In their Actors on Actors conversation Margot Robbie (‘Babylon’) and Carey Mulligan (‘She Said’) recount having worked with costar like Leonardo di Caprio and Ryan Gosling and major directors like Greta Gerwig and Emerald Fennell.
Variety Actors on Actors presented by Amazon Studios.
Margot Robbie dug into some of the biggest moments of her career in a rare onstage appearance as the latest subject of BAFTA’s popular A Life In Pictures series Tuesday.
The session was lengthy and wide-ranging, but off the bat, Robbie was asked about her experience shooting her breakout Hollywood role in Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street and she told the audience that she also partly served as a writer on the Oscar-nominated flick.
Robbie said the fraught scene near the middle of the film where her character Naomi Lapaglia chases down an intoxicated Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) only for him to crash a car with their daughter inside was not originally in the script.
“What happened previously in the script was that I walked into his office and said I want a divorce. And that was it,” Robbie said.
Robbie said the night before shooting the scene, she, Scorsese, and DiCaprio went over the script and felt that they were missing a moment that would tie the sequence together, so they returned to Belfort’s biography for inspiration.
“We started riffing, and we locked ourselves in a room until like three in the morning and came up with all of that. And the sex scene that comes before that,” she said. “Our brilliant 1st AD Adam Somner was probably tearing his hair out because out of nowhere we were like, so, we’re gonna need to break the garage door of someone’s house, break a car window, and destroy a couch.”
When asked whether she found it intimidating as a then-22-year-old actor to offer notes on a Scorsese script, Robbie said the Mean Streets director had created an environment where experimentation was encouraged.
“We were a couple of months into the shoot at that point. The tone had been set that it was a bit of a free for all,” she said. “It was like the crazier you are, the more Marty will like it. And the more screen time you’re going to get.”
Later Robbie said Scorsese only gave her one piece of direction throughout the entire six-month shoot. The rest of the time, she said, was spent chatting with the director and sharing stories.
“We spoke all the time. I’d sit at video village, and he would tell stories about the Mafia and old film stars, but he didn’t actually give direction,” she said.
However, Robbie said one thing Scorsese told her during the shoot has stuck with her ever since, and it surprisingly had very little to do with acting.
“We were shooting the shot where I’m running up the stairs, and he turns to me and goes, ‘Every great movie has a stair shot.’ I’ve told so many directors since that Martin Scorsese says every great movie has a stairwell shot, so get the stairs in there,” she said.
Elsewhere during the session, Robbie spoke about her shift into producing films. Her first producing credit was 2017’s I, Tonya, a film that she told the audience also gave her the confidence to write a letter to Quentin Tarantino in hopes of finding a project to collaborate on.
“I, Tonya was the first time I watched a movie and thought I’m a good actor. And I thought, ‘Okay, I’m ready to reach out to my idols.’ And that’s when I wrote the letter to Quentin,” she said.
Robbie, of course, went on to star in Tarantino’s 2019 flick Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. While discussing the film, Robbie pushed back against criticism the film garnered upon its release for the limited screen time given to her portrayal of Sharon Tate.
“It didn’t bother me. I watched it and thought we got across what we wanted to get across,” she said.
Robbie next returns to the world of golden age Hollywood in Damien Chazelle’s long-awaited Hollywood epic Babylon, and the audience at BAFTA was given a short preview of Robbie’s performance in the film.
Babylon is billed as an original epic set in 1920s Los Angeles as Tinseltown makes the transition from silent films to talkies. The scene projected at BAFTA features Robbie as an actress performing a sequence on a raucous set alongside Chazelle’s wife, Olivia Hamilton, who has a brief on-screen role.
Discussing working with Chazelle, Robbie said: “He’s brilliant. For someone as young as him to have the breadth of knowledge he has and to be such an insanely good director is just really exciting. I loved every single day on that set.”
Before wrapping up the session, Robbie was asked about the much-talked-about Barbie film she is producing and starring in alongside Ryan Gosling. Greta Gerwig is directing from a screenplay she wrote with Noah Baumbach.
