Lily Collins interview: I'm not doing this for fame

Growing up the daughter of a pop star, the actor was always going to be in the spotlight. Here she talks about her rapid Hollywood rise – and why she'd never have been happy as a socialite

Lily Collins, actor and daughter of Genesis frontman Phil, settles among the dark woods and sinking velvets of an annoyingly hip hotel in Paris and sighs, then apologises immediately. She has flown here straight from the set of her next film – Writers, in which she stars alongside Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly – and there was no direct flight from North Carolina. Still, if the 23-year-old is jetlagged she doesn't look it. In the flesh she's all porcelain skin, raven hair and red lips – an excellent embodiment of Snow White if ever you saw one. Which is just as well, because Mirror Mirror, the film whose premiere she is attending, sees her play a ballsy, sword-wielding version of the alabaster heroine. It's her first major lead, her arrival role, opposite Julia Roberts's deliciously narcissistic evil Queen. She secured the part, a year ago to the day we meet, after a second audition – she was unhappy with the first and went back to beg for another try.

That blip aside, her ascent through Hollywood seems to have been extraordinarily smooth and speedy. There's been no scratching out her star in dodgy teen horror flicks, like so many fledgling actresses. Just three years ago she debuted as Sandra Bullock's daughter in the Oscar-nominated Blind Side and followed it with a hefty action thriller, Abduction, with Twilight heartthrob Taylor Lautner. Later this year will come The English Teacher, an indie comedy in which she plays alongside Julianne Moore.

Collins, who seems to trade on being wholesome and sweet, doesn't have an explanation for how she got here. "I don't know," she says. "I look at what I've done and I go: 'What? Really?' It still feels so abnormal not to have had to do those particular sorts of projects [teen flicks] to get here."

There has been the small matter of her famous dad – more of a help than a hindrance, she admits. But there's no denying she has a personal charm: there's a lot of Oh-My-Gosh- ing, and the day we meet she woos the Parisian crowd with a short speech in French she composed herself. She looks out, wide-eyed, from behind ill-fitting false eyelashes. "But the thing is, I was never looking at a strategic way of gaining fame. That's not why I'm doing this."

The third of Collins Sr's five children by three ex-wives, Collins was just shy of six when she moved to Los Angeles with her mother, Jill Tavelman, a native Californian. But she remembers summers spent water-skiing on Lake Geneva with her father and Christmases at the West Sussex farmhouse where she started life. "It's the best place to be for the holidays – all cold and wintry," she says now. "Love the food, love the tea. I still feel very European."

Her parents' divorce was messy (spawning the legend, since denied, that it was conducted by fax), but she insists the itinerant nature of her childhood has left her unscarred. "I've only ever known growing up across different countries – to me it's just fun."

What is it like to have Phil Collins for a father? Did he rock her to sleep with renditions of "Easy Lover"? Did Sting come around to babysit? "I'm told more things than I actually remember, and now I'm running into these certain people who've seen me on billboards, and they come up to me and go: 'Gosh, it's so funny – I remember when you were on tour with your dad and I held you.'" Like who? "Like Elton and people from that era."

The acting dream began when she was two and appeared in the generally forgotten British sitcom Growing Pains – although she is keen to point out: "I wasn't thrown into it or anything. I think it was through some connections with my grandmother or something like that."

In her teens she landed her own column, LA Confidential, in the now defunct British title Elle Girl, after pitching ideas to magazine editors. She began to fashion a celebrity-offspring role for herself, not unlike that of Nicole Richie or Paris Hilton; at 18 she even starred in an episode of "structured reality" show The Hills, coming out at a debutante ball in LA.

Collins grew tired of being a socialite, though, and went off to USC to study broadcast journalism, although she dropped out in her second year when the bigger roles came along. You get the impression that a lesson has been learned about being judged on her own merit. "At a party recently I was introduced to Meryl Streep," she says by way of explanation, "and it took me a second to get my head around it. You know, that I'm meeting these people now. I'm doing it." Without her dad? "Yeah. It's just me in those rooms. And I'm like: 'How do I fit in here?'" She's now so committed an actress that she has set up a Twitter account for the character Clary Fary, whom she will play in the first film adaptation of bestselling teen sci-fi series The Mortal Instruments.

Collins certainly isn't interested in sharing details of her life, Paris Hilton-style. Firm but gentle, she bats away questions with confidence, putting paid to the theory that a person's fame is in inverse proportion to how much they're willing to share in interviews. She won't be pushed on her father's parenting skills, which have been the subject of much tabloid fodder, saying only: "I know the truth and I know how it was for me, and I know how much I love my family – and that's all that really matters."

She is, she says, "super-close" to her half-siblings, two of whom live in Canada and two in Geneva. "The last time we were all together was my dad's 60th birthday last year. We were in London and we did all the family tours: the London Eye, the museums…"

When it comes to dating, she's a completely closed book. In fact we may well die before we get to the bottom of whether she has slept with Zac Efron, as has been reported. It's a smart strategy, one also followed by her peers Jennifer Lawrence (of The Hunger Games) and Twilight's Kristen Stewart, who still refuses to comment on dating Robert Pattinson. Has Collins Sr perhaps taught her something? She concurs. "I don't see this as a game," she says mildly. "I've grown up knowing that you put as much of your private life out there as you feel comfortable with."

The biggest lesson of her upbringing has been, however, to take people as they are – a useful skill as she climbs the Hollywood ladder. "I don't get that feeling of panic or of being starstruck. I grew up acknowledging these people as human beings who have a talent that is public. They're not some other species." She gives her winsome-princess smile. "But it doesn't mean that I get any less excited."

Mirror Mirror is out now in cinemas nationwide

Katie Mulloy

The GuardianTramp

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