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Warren Beatty offered Lily Collins a starring role — and insights into a Hollywood gone by

Warren Beatty offered Lily Collins a starring role — and insights into a Hollywood gone by
Lily Collins stars in Warren Beatty's look at Howard Hughes and old Hollywood, "Rules Don't Apply." The film premiered at the AFI Fest. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“Warren Beatty wants you to call him at home.”

This was the message Lily Collins received out of the blue three years ago, just hours before she was about to embark on a European press tour. She had never met the Hollywood legend before, but she called him anyway. He told her he was directing a new movie and felt like he'd met on it with every other actress in town, save for her.

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So in the midst of packing, Collins invited Beatty over. He told her his next film was set in the 1950s and involved Howard Hughes, but didn't reveal anything else about the project. Mostly, he just wanted to get a sense of Collins' personality. Then he left, and she flew off to promote "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones."

It was supposed to be a pivotal moment in Collins' career. She was starring in a young adult adaptation that was meant to turn into the next "Hunger Games" franchise. But when the action flick didn't perform at the box office, its sequel was scrapped. Discouraged, Collins returned to Los Angeles.

"I came home, and all of a sudden I became available," Collins recalled, sitting in the expansive Beverly Hills home where she was raised. "So Warren started inviting me to a bunch of lunches and dinners with him and Annette [Bening, his wife, who plays Collins' mother in the film]. I didn't want to ask too many questions or give him any reason to back off. And I thought, 'At the end of the day, if none of this goes anywhere, I have the coolest stories to tell and I've learned so much from him already.'"

Lily Collins is photographed in her parent's L.A.-area home for her new film, "Rules Don't Apply,"
Lily Collins is photographed in her parent's L.A.-area home for her new film, "Rules Don't Apply," (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

By the sixth meeting or so, Beatty finally told Collins about his movie, "Rules Don't Apply," which opens Wednesday. The film follows aspiring starlet Marla Mabrey, who moves from Virginia to L.A. after being hired as a contract actress for Hughes [played by Beatty]. Once she lands in Hollywood, she struggles to maintain her moral compass — especially as she becomes entangled in romances with her driver [Alden Ehrenreich] and even Hughes himself.

After Beatty at last told Collins the film's plot, he invited her over to his house to read the screenplay he'd written.

"He put me into a library with the script and pencils and Post-Its and water," the 27-year-old recalled, "and he would come in and check on me. 'How are you liking it? What do you think? Do you like it?'"

She did like it, and was drawn to the idea of playing an actress trying to make it during Hollywood's Golden Age. Her mother, Jill — who has been divorced from Lily's dad, musician Phil Collins, since 1996 — is a "purveyor of resurrected oddities," according to her daughter. "As you can see, I grew up immersed in old Hollywood culture," Collins said, pointing around her mother's living room.

She was sitting on a couch next to a fireplace that had been featured in the 1992 Robert Downey Jr. film "Chaplin," with a handful of Marilyn Monroe coffee table books displayed in front of her. "Growing up surrounded by people like Marilyn and Audrey Hepburn and Liz Taylor — I just grew up admiring these women. A lot of people in my generation have dared to ask questions like, 'Who is James Dean?' And I can't imagine asking a question like that, just because it's been ingrained in me since I was so young."

Lily Collins and actor and director Warren Beatty at the red carpet premiere of "Rules Don't Apply."
Lily Collins and actor and director Warren Beatty at the red carpet premiere of "Rules Don't Apply." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

She relished the opportunity to ask Beatty about his own experience in the movie business and the sexual repression of the 1950s. Nothing was off-limits, though sometimes he wouldn't answer some of Collins' questions.

"Alden and I both looked at it from a mentorship standpoint," she said. "I want to produce and direct and write one day. He's the best teacher, right there in front of you. So why not ask questions? I took notes and I'd write in a journal every day because I was like, 'I don't want to forget any of this.'"

One particularly memorable moment? A sex scene with Beatty himself. Collins was nervous to make out with one of Hollywood's most famous lotharios — not to mention someone 52 years her senior.

"But Warren makes you feel so comfortable," she insisted. "I knew it was more humorous than romantic. And Annette came on set a couple of times, which actually made it more funny and peaceful. She'd lived with that script for years, so she always knew it was coming up. And thank God it was me — someone who had hung out with their family — and not some stranger."

Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA

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