Change is an essential part of the life of any model. Their careers are generally made up of a seriesof revolving doors: They work in an industry that is not only driven by the power of change but also demands that a successful model continually transform herself by the hour, the dress, and the pose.
It is, however, an altogether different kind of transformation that is setting model Lily Cole, 21, apart from her counterparts. Born in Devon, England, the ginger-haired Cole was only 14 when she was scouted outside a burger bar in London’s Soho. Signed by Storm, she appeared in a career-defining Steven Meisel shoot for Italian Vogue in 2003 (since then, she’s appeared on numerous Vogue covers internationally). She’s walked for Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, and DKNY and is such a well-known face in her homeland that high-street chain Marks & Spencer did not drop the star despite calls to do so after she appeared on the cover of French Playboy.
Cole then shattered the general model stereotype of gliding through life on her looks by attending Cambridge University, where she is currently a sophomore studying art history. But perhaps Cole’s greatest transformation occurred when she decided to get into acting. In 2005, Marilyn Manson announced that he’d chosen Cole to star in his feature-film directorial debut,
Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll. While waiting for that project to start (as of yet, it still has no production date), she acted in her first movie, playing a dorky schoolgirl in directors Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson’s remake of St. Trinian’s (2007) and followed that up with a role as a model called Lettuce Leaf in Sally Potter’s bold, experimental catwalk murder mystery, Rage. This season, though, she takes her most high-profile turn to date, appearing as Heath Ledger’s love interest in the Australian actor’s final film, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (out in December). As befits someone ranked on the Sunday Times 2008 Young Rich List, she has houses in both New York and London. We meet a stone’s throw from her London residence, at the Champagne Bar in St. Pancras station, watching people hop on to the Eurostar train to Paris.
In magazines I don’t have very much control. If a picture of me is great, then great. If it’s not so good, it’s not my fault. . . . That is one of the things that I like about acting. I do have a lot more control over what I’m doing and more responsibility.Lily Cole
KALEEM AFTAB: Here we are at a train station, but over the summer I felt like a car person as I road-tripped across America!
LILY COLE: Cars are very inspiring. I love to get out there and do a proper road trip, along with taking trains and Greyhound buses.
AFTAB: When I was in the U.S., I couldn’t work out the train schedule and was always worried about ending up in random places.
COLE: Yeah, but that’s usually better—you have the element of surprise. There is a good Lewis Carroll quote: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” It’s saying, “Just choose the road.”
AFTAB: I prefer cycling. I’m always impressed, whenever I go to Cambridge, by how many bikes are at the station.
COLE: I have a bike, but I don’t park it at the station. The station is like a cesspit of cycles.
AFTAB: There are probably some bikes that have been there for 25 years.
COLE: Totally. And eight other bikes are probably trying to rape that bike. It’s all a bit ugly, so I don’t take my bike there. I don’t think it’s nice to put it in so much danger. I once had a bike with a basket, and it was stolen. They took the basket off and left it on the ground. I think it was the most hurtful part of the ordeal! I bought the bike because it had a nice basket, and they just left it there. I had to take some photos of it.
AFTAB: How do you like Cambridge?
COLE: I’m in the second year. I found last year really weird. It was hard to settle in. I was a bit shell-shocked. But I think everyone finds that. This year is much nicer, and the courses are a lot harder.
AFTAB: You couldn’t have picked a harder place to study. Everyone I know who went there kept on popping speed to stay awake and study.
COLE: I think that is the biggest waste of drugs ever. I don’t even drink coffee!
AFTAB: Were you happy to get away from modeling? I know a lot of models eventually grow to hate it.
COLE: It’s a very funny job. I think in some ways people kind of hate it, but most models recognize that it’s a pretty easy job to make a lot of money at in a relatively short time, and you get to travel the world and meet a lot of interesting people. There are extreme highs and extreme lows. I think if it were as clear-cut as “models hate it,” then they wouldn’t do it. I really enjoyed a lot of the actual aspects of it, but not enough to make it my primary job. It can be quite empty, which is why I pursued other things.
AFTAB: Do you think modeling helped you to get into movies?
COLE: Maybe Terry [Gilliam] would have cast me in Doctor Parnassus even if I’d never modeled before, but the fact that I was in the public eye helped me get that job.
AFTAB: What’s the main difference between modeling and acting?
COLE: I look at myself differently. I think in magazines I don’t have very much control. If a picture of me is great, then great. If it’s not so good, it’s not my fault. I have less control in that situation. That is one of the things that I like about acting: I do have a lot more control over what I’m doing and more responsibility.
“It’s really nice to see Heath [Ledger] again on-screen—to see him as I knew him. It’s nice to be able to acknowledge how wonderful he was and what a generous contribution he made to film and see what a loss it was.”Lily Cole
AFTAB: Doctor Parnassus has been overshadowed by the death of Heath Ledger. Does watching the film give you good or bad memories?
COLE: Mostly good memories. It’s really nice to see the film and to see Heath again on-screen—to see him as I knew him. It’s nice to be able to acknowledge how wonderful he was and what a generous contribution he made to film and see what a loss it was. But it is certainly very weird and horrible to talk about his death over and over again. Actually, the last time I came to this bar was with Heath.
AFTAB: Did you know him before the film?
COLE: I met him a few months before shooting, but that was because Terry brought us together. It’s a huge thing to deal with. Everyone has to deal with death at some point, and it was the first time that I had to deal with it so close to me. I assume it will stay with me for the rest of my life, as it’s quite a seismic shift.
AFTAB: After that movie, you did Rage with Sally Potter. You play a model in it, so there is a chance everyone is going to think you’re just playing yourself.
COLE: Lettuce Leaf, the character I play, is definitely a distinct character from me. When I watch it, I’m not watching myself at all. I definitely think that I was the only actor in that film who ever actually worked in the fashion world. But my experience in modeling is very far from who I portray in the film. Obviously, I’ve never seen models die on the catwalk. But I do think that there are things about being in a show and being backstage that I could utilize for the role. I’ve worked as a model since I was 14, and an important aspect of Lettuce Leaf’s character is that vulnerability of being a young adult in a grown-up industry and grappling with these issues on quite a philosophical level, too. I think that the character’s philosophical meandering was written into the script after Sally met me. She’d kind of rewrite the characters to fit the actors.
AFTAB: You are still slated to star in the Manson film about Lewis Carroll. It was announced with such a fanfare, but nearly five years on, do you think it will even happen?
COLE: I don’t know! I would love it. I think that he’s a brilliant man and the script was really brilliant, so if it does happen one day, I’m eager to be a part of it. I saw Manson a few weeks ago, and he was in such good form—so funny and smart and witty. I hope he can put it together; I know he’s been distracted with music and horses and other things.
AFTAB: He’s a peculiar character. Does that make you feel wary of doing the project, because he’s so up-and-down?
COLE: He’s a real artist. I was actually very wary about doing the project in the first place. I was so young and naïve and didn’t want to make a horror film with Marilyn Manson.
AFTAB: So why agree to do it?
COLE: Because when I met him, he was so interesting and intelligent. I think I saw Bowling for Columbine , and he gave such a good quote in it that I thought, I should meet this man. I met him, and I just fell into it. I think he’d make something quite different. Who knows if it would be good or not? But it would be an artistic risk either way.
AFTAB: Which of the artists you’re studying have wowed you?
COLE: A few scattered throughout history. [Mark] Rothko is one of my favorites.
AFTAB: I can’t stand Rothko.
COLE: It really is a love/hate thing. I took my boyfriend to see an exhibition of his work here, and he was just like, “Whatever!” It’s not his cup of tea at all. I just love it. There is something very emotive about it. I wonder if it’s a gender thing. Most of the people I know who like his stuff are girls.
AFTAB: What else are you working on?
COLE: I’m writing an essay on minimalism. About Eva Hesse.
AFTAB: Minimalism is how I’m redoing my house at the moment.
COLE: Interior design is ruining minimalism.
COLE: Well, when minimalism first surfaced, it was antibourgeois, and now all the boutique shops are designed that way. It’s been robbed of its politics.
Kaleem Aftabis a London-based screenwriter,producer, actor, and stand-up comedian.