Margot Robbie wasn’t a Barbie fanatic as a child. She’s not even sure she owned a Barbie. “I don’t think I did,” she tells me one morning over breakfast in Venice Beach. “I know my cousin had a bunch of Barbies, and I’d go to her house.” Growing up on Australia’s Gold Coast, Robbie spent a lot of time outside. She and her cousin would make mud pies. They’d play with trucks. And they’d play with Barbies. Mostly they’d build forts, “cubbies” to an Australian. “Building cubbies was what we did all day, every day.”
We are a couple of blocks from the Venice boardwalk, at Great White, an Australian-owned restaurant, and I have asked Robbie what compelled her to produce and star in a live-action Barbie movie, due out this July. “It wasn’t that I ever wanted to play Barbie, or dreamt of being Barbie, or anything like that,” the 32-year-old actor says. “This is going to sound stupid, but I really didn’t even think about playing Barbie until years into developing the project.”
It doesn’t sound stupid but it does seem counterintuitive, the notion that Robbie, whose breakout role in The Wolf of Wall Street was described in that movie’s script as “the hottest blonde ever,” was not envisioning herself in the role of Barbie when she sought the film rights from Mattel. And yet the person sitting across the table is not giving blonde bombshell. Not in a conventional sense, anyway.
Robbie is dressed in a vintage long-sleeve Harley-Davidson T-shirt and a short body-con onesie, the sort of thing a teenage wrestler might wear to practice. “Makes me look like a giant baby,” she says of the onesie at one point. (It does nothing of the sort.) On her feet are New Balance sneakers and striped gym socks she recently bought in Japan, which say “Are you city boy?” around the ankles. Her hair is pulled back in double French braids, displaying dangly gold mermaid earrings she got in Ibiza. Although she is impossibly beautiful, Robbie’s aura is sprite-like and a little feral. It’s easy to imagine she just wandered away from a traveling circus.
A certain beachy physicality was evident out of the gate. For this interview, Robbie wanted to go Rollerblading. I assumed this meant we would rent Rollerblades. Turns out Robbie has her own, and that she thought I might too. (I don’t.) Robbie then offered to lend me her pair, because she also owns old-school skates. (Later, when I put on her Rollerblades, I discover that they have no brakes. “Wait, where are the brakes?” I ask. “Ohhhhhhhh,” she says, letting out a throaty laugh. “I forgot. I took the brakes off because I hate to brake.”)
The plan was locked down. After breakfast we would go skating on the boardwalk, then walk to Robbie’s favorite ice cream shop, Salt & Straw. Robbie had to leave at 2 p.m. sharp, I was warned. She had a 3 p.m. meeting with the writer of Cocaine Bear, Jimmy Warden, whose directorial debut her company LuckyChap is co-producing. That last combination of details begins to convey the general vibe of the actual Margot Robbie: She’ll arrive with an assortment of brake-less skates, and she’ll have a hard out at two.
Between bites of avocado toast, grilled Halloumi cheese, and Australian-style bacon—“Crisp it up,” she tells the waiter—Robbie delivers the Barbie backstory with Glengarry Glen Ross–esque speed. There were previous attempts to make a Barbie movie. Amy Schumer was attached at one point. So was Anne Hathaway. Those projects never got off the ground. Robbie kept tabs on the status. As a producer, she saw huge potential in the Barbie IP. “The word itself is more globally recognized than practically everything else other than Coca-Cola.”
In 2018, Robbie sensed an opening. So she had a meeting with the new CEO of Mattel, Ynon Kreiz, at the Polo Lounge. That meeting was about pitching LuckyChap, the production outfit she runs with her friend Josey McNamara and her husband, Tom Ackerley, to Mattel. “We’re LuckyChap,” she says. “This is our company. This is what we do. This is what we stand for. This is why we should be the ones to make a Barbie movie. And this is how we’d go about it.”
LuckyChap didn’t have a specific concept in mind, but they did know this much. “We of course would want to honor the 60-year legacy that this brand has,” Robbie says. “But we have to acknowledge that there are a lot of people who aren’t fans of Barbie. And in fact, aren’t just indifferent to Barbie. They actively hate Barbie. And have a real issue with Barbie. We need to find a way to acknowledge that.”
