At 14, sick with anorexia and in-between hospital stays, Marti Noxon auditioned to be the body double in a TV movie about eating disorders. A fortuitous writers’ strike saved her from being “a professional anorexic”, but the irony wasn’t lost on Noxon, who went on to work on some of TV’s biggest shows – from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Mad Men – as a writer and producer.
That dark humor permeates her new, deeply personal directorial feature debut, To the Bone, starring actress Lily Collins. Collins, 28, recently published her memoir, Unfiltered, a collection of personal essays delving into various episodes from her life, from hacking away at her now-trademark eyebrows in an attempt to fit in at school, to dealing with an emotionally abusive relationship and her own experience struggling with eating disorders throughout her youth. The book is subtitled No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me, which is the perfect summation of their recent conversation over lunch in Los Angeles.
Marti Noxon: Tell me about writing Unfiltered. Have you always thought of yourself as a writer?
Lily Collins: As a kid I used to write poems and song lyrics. I wrote for magazines aged 15 – I found the editor’s number in the back of the magazine and just cold-called her. With Unfiltered, my intent was to encourage others to use their voice, but I don’t think I realized that in doing that, I was actually finding my own.
Noxon: When do you think that transition happened?
Collins: It was while we were shooting To the Bone and I was writing. I had written the chapter on my experience with eating disorders a week before I got the script. Nothing’s by mistake! I got to go to an anonymous group with you and share my story and get told the facts for the first time. When I went through my eating disorder, I never sought medical assistance. I created myths in my head about how I should get through things, so the idea that I could surround myself with truth and feel comfortable enough to speak mine allowed me to breathe. There’s a scene in the film when we’re in group therapy talking about the euphoria we experience – I’d never heard that weird enjoyment we feel from being in the disorder worded that way before – and in that moment, you caught Lily understanding it as opposed to just Ellen, my character.
“I never sought medical assistance for my eating disorder. I created myths in my head to get through things”
Noxon: When we were editing the film, I felt really connected to that moment. A little, “A-ha!”
Collins: From a young age, I’ve had a desire to put forward this perfect image, whatever perfect was. So even though there was all this un-prettiness going on inside of me, I wanted to make sure that my appearance and composure were a certain way. I imagined that people knew I had these secrets and they’d be judging. Now that I’ve put things out there I feel like I’m starting from a clean slate, so when I play a character I can let go more.
Noxon: I think it’s incredible that To the Bone is the first, as far as we can find, feature film about a person with an eating disorder. Someone – a man – read the script and was like, this is too small of a subject. I sent him the statistics after that: one in three women identify as having disordered eating. I think he sees it differently now. The other part we really can’t ignore is that, in addition to the messages we give ourselves, we’re bombarded with the idea that we are supposed to look a certain way.
Collins: After we finished filming, I went to South Korea to shoot Okja. I don’t eat red meat, I didn’t recognize all the food and being alone in a foreign country was very alienating. I came back not looking well. I was about to embark on press for Rules Don’t Apply and I was told that a lot of media did not want to put me in their magazines.
Noxon: That’s great!
“I’ve always had a desire to put forward this perfect image, even though there was un-prettiness inside of me”
Collins: Not just on the cover – they wouldn’t put me inside looking the way I did, even though it was for a movie. No one knew my connection to the disorder, and at the time I was super upset because I thought, this is a huge moment for me and I can’t maximize on it. But it hit me – “Oh, this is going to majorly f**k with your career now, not just your health.” I told my publicist that if I could snap my fingers and gain ten pounds right that second, I would. I never thought I’d ever say anything like that! This cannot keep me from what I’ve always wanted.
Noxon: When people asked me if I was concerned about you bouncing back [from filming To the Bone], I’d say of course, we’re making sure she has a lot of support, but also she’s too ambitious to let this get in her way. And if she is too thin, she won’t work. For a long time, ambition was a dirty word for women, but being ambitious [myself] and recognizing you as an ambitious woman, I was like, she’s going to be fine.
Collins: It has been amazing – crewmembers were coming up and saying they had experienced it through their sister or niece or friend, and with my book, too, at signings and on the street. I’ve had emails from people in the industry saying, “This is my story.” That’s what this movie has the potential to do; to start conversations and take the taboo out of something that is so prevalent. We do a good job of hiding it by putting such an opposite image of ourselves out there, like when I read interviews that say, “Oh, I never exercise and I eat whatever I want, I just have a great metabolism.”
“Someone said to me, ‘You look great. I want to know what you’re doing.’ That is why this problem exists”
Noxon: There’s also the question of responsibility and I hope people take from your performance that you’re trapped. There’s a point you cross over where you’re just trying to stop and you can’t and it’s terrifying – all that control flips and you feel completely out of control. People would joke to me all the time, “I wish I had just a touch of anorexia.’”
Collins: I was leaving my apartment one day and someone I’ve known for a long time, my mom’s age, said to me, “Oh, wow, look at you!” I tried to explain [I had lost weight for a role] and she goes, “No! I want to know what you’re doing, you look great!” I got into the car with my mom and said, “That is why the problem exists.’”
Noxon: How did your mom react when she saw the film?
Collins: The first time she was a bit in shock. The second time I looked over at the end and she was sobbing; it really hit her hard. I knew it wouldn’t be easy with the book, talking about all this. I never wanted her to feel responsible; she’s like my best friend. When she saw the movie, I think she recognized so much of me in Ellen. There’s a scene where I’m taking my clothes off to be weighed by Carrie Preston, my stepmom in the movie, who takes a photo on her phone and shows it to me. I didn’t think she’d actually take one but she did. I saw myself in the photo and my heart dropped. So when my mom saw the film, she saw Lily’s reaction because she knows me the best.”
“We do a good job of hiding [eating disorders]. I read interviews that say, ‘I never exercise and I eat whatever I want, I just have a great metabolism’”
Noxon: The lesson we talk about in the movie applies to any kind of hardship: accepting imperfection, risk and sadness as facts of life. If you can accept you’re imperfect, messy and flawed, you can have an incredible life.
Collins: That’s Keanu [Reeve’s] line! I remember when we rocked up to his house to have that meeting [Reeves plays Ellen’s doctor]: you opened these doors and it was just a vast hallway onto the Hollywood Hills and he appeared – “Hi, I’m Keanu” – and it was like out of a movie. He’s so soft-spoken and so kind and gentle and has these amazing ideas. He’s so supportive and very nurturing.
Noxon: The first time I met him was at the Chateau Marmont. He rode up on a motorcycle – of his own design – wearing a leather jacket. It was straight out of the Hollywood textbook. He’s one of the few people you never hear a bad word about, but what I didn’t expect was how vulnerable he’d be playing a role he didn’t have his usual armor for.
Collins: It was actually a fun set.
Noxon: I really endeavored to bring humor to it – it’s too easy to take what we do seriously. The truth is we are the luckiest and I try to remember that. I was once working on a medical show and at one point I was like, it’s fake brain surgery! We’re just play-acting.
Collins: It’s true. We get to tell others’ stories and, in the meantime, figure out our own.
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