It's hard to stand out in a movie like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which claims a big-name director (Terry Gilliam), big-name co-stars (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Tom Waits), and a big-name tragedy (the sudden death of Heath Ledger while filming). But Lily Cole manages to leave her mark in one of her first feature films, playing Valentina, the innocent but adventurous teenage daughter of the titular Doctor. The Brit took a break from her classes at Cambridge's King's College to explain to NYLON what Ledger taught her—and why she wants to be Uma Thurman.
With so much going on—including classes—how do you decide what projects are worth your time?
As you said, I'm still in school, and that takes up nearly half my year each year, and it will for just over a year. So it really narrows down my window of time. And then on top of that, I obviously have a personal life that I dedicate time to, so I have to be very selective about the work that I choose to do. The last few years I've done hardly any modeling; when it's with a brilliant photographer, or to support this film, for example, or it's very interesting, then I'll do it here and there. But for the most part, I've really enjoyed the process of acting, and I'd be more inclined to dedicate my time to that.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has such an amazing cast. Did you learn anything about acting while filming?
Nothing I'd pinpoint. But I think that I definitely learned from the experience, just because I didn't have any expectations or rules, so you kind of have to form an idea of what you're doing just by doing it, and by watching these other people and seeing how they do it. It's quite brilliant to learn from. I found that [with] Heath particularly, he's so fearless. I tried to acknowledge [that] and take [it] onboard as an important aspect of this process, because I myself had to put aside my fears and just go for the ride.
What's the deal with Phantasmagoria, Marilyn Manson's project about Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, in which you're set to play Alice?
I wish I could say that I knew. We did the trailer for it and the script is finished—it's a really brilliant script and I'd still love to do it. But Manson kind of went and made another record, and I think he's just been quite distracted from the possibility of making this film. I really don't know when, if ever, he'll manage to pull together the production of it.
So many models make the transition to acting. Who, in your opinion, has done it right?
Off the top of my head, Uma Thurman—who funny enough got her break in Terry [Gilliam]'s film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen—is a good example because she used to model, and she's obviously had a very interesting career. Charlize Theron I think has made really interesting choices, and she used to model—and she still does a little bit. I'm not really sure whom else—do you know any other actresses who have made that transition?
I remember seeing Gisele Bundchen in The Devil Wears Prada.
Nothing against her—I think she's an extraordinary woman, she's extraordinarily beautiful, and she's had an amazing career—but she's still a model. Whereas I'd like to act, and not really model so much. I wouldn't want to treat acting as a convenient thing to do now and again. I've just been doing modeling for years, and I feel like I've taken out of it what I need to, and I'm ready for new things.
You've walked the runway for Jean Paul Gaultier, you've posed on the cover of French Playboy, you've worked with Terry Gilliam, and you're about to graduate from college—is there anything left that you haven't done yet but would like to do?
[Laughs] I want to finish my degree, there are places in the world I'd like to travel to that I haven't, I'd like to make more films that are different roles and different situations. And them I'm sure there are other completely unrelated horizons; whether it's writing, playing piano, learning French, or painting, I'm still very inspired by the millions of possibilities in life.
Visit doctorparnassus.com for more info.