Lily Cole Discusses "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"

You might think that being the only living offspring of a mythical immortal being would have limitless advantages, but you'd be wrong, at least when it comes to director Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."

British model Lily Cole stars in the film as Valentina, the adolescent daughter of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a long-lived traveling mystic that affords men and women the opportunity to traverse his unlimited creative mindscape. But the true origins of Parnassus' immortality hold dark consequences for Valentina, whose soul will belong to the satanic Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) upon the conclusion of her sixteenth birthday due to a foolhardy deal Parnassus made several years before his daughter's conception. With the fateful birthday fast approaching, Parnassus enlists the aid of an enigmatic outsider named Tony (Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) in order to outmatch Mr. Nick and prevent Valentina's eternal damnation.

CBR News attended a recent press junket where Lily Cole spoke with reporters about "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," which marks her first leading role in a major motion picture. The actress also discussed working with legendary talents such as Terry Gilliam, Christopher Plummer and the late Heath Ledger.

CBR News: Are you enjoying the press experience for the film?

Lilly Cole: It's not perhaps the most exhilarating experience of my life. [Laughs] I think it was at first. It was my first film and first [time] seeing everybody. Now it's at the stage where we've done the European part, we've done Canada, we've done Toronto, we've done [Los Angeles]. [We've done] so much that it becomes a little more routine. But it's still interesting. It's interesting to see people's reception of the film.

When you first got the script, did it make sense to you? Was it something where you immediately got what was on the page, or was it something where during filming you understood what the film was trying to get at?

I think it made sense to me. I think that there are so many layers to it that perhaps I'm still going to discover more and more from making it and sort of watching it, but I think that when I was making it, I was lost in the story and in my character and it didn't even occur to make sense of the story until you actually watch the film and you see who the other characters are and how these relationships emerge and what the kind of end product is. But I definitely related to it on paper. It didn't confuse me; it just kind of interested me. The ideas, I really, really loved and [they were] exciting to read.

Where there any ideas in particular that struck a chord with you?

All of those Eastern philosophical ideas, whether it's immortality and the idea that you have choices in life, and the idea that the devil sort of always exists in everything; that you perhaps can't make choices that are so black and white, that are good and bad and everything; the idea that you can dream and create your own reality and make choices in life that effect what happens in your life. I do believe in all of those ideas, so it was brilliant to have the opportunity to see that written on the page and create that movie.

What was it like working with four hot Hollywood actors? Obviously you had a unique experience in working with Heath Ledger and Johnny Depp and Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Was it different working with each of them?

I think that there was such a sadness in working with the three actors that came on board [after the death of Heath Ledger], that that sadness actually recolored the experience of working with them in a way that it probably wouldn't in any other film working with them. At the same time, I feel very lucky that all of the brilliant men, and Heath in particular, I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to have worked with. It was quite [inspiring] to have worked with him, then to have these three actors come so generously on board - and so quickly! Johnny was there for two days to take on this role and did such a good job of embodying a role in such truly [sad] circumstances. It was a very strange and quite amazing thing to see happen.

What was the whole effects and green screen experience like? You're used to working in front of an audience on runways and photographers. With so many hours in front of these screens with Terry, obviously, and a handful of artisans - what was that like?

The green screen?

Yes, and just the acting experience as a whole for somebody who hasn't acted in that many major films.

Well, they're two different questions you're asking, because the acting experience in the first place was exciting, challenging, rewarding, scary, and I really just learned on my feet. I was just thrown into this really established mix of people and expected to kind of swim with them, and I was quite scared to do that but had no choice but to try my best. [Laughs] I really, really enjoyed it, and it was perhaps an eye-opener for a career possibility. I went in knowing that I liked acting as a kind of hobby with friends, but not knowing if that was something I'd like to do professionally. I really, really enjoyed it.

