How Margot Robbie overcame a 'palpable and debilitating' panic to make 'Barbie'

Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig for The Envelope , January 12, 2024. (Evan Mulling / For The Times)
"I have a distinct memory of Margot coming over to my house before we started shooting and having a bit of an actor crisis," "Barbie" director Greta Gerwig says of her star, Margot Robbie. The two worked together to find the right approach to the character. (Evan Mulling / For The Times)

How do you make a story about a ubiquitous plastic doll worth telling? What if she suffered an existential crisis? How do you raise the stakes for the making of the movie? What if its producer and star suffered a crisis as well?

"I have a distinct memory of Margot coming over to my house before we started shooting and having a bit of an actor crisis: 'How am I doing this?' It's the actor equivalent of facing a blank page," "Barbie" director and co-writer Greta Gerwig says of a hinge moment in the project with Margot Robbie.

Gerwig understood the problem. It was difficult to get traction, trying to embody a character who begins in a state of blissful perfection. When the story opens, Barbie lives an entirely frictionless life in the pink perfection of Barbie Land.

"This sounds so insane, but every day I kept thinking about — Oh, God, I'm going to sound really annoying right now, but here we go: Milton's 'Paradise Lost' — stay with me," Gerwig insists, "it's about Eden. The first part of the poem is Eden before The Fall, which is not immaterial to the world we were trying to create in Barbie Land. There's no shame, there's no aging, there's no death, there's no pain. And then it becomes something that does [have those things]. But in that Eden, there is no separation between self and environment.

Read more: From Taylor Swift's Eras tour to 'Barbie,' women drive blockbusters. Will Hollywood notice?

"So there's no poetry, because there's no metaphor. What use would you have for metaphor if everything literally is what it is? So after The Fall, even though it's terrible, in some ways, you get poetry, because that's what happens when there is a distance between self and environment and there's an interior life and there's a soul."

Yes, we're still talking about "Barbie."

Milton's 'Paradise Lost' ... is not immaterial to the world we were trying to create in Barbie Land.

Greta Gerwig, director and co-writer of "Barbie"

"What I was watching Margot do with this performance was find that innocence that had no poetry, and then allow a soul to appear that needed it," Gerwig goes on. "And it happened every day, every day. And I think it was such a human arc, because, God, do we all know the desperation of desperately trying to put the thing together that is falling apart in front of us, that we do it throughout our lives all the time."

Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig share a laugh during a photo shoot.
"The panic was palpable and debilitating," Margot Robbie says of her head space before inhabiting her Barbie role. "There's nothing here to hold onto, because she doesn't have childhood trauma and she doesn't have all these things that I normally latch onto and then build off." (Evan Mulling / For The Times)

Robbie takes a beat on her end of this video conference call, smiles, and says, "The kind of direction I would get every single day is this."

And it did happen, says Robbie, who also produced the film, just as her writer-director describes: "I went to Greta's house and had that crisis. I'd spent years trying to get this movie going. And suddenly we're going to shoot the thing. And I was like, 'Oh, my God, I dunno how to do this.' It happens before every single movie I've ever done. A few weeks out, I have this meltdown where I'm like, 'What am I doing? I don't know how to act. Everyone's going to suddenly realize that I can't do any of this, and it's going to be terrible.' And then it is just sheer panic. So yes, I went to Greta's house. The panic was palpable and debilitating. 'I don't know how to apply any of this research I've done, and I've done all the things, and I still don't know who she is.'

"It was so hard, because it was trying to pick up something that had nothing to hold onto. It was like when you've got just a grape left in your bowl and you're trying to get it with your fork, and I'm like, 'I can't get you.' There's nothing here to hold onto, because she doesn't have childhood trauma and she doesn't have all these things that I normally latch onto and then build off. She doesn't have any of it, and I couldn't get her. And then Greta helped me through that and pointed me in all the right directions, and we talked through it."

Robbie had another advantage, perhaps a silent partner helping her get on track: the wordless opening sequence.

"The first week was almost like a silent film, because we were doing the whole waking-up sequence of going through her day," Gerwig says. "And it was this sort of beautiful dance that we were doing that had no words. And I don't know any other way to describe it: She just was there. Barbie was there."

"What Margot does in her performance is so incredible because it looks so effortless," Gerwig continues. "But what it actually is, is that it's a self that has no interior life and no doubts and no questions. And that self is not vapid. It is just literal. Then that self crumbles in front of us, and she desperately is trying to put it back together. And the more she puts it back together, the more we see the ghost in the machine. It's like a magic show."

Robbie thanks Gerwig for sending her an episode of "This American Life" "about the woman who doesn't introspect; that was hugely helpful. I've started movies on a big fight scene or a car crash. But to dive into blank perfection was so weirdly difficult."

