Lily Collins and Marti Noxon discuss eating disorders, bond over Netflix’s ‘To the Bone’
by Rob Lowman
Lily Collins and Marti Noxon stand side by side, extending their left arms together to display the tattoos on the inside of their wrists.
“I think you got me from the moment we met,” Collins says to Noxon. “We even have ‘LJ’ tattoos in the same place.”
They do, though Collins’ ‘LJ’ stands for her name Lily Jane, and Noxon’s tattoo refers to her kids, Lane and Jed.
While Noxon explains the tattoos are a coincidence — “We didn’t get them together” — the ink is indicative of a strange connection shared between the actress and the writer-director.
So perhaps it was fate that Collins would star in “To the Bone,” the first feature film directed by Noxon, known for her television work on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “UnREAL” and “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.”
In the dramedy, Collins plays a young woman named Ellen suffering from anorexia and bulimia. Coincidentally, “LJ” can mean lifelong journey. It’s a tattoo some people who have had eating disorders, or EDs, get to indicate the ongoing process of recovery.
Both Noxon and Collins have suffered from EDs. The “To the Bone” character is loosely based on Noxon’s own struggles with the diseases some 30 years ago.
In her own recently published book, “Unfiltered,” Collins, 28, discusses her own battle with EDs. The actress had just finished writing the chapter about it shortly before receiving the script for “To the Bone.”
“It was a bizarre way of the world saying this is something you need to talk about more,” says Collins, “and become part of the conversation with the public more than just talking about your own journey.”
Though her own struggles with the disease occurred about a decade ago, Collins now sees working with Noxon on the film as part of her ongoing recovery.
To play Ellen, she had to lose weight — a scary proposition akin to having a recovering alcoholic take up drinking again.
In the film, there are scenes where Collins’ Ellen looks gaunt and unhealthy when she takes off her shirt. While some of it can be attributed to weight loss, some of it was thanks to makeup, prosthetic work and CGI.
“It was a choice that I made as an actor to get myself into the character,” she says, “but I also knew I was going to be helped.”
Beforehand and during the shooting, Collins was monitored by a nutritionist and was prompted to eat healthy. She also met with the head of a Los Angeles clinic on eating disorders, and she and Noxon attended an Eating Disorders Anonymous meeting.
“It was very therapeutic to do the movie and be surrounded by facts and medical assistance,” she says. “When I was going through it, I never looked up the facts or the resources.”
What Noxon and Collins both stress is that there is no one cause for EDs nor a single path to recovery.
The spine of “To the Bone,” which will be in theaters and Netflix on Friday, is based her own struggle, says Noxon. While it includes autobiographical elements like a bottle-feeding scene in a yurt and an out-of-body experience, the writer-director has updated the story and added new wrinkles.
In the film, the 20-year-old anorexic Ellen has gone through her teen years in and out of various recovery programs without success. For every calorie she ingests, she runs the weight off or does a flurry of sit-ups — her back is black and blue.
In a last-ditch effort, her dysfunctional family sends her to a group treatment center led by an unorthodox doctor (Keanu Reeves).
Noxon, 52, says the genesis of the story began while working on the adaptation of a novel that dealt with childhood memories. She began thinking of her own — in high school she was extremely anorexic — but years later many details had grown fuzzy.
So she began talking to her parents and her physician at the time, Dr. Richard MacKenzie, who is affiliated with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“He’s 80, and he can still look right through me and right into my soul,” says Noxon about MacKenzie, who is the basis for Reeves’ character.
Although Noxon thought she had a story to tell on a subject that hadn’t been addressed much, she knew that Hollywood was resistant to such movies.
The breakthrough, she says, came when she saw “The Fault in Our Stars.” “I realized that this was a burgeoning new aspect to the young-adult genre because it dealt with issues.”
One thing Noxon didn’t want the film to be was “relentlessly dark.”
“I still wanted to make jokes. I wanted to do what I do, which is always bring a little bit of lightness to the dark,” she says. “That’s something that I learned on ‘Buffy.’ ”
Like Noxon, Ellen is acerbic and funny. At the treatment house, she builds a relationship with Luke (Alex Sharp), the facility’s lone male resident, a dancer whose career was cut short by a knee injury. The two enjoy verbal repartee, but the film avoids going for a clichéd romance.
Ellen doesn’t see much of a future, Noxon says at that point in her own story she wasn’t sure she “wanted to be here in this life.”
Instead of dealing with weight issues, MacKenzie’s treatment focused on Noxon’s emotional trauma, and eventually, she had a breakthrough.
“It was like a pilot light going on, but it’s not like I got better right away,” she warns, “because it’s a long journey.”
Collins had a much different experience. There was no one moment that began to change her behavior. “My friends and family were very active in bringing it to my attention and being supportive in the process,” she says.
The actress has been in the public eye a lot these days. Collins can also be seen in Bong Joon Ho’s film “Okja,” which is streaming on Netflix. Later this month, she will be starring in the Amazon series “The Last Tycoon,” playing the glamorous daughter of a studio chief in the F. Scott Fitzgerald story of 1930s Hollywood.
Collins says she was glad that everybody who worked on “To the Bone,” which was shot in 23 days around Los Angeles, was so committed to the project. “No one even knew if it would ever be released or go to Sundance, but we all cared about the subject.”
The film turned out to be a hit at the festival, where Netflix bought it.
With “To the Bone” opening, Collins and Noxon are happy to further the conversation about EDs. While men also suffer from eating disorders, Noxon notes that women are constantly confronted with body-image issues, especially in an age when everyone is posting pictures online.
“I don’t know any women who don’t think about it. It’s ‘I’m having a good day or bad day.’ It’s never just a day,” says Noxon, who is adapting Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” as a miniseries for HBO starring Amy Adams.
Collins says from the moment she met Noxon she felt comfortable opening up about her own ED battle.
Conversely, she says she wanted to know everything about Noxon’s experiences to better inform her character — “like what was behind the humor so I didn’t get the tone wrong.”
“Lily plays a much cooler version of me than ever existed,” says Noxon as Collins laughs. “I always was tongue-tied.”
“So you just wrote the younger version of who you are now,” responds Collins, “because Ellen’s responses in this movie are so Marti Noxon.”
“Mmm,” says Noxon. “That’s interesting,”