The first time I saw my best friend after a year apart in 2002, I could barely see her at all.
We were attached at the hip throughout high school, bonding over boy obsessions and SAT prep. But after we’d both spent our first college semesters apart (her in New York, me in Pennsylvania), we reunited and I didn’t recognize her anymore. She was half her size. Her hair was thinner. She had permanent goosebumps. She had a “cold” that didn’t go away for weeks. And she had a strange new way of ordering chicken in restaurants: no skin, no oil, no sides.
While watching To the Bone, an upcoming Netflix film directed by Marti Noxon and starring Lily Collins (which premiered at Sundance earlier this year and sold to the streaming network for a massive $8 million), I immediately saw my friend in the lead character. Collins plays Ellen, a young artist reluctantly going through the motions of treatment for her severe anorexia. Her character’s baggy clothes, defiant nihilism, and habit of moving food around on a plate — it was all so familiar.
What my best friend, Collins, and Noxon all have in common is a history of anorexia. Thankfully, all three have recovered, but that doesn’t mean making the film was easy for everyone involved. Below, my conversation with Collins and Noxon, including how Collins handled having to lose weight in order to play this part and the matching tattoos that sealed the bond between director and star.
Were you nervous going into this project, knowing you’d be immersing yourself back into an illness you’d fought hard to recover from?
Lily Collins: “When I got the script, it wasn’t something that I was talking about yet. It was this fear being placed right in front of me, and doing the film meant that I would have to face it head-on. At first it was definitely a scary process. It was something that I thought is risky, because there’s a fine line between facing something head-on and succeeding, or falling back into it. But I knew that, this time, I would be held accountable for it. I would be [losing weight] under the supervision of a nutritionist and surrounded by all these amazing women on set. So, I knew that I would be in a safe environment to explore this.
“I had just written the chapter in my book [Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me] about my history with eating disorders the week before I received the script for this movie. So it was like the universe literally throwing it in my face saying, this is something you need to address either for yourself or for other young people going through it out there.”
Marti Noxon: “To be perfectly candid I was struggling. My eating disorder morphed into an issue with alcohol and I got sober when I was 24, and then guess what? I thought I got better, and gave [drinking] another run right after I turned 50. I was aware that I needed to stop and I’d gone back into therapy for it, but I was still really struggling with addiction when I was writing the script. I was really working hard to ask myself why I would pick something up again that had done me harm in the past. I started to draw the parallels to when I was using food to try to control my life and I was able to understand that, even though [anorexia and substance abuse] work really differently, the goal was the same, which was to numb my feelings. To not feel whatever it was that I was afraid of… Control is, what’s underneath the desire to control it, it’s a desire to stave off something that frightens you or something you feel powerless over and those feelings are just so uncomfortable. But when we started to film, I was sober again and I started to need to turn to the other female producers quite frequently and say, ‘I’m going to need you to tell me that I don’t need to lose weight.’
“I was around all these actresses who were dieting under supervision, all these people who were having the experience of light headedness and elation and then despair and all those high emotions. I was like, ‘Oh, I need to lose 15 pounds.’ [Laughs]”
Lily, how did you prepare for the role?
LC: “We went to an Anorexic Anonymous group beforehand for prep, and I met with the head of the L.A. Clinic for Eating Disorders. I could actually openly talk about my history for the first time with people, and receive feedback from them, and get the sense of not being alone, which was the whole point of writing my book: to make people understand that they’re not alone or to at least have them feel a little more comforted in knowing that everyone goes through the same struggles. So, for me to be able to talk openly about my history with them for the first time was something that was so healing for me in a way that I wouldn’t have expected. I always assumed the second that I admitted these things, people would judge me more. In fact, it was just a freeing experience of letting go and then not having these restrictions and feeling like I was in a box in my own head. I was also shedding myself of the title, girl with a disorder. I was able to get rid of that and work through it as the character and also as myself.”
And I imagine you had to prepare physically, which must have been somewhat traumatic.