Robbie's career is remarkable not just for some of her best-known films ("The Wolf of Wall Street," "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood," "The Suicide Squad" among them), but because, as soon as she had some measure of power in the industry, she took the reins. She and her partners formed LuckyChap, a production house tasked with promoting the works of female filmmakers as part of its mission statement, whether they star Robbie (the Oscar-winning "I, Tonya") or don't (the Oscar-winning "Promising Young Woman" and uber-buzzy "Saltburn"). So what made embodying a plastic toy the next logical product of her company?

"This doll has been a vessel for so many things over the years. And I think beyond the obvious opportunity of reaching a lot of people because of the global recognition of Barbie, knowing how controversial she has been over the decades — she's been controversial when society has been totally different temperatures, which is really interesting," Robbie says. "Something I realized when we did 'I, Tonya' is that everyone had already decided how they felt about our protagonist before they sat down to watch the movie, for the most part. That was a really interesting place to start a journey with an audience and having your protagonist be familiar and also someone that perhaps makes people feel conflicted.

" 'Oh, I felt this way about her when I was younger, and now I feel this way about her when I'm older.' Or, 'I read these articles as I got older' .... There's so many feelings and points of view wrapped up in her, but it's all connected to you and your stage of life, and that just adds an added layer of emotional investment I think, from an audience. So that felt exciting. It also felt really scary. It felt like it was very evident there were so many ways to do this wrong."

Audiences did invest in "Barbie," deeply. Pulling in record-breaking box office receipts of $1.4 billion worldwide, the movie also had an impact with the film academy. Among its eight Oscar nominations last month was one for best picture and one for Gerwig and Noah Baumbach for its screenplay. Still, acting and directing nominations for Robbie and Gerwig were not among the announcements.

Much has been written about whether those omissions were snubs that simply proved the film's candy-colored feminist stance that women are not yet as empowered as men or whether the director category has an unspoken limit on women nominees (Justine Triet, director of "Anatomy of a Fall," did receive a nomination). But how, many asked, did a film that won the box office, helped revive moviegoing and won critical praise — much like "Oppenheimer," the other half of the "Barbenheimer" summer equation that did earn those nods, not earn enough votes for its director?

In a separate conversation, Robbie was sanguine at the question.

"We set out to make a film that would break through cultural norms, bring audiences together and entertain and engage them on a profoundly emotional level. To have been able to do that at this scale and magnitude and have this film resonate the way it did is truly beyond our wildest imaginations and our greatest reward.

"As a producer and her actor, would I have loved to see Greta nominated for directing? Of course. But she did become the first director to have their first three solo directorial efforts nominated for best picture, which is pretty historic. She cracked the code on this film, as only she could. It is such a singular vision, and Greta brought so much humanity, creativity, inspiration, magic and joy to 'Barbie.' And it’s because of her we’ve all received such acclaim."

And maybe, Robbie wonders, the level of difficulty involved in the production just wasn't apparent.

"It feels like to everyone that, oh, this was a sure thing from the beginning, all you had to do was do a bit of paperwork, get started, boom, you've got a hit. And it just really wasn't the case. It was such, I mean, it truly was a miracle to even get this made and to get it made in the way that we wanted to make it. And to have Greta and Noah's script be the version of this movie, I still cannot believe it got made," Robbie says.

"There were a million terrible [possible] Barbie movies and maybe one perfect one, and it was such a tiny target that it felt exhilarating to go after it and to hope that we could actually hit that tiny, tiny target. And it felt like if we could, that it would be really, really impactful. And I'm so happy that it did prove to be, I'd say that's mainly why we went after it. I wasn't really thinking of it as an actor until a couple of years into the process."

There were a million terrible [possible] Barbie movies and maybe one perfect one.

Margot Robbie, producer and lead actress of "Barbie"

The final product is a film that's not just overtly feminist, but essentially humanist. Ken, for all his doll-revolution machinations, isn't actually a villain. He's a frustrated naif trying to gain agency, to figure himself out. Of course, his glimpse of a patriarchal world once he enters real-world Los Angeles with Barbie would spark ambitions of a "better" world for himself and his brothers. That doesn't excuse his insurrection, but it doesn't make him a black-and-white evildoer, as some have claimed the movie does to men.

"We take his plight seriously. We take every part of what he goes through seriously, even to the point of he gets an anthem, and he is on his own journey of self-discovery," Gerwig says. "And I think one thing that Ryan brought to it was a degree of empathy. And the thing that we were always saying is, yes, it's funny. Yes, there's things in it that are complex and have lots of places that can be uncomfortable, but there's not a villain in the movie, and there's no one who is not deserving of our sympathy or our empathy."

In the end, the film says, we are all Kenough.

Get the Envelope newsletter, sent three times a week during awards season, for exclusive reporting, insights and commentary.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.