The experience with green screens I really liked, too. It was so comfortable compared to - we shot all of the scenes in London first that were in the real world. It was all night shoots and it was winter. If you're not familiar with winters in London, they are extremely cold. [Laughs] It was just a much more arduous process. Then we were in Vancouver doing green screens and it was suddenly very comfortable. It was the middle of the day, very humane working hours and comfortable conditions, and it was also quite interesting to take on the challenge that the film was kind of proposing of using your imagination, and actually having to use my imagination myself to try and visualize the scenes I was in.

Also, the green screen work was a lot more dramatic. The scenes I have with Colin, where I'm being thrown around and stuff, it was quite fun to play such a physical, dramatic aspect of it.

What was your reaction when you saw the finished version of the green screen shoots?

I was really impressed. It had been over a year since we finished filming. I had seen a few outtakes when we'd finished filming, but none of the CGI had been done. Obviously, when you read a script in the first place, there's kind of an on paper indication that this world is being created around these characters, and you have an idea, but you really don't know how it's going to look until you see it. I thought that Terry's imagination was wild, and you really get a measure of that on screen. I think they did a really brilliant job, the graphic designers creating that world.

Reports told us that there was a lot of improvisation, at least when Heath was playing Tony. While Heath was acting, did you have to improvise back, and did that spirit kind of continue when other people took on the role of Tony?

Yeah, I think there definitely was an atmosphere set up predominantly by Heath whereby all the actors could improvise. I don't think it was just improvising, but sort of manicuring the scripts, or tailoring it to how they felt it was more appropriate to generate their characters. It was quite a freeing process, because you see a line [that] you don't feel quite rings right when you say it, and you get to draw a line through it and change little things. Terry was very open as long as the message of the scene was still the same and the message of the movie was still flowing the same way, the words to get there didn't really matter. He wasn't hung up on what words we used, so it did create a nice, freeing atmosphere to contribute to the process.

What was your very first day on the set like?

Again, freezing. [Laughs] The heating wasn't working. It was the scene we shot in the home base where I'm doing a stage show. For whatever reason, the production's heating wasn't working that day. My memory of it was just trying not to be distracted by the fact that I was very cold.

Trying not to chatter and look blue on camera...

Yeah, exactly, which was probably a good thing because I was so nervous starting this film that the distraction of fighting the cold was probably a good distraction. [Laughs]

Did you talk to Christopher Plummer about "The Sound of Music?"

No. [Laughs] Actually, the first read-through we had, there was an indication in the script - it was called "The Doctor Parnassus Theme Tune," which is the music that comes into the movie every time people go into the world or he goes into his meditation. They hadn't figured out what music they were going to use yet, and Terry started humming "The Sound of Music" theme tune, and Christopher was like - it was quite explicit what he said, so I can't repeat it - he was like, "If you play that piece of something again, I'm leaving the room!" [Laughs] Funnily enough, the very last day of Christopher's filming, as a joke they played ["The Sound of Music"] on the speakers. [Laughs]

Was he filled with stories, Christopher Plummer, because he's been doing this forever, or was he kind of remote?

No, he's not remote at all. He's so charming and elegant and quite an amazing presence. He definitely tells some brilliant stories. He just wrote his biography, so even speaking to him about that, he was always full of these eloquent movie star quality stories of old, classic times. He was very entertaining.

What was Terry Gilliam like? On the set, does he have this wizard-like quality? Is he Doctor Parnassus?

There's definitely a lot of him in Doctor Parnassus. Obviously, when I watch the film, I don't see Terry - it's not entirely Terry's character - but the ideas within Doctor Parnassus are completely an embodiment of Terry's ideas. He's a really fascinating and brilliant man, so funny and so smart. You just met him, right?

Not yet. You're first.

Well, you'll find out. [Laughs] He's so full of ideas, he just doesn't compromise them or mediate them or cover them. He just spreads them on the idea and talks and talks and comes up with new and interesting ideas all of the time. There's no bullshit there and that's great. He'll be bluntly honest. It's all kind of up for grabs with him.

So he'll say, "That wasn't good, let's just do this take again." It won't be like, "Oh, do you think you could..."

