In a sky full of glimmering stars, Margot Robbie is a supernova. An explosive force that simply cannot be stopped, the 32-year-old Aussie actor has left box-office records in tatters, barriers broken, and a lasting imprint on Hollywood itself. Perhaps it’s why she was drawn to Nellie LaRoy.
The ‘Wild Child’ character headlines Babylon, acclaimed director Damien Chazelle’s jaw-dropping new flick about the birth of modern film. Set in the 1920s at the height of pre-Great Depression excess, Babylon tells a sordid story of cinema’s first real Golden Age, but all that glitters…well, you know the rest. Nellie’s meteoric rise from New Jersey obscurity to LA ‘It Girl’ is set against a Hollywood backdrop struggling to come to terms with social class, race and the impending end of silent movies. Not that it appears to get her down. If ever there was a character who epitomised ‘here for a good time, not a long time’, it’s Nellie LaRoy.
“In a lot of ways she was based on Clara Bow, but she was also based on a lot of other actresses at the time,” Robbie tells us. “Clara Bow was a hugely famous silent film star and she was the first ‘It Girl’. She was in this movie called ‘It’ that coined the term and she kind of kicked that whole movement off. Then there was a whole series of movies about ‘It Girls’, these party girls who would come in and dance, and kiss the wrong man and cause some trouble. These movies are so fun to watch, it’s like a glass of champagne. I love it, they’re just effervescent.”
Robbie’s performance as LaRoy, a talented artist cursed with the great misfortune of impeccable looks, is nothing short of spectacular. Her ability to slip beneath the layers of the sexually-charged siren to reveal a tragic and fragile beauty is, in essence, why she has become a star in her own right. After all, Robbie has made a name for herself as Hollywood’s favourite queen of chaos.
After shooting to stardom with her portrayal of Naomi Lapaglia in Martin Scorsese’s 2013 hit The Wolf of Wall Street, she took on the role of controversial figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya and went one step further with the decidedly unhinged anti-hero Harley Quinn in The Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. But while Nellie LaRoy isn’t the first Wild Child we’ve seen Robbie play, there’s something innately human about her role in Babylon.
“For me, I’ve peaked. I don’t know how it can get better than this, I really don’t.
“She was more exhausting than all of the other characters I’ve played that I thought were quite exhausting,” Robbie explains.”Harley (Quinn) is a pretty chaotic character, but Nellie just took things to a whole new level that I adored. She is my favourite character ever.”
While the similarities between Robbie and LaRoy aren’t explicitly obvious, the Aussie actor revealed that there were elements of her own story that weaved their way into the performance. In one scene that chronicles the introduction of sound to film, Nellie is struggling to keep her Jersey accent in check, something the Dalby native has also spent hours masking.
“I told Damien how when I was on Neighbours they got a dialect coach to come in to soften my Australian accent because it was so strong,” she jokes. “So I can totally relate to Nellie – everyone being like ‘Argh, your voice is awful’. I had the exact same thing happen and I couldn’t hear it at the time, I was like ‘What do you mean?’”
An expansive look at 1920s cinema, Chazelle’s Babylon tears across the screen at a ferocious pace. The opening house party scene, which includes a brass band, a dead girl, an elephant, and a proverbial chorus line of copulating guests, could very well go down as the best-choreographed piece of cinema craft ever put to screen and at the centre lies Manny Torres.
Diego Calva’s aspiring film-lover is the beating heart of Babylon, with his wide-eyed enthusiasm for the industry proving infectious, in more ways than one. Over the course of the film, we see Calva go from working hand to right-hand man for Brad Pitt‘s A-lister Jack Conrad, before taking on the reins of the studio he was once refused entry to.
In real life, Calva is undergoing a meteoric rise of his own. After a string of successful roles in his home country of Mexico, including a stellar performance in Narcos: Mexico as Arturo Bertrán Leyva, Babylon marks his first-ever performance in a Hollywood production, and he’s already receiving Oscar buzz. The 30-year-old scored a Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy nomination at the recent Golden Globes and looks certain to become one of Hollywood’s leading men. But despite his steep trajectory, Calva maintains the same boyish enthusiasm for the industry that his on-screen persona exudes.
“I’m just getting started,” he jokes. “I (was drawn to Manny’s) love for movies and all the hustle he is doing to just be part of this idea of ‘There’s something bigger than life’. I really relate with that and also the idea of a Mexcian being successful during the ‘20s. When I was doing research, I didn’t find a name, so that was pretty exciting too.”
With a stellar cast and a swathe of incredible performances across the board, Babylon is a genuine feast for the eyes and ears, but despite the A-list talent on display, the real star of the show is the industry itself. A contrasting blend of colourful characters and cold, calculated criminals, Hollywood’s first Golden Age really was the ‘Wild West’ and the task of capturing it in all its grotesque glory was not lost on Calva or Robbie.
“It’s like being part of a Damien Chazelle movie outside of a Damien Chazelle movie – The same kind of experience,” Calva explains. “It’s this moment when you can finally see the audience feeling the ‘movie magic’. This idea that all of us are working to get perfection and perfection sometimes needs that ‘magic touch’ – the unexpected. In this movie, you can actually feel it. You can actually be there in a movie set, working with all of us making another movie about a movie about a movie.”
“It was a spectacle,” Robbie says. “Exactly how you feel watching that movie, it was that feeling when you’re on-set – ‘This is so insane’. The scale of it was unbelievable. There’s something so bizarre about watching a film crew film a film crew film a film, but being there for it was amazing. It was so surreal.”
On the outside, Babylon feels like a homage to Hollywood excess – a mesmerising love letter to a bygone era, but beneath the surface, the stories feel strangely contemporary. From the up-and-coming starlet struggling to be taken seriously to the ageing leading man who no longer pulls the crowd he once did, Chazelle’s new film captures a world that has come so far and yet remains trapped in its old ways.
It is an intoxicating fever dream that feels equal parts uplifting and dirty, and perhaps that’s the point. For all the industry’s glitz and glamour, Babylon reminds us that Hollywood’s true gems once started out as diamonds in the rough. And as we slowly come to realise over the course of the film, there is not always enough polish to keep them shining forever.
Paramount Pictures’ Babylon was written and directed by Damien Chazelle and stars Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Jovan Adepo and Flea. It debuted in cinemas on January 17. You can watch the official trailer below.