Lily Cole on Life and Art

We tracked down Lily Cole and asked her about working with Terry Gilliam, losing Heath Ledger, and her everyday role as a Cambridge scholar. While the English supermodel could have already retired on modeling designs by the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, and Chanel, the 21-year-old redhead recently kicked off her acting career, playing the youthful, reluctantly bohemian Valentina in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. To flesh out her character, Cole drew on experiences she shares with her fictional counterpart; her own lavish, jet-set lifestyle is offset by yet another, much more tame, pursuit: school.

Tanja M. Laden: Why do you think Terry Gilliam chose you to play Valentina?

Lily Cole: We spoke at length about the film and Valentina — my ideas about her and his ideas. He was quite open-minded about who this girl was, and finding out who she might be. He says he just had an instinct that I was right for the part, and that, even though I was very new and inexperienced, I could rise up to that challenge. And I think, aesthetically, he wanted someone who was unusual-looking and could play a 16-year-old. Having red hair and being six foot is in keeping with this film that has all these kind of different misfits and characters strung together.

TML: How are you and Valentina similar?

LC: I think that the dichotomy in my life between the very extreme and extravagant existence I’ve had from modeling from a young age versus an attachment to my family or to school — or to a lot of more normal strands — Terry kind of correlated with Valentina. That’s what we both found very interesting about her; I think that’s why he had written her story within the film that way. This girl that has all these kind of fantastical, huge, ambitious ideas thrust upon her by her father very ironically wants a very what would be considered mediocre, normal, suburban lifestyle, and it seemed to be the opposite of the direction most girls would dream, you know? I found that really fascinating.

TML: What was it like working with Gilliam?

LC: I found it quite difficult that he gives as much leeway as he does to his actors to inform their characters — which is obviously a huge blessing, because all actors want that contribution to the process — but I was so new, so I was a bit intimidated by it. At the same time, while he will take everyone’s ideas, he will always differentiate the best one, and if someone’s going the wrong way, he’ll be there first to step in. He’s kind of present and absent at the same time.

TML: How did the cast and crew deal with losing Heath Ledger halfway through production?

LC: We’d had a month to kind of absorb that situation, which, by no means, is enough time to get over it. It was a month to kind of think about finishing the film. Once Terry decided he wanted to finish it, it really wasn’t up to me. Then he decided to do it with three actors [Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell] who were definitely going to be friends of Heath’s come in and fill those three parts, and that felt, to me, like a really beautiful gesture from those three men, and seemed to carry this spirit that everyone else had in trying to finish this film. This man had really touched us all, and we really loved him, and he worked really incredibly hard in the first half of it, and we were hoping to try and salvage his performance and salvage the film, and it was in that spirit that everyone was unified to try and finish it.

TML: How different is the acting world from the modeling world?

LC: I think that, in the scale of the world, and how many different industries there are, they’re probably quite similar. Compared to the pharmaceutical industry or the mining industry, they have quite a lot in common. They’re very high-profile, they’re both entertainment-related; they have a lot of common ground. At the same time, the actual job of modeling and the actual job of acting — though there are similarities: the cameras, the people, the attention, the role-playing — I find that they’re fairly distinct. I found acting to be a little bit harder, from my point of view, just because I have to have a voice, opinions, ideas, and personality to create the character, and that’s what I really love about it — that interior involvement.

TML: Speaking of harder and more rewarding: you’re studying Art History at the University of Cambridge. Who are some of your favorite artists?

LC: I’ve got a few: Picasso — I think that’s such an obvious one, but I just think he’s such a genius. Da Vinci, Rothko, Newman — a lot of 20th century artists. I really like people or artists who pioneered new movements and new ideas.

TML: What did you take away from working on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus?

LC: Just the creative process and watching it work, and the collaboration with everyone else, and the commitment of trying to make something that Terry believed in and wanted to create. It’s great to be given that kind of excuse to indulge in Terry’s imagination, and also in your imagination, a bit.

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