“I didn’t know it would have quite the hype it seems to have already,” Robbie said of the film. “I remember when we were trying to set this up, I kept saying to these boards of people that this is the most recognizable word next to coca cola. Everyone knows Barbie. This will hit, so give us more money for our budget.”
Ending the discussion, Robbie, who is the youngest subject of BAFTA’s A Life In Pictures series, said the one director she still wants to work with is Licorice Pizza auteur Paul Thomas Anderson.
“PTA, I really love Paul Thomas Anderson,” she said.
While becoming the youngest-ever recipient of the “BAFTA: A Life in Pictures” tribute, The Babylon star revealed that she wasn’t fully confident in her skills as an actress until she played Tonya Harding.
It took Margot Robbie a while to recognize her own star power. The Babylon star made history on Tuesday when she became the youngest actor to ever be given the special “BAFTA: A Life in Pictures” tribute. Usually reserved for filmmakers with decades-long careers, “BAFTA: A Life in Pictures” recognized Robbie for her immense contributions to film in a relatively short time, spanning back to her breakthrough year in 2013 when she first burst onto the scene, starring in The Wolf of Wall Street and About Time and highlighting her work as a producer as well via her production company LuckyChap Productions.
At the ceremony held at BAFTAs headquarters in London, Robbie said that she didn’t feel confident in her work as an actress until 2017’s I, Tonya, where she played vengeful Olympic figure skating hopeful Tonya Harding and earned her first Oscar nomination. “I, Tonya was the first time I watched a movie and went, ‘OK, I’m a good actor’,” she said. It was that confidence that led her to reach out to her idol Quentin Tarantino, she told the audience, noting that working with the Pulp Fiction director was “a bucket list thing for me.” Her moxie was rewarded and ultimately led to Robbie starring in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as Sharon Tate.
While some people criticized Tarantino’s film for Robbie’s lack of screen time and lines, Robbie said it “did not bother” and that she “watched it and thought we got across what we wanted to get across.” And like her Once Upon a Time in Hollywood character, Robbie watched the film in a movie theater.
“I just went there and watched it on a random Tuesday afternoon and sat in pretty much the same seat,” she said. “I had pretty much the same experience [as Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood], even down to the fact that the person I bought the ticket off was like, ‘but you’re in the movie,’ and I was like, ‘I know’.”
“The highs are really high and the lows are really, really low.”
Margot Robbie wants to take me to New York. We’re on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles, and she’s giving me a walking tour of some places they shot Babylon, her upcoming movie about the vertiginous swirl that was Hollywood in the late 1920s. We’re about to enter the New York back lot—faux neighborhoods used as stand-ins for various cities—when a security guard stops us with an “Excuse me, where are you heading?”
We try saying “that way” and walk like we own the place. The guard isn’t buying it. He asks what production we’re with. This is where I expect my tour guide to say, “I’m Margot Robbie.” Instead, she mumbles something about being with Babylon and “doing some post.” Then her voice trails off. The security guard clearly doesn’t recognize that standing in front of him is the Australian actor who brought Harley Quinn to life and was nominated for an Oscar for playing Tonya Harding. He tells us we have to get off the set because somebody’s shooting. Robbie politely agrees. She laughs as we round the corner. “I should have a better cover story,” she says. “You’d think I’d be better at that.”
“Margot is completely grounded and instantly commanding,” says Martin Scorsese. “She enters the frame and you pay attention to her.”
I actually have a hard time believing that Robbie runs up against hard nos very often. Not because of her looks—she’s stunning, yes, that song’s been sung ad nauseam—but because of the stories I’ve heard about her tenacity. Her first big job, on the Australian soap opera Neighbours, was supposed to be a guest stint, but she made such an impression that they kept her for three years. Robbie got her breakout role in The Wolf of Wall Street in part because she had the chutzpah to slap Leonardo DiCaprio during the audition. And she wrote an unsolicited letter to Quentin Tarantino saying she hoped to work with him one day, eventually finding herself on the set of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.
