How Lily Collins perfected the expat experience in Emily in Paris

If you’ve ever studied abroad or simply wanted to, Sex and the City creator Darren Star’s new series Emily in Paris is required viewing.

Some weeks into my study abroad programme in Paris, where I spent one year pretending my French undergrad degree would be worth it, my toilet broke.

I was accepted into the prestigious Sorbonne, which Google Images told me would look like a centuries old building where learned thinkers had tread the boards. Nobody explained to me that it was actually Sorbonne III, and I’d be studying in a dilapidated 80s building that smelled of stale croissant and vending machine espresso.

Chez moi in the 16th arrondissement, I had been flushing the toilet paper down instead of putting it into the garbage can placed beside it. The toilet rejected my grossly incorrect American assumption by flooding my apartment, which I later discovered I was renting from a stocky blond scam artist who lived full-time in Texas. My roommate called our landlord and explained that we had a grand problème. After a proper French scolding for not knowing the customs of depositing your turds, she told us she would handle it. Despite it being an emergency, it took a week for the plumber to come and fix it. So for a week, I had to wake up and trod down the rue to McDonald’s to use their public toilets, which was equal parts humiliating and a warm French welcome.

A similar injustice happens to Emily Cooper in the aptly titled Netflix series Emily in Paris. Cooper has moved from Chicago to Paris for her marketing job. Her shower breaks mid-wash, and she is forced to negotiate with her live-in superintendent in a bathrobe and towel. The plumber arrives and can’t fix it, so she is forced to use the shower of her hot downstairs neighbour, Gabrielle. Not exactly my experience, but this is straight out of the mind of Sex and the City creator Darren Star.

To underscore that this probably happens to everyone who relocates to Paris, Lily Collins, who plays Emily in the series, was punished with bad plumbing while filming many of these genuinely fun-to-watch scenes. As she was staying in an apartment during production, her boiler broke.

I had no hot water for two weeks, and it wasn’t possible to fix it,” Collins tells me over Zoom. I did say at one point to Darren, jokingly but also with a little bit of truth, Are you doing this to me so that I have more empathy for Emily? Because at this point, I already have enough empathy, I just want my hot water back.’”

Much of the plot of Emily in Paris – which is an addictive hybrid of The Devil Wears Prada and Gossip Girl – was based on Star’s experience of studying abroad. As Emily, Collins lives out our collective dream-turned-nightmare-en-français that might just be the best (and most weirdly relatable) thing I’ve watched this year.

I think it’s funny that you were on an episode of The Hills… The one where Lauren Conrad finally does go to Paris.

Oh my God, right? That’s pretty funny. I think I was on two episodes, I get it kind of mixed up. One was when I was in Paris for the debutante ball [as a debutante], and that was just a whole crazy experience anyway. LC went with Whitney, I believe, to Paris when she was working for Teen Vogue. They were covering it, and I was weirdly on the episode, but not as me, I was just in it. I was in another episode during LA fashion week when I was modelling for a fashion brand they were working at. But that’s really funny, I forgot… I haven’t thought about that in so long.

I know you also filmed some scenes, en gown, for Emily in Paris at the Opéra Garnier, which was shut down specifically for filming. Was it at all similar to your deb ball experience on The Hills?

I was always pinching myself because it’s such a surreal opportunity to get to film a show like this in Paris, and have Patricia Field do your costumes. There were a few moments when I felt like Emily’s enthusiasm and kind of wide-eyedness mirrored mine. The Paris Opera House was one of them, because I’d been as a kid, I’d seen the ballet and just remembered it being so opulent and gorgeous. I never thought that I’d get free rein, running around in hotel slippers in between takes, wearing this gown with a gorgeous headpiece. It was an ode to Audrey [Hepburn], and I was spinning, taking photos, my fiancé [Charlie McDowell] was there, we were running around being like, What is this?!”

I’ve been to Paris, but I’ve never been to this Paris, this feeling of Paris, to have that access. And it’s Darren! We were the first American show to shoot entirely in Paris. Any city that Darren shoots in becomes a character, whether it’s New York or Paris. The romance and the beauty of the city really shines through aesthetically and also through the experiences the characters go through.

