Was Babylon’s Nellie LaRoy a Real Actress?

Image Credit: Scott Garfield/ Paramount Pictures

Damien Chazelle’s ‘Babylon’ is set in the late-20s when the arrival of sound in movies changed everything. We follow the story of various characters whose lives are changed due to this shift in Hollywood. One of them is a young actress named Nellie LaRoy. Played by Margot Robbie, Nellie sees a meteoric rise in her career as she quickly becomes the “wild child” who commands a terrific screen presence and is ready to cry on cue. She declares herself a movie star even before she lands her first role. It is this chaotic confidence that defines the rest of her life. For all the ups and downs that she goes through, if you are wondering whether a real actress inspires Nellie’s character in 20s Hollywood, then here’s what you should know.

Composite Character: Based on Silent Film Actresses

Yes, Nellie LaRoy in ‘Babylon’ is actually a combination of several actresses who peaked during the silent movies era. In his research, Chazelle stumbled upon many names and drew inspiration from different things in their lives. However, the one that’s best reflected in Nellie’s character is Clara Bow. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Chazelle revealed that when he started discussing Nellie with Margot Robbie, the actress “gravitated the most towards Clara Bow”.

Hailing from Brooklyn, Bow became one of the most well-known actresses of the silent era and, due to her role in ‘It’, led to the creation of the phrase “The It Girl”. Like Nellie, Bow’s mother suffered from mental illness, which is said to have made Bow’s childhood rather difficult. Chazelle put several things from Bow’s real life right into the script, like Nellie saying that she thinks of home when she has to cry on cue and her first day on a soundstage which turns out to be a tedious ordeal for everyone involved. Similarly, Nellie’s tiff with Constance Moore is similar to Bow’s discord with Colleen Moore. In addition to this, Bow’s gambling problem and the trouble it landed her in with certain people also made its way into the film, among other things.

While Bow didn’t have an addiction and neither did she actually fail in transitioning to the talkies, there are several aspects of her story that led Robbie to study her while preparing for the role. “Clara Bow probably had the worst childhood I’ve ever heard of. Clara’s parents never got a birth certificate for her because they had already lost two children and they were sure she wouldn’t make it through childhood. As I read this, the character of Nellie really started to make sense to me. I imagine she always felt like she was on borrowed time every day that she was on the planet, so she went all out every day,” the ‘I, Tonya’ actress said.

Robbie also underlined the similar struggle she had to face with her accent when she was starting out in Hollywood. Bow had to work hard to keep her Brooklyn accent in check, just like Nellie has to correct her Jersey accent. “I told Damien how when I was on ‘Neighbours’ they got a dialect coach to come in to soften my Australian accent because it was so strong. So I can totally relate to Nellie – everyone being like ‘Argh, your voice is awful’. I had the exact same thing happen and I couldn’t hear it at the time, I was like ‘What do you mean?’,” Robbie recalled.

Image Credits: Scott Garfield/ Paramount Pictures

To get into the character of Nellie, Robbie stuck to certain practices that would keep her close to her character even when she was not shooting. “On the weekends, as tired as I was, I would always invite like 10 friends over, just to have constant stimulation. In my trailer, I’d have a colored light on, music blaring, and just clutter everywhere. I’d keep my room messy because that really agitates me. But that messiness felt very Nellie,” she told Vogue.

Despite having Bow as the inspiration, Chazelle didn’t want to replicate all of her in Nellie. There were several other actresses that he looked towards for certain details. For example, instead of Bow’s Brooklyn accent, the director leaned more on a Jersey accent, like that of the Talmadge sisters. He was also intrigued by Mary Nolan and certain depressing elements of her life made him reconsider some particular things about Nellie. He was also taken by the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death. “Finding out that she was this irrepressible comedian, this fresh face. So the idea of the blonde comedian at that time, who had this sort of persona that was so unique to her that in some ways felt very modern. So that was another thing I pulled from,” the Academy Award-winning director said.

Joan Crawford, Jeanne Eagels, and Alma Rubens also served as inspirations for Nellie. The character’s name LaRoy is a nod to Lucille Fay LeSueur, the real name of Joan Crawford, who also impressed everyone with her exceptional acting skills. Like Nellie, who dies at the age of 34, Alma Rubens also had drug problems which led to her death at the age of 33. With all this in mind, it is clear that while Nellie LaRoy might be fictional, almost everything about her is rooted in the story of a real-life Hollywood actress.

Read More: Is Babylon Based on a True Story?