There were bigger meetings with Mattel, and then meetings with Warner Bros., where LuckyChap had a first-look deal at the time. Eventually Robbie started talking to Greta Gerwig about writing and directing. “I was very scared it was going to be a no,” Robbie says. “At the time this was such a terrifying thing to take on. People were like, You’re going to do what?” But Gerwig said yes, on the condition that she could write the script with her partner, Noah Baumbach. “It felt sparky to me in some way that felt kind of promising,” Gerwig tells me later. “I was the one who said, Noah and I will do this.” (Baumbach: “She broke the news to me after we were already doing it.”)
LuckyChap wanted Gerwig and Baumbach to have full creative freedom. “At the same time,” Robbie says, “we’ve got two very nervous ginormous companies, Warner Bros. and Mattel, being like: What’s their plan? What are they going to do? What’s it gonna be about? What’s she going to say? They have a bazillion questions.” In the end LuckyChap found a way to structure a deal so that Gerwig and Baumbach would be left alone to write what they wanted, “which was really fucking hard to do.”
Gerwig and Baumbach did share a treatment, Robbie adds: “Greta wrote an abstract poem about Barbie. And when I say ‘abstract,’ I mean it was super abstract.” (Gerwig declines to read me the poem but offers that it “shares some similarities with the Apostles’ Creed.”) No one at LuckyChap, Mattel, or Warner Bros. saw any pages of the script until it was finished.
When I ask Gerwig and Baumbach to describe their Barbie writing process, the words “open” and “free” get used a lot. The project seemed “wide open,” Gerwig tells me. “There really was this kind of open, free road that we could keep building,” Baumbach says. Part of it had to do with the fact that their characters were dolls. “It’s like you’re playing with dolls when you’re writing something, and in this case, of course, there was this extra layer in that they were dolls,” Baumbach says. “It was literally imaginative play,” Gerwig says. That they were writing the script during lockdown also mattered, Baumbach says. “We were in the pandemic, and everybody had the feeling of, Who knows what the world is going to look like. That fueled it as well. That feeling of: Well, here goes nothing.”
Robbie and Ackerley read the Barbie script at the same time. A certain joke on page one sent their jaws to the floor. “We just looked at each other, pure panic on our faces,” Robbie recalls. “We were like, Holy fucking shit.” When Robbie finished reading: “I think the first thing I said to Tom was, This is so genius. It is such a shame that we’re never going to be able to make this movie.”
LuckyChap did make the movie, of course, and it’s very much the one Gerwig and Baumbach wrote. (Alas, that joke on page one is gone.) If you saw the trailer released in December, you’ve seen the opening of the film. It’s a parody of the Dawn of Man sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But instead of apes discovering tools in the presence of a monolith, little girls smash their baby dolls in the presence of a gigantic Barbie. Robbie-as-Barbie appears in a retro black-and-white bathing suit and towering heels. She slowly lowers a pair of white cat-eye sunglasses and winks.
I saw more of the movie one morning at the Warner Bros. lot. After the Kubrick spoof we go on a romp through Barbieland, “a mad fantasy of gorgeousness,” as Sarah Greenwood, the film’s set designer, puts it later. Barbie wakes up in her Dreamhouse and embarks on the Perfect Day, accompanied by an original song that serves as soundtrack. (I am not allowed to say who sings it.) Everything everywhere is infused with pink. “I’ve never done such a deep dive into pink in all my days,” Greenwood says. Barbie’s perfectly fake, color-saturated world retains many of the quirks and physical limitations of the toy version. Her environment isn’t always three-dimensional, and the scale of everything is a bit off. Barbie is a little too big for her house and her car. When she takes a shower, there is no water. Her bare feet remain arched.