Everyone I speak to about Robbie emphasizes her work ethic. “Her superpower and the thing that makes her a once-in-a-generation talent is that she can do everything,” says Christina Hodson, a good friend and the writer of the 2020 Suicide Squad spin-off Birds of Prey. “If you watch Margot learn a new skill, it’s pretty terrifying. When we did stunts for Birds of Prey, the stunt teams would show something to her once. She tries it once, and by the second time, she’s better than them.” Robbie’s I, Tonya costar Allison Janney has said she reminds her of Katharine Hepburn, who put together The Philadelphia Story herself when she felt she wasn’t getting the roles she deserved. Martin Scorsese says she reminds him of two legends, Carole Lombard and Joan Crawford: “Like Lombard, she’s vivacious, strikingly beautiful, and she has a great sense of humor, about herself most of all. Like Crawford, she’s completely grounded and instantly commanding—she enters the frame and you pay attention to her.”
It’s fitting, then, that Robbie plays a fictional Hollywood icon on the rise in Babylon, Paramount’s epic comedy-drama led by Robbie, Brad Pitt, and newcomer Diego Calva. The movie, which hits theaters on December 23, is set during the industry’s wildest time, when the money was flowing, the rules were few, and the possibilities of fame and success felt endless. From the hour or so I’ve seen, it aspires to be a kaleidoscopic look at the movie business just as talkies were about to upend the industry forever. Babylon aims to capture the decadence and depravity of the era, along with the madness and—not to sound like Nicole Kidman in that AMC ad—the magic of filmmaking. “What you see onscreen is the chaos of making a movie and how fucked it is, but also how it’s just the greatest thing ever,” Robbie says of Babylon. “And, literally, filming it was the exact same thing. Shit was so unhinged and so fun and amazing and just absurd. It was definitely the best experience of my life.”
Robbie may be sitting with me because she has a movie to promote, but for the record I believe her. Babylon’s Nellie LaRoy is arguably the closest character she’s ever played to herself. Nellie is an outsider in Hollywood, full of spice and vigor and an untamable energy. She stumbles into her first role with some luck but delivers a performance so singular that it sets her on a path to stardom. “Margot’s able to tap into this wildness and this bravado where you don’t know what’s going to come, and it keeps surprising you,” says Damien Chazelle, who directed Babylon.“Usually when you think of actors with that kind of raw energy, it’s an unschooled energy. With Margot, that’s not the case at all.” She’s a tornado, in other words, with actual technique.
Like Nellie, Robbie, who’s 32, got Hollywood’s attention with a breakout performance, in The Wolf of Wall Street, and has built a career that suggests what a modern movie star can be. She’s a no-bullshit actor and producer who bounces between blockbusters and dark indies, even if she’s still a little uncomfortable with the spotlight. “The way I try to explain this job—and this world—to people is that the highs are really high,” she says, her hand hovering over her head, “and the lows are really, really low. And I guess if you’re lucky, it all balances out in the middle.”
Robbie is wearing an oversize black jacket on top of a black tank and wide-legged brown plaid pants, schlepping an armful of notebooks and books. That’s likely why, when three golf carts full of tourists drive by, nobody notices her. As we wander around the lot, we talk about how wild it is that a 100 years’ worth of stars have trod these same walkways, among them Clara Bow, the silent-era movie icon. Bow was the first It girl—a sex symbol and Paramount’s top box office draw for several years, starring in 46 silent movies, including 1927’s Wings, the first film to win best picture.
Bow is also the primary inspiration for Nellie LaRoy in Babylon. Robbie studied her movies and, in particular, her early years. “Whenever I’m trying to make a character, I have to figure out their childhood. I can justify anything they do later in life if I just figure that out,” she says. Once Robbie learned how traumatic Bow’s youth was—full of violence and poverty, as well as abuse by her mentally ill mother—she understood what drove Nellie to escape into the movies. “She had probably the most horrific childhood I can imagine for anyone,” she says. “You can justify anything Nellie does and says in this movie if you imagine that she experienced something like that as a kid.”
“I grew up in a very loud, busy house, and so I feel safe and comfortable when there is chaos around me. I think it’s why I love movie sets.”
Robbie works with a movement coach to find animals that inspire her characters’ physicality—hey, whatever works—and tells me that Nellie’s animals were an octopus and a honey badger, because she’s fluid and tactile but ruthless when necessary. Robbie opens a black notebook and reads some lines about octopuses: “They’re liquid, they’re playful. Highly intelligent, great survivors, transformative. Can morph into anything.” I can attest that the octopus makes its presence felt in a party scene early on, in which Nellie—clad in a skintight red dress and having just availed herself of some cocaine—moves through the crowd in a writhing, libidinous dance. The honey badger emerges later during fights. Robbie closes her notebook. “I wish I had my character map too,” she says, “because that would make you feel sure that I was a crazy person if you saw that.”
Nellie is sexy in an unforced way. At one point, Robbie is wearing overalls without a top, an outfit inspired by a look Bow once wore, and she’s got at least a couple scantily-clad moments in the film, though that doesn’t phase her: She showed just about all the skin she has in The Wolf of Wall Street. “I don’t really have a whole lot of modesty left,” Robbie says, laughing, then adds that she can separate herself from her characters. “I don’t feel embarrassed when it’s Nellie doing something. I’d feel embarrassed if it was me, but it’s all her.” That party scene required Robbie to dance eight hours straight on two successive days. Calva says when the scene wrapped, all the crew, dancers, and musicians applauded her: “She just gave everything she had. Everything’s raw. She’s a fearless actress.”
Adam McKay, who directed Robbie in a highly memorable scene in The Big Short in which she explains mortgage-backed bonds while enjoying a bubble bath, agrees that Robbie’s commitment is one of her greatest strengths, along with the ever-present life in her eyes. “With Margot, anything she’s going to do will be 24/7, head to toe,” he says. “But what’s so cool about it is that there’s a sense of humor behind it. There’s a playfulness that’s kind of irresistible.”
Before touring the lot, Robbie and I sit in the front row of the Paramount Theatre, the gorgeous 500-seat movie house just past the lot’s iconic fountain and ornate entrance gate. Her hair is now a few shades darker than the bright blond we’ve seen onscreen. Her books and notebooks sit piled on her lap. Robbie tells me about her childhood in Queensland, Australia, where her single mom raised her and her three siblings. “I grew up in a very loud, busy house, and so I feel safe and comfortable when there is just chaos around me,” she says. “I think it’s why I love movie sets.” She hates being alone, she adds, and often invites friends to hang out in her trailer between takes.
After Neighbours, Robbie moved to the States and played a flight attendant on the ABC series Pan Am. The show only lasted a season, but then she nabbed the role of blond bombshell Naomi Lapaglia in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Robbie wasn’t prepared to be an It girl herself. Fame was instantaneous and intense. Robbie wasn’t emotionally ready for the loss of privacy, and financial security was still a ways off. She tells me it was one of her lowest moments: “Something was happening in those early stages and it was all pretty awful, and I remember saying to my mom, ‘I don’t think I want to do this.’ And she just looked at me, completely straight-faced, and was like, ‘Darling, I think it’s too late not to.’ That’s when I realized the only way was forward.”
Robbie has a better handle on navigating fame. “I know how to go through airports, and now I know who’s trying to fuck me over in what ways,” she says. But there are still bumps. Before our interview, Robbie was on vacation in Argentina when a paparazzo reportedly attempted to take pictures of her and her friend Cara Delevingne as they tried to get into a taxi. Initial reports stated that Robbie had been injured. When I ask about the episode, she says she can’t say anything because of ongoing legal issues between other parties involved. I ask her if she was hurt and she says, “No, but I could have been.”
Internationally, she tells me, there aren’t rules protecting public figures like there are in LA. Robbie’s family in Australia has been swept up in dangerous situations while being pursued by photographers. “If my mom dies in a car accident because you wanted a photo of me going in the grocery shop, or you knock my nephew off a bike—for what? For a photo?” she says. “It’s dangerous but still weirdly nothing feels like it changes.”
This fall, Robbie’s mom called her after paparazzi purportedly captured Robbie crying outside of Delevingne’s LA home. Tabloids theorized that Robbie was worried about her friend and Suicide Squad costar, who’d recently been photographed looking upset. So her mom called. Was Margot all right? Was Cara? “I’m like, ‘First of all, yes and yes,’ ” says Robbie, exasperated. “ ‘And second of all, I’m not at Cara’s house—I’m outside an Airbnb that I was renting for five days! And I’m not crying!’ I had something in my eye. I’m trying to grab my face mask, trying to hold a coffee cup, and I couldn’t get a hair outta my eye.”
Before she was in this business, Robbie assumed that the press only printed the truth. Then tabloids started routinely announcing that she was pregnant when she wasn’t, and people called to congratulate her. Eventually, Robbie made peace with the fact that she can’t refute every false story, a Sisyphean task if there ever was one. “You want to correct it, but you just can’t. You have to, I don’t know, look the other way.” As for interviews, she admits that junkets stress her out. “They only want sound bites and I don’t resent them for it, I get it—they’ve got three minutes,” she says. “But it’s like tap dancing through a minefield because you’re so tired and you’ve done it for hours and hours, and to keep on guard all the time…. You can say it right a thousand times, but you say it wrong once, you’re fucked.”
When I meet with her, Robbie has just completed the press tour for David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, a quirky movie set in the ’30s in which she stars opposite Christian Bale and John David Washington. Russell is known for his, shall we say, intense nature on set. For starters, he made Amy Adams cry while making American Hustle and screamed profanely at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees in a video so horrific that it’s now the stuff of legend. I ask if Robbie had any trepidation about working with him, especially in this “new” Hollywood where, ideally, toxic behavior isn’t tolerated. “The process with David started years ago,” she says, adding that they created her character together. “One conversation led to another conversation led to another conversation that went on for years and years. So it wasn’t like a moment of like, ‘Would you sign up for a David O. Russell film?’ ” She appreciated the brainstorming, she says: “I’ve never been that involved just as an actor. I’ve never had a director want to hear my point of view that much in the development process.”
“I know how to go through airports, and now I know who’s trying to fuck me over in what ways.”
I ask if the set was ever uncomfortable. She shakes her head no. “I had a pretty amazing experience,” she says. “The other thing I wish people could grasp is that when you make a movie, you’re not making it just with one director and the actors. You’re making a movie with so many people.” She singles out the Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki and says that working with him was one of the “absolute highlights” of her career.
As we talk, Robbie is open and generous, often digressing into passionate stories about her on-set experiences or favorite movies or podcasts (she loves Team Deakins, a moviemaking podcast featuring cinematographer Roger Deakins and his wife, James Ellis Deakins). She’s more careful when we veer into her personal life. “It’s such an ironic thing,” she says. “When you’re an actor, the whole point is that you are showing people other people, so it’s such a counterintuitive thing to talk about yourself when you spend all this time hiding yourself.”
Still, she seems to be hiding nothing more than human decency (she paid off her mom’s mortgage with her first big paycheck) and a fondness for having a good time with friends (she takes girls’ surfing trips to Nicaragua and group vacations to Spain). A few more details that suggest we’re dealing with an actual 3D person here: Robbie can open a beer bottle with another beer bottle. She wants to learn to play the banjo. She threw a Love Island–themed birthday party. “She really loves Love Island, which is surprising just because she’s very classy,” says Hodson. “But yes, that is definitely a guilty pleasure that we waste many, many hours on.”
At one point, Robbie says she wishes she could have been an actor in the ’20s or even the ’70s. But she’s been able to play a variety of roles—putting boils on her face to play Queen Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots, wearing ice skates and a padded bodysuit for Tonya Harding, and employing garish face paint and a baseball bat for Harley Quinn—while also producing the sort of projects she longed for. Clara Bow could only play one type of character and had little control over her career—which, I can say with certainty, would not sit well with Robbie. She pulls out another notebook and reads Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” She looks up and smiles. “ ‘I contain multitudes’ is a cool thing to remind yourself.”
Hollywood didn’t expect her to contain multitudes. When she rose to prominence after Wolf of Wall Street at 22, Robbie was offered the predictable hot-blond roles, all of which she turned down. I tell her that Hollywood loves to put ingenues in a box, and she goes further: “I think people love to put people in boxes.” Even now, Robbie doesn’t get enough credit for her work as a producer. In 2014, she founded LuckyChap Entertainment with three of her closest friends—one of them, Tom Ackerley, became her husband in 2016. The company’s first release was 2017’s I, Tonya, a critical hit that earned three Oscar nominations and a win for Janney. In 2021, Promising Young Woman brought in five more Oscar nominations and a screenwriting win for Emerald Fennell. The company, which champions female stories and storytellers, produced five movies this year, including the next film from Fennell.
“She literally moved at a higher frame rate,” says Greta Gerwig of a tricky shot she asked Robbie to execute. “I don’t know what category that goes into other than magic.”
And then there’s Barbie. The movie was essentially dead after shuffling through lead actors (Amy Schumer and Anne Hathaway) and writers until Robbie signed on to star and produce. She brought in Greta Gerwig to cowrite (with her partner, Noah Baumbach) and direct, aiming for a subversive take on the world’s most iconic doll. “Making an obvious Barbie movie would’ve been extremely easy to do,” says Robbie, “and anything easy to do is probably not worth doing.” Gerwig was impressed by Robbie to the point of being dumbfounded: “Once, I wanted to capture Margot in slow motion but have everything else move fast, so I went up to her and said, ‘Could you move at 48 frames per second, even though we’re shooting in 24 frames per second and everyone else will be moving at regular speed?’ She did some calculation behind her eyes and then fucking did it. She literally moved at a higher frame rate. I don’t know what category that goes into other than magic.”
Robbie’s aware that there are lots of eyes on this movie, which she experienced firsthand while shooting in Venice Beach with her costar Ryan Gosling in neon spandex and Rollerblades: “People have got strong feelings. I’d much rather that than indifference. Now, let me subvert your expectations. It’s much scarier, but it’s also a great place to begin.”
Robbie, to be clear, is a true working producer. She’s in those preproduction meetings, she’s on set, she’s putting out fires and getting “yelled at by agents.” When I point out that many actors who get producer credits don’t actually, um, do any producing, she says, “Yeah, that pissed me off. It’s so annoying because I have to fight every time.” By fight, she means fight to be taken seriously as a producer. Early in every project, she’s kept off email chains or not invited to calls because some people assume it’s just a vanity title for her. “Then everyone realizes after a few months, ‘Oh, she actually is a producer,’ ” she says. “But even still, people direct all the money questions at my producing partners, never at me. And so many times Tom and Josey have to say, ‘She’s the one to ask, actually.’ ”
We’ve wandered down nearly every street on the Paramount lot. Robbie has shown me where she did months of dance rehearsal (plus clown school) for Babylon, and where she filmed one of her favorite scenes, a vicious, full-tilt fight between her character and Calva’s. (She accidentally broke a window and bruised Calva’s ribs—and then the scene was cut from the movie.) Robbie has shared some of the 31 accents she tried on for Nellie by playing recordings on her phone. In one, she sounds exactly like Fran Drescher. In another, it’s Jersey Shore’s Snooki meets Joe Pesci. They eventually settled on a Jersey accent with a bit of a hard-partyer’s rasp. When Babylon wrapped, Robbie was at loose ends: “It was the most physically and emotionally draining character I’ve ever played, by a country mile. She demands so much of you that she left me in pieces.”
Robbie and her husband are now moving into a new home in LA—they also have a place in London—and, on top of the five films she’s producing, she’s readying Barbie for next summer. Robbie’s also in preproduction on an Ocean’s Eleven prequel that she’ll star in and produce. Another franchise spin-off she’d been attached to, a Pirates of the Caribbean film, is dead, she tells me. “We had an idea and we were developing it for a while, ages ago, to have more of a female-led—not totally female-led, but just a different kind of story—which we thought would’ve been really cool, but I guess they don’t want to do it,” she says of Disney.
There are directors she still hopes to work with, of course: Paul Thomas Anderson, Bong Joon Ho, and Céline Sciamma. But more than anything, Robbie’s focus is on legacy. She talks about the films she watches and rewatches on her movie nights with her husband and friends—the ones from the ’20s or ’70s that “decades and decades on, can still hit you all over again.” Robbie will make her share of them too. Just you watch.