LC: I was being held accountable by multiple people, having a nutritionist give me a schedule with supplements, a lot of supplements that would basically give my body what I wasn’t going to be getting from certain foods. My energy levels weren’t at a point at all where I forgot lines. I was never late, I was never overly tired. I was very on, but she wanted to make sure that my body was still getting the sustenance it needed to get through the experience because I was hired as an actor. I wasn’t hired for my image. This was something I had to remind myself of, and they had never given me a goal weight, so it wasn’t like I was working towards a number.
“I just knew, having had the disorder, I wanted to do Ellen justice by knowing what it was to feel that like recluse-ness and not allowing yourself things. So I worked out, but it started to get to the point where I couldn’t necessarily exercise because of the energy, and I wanted to save all of my energy for the project, and I didn’t want to completely drive myself into the ground. It wasn’t worth it. I didn’t crash diet. We really ate clean, no sauces, oils, it was just very clean eating but in no way crash dieting. That would not have done good for my body and I wanted to treat this as specifically and as healthily as possible.”
Is there any scene that stands out to you as having been particularly difficult to film, something you struggled to get through?
LC: “One hundred percent, yeah. It was written as one that I was nervous about but not at all expecting to feel as affected as I was. It’s the scene in the bathroom when I have to take off my clothes and stand on the scale, and my stepmom takes a picture of me. When we did the scene, I didn’t assume that she would actually use the camera on her iPhone and take a photo of me in the moment. She turned the camera around and showed me and said, ‘This is what you look like. Do you think this is beautiful?’ I didn’t expect there to be a photo of me on her phone, and what I saw on the camera was so shocking to me.
“It’s very rare when you’re in the disorder that you can actually see what other people see. You have a distorted view of yourself and you get so sucked into it that you don’t see yourself in that way, and I was so shocked by her showing me. I was really living in that moment, the question of, do you think this is beautiful. Like, do you see yourself? I really saw it and it was so disturbing. It was a moment that I think really resonated a lot, not just as Ellen, but really as myself because I was actually seeing myself. It was a really powerful moment that I was shocked by.”
Marti, what do you think someone should do when they have a loved one suffering from something like this?
MN: “One of the reasons we’re partnering with Project HEAL is that so many people have a messed-up relationship with food. Especially women. It’s almost like we’re all on a spectrum with the day-to-day obsession with weight and whether you’re good enough. When you start to see someone really falling into obsession and self-destruction, the number one thing to do is figure out what the resources are for them. It’s a little bit like dealing with a person who’s suffering from any addiction; they have to want to get help. You really can’t force it. You can say to them, ‘Only you know what’s going on inside your head but you seem really unhappy and I’m concerned. Here are some resources, and if you ever want to talk about this I’m really available.'”
How did you know that Lily would be perfect for the role? Did you know about her background going into casting, or was it a coincidence that she actually had experience with it?
MN: “We had the strangest experience which was that we sat down, started that superficial bonding, and she has a tattoo on her left wrist and the initials on it are LJ. And I have a tattoo on my left wrist and the initials on it are LJ.”
MN: “I think hers are for Lily Jane, which is a family name, and mine are for my children Lane and Jed. But I had her initials on my body [laughs] and then she started saying, ‘I knew from reading this that whoever wrote it had been through it,’ and I was like, bingo. So we had this incredible bond from the very first time we sat down.”
Project HEAL is the largest nonprofit in the U.S. delivering prevention, treatment financing, and recovery support for people suffering from eating disorders. The founders of Project HEAL, Liana Rosenman and Kristina Saffran, met while undergoing treatment for anorexia nervosa when they were just 15 years old, helped each other to reach full recovery, and then wanted to help others achieve it, as well. Since its founding in 2008, Project HEAL has provided over 72 life-saving treatment scholarships, opened over 40 chapters across the United States, Canada, England, and Australia, and developed partnerships with 30 recognized eating disorder treatment centers across the country.