by girls after all, as long as the girls have weapons. The Hunger Games's audience was 39 per cent male, as opposed to the first Twilight film, whose male audience was only 20 per cent.
And there, in that sweet spot, is where our newest heroine really demonstrates her professionalism. Collins pulls off the neat trick of touting how her character has evolved, without alienating either males or potential advertisers. "She's not a passive fairy-tale princess," she says. "She's very much a real girl who finds herself in the story and becomes this fighter, emotionally and physically. She can do as much as the boys can." But, Collins hastens to add, "it's not supposed to be an in-your-face feminist movie. It just has this undertone of female empowerment. To show young girls that you can wear corsets and ball gowns, and still use a sword."
An empowered female, in a corset – touché! I predict a long career.