Terry Gilliam needs a muse. The 69-year-old director of Twelve Monkeys and Brazil came close to finding one back in 1988, when he cast a then-unknown Uma Thurman in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. But she left him for another rebel named Quentin and, according to Gilliam, “she never came back.” Two decades later, Gilliam’s latest film,The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, features another otherworldly acting novice with blue saucers for eyes: supermodel Lily Cole. The 21-year-old Brit plays the title character’s doomed daughter, who aches for a suit-and-tie husband and white picket fence, in a welcome return to surreal form for the director.
A collision of reality and ayahuasca, the film is pure Gilliam — and so were the difficulties involved in making it. On-set disasters flock to Gilliam like pigeons to breadcrumbs. His 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha chronicled the catastrophes that befell The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, with injury, flashfloods and NATO target practice all contributing to that film’s eventual eighty-sixing. A more heart-wrenching stroke of bad luck haunted Doctor Parnassus: the untimely death of leading man Heath Ledger. Out of respect for Ledger and Gilliam, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell signed on to play various incarnations of Ledger’s character, salvaging a film that looked momentarily doomed. With Doctor Parnassus about to arrive in theaters, we sat down with Gilliam and Cole to discuss the redhead’s “alien beauty,” Ledger’s kindness and whether or not they’ll ever work together again.
Terry Gilliam: I think we should talk about how it all began. We wanted to cast somebody extraordinary as the daughter of Parnassus, and Irene Lamb, the casting director, said, “We need someone who looks 16, but is older so that we don’t have to worry about child labor laws.” Lily Cole: I got the part because I was legal? TG: Well, you’re extraordinary and legal. I had seen pictures of you and thought, Well, there’s somebody who looks different than the average woman. LC: Alien beauty, I was told. TG: It was like there was a doll face from some 19th-century porcelain factory staring back at me. Then we met at the screen test.
Terry, you’ve said that after the screen test you knew right away Lily was the one. TG: I was lying. The screen test was kind of clunky. But Lily could put words together and I thought, Her attitude is right, her intelligence is right and her ballsiness seems right, so let’s take a gamble. She can’t act but she thinks she can, and that’s the important thing [laughing]. LC: I don’t know if you can see me shaking in the film, but it wasn’t because of nerves. It was freezing and the heaters weren’t working. TG: I couldn’t tell what you were thinking, but I knew there was something distracting you — turns out it was the cold! I don’t want to make it all sound extreme, but we shot Parnassus in the middle of winter. Physically, it was painful and bitter beyond belief. I sometimes think that’s a good thing, though, because you’re not thinking about acting. LC: I’ve been through some pretty bad stuff, but never for such a long period of time. I’ve done a bunch of shoots in chateaus outside of Paris in the dead of winter. But I was 14 or 15, way too sweet to complain about dying of cold. TG: Years ago, when we did Brazil, Robert De Niro finished his bit but we needed extra pick-up shots, so I put on his costume to play his hands. And I suddenly realized how horrible it was. It was so heavy and hot.
Lily, were you nervous? LC: At the beginning, I was very nervous. I remember our first read-through, when it was me, you, Heath [Ledger], Christopher [Plummer] and Andrew [Garfield]. I was so nervous because I suddenly realized the gravity of everyone in that room. It wasn’t like I had a clear blueprint to follow so part of the process of becoming comfortable with my character was figuring out who she was, and who you wanted her to be. TG: Heath was incredibly good at drawing you out as well. LC: He asked me before we started if I was nervous, and then he said, “Don’t worry, I always am, too.” That sympathy — well, not sympathy, because he wasn’t patronizing — that support was very important. When I’d come off set after a good scene he’d say, “I’m really proud of you.” He was always quietly encouraging. TG: Andrew was also struggling to find his character. He thought he was good friends with Heath, but when we started rehearsal, Heath became the character of Tony and turned into a real shit. LC: I didn’t know that Andrew and Heath were good friends. TG: They had bumped into each other through the masses, I think. When we started rehearsing, Heath decided that Tony was an asshole and that Andrew’s character was his competition, so he cut him off at the knees. Andrew tried to improvise like Heath, but he wasn’t as good, and he did it in an aggressive way, which just wasn’t working. But there was one scene when it clicked, where it was magic and laughter. LC: Was there any point when it clicked with me? TG: For a long time, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. You contain yourself so well, which makes it hard to know if you need help, or if you’re in trouble. I couldn’t quite figure you out. If we pushed you too hard you went in one direction, and only that direction, missing your subtleties. But on the second go you would find them. I’m not a good acting coach. I’ve got too many other things to do.
LC: When I did this film with Sally Potter [Rage], it was just me and her, and there were no effects. There was nothing else for her to concentrate on except my performance. But when we were filming Parnassus, you had eight different elements that you were trying to control and, as an actor, I did feel less guided. But, in some ways, I think it’s brilliant that you trust your actors and leave them to their own devices. You’re actually pretty calm on set. The chaos is spun around you because you create it. TG: Humor is one of the keys, isn’t it? It’s fucking hard work. It’s miserable and horrible, but if you’ve got good company, you can laugh and get through it. I don’t know why anybody wants to make movies. I always forget my old movies, and that’s why I make new ones. It’s like selective memory. Acting on film, especially, you’re sitting around doing bugger-all most of the time. LC: I was doing quite a lot, actually. There wasn’t that much sitting around in my trailer. TG: Well, you were constantly being fiddled with. She needs this huge gang of people to make her who she is. You had to spend how many hours in a chair? It was terrible. LC: But I love being in the hair-and-makeup chair. I specifically asked you to give me as much hair and makeup as possible. I spent half the shoot in that chair.
Lily, what were your impressions of Terry before meeting him? LC: I had seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but I’d never heard of him. TG: Bitch! What a fucking bitch! You knew it was going to be a party. It’s the same old thing: I treat her badly and she hates me. LC: I’d love to work with you again! TG: I don’t see why you should. Uma never came back! Some of the things I write are penance — I don’t know what for, but I suspect I’ve done some terrible things. And leaping into the deep-end always intrigues me, maybe because I’m so riddled with doubt and uncertainty that I want to see what happens. LC: I’m the same way. TG: That’s what I suspected, which is why I said, Let’s throw her over the edge. Don’t give her a lifesaver and see if she swims. LC: And did I? TG: You swam beautifully.
Gilliam wears T-Shirt by Gap, Pants by J. Lindeberg, Jacket by Prada. Cole wears dress by Naeem Khan, Necklace by Elie Tahari, Shoes by Barbara Bui, Bracelets by Malene Birger. Photography by Mark Zibert. Styling by Amy Lu. Special thanks to Holt Renew and Specchio.