Emily seems to take everything in her stride, and you see her grow and be more confident. I was wondering, both personally and as Emily, how do you give less of a fuck?

One of the things I love about Emily is that she’s unapologetically herself. She’s bright, bold, a little bit obvious. She admits that, yeah, maybe I am a basic bitch. And there are elements to Emily that are very upfront. I love that she can take negative feedback and turn it into something that’s beneficial.

I can kind of relate to this part of Emily – when I was told no so many times growing up, whether it was auditions or talk show ideas that I was pitching at 16, I took no” as, No, not right now.” Not, No, this isn’t for you.” Sometimes that can be kind of annoying to other people… My intention is genuine, I really believe in what I wanna do and so I’m just gonna try and do it in different ways.

I would say growing up, I wanted things to be tied in a neat bow. There was this idea of perfection that I wanted to attain, I definitely think that there’s an element of Emily that likes things put together and neat, but she’s also on this journey, figuring out that life is not always like that. I’ve definitely figured out that life’s not like that.

Emily and Gabrielle, with whom she has a flirtationship on the DL.

Did you have any references, culturally speaking, for Emily?

Audrey [Hepburn] is someone who’s always present in my mind in a lot of ways, just her elegance and eloquence, the way that she captivated people and her energy was infectious. She could say so much through a look, through her eyes, as opposed to needing to vocalise everything. I really love that, and Emily is very much someone who is expressive. I’ve never played someone so expressive, and then I went on to do other jobs where it was like, minimal. So it was going from being super expressive and obvious to being super low key. There’s a little element of Emily that I saw in Alexis from Schitt’s Creek, just who she is, unapologetically so. You can’t help but love her and wanna watch her, and sometimes you go, Wait, did she just say that?”

I wanna talk about the fashion. You wear amazing gowns and dresses, but I love the Kangol bucket hat you wear.

That’s one of my favourite things. After we came back from Paris, I started seeing ads on my phone of photos of bucket hats, and I was like, Oh my God, the bucket hat is making a comeback.” I totally had the Kangol bucket hats growing up, it’s such a reference. Patricia is not afraid to make a reference and bring things back and combine, and again it’s a moment where Emily [says to her boss], Stop calling me bucket hat’, I like wearing bucket hats.” She’s in on it. She knows that she’s a little different sometimes but she doesn’t stop being herself, which I love.

Emily wearing a Kangol hat, which earns her the nickname "Bucket Hat" from her colleagues.

What about some of the other costumes or outfits, did you have any favourites?

Emily did get to wear a lot of Chanel, Louboutins. There were incredible designers that I had the pleasure of wearing, but also Patricia is so great at mixing high street fashion, so there was some Zara in there. Sometimes she would take things off her own back and give them to me. There’s a scene where it’s raining and I’m wearing a floral dress and I’m going into the office with an umbrella, and I’m wearing a black cropped rain jacket. Patricia on the day was like, you know what, you just need a little black crop, just take this. When I arrived from Chicago, I had that backpack on – that’s Patricia’s backpack.

Was the show ever intended to comment on the ugly American” stereotype of the American that loves to travel, but doesn’t wanna learn the language?

Darren can speak more to that kind of stuff, but when we’ve spoken in interviews together, the characters and the experiences have very much come from his experiences. He studied abroad too and has travelled a lot, did the backpacking situation. He has friends similar to the ones he’s written about before in other shows, so he really draws from experiences that he’s had or heard about. The writer’s room and Darren wrote a lot of the episodes while in Paris, and so he leaned heavily on experiences there and having conversations with Parisians and his friends, experiences I had and other people had in the past. He wanted to talk about and show the culture clash, but not have it be a stereotypical thing that we’ve always seen. We also get ten episodes as opposed to two episodes of a show or a 90-minute film, so it allows more nuanced experiences to live and breathe.

Will there be a second season?

I hope so! We just have to wait and see what people think, what Netflix says. I would love nothing more than to go back!

Emily in Paris is streaming on Netflix now.

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