Not many supermodels have made graceful transitions from the runway to the big screen, but Lily Cole may prove an exception. The doll-faced redhead started walking in top shows all over the world at age 14, became the youngest model ever to cover British Vogue at age 16 and at 21 stars in Terry Gilliam's new fantasy film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
"Over time I started to absorb what I was doing and who I was working with," she told the Huffington Post about landing the role of the female lead, Valentina. "It was a really, really amazing team to have been asked to be a part of."
That dream team included Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Brazil) and Christopher Plummer, who plays Cole's 1,000-year-old magician father fighting to save her from the Devil--a delightfully sinister Tom Waits. And Heath Ledger, who played Cole's love interest in his last big-screen appearance and died while they were shooting.
"There was this huge void," said Cole. "There was this very energetic person and force that was there previously that was now gone. Everyone really, really loved him."
Gilliam, determined to finish the project, brought the cast and crew back together about a month after Ledger's death and created a plot device that would allow shooting to continue: a magic mirror that changed the appearance of those who went behind it. Instead of playing opposite Ledger, Cole was filming scenes with Colin Farrell, Jude Law and Johnny Depp, who all stepped forward to try to finish the work their good friend had started.
Depp was the first one to sign on. "They were friends and it was really wonderful to see him come in and seamlessly pick up this character," Cole said. She filmed more of her scenes with Farrell, who "had a really hard time because he'd lost a friend and he was grieving him and he had to try and embody him."
The finished product is an ambitious, if patchwork, tribute to Ledger, and Cole said his friends have found it unsettling. She and others have had a difficult time watching him resurrected in a Dali-esque dream world.
"It's such an emotional journey to have been part of, and to watch it condensed into two hours is very strange," she said. "At the same time, I haven't seen him in nearly two years now so it's kind of nice to see him animated on screen how I remember him."
Cole's good friend Gemma Ward, who shares her otherworldly gorgeous alien-like features, was rumored to be seeing Ledger at the time of his death. She has since been a fashion industry target for her departure from waifdom and disappeared from the modeling world. When asked about Ward's reaction to the movie, Cole simply said, "I think she's seen it."
Cole says most of her own modeling days are behind her. Now a second-year student at Cambridge University where she studies art history, she hasn't walked in shows for more than two years. But she still picks up a campaign here and there because "it's better than waiting tables as a way to sustain yourself as a young actress."
She recently appeared in black lingerie atop a giant horse float to promote Sonia Rykiel's H&M collection and stripped down even further for the 2010 Pirelli calendar.
"You know you're going to do at least topless," she said. "We were in Brazil and it was such a beautiful country and it was enjoyable."
Cole has posed nude before, full on for a Juergen Teller in French men's magazine Paradis (NSFW) in 2007, and as a Lolita-type pinup in French Playboy (NSFW) in 2008. She has endured criticism for these choices but isn't really worried about them.
"With acting, if I'm any good at it, my modeling career would never be a hindrance but would rather be a help," she said. "And if I'm not, then it doesn't really matter."The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens Christmas day. WATCH the trailer: