Mild spoilers ahead. In many ways, Margot Robbie is strikingly similar to her character in Babylon — both possess the inherent drive, ambition and undeniable acting talent needed to make it to the big screen. But the chaotic energy and head-spinningly fast pace of the film about Hollywood's 1920s silent movie era lands Robbie in different territory as she portrays Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actor who scores her big break in silent movies, but later struggles to transition to talkies (movies with sound).
LaRoy's energy is as chaotic as the film itself from the first moment she appears on screen, gatecrashing a wild Hollywood party that's filled with drugs, alcohol, orgies, dancers, snakes and even an elephant. She tells Manny Torres (Diego Calva) — a young Mexican who dreams of working in the film industry — that she's not merely someone who hopes to be a star, but that she already is one. She just needs to land on a movie set to truly shine.
As she dances up a storm free of inhibitions at the mayhem-filled soiree, it doesn't take long for her to capture the attention of the right people in biz, leading to her foray into silent films — a glamorous world in Los Angeles that presents as a stark contrast to her troubled upbringing in New Jersey.
Speaking to Refinery29 Australia, Robbie says the character of LaRoy "was so fun to play", especially given her vivacious nature in what was "just such a wildly different time" in Hollywood.
"She is a very present and immediate kind of character. It's all happening in that second, she's not looking to the future," says the 32-year-old Australian actor.
"She's honestly surprised that she's even made it that far in life. I think she thought, 'A girl like me coming from where I came from was never going to make it this far'."
Robbie looked to real-life silent film actor Clara Bow for inspiration in portraying LaRoy. Bow grew up in a volatile family environment in Brooklyn, her father largely absent from home, leaving Bow responsible for looking after her unwell mother.
"She was extremely famous at that time but she had a horrible childhood, which was a very good composite foundation and back story for my fictional character Nellie to have," Robbie reflects on researching Bow's back story for Babylon.
LaRoy wants to excel in her craft but she's also wild-spirited and spontaneous, and flirts with the dangerous side of drugs, partying and gambling, which ultimately leads to her spiralling towards her demise. It's Torres — unquestioningly in love with LaRoy — who is so often left to put out her fires as he also advances his own career as a film studio executive.
"She's not looking to tomorrow, which makes her a very destructive person, and poor Manny's often the one picking up the pieces of her rash actions," explains Robbie.
She's honestly surprised that she's even made it that far in life. I think she thought, 'A girl like me coming from where I came from was never going to make it this far'.
"It was just such a wildly different time," says Robbie, "so I've loved getting to go back and explore the people who were very famous and successful back then... but also just performing in this very liberated way because things were yet to be regulated."
While Robbie modelled her performance on real-life Bow, co-star Calva — who makes his major acting debut in Babylon — says his character Manny didn't have a direct inspiration.
"In my case, it's a completely fictional character. When I researched, it was hard to find a successful Mexican or Latino character [in the 1920s]," he explains. He also notes the only inspirations were people like Rene Cardona, a Cuban immigrant who became the youngest studio executive in town in 1920s Hollywood, and Enrique Vallejo, a Mexican immigrant who began as a cameraman before turning to directing and production supervising.
Starring alongside other notable names such as Brad Pitt, Li Jun Li and Jean Smart, actors Robbie and Calva impeccably immerse themselves into the uncontrolled chaos that Babylon begs of them, making for viewing that will leave you curious and inspired, but also somewhat relieved when the rollercoaster comes to a close.