Lynn Collins in Central Park
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
Lynn Collins in Central Park
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
"Who knew that a girl from Texas would end up being Shakespeare proficient?" says Lynn Collins with a smile. The 26-year-old actress earned rave reviews for her performance as Portia in the recent film version of The Merchant of Venice that starred Al Pacino. Now she's taking on the role of Rosalind in As You Like It in the Shakespeare in the Park production that began performances on June 25 and is set to open on July 12, thereby officially kicking off The Public Theater's 50th anniversary season. The free-admission show is being presented at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (near Turtle Pond, just south of the Great Lawn). Tickets are available the day of the performance on a first-come, first-served basis at the Delacorte and at The Public Theater's downtown home at 425 Lafayette Street.

Directed by Mark Lamos, As You Like It also features Brian Bedford, Richard Thomas, Herb Foster, Jennifer Dundas, James Waterston (son of Sam), and more. Set in France, the comedy centers on Rosalind, who is banished from court by her cruel uncle. Disguised as a man, she flees to the forest of Arden, where her father -- the usurped Duke -- and his loyal followers live in exile. Among this group of men is Orlando, who pines for Rosalind. To test his love, the disguised girl offers to cure him of his affliction by proving to him how whimsical and shallow women are.

"She sort of beats up on her own sex in order to woo him," says Collins, "which is totally bizarre and interesting. It brings up a lot of issues. With any of the characters that get to be both male and female, you explore some hidden parts of your own sexuality. Who does Rosalind become? In the end, when she says, 'You know, I'm actually Rosalind,' how does Orlando see her? What actually changes? As an actor, am I going to look like a boy?" After the slightest of pauses, Collins continues: "Well, no; I have boobs and I can't really!"

Collins' love of Shakespeare began when she played Ophelia in Hamlet at the age of 14. Coincidentally, she returned to that role for her first professional job: The Juilliard grad played opposite Liev Schreiber in the Public's 1999 production of the play. Her next major gig was as Juliet in Peter Hall's 2000 staging of Romeo and Juliet at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. "Peter is an incredibly intelligent man," Collins remarks, "and he has a very specific bent on how Shakespeare should be done. He really allowed me to formulate my own technique within his boundaries; he was very gracious with me that way."

When Collins auditioned for The Merchant of Venice, it was for a much smaller role. But director Michael Radford was so impressed that he sent a tape of her audition to Pacino, and the two of them were able to convince the film's producers to cast the relatively unknown actress as Portia. Of Pacino, Collins says: "We'd work so hard during the day, then we'd go have massive amounts of Italian food and talk about love, marriage, and sex! He's very open and earthy. One of the things I respect most about him is his constant search to challenge himself as an actor. Once you become an icon, it's probably very easy to sit back on your heels, but I don't think he has that mechanism in his body. I don't even know if the man has heels!"

The most challenging part of the filming process for Collins was the courtroom scene, during which Portia masquerades as a male judge who oversees the lawsuit brought by Shylock. "I had to take control of the room," says Collins, "and here are these heavy hitters: Joseph [Fiennes], Jeremy [Irons], and Al. I really had to own my presence, my power and intelligence as a woman among men -- very successful men, at that." However, the cross-dressing that Collins did as Portia is quite different from the way she's handling Rosalind's female-to-male transformation. "Portia's journey is mostly about intellect," she states. "With Rosalind, it's so much more about frivolity, love, infatuation, and youth."

When I remark that she seems to be slowly working her way through the canon of Shakespearean women, Collins laughs. "It's totally not conscious!" she proclaims, yet she admits that she would like to try her hand at Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. In the meantime, she has two major movies "in the can": Warner Brothers' Il Mare, starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves; and Rajapur, which she filmed in India with Justin Theroux and the renowned Indian actor Manoj Bajpai as her co-stars.

Lynn Collins and friend
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
Lynn Collins and friend
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
After As You Like It, Collins will take on the role of Charlotte Bronte in a film about the 19th century author. Researching the roles of both Rosalind and Charlotte simultaneously, the actress has found some remarkable parallels between the two. "Both have a kind of dichotomy," she states. "Charlotte was a very introverted, sheltered woman, but the way she wrote about men, romance, and love was incredibly explicit and groundbreaking; she wrote her inner life. With Rosalind, we get the same thing. At first, we see this sort of sequestered femininity that's all of a sudden transformed into huge, boisterous energy."

Collins is excited about performing Shakespeare in the park, which she feels is a great way to introduce young audiences to the Bard's work. "It really does inform other parts of your life," she says. "Just like listening to classical music broadens your brain waves, so does dealing with Shakespeare."