The swimsuit Robbie wears in the Dawn of Woman sequence is a replica of the one worn by the first Barbie doll in 1959. Over the course of the Perfect Day, Barbie changes clothes constantly. The progression—poodle skirt, disco look—amounts to a survey of Barbie fashion over time, says Jacqueline Durran, the film’s costume designer. (Wisely, the survey does not include the more retrograde outfits in Barbie’s past, such as the Slumber Party ensemble of 1965, which came with a little bathroom scale set at 110 pounds and a book titled How to Lose Weight that advised: “Don’t eat.”)
“The key thing about Barbie is that she dresses with intention,” Durran tells me. “Barbie doesn’t dress for the day. She dresses for the task.” The task might involve a leisure activity, or a form of employment. One scene pokes fun at the way the Barbie universe seems to blur such distinctions. “My job is just beach,” Ken explains.
Ken is played with daft aplomb by Ryan Gosling. “The greatest version of Ryan Gosling ever put on screen,” in Robbie’s estimation. (Gosling: “Ken wasn’t really on my bucket list. But in fairness, I don’t have a bucket list. So I thought I’d give it a shot.”) In Barbieland, Ken is basically another fashion accessory. “Barbie has a great day every day,” we are told in voiceover delivered by Helen Mirren. “Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.” Mattel introduced the first Ken doll in 1961, in response to letters demanding Barbie get a boyfriend. “Barbie was invented first,” Gerwig points out. “Ken was invented after Barbie, to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world. That kind of creation myth is the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis.”
Just as Barbie was given big boobs but no nipples, Ken was given a smooth “bulge,” as Mattel referred to it at the time. Together, their peculiar partial anatomy hints at a world of grown-up things hidden from view. Gerwig: “You feel that there’s something there, which is part of the allure. It’s unclear how this all kinda works. But it’s not without intrigue.” This vague sense of mystery is captured in a comical exchange Ken and Barbie have in front of her Dreamhouse. “I thought I might stay over tonight,” Ken says. “Why?” Barbie asks. “Because we’re girlfriend-boyfriend,” Ken says. “To do what?” Barbie asks. “I’m actually not sure,” Ken says.
Barbie acquired friends over the years. First came Midge, her longtime best friend, and later Christie, one of her first Black friends. (Mattel didn’t introduce a Black Barbie until 1980, and a forthcoming documentary, Black Barbie, explores this legacy.) When Gerwig took a tour of Mattel, she learned that the vast majority of dolls in its Barbie line are named Barbie. “Now all of the dolls are Barbie. All of them are Barbie, and Barbie is everyone. Philosophically, I was like, Well, now that’s interesting.” The more she thought about it, the more the multiplicity of Barbies suggested “an expansive idea of self that we could all learn from.”
During the casting process, Gerwig and Robbie looked for “Barbie energy,” a certain ineffable combination of beauty and exuberance they concluded is embodied in Gal Gadot. Robbie: “Gal Gadot is Barbie energy. Because Gal Gadot is so impossibly beautiful, but you don’t hate her for being that beautiful, because she’s so genuinely sincere, and she’s so enthusiastically kind, that it’s almost dorky. It’s like right before being a dork.” (Gadot wasn’t available.) They found their Barbies in Issa Rae, Hari Nef, Emma Mackey, Dua Lipa, Sharon Rooney, Ana Cruz Kayne, Alexandra Shipp, Kate McKinnon, and others. (There are multiple Kens too.) In this menagerie, Rae is President Barbie. Robbie is Stereotypical Barbie.
Before shooting began in London, Gerwig threw a slumber party for the Barbies at Claridge’s Hotel. The Kens were invited to stop by, but not to sleep over. (Gosling couldn’t make it, so he sent a singing telegram in the form of an older Scottish man in a kilt who played bagpipes and delivered the speech from Braveheart.) Once production was underway, LuckyChap hosted weekly movie screenings at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill. Every Sunday morning, cast and crew were invited to watch a movie that served as a reference for Barbie. They called this “movie church.”
Gerwig had a sense that Barbie was being guided by old soundstage Technicolor musicals, so they watched a bunch of those, most helpfully The Red Shoes and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. “They have such a high level of what we came to call authentic artificiality,” Gerwig says. “You have a painted sky in a soundstage. Which is an illusion, but it’s also really there. The painted backdrop is really there. The tangibility of the artifice is something that we kept going back to.” Her director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto, who shot The Wolf of Wall Street and Babel and Argo and Brokeback Mountain, created a special color template for Barbie with this in mind. Gerwig named it Techni-Barbie.
