Though Collins boosted the show’s ratings from the moment she debuted, behind a black veil and dark glasses on the witness stand in Season Two, she reminds me that she was far from the network’s first choice. “They wanted Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Jessica Walter,” she says. “They were waiting for Jessica until the very last minute, so they didn’t cast me until two weeks before we started shooting. ” Collins created her own backstory for Alexis—a globe-trotting Brit whose ex-husband, the Colorado oil magnate Blake Carrington, had banished her from Denver after catching her in an affair. “Alexis had the affair because Blake was at his oil rigs all the time,” Collins says. “She’d been young and lonely, and now she wanted to beat him at his own game.
Growing up in Britain during World War II, “I went to 13 schools,” she recalls. “I was constantly being taken from London out to the countryside, whenever bombs were falling. ” She once counted all the homes she’s lived in and got as far as the number 52. “In fact, it’s a lot more than that, but there are 52 that I can remember. ” As for dealing with hardships, “I have this great ability to put things out of my mind if I don’t like them,” Collins says. “And I’ve honed it to a skill. ” The technique involves a combination of the Sedona Method (a “releasing” process that she studied in Arizona decades ago) and what sounds like plain old denial. “I don’t let things get to me,” she says. “I might rant and rave and get very upset for a short period of time, but I will not let it fester. Just get over it.
She mentions that this is just one of her several homes; there are others in London, New York, and the Côte d’Azur, and she rotates among them with her husband of almost 17 years, Percy Gibson, who’s three decades younger than she. (Of course, there have been several other husbands, too. ) And although Collins jokes that her 70-year career has lasted long enough for her to make a whole lot of terrible movies as well as good ones, she’s rather pleased with her current work schedule, which includes a stint on the Emmy-winning hit American Horror Story, playing—what else? —a Hollywood grande dame; a one-woman stage show that’s set to tour in the U. K. ; and an upcoming role on the television series Hawaii Five-0.
There was the Irish actor Maxwell Reed, who raped her on their first date in London after slipping a drug into her cocktail; Collins, then still a teenager, felt she should marry him anyway because he’d taken her virginity. “The guilt of a young girl in the 1950s,” she says with a roll of the eyes. (Not long after the wedding, Reed tried to persuade her to sleep with a Middle Eastern sheikh in exchange for a £10,000 payment. ) Next, in 1963, came the actor Anthony Newley, who was less of a monster but more of a cheat, fathering at least one child with another woman as he and Collins were starting their own family.
Photograph by Angelo Pennetta; Styled by Simon Robins. In the U. K. , Collins has supported some conservative causes, including Brexit, but today she’s not in the mood to discuss politics; when she calls herself “old-fashioned in some respects,” it’s with the assurance of someone who’s spent much of her life being tagged with adjectives like “saucy” and “free thinking. ” (Her Playboy spread appeared in 1983, when she was 50. ) Among the traditions Collins approves of: afternoon tea, good manners, home delivery of fresh butter from the milkman.
Kathy Bates, her costar on the latest season of American Horror Story, had never met Collins but became aware of her serious chops as soon as the cameras started rolling. “Joan is a real actor, not some bullshit diva,” Bates says. “And on the set, she was a working stiff like the rest of us. ” As for her style, Collins says that before she landed in Hollywood, she had little fashion sense and “wasn’t even attracted to glamour.
Newley was succeeded, in the 1970s, by the record executive Ron Kass, whose flaws included a cocaine habit that turned into a heroin habit, and a weakness for forging Collins’s signature on financial documents, leaving the couple hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. (Low point: when creditors in L. A. impounded their car and kitchen appliances. ) The Swedish pop singer Peter Holm, whom Collins came to see as a “calculating sociopath,” followed, in 1985.