Yeah, there is no tiptoeing around an issue at all, whatsoever. [Laughs]

Was that intimidating for you, this being your first major role?

Yeah, I think so. I went in without any kind of relativity of what directors are like or what to expect, so at the time I didn't really have a measuring stick of, "Oh, this is intimidating." Having worked with directors subsequently with different demeanors - whether it's more supportive or more gentle - I do realize, "Wow, that was quite a deep and difficult pond to be thrown into." [Laughs] At the same time, he's such an inspiring and interesting man that I don't mean to say anything negative. He's a real pleasure and honor to have worked with and I feel like I learned a lot having gotten to work with him.

Are you saying that Marilyn Manson is actually a gentler director than Terry Gilliam?

Yeah, I think so. [Laughs]

What did you do with Marilyn Manson?

It still hasn't been made, but we made...I guess a trailer or teaser kind of thing for it. It is - or was, not sure if it's still happening - called "Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll." It's a film based on the relationship between Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll.

So it's based on historical facts, or is it a dreamy kind of horror movie?

It's a mixture. Manson did a huge amount of research. He's read nearly all of Lewis Carroll's diary and a million books on it, so there are a lot of factual bases. At the same time, the script was very surreal and [fantastical] so it kind of takes that basis as a starting point and twists into it and becomes quite fictional.

But you're an adult Alice.

Now I am, yeah. [Laughs] This was supposed to happen like three or four years ago.

You played a 15-year-old in "Doctor Parnassus." How do you feel going back in time? Is it tough, or are you able to still look twelve, so it doesn't matter?

I think it's easier to go back in time than forward in time, because I have had those experiences of being a 15-year-old girl. It might be hard to play a 50-year-old woman, though I'd still be into doing it. But I guess I'm not always going to be able to play younger roles, so while I do have the opportunity from an aesthetic point of view, I have absolutely no objection to taking those on.

Do you find yourself taking anything from modeling and using it for acting, or are they two completely different entities?

They're similar in ways, but at the same time they're very different. I wouldn't have been so intimidated going onto this film if they were completely similar. I don't feel intimidated ever going to a modeling shoot. But it's very hard for me to quantify what exactly helps me, but if I tried to, I think it's probably working in a professional environment and having a lot of people in the room whose attention isn't directly on you but is kind of on you, and having cameras on you, and completely doing your own thing and trying not to be self-conscious about that.

There is a little bit of role-playing in modeling. It's never taken as far, which is why I kind of enjoyed acting so much, but you do have a character and a voice and a story to tell. There's an element to being part of a photographer's vision, of a story, when you model. It's a condensed little version of that, so yeah, there are definitely similarities.

Did any of the actors give you any advice that you really valued?

No specific advice. I think they were all cool enough to not try and patronize me or anything like that. I think there was definitely an understanding that I was very new and it was my first big, big film or role, so I felt like it was a very supportive environment that I was working in. Heath in particular - you asked me before about whether I was nervous - and when we'd be filming, he'd kind of give me [indecipherable] and was very supportive in that way. He also lent me and Andy Garfield [who plays Anton] a guy named Gerry Grennell, who is a very brilliant voice coach that worked with us, too.

What did you learn from the vocal coach?

Well, Terry wanted my voice to be more kind of gypsy, rougher English, rather than a well-spoken English accent, so I worked with him on that. Voice is so interrelated to character, and it helped me to explore this girl, Valentina.

What's next for you?

I'm still studying. I'm halfway through a degree in England, and then, I don't know. I have a few possibilities of films next year - I'm supposed to do a film and a few things that are kind of unconfirmed as of yet, so I'm open. I'm interested to see if anything else interesting can offer itself my way, and if not, my head is in the books. [Laughs]

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Heath Ledger and Lily Cole, opens in theaters in New York City and Los Angeles on December 25, 2009 and nationwide on January 8, 2010.

Tune into CBR later this week for our interview with Terry Gilliam, and check back next week for our review of "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."

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