Every protagonist must go on a hero’s journey, and Stereotypical Barbie is no exception. The first sign of trouble arises during a group dance number. Breezing through the choreography at the front of the pack, she suddenly turns to the other Barbies and asks: “Do you guys ever think about dying?” Later she wakes up and finds her feet are no longer arched. “I have no context for this but my heels are on the ground,” she says. “You’re malfunctioning,” another Barbie tells her.
Eventually Stereotypical Barbie goes to the “real world.” I don’t know why she is called to this particular adventure, because I was allowed to watch only the first 20 minutes of the movie, and then, skipping ahead, her first few moments in the other world. I do know that Ken goes with her. If you saw the images of Robbie and Gosling Rollerblading on the Venice boardwalk last summer in head-to-toe neon—the photos that sparked a hot-pink #Barbiecore trend on TikTok and on actual runways—you’ve caught a glimpse of Barbie and Ken’s alien landing.
After breakfast, Robbie and I skate over to the boardwalk. As expected, Robbie is completely at ease on roller skates. She took it up after she did a bunch of the ice-skating in I, Tonya, LuckyChap’s biopic about Tonya Harding, and that’s why she doesn’t like brakes. “I never had them on ice skates, so it would mess me up.”
We pass the spot where she shot the real-world scenes last year, then pause at the skate-dance park and watch the roller-dancers twirl. “I’ve been in there once,” Robbie says when I ask. “On Babylon, one of the background extras, she’s like a really cool Instagram skater, and we were talking about skating. I was like, Do you want to go on the weekend and teach me some tricks? And she was like, Yeah, sure. So we went and she was kind of teaching me how to dance on my skates.”
Over the course of the day, I repeatedly ask Robbie how she found her character as Barbie. Later, through interviews with the rest of the cast, I begin to grasp that, in an ensemble piece of this scale, no character exists apart from the others. As Ana Cruz Kayne explains, it’s about finding one’s space within the group: “Like the youngest child asks at Passover, What makes this night different than other nights? It’s like, What makes this Barbie different than other Barbies?”
Hari Nef made a private decision about who owns her Barbie. “A doll collector,” Nef tells me. “A gay man in his 50s who lives in a rent-controlled apartment in the West Village.” She took this cue from her costumes. “I was given the most over-the-top, fashion-y, crazy costumes. And I was like, This is no child’s doll.” Also, her Barbie seemed well-preserved. “I feel like every week he has his two or three friends over, maybe he’s a little lonely, and he shows them my new outfit. And I just kind of stay in my box.”
Gosling deflects when I ask how he found his character—“It would be very un-Ken of me to talk about Ken”—but he does say that Robbie did things to help. “She left a pink present with a pink bow, from Barbie to Ken, every day while we were filming. They were all beach-related. Like puka shells, or a sign that says ‘Pray for surf.’ Because Ken’s job is just beach. I’ve never quite figured out what that means. But I felt like she was trying to help Ken understand, through these gifts that she was giving.”
Stereotypical Barbie was a tough nut to crack. Usually Robbie finds something called “animal work” helpful. Tonya was a pit bull in life and a mustang on the ice. Nellie, Robbie’s character in Babylon, was an octopus and a honey badger. An octopus because they are survivalists; they have a lot of nerve endings; there’s a fluidity to them; and they change their appearance. A honey badger because they have square backs and thick skin. “They’re such an insane animal,” Robbie says. “You can hit a honey badger with a machete.” With Barbie, animal work wasn’t useful. Robbie tried a flamingo but didn’t get anywhere. At one point she was really struggling. “I was like, Greta, I need to go on this whole character journey. And Greta was like, Oh, I have a really good podcast for you.” Gerwig sent Robbie an episode of This American Life, about a woman who doesn’t introspect. “You know how you have a voice in your head all the time?” Robbie says. “This woman, she doesn’t have that voice in her head.”
