“The chemistry between them is undeniable,” Margot Robbie said about her character Nellie and the sultry Lady Fay Zhu.
Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is an over-the-top epic about corruption and indulgence beginning in 1920s Hollywood. From there, it chronicles the growing industry as it transitions from silent to talking films – all told through the eyes of key players in Hollywood. This includes rising actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), silent movie king Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), wannabe movie producer Manny Torres (Diego Calva), and Gossip journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart). Each character is fictional but pulls from real-life Hollywood stars, especially Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), modeled after Anna May Wong and Louis Armstrong.
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Margot Robbie on Nellie’s Vulnerable Side
The film touches on how race and sexuality affected Hollywood stars in the industry and even includes a rather intimate moment between Lady Fay and Nellie. Shortly after the scene at the pool, Nellie hides in a bathroom (for context, you’ll have to see the film).
“I think she was first completely discombobulated by what she’s just experienced with Lady Fay,” Robbie told Gayety. “The chemistry between them is undeniable, and also for someone to take control sexually is just a new thing for Nellie in that moment. Let alone to do it in front of a group of people. It was like Lady Fay was one step ahead of her, and she’s normally one step ahead of people. So, I think she was totally discombobulated.”
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Nothing Kills a Mood Like a Rattlesnake Fight
“And then quickly she hears crew members talking sh*t about her; which incidentally, fun fact for the watchers, is Damien [Chazelle]’s voice. Our director was doing the offscreen lines, just saying. And I think at that point in her career, she knows that talkies aren’t going to work out for her, and she’s trying to cling on to what she had and knows that it’s slipping through her fingers.
“So, I think she channels all of those feelings and there’s a lot going on between being on a high from the kind of dance and near kiss with Lady Fay to being totally crushed by hearing people talk sh*t about her and knowing that it’s true. She takes all of that and tries to take it out on her dad. Because she’s a very healthier, well-adjusted young woman, she suggests a snake fight and drags everyone out to the desert to fight a rattlesnake … as you do. That’s how you should manage your feelings.”
Nellie is a firecracker character. Her first moments on screen show her demanding to enter a party on the terms that she “is a star.”
“You don’t become a star,” Nellie tells Manny in the film. “You’re either born a star or you ain’t. And I’m a star.”‘
Diego Calva Makes His Big Hollywood Debut
Another natural-born star is Calva, who steals the show despite this being his first Hollywood film. The 30-year-old began his career in Mexico City before landing a role in the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico. Then, Calva was hand-selected for this film by Chazelle himself. Evidently, the role means a lot to the actor.
“I found something very cool: I don’t have a face of a Mexican guy, actress, or actor successful in the ’20s. They were like Ramon Novarro and a couple of producers, but me as a Mexican, I don’t have a face to put in that scenario, and it was pretty cool.”
Calva also had a deep connection with his character, Manny, who was often going through similar feelings as he was while filming Babylon. “We were living literally sometimes the same things every day. It was wild.”
Yup, like walking onto a huge Hollywood set and on your first day being told to ride a horse.