To sort out the sexiness question, Robbie had to break it down. “I’m like, Okay, she’s a doll. She’s a plastic doll. She doesn’t have organs. If she doesn’t have organs, she doesn’t have reproductive organs. If she doesn’t have reproductive organs, would she even feel sexual desire? No, I don’t think she could.” Therefore: “She is sexualized. But she should never be sexy. People can project sex onto her.” Thus: “Yes, she can wear a short skirt, but because it’s fun and pink. Not because she wanted you to see her butt.”
I do glean a few details about the rest of Barbie. The arc is partially inspired by something Gerwig read when she was a kid, in the 1994 bestseller Reviving Ophelia. “My mom would check out books from the library about parenting, and then I would read them,” Gerwig says. The book describes an abrupt change that happens in American girls when they hit adolescence and begin to bend to external expectations. “They’re funny and brash and confident, and then they just—stop,” Gerwig says. This memory bubbled up early in the writing and Gerwig found it “jarring,” the realization that this is where the story had to go: “How is this journey the same thing that a teenage girl feels? All of a sudden, she thinks, Oh, I’m not good enough.”
There’s a completely different color template for the real world, Prieto mentions when we speak. Techni-Barbie is only for Barbie’s world. “We wanted to create a distinctive look for Barbie, for her world, as opposed to the real world,” Prieto says.
Also, Robbie’s speech patterns change. She brings this up when describing Barbie’s non-accent. (Barbie shouldn’t sound like she’s from anywhere in particular, therefore: “General American accent. It’s called GenAm.”) At the start of the movie, Barbie speaks in a higher register, and: “Everything is very definite. There’s no second thought. There’s no hesitation.” Later, her voice lowers, and there are more pauses.
Something major seems to happen to the Kens. When I ask Gerwig how she and Robbie defined Ken energy, she cannot formulate a response without laughing. “The Kens have a journey in front of them,” she eventually says. “In the beginning of the movie, nobody thinks about Ken. Nobody worries about Ken. Ken doesn’t have a house. Or a car. Or a job. Or any power. And, um, that is gonna be sort of unsustainable.”
New characters are introduced in the real world. One is the CEO of Mattel, played by Will Ferrell. Robbie describes this character as: “Misguided but in an innocent way. He just cares about little girls and their dreams in the least creepy way possible.” Another is Gloria, played by America Ferrera. It’s unclear who Gloria is, but she’s definitely not a Barbie. “I think I can say that my character has a very strong connection with Barbie,” Ferrera tells me. In the pictures that went viral from the Venice shoot, there are some of Robbie and Ferrera Rollerblading side by side, holding hands. Robbie is in a pink denim cowgirl outfit.
When Robbie was in 12th grade, she had to fill out a questionnaire about her hopes and dreams. She recently found her answers and pulls them up on her phone when I ask how she got into acting. We are walking back from Salt & Straw, sea-salt-and-caramel ice cream cones in hand. Robbie reads in the high-pitched voice of her younger self. “Interests: Hanging out with friends. Future dream job: Hollywood actress, events manager, hotel owner.” The combination makes her laugh. “Uh, yeah, I’m a multihyphenate Hollywood actress–hotel owner–events manager.”
One way to chart Robbie’s subsequent rise is as a series of gutsy moves. In her audition for The Wolf of Wall Street, she went off script and slapped Leonardo DiCaprio across the face. She had never met Quentin Tarantino when she wrote to him to say how much she wanted to work with him, and soon after, she was playing Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. When she shot a certain scene in Babylon, she went off script again and kissed Brad Pitt. Perhaps Gosling puts it best: “She has a kind of fearlessness that you can only get from literally growing up swimming in shark-infested waters.”
Robbie has a long list of directors she’d like to work with, as an actor and a producer. She’s working her way through the list. “Greta was on that list for a long time,” she says. “Damien was on that list for a long time,” she says, referring to Babylon’s Damien Chazelle. Robbie recently ticked another box on the list, Wes Anderson. She has a small role in Asteroid City. “PTA is the big one I haven’t ticked,” she says, referring to Paul Thomas Anderson. “Is he aware?” I ask. “He’s aware,” she says.
When Robbie is not working she is often checking the websites of train companies around the world. “All I want to do is live on a train,” she says. The Orient Express was on her bucket list for a long time, and she and Ackerley finally ticked that box last year. They started in London on the British Pullman—Wes Anderson decorated one of the carriages and Robbie wanted to ride in it—and then took the Orient Express overnight from Paris to Venice. “I was watching the Sidney Lumet version of Murder on the Orient Express while I was on board, just because I’m a loser, and I was, like, checking the background of every shot,” Robbie says. In the morning they woke up in Switzerland. “You literally wake up and you open the window and it looks like The Sound of Music.”
Their recent trip to Japan was partly to ride the Seven Stars, a seven-car train that goes across the island of Kyushu. They also spent time in Tokyo and Kyoto tracking down noodle places Robbie had read about on food blogs. They waited in line for three and a half hours at one spot in Tokyo to try its udon carbonara, which sounded sacrilegious but turned out to be “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” The noodles were thick and silky, and came with cracked pepper, a hunk of butter, a mound of Parmesan, a raw egg, and scallions. “And then they had a giant tempura piece of bacon that was, like, this big.” Robbie gestures to indicate the magnitude of the bacon. “It was like a foot-long sandwich from Subway.” (Before she got a big part on an Australian soap opera, Robbie worked at a Subway in Melbourne.)
Robbie’s interest in food does not extend to cooking. “In our friendship group in LA and London, all the guys cook, and love cooking, and are really good at it,” she says. “And none of the girls cook, and we love drinking, and we’re really good at it.” Robbie finds cooking stressful. She gets distracted easily: “Everything lights on fire in the kitchen. I’m not even kidding.” She’s lit three Christmas hams on fire at this point. The last time was because the cooked ham wasn’t crispy enough. Ackerley has a lot of kitchen gadgets around, including a blowtorch. “So I was like, Great, I’ll blowtorch it,” Robbie says. “Somehow I even messed that up. The whole top of it fell off. The lighter fluid went on my hand. Everyone was screaming. Weirdly, I wasn’t injured at all. It lit on fire and then I went like that.” She brushes one hand with the other, miming how she put the fire out. “It was like a magic trick.”
I see Robbie once more a couple weeks later, at a video shoot for a Chanel beauty campaign. (She’s an ambassador for the brand.) The shoot is taking place in a studio in East Hollywood. Robbie’s team is gathered around a big monitor displaying the footage being shot in another room. The Robbie onscreen appears to be in a movie theater. She has on black Chanel sunglasses and red lipstick, and her face takes up most of the frame. It seems we are watching Robbie watch a movie. Light from the make-believe movie is flashing across her face.
When the shoot breaks for lunch, I meet Robbie in her dressing room. She’s wearing a black chiffon polka-dot blouse, matching pants, and black patent leather ankle boots. I am now so steeped in all things Barbie that all I can think when I see her is: Chanel Barbie. “You’ve changed form,” I say as we sit down. “It’s a very different version,” she says. The concept of the campaign is abstract, Robbie says when I ask if there is one. “It’s kind of like: I’m in a car! I’m in a club. I’m in a room! Is it a hotel? I don’t know! I’m in a theater. I’m watching what we shot. And now, I’m back to putting on lipstick.”
Between Chanel shoots, Robbie is in producer mode. LuckyChap is in the process of picture-locking Saltburn, the second film by Emerald Fennell, who wrote and directed Promising Young Woman. (Fennell plays Midge in Barbie.) And they are moving closer to finalizing a Barbie cut. They’ve got three days of additional photography and a lot of mixing ahead. “You have to start really locking things in so that you can start to send reels off,” she says. They are still putting together the second trailer. Then they’ll have to figure out the rest of the marketing and release strategy. The rollout will overtake Robbie’s schedule by summer. “I’m all Barbie from here until Barbie.”
Hair, Shay Ashual; Makeup, Pati Dubroff using Chanel. Produced by Rosco Production. Creative Concept and Set Design: Julia Wagner.
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Originally Appeared on Vogue