In Terry Gilliam’s modern-day fantasy, Lily Cole plays Valentina, the daughter of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who performs in his traveling theatre troupe. What she doesn’t know is that her father has gambled away her life to the devil, Mr Nick (Tom Waits) who has arrived to claim his gift – on her 16th birthday.

But Valentina has fallen in love with Tony (Heath Ledger), a charming outsider with motives of his own, who has joined the troupe.

During the shoot of the movie Heath Ledger died suddenly of an accidental overdose of prescription pills, throwing the production into chaos. But Terry Gilliam decided to continue the movie, cleverly using the magical mirror in the film to turn Tony into different personas, played out by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law.

I spoke with Lily about the movie and her impressions of Heath Ledger in his last performance.

What was the set of the stage like; it looked like a big pop-up book?

Valentina (Lily Cole) © Sony Pictures Classics
Valentina (Lily Cole) © Sony Pictures Classics

It’s exactly how it looks. It wasn’t fake at all, it was a real wagon they built that really could move and the stage really did fall out, and it was quite extraordinary. It was really, really well crafted.

Did you have any mishaps on it?

Yes, how did you know? The first week of rehearsals I fell twice on the same day, once because the mirror had a lip on the bottom, like a gap, and I had to run through it and I tripped on that and fell down. Which was a good fall, I got up, was fine, and carried on. Five minutes later we were rehearsing a scene where the guy is chasing me around the theatre before we run off and I punch him, and the stage was probably five or six feet off the ground, and they hadn’t put any enforcement around the sides yet and there was a blinding light coming up from the floor and I just went completely over the edge of the stage and onto the ground. I was quite lucky that I didn’t break my back or something.

When Heath passed on what was going back to this film like – how hard was that?

Predominantly I wanted to finish it, we’d had a month to absorb that situation which by no means is enough time to get over it, but it was a month to think about finishing the film and once Terry decided he wanted to finish it, it really wasn’t up to me. Then he decided to do it with three actors, who were going to definitely be friends of Heath’s, to come in and  fill those three parts, and that felt to me like a really, really beautiful gesture from those three men, and seemed to carry the spirit that everyone else had in trying to finish the film. Heath had really touched us all and we really loved him and he really worked incredibly hard in the first half of it and we were hoping to try and salvage his performance and salvage the film, and it was in that spirit that everyone was unified in trying to finish it.

What was it like working with Heath as an actor?

Tony (Heath Ledger) and Valentina (Lily Cole) © Sony Pictures Classics
Tony (Heath Ledger) and Valentina (Lily Cole) © Sony Pictures Classics

Really special, I feel very, very lucky. He was a very generous human being, very talented, really intensely gave 100% of himself to every circumstance, and I think all of those qualities are reflected in him as a actor. He was unending in his energy to contribute to his character, to contribute to the film, to try and support me and the other actors to do their best performances, and it was a very special experience.

Your next film is also a fantasy, albeit a much darker one, can you talk a little bit about Phantasmagoria and your role in it?

Phantasmagoria still has no production date. It’s a film about Lewis Carroll and Alice Little from Alice in Wonderland, the girl that Lewis Carroll wrote the book for. The premise of it therefore is non-fiction, but it gets very surreal and fictionalized and I’m due supposedly, if it ever happens, to play Alice and Marilyn Manson was going to play Lewis Carroll, and it kind of explores that relationship.

Does the Tim Burton, Johnny Depp movie have a lot to do with whether or not yours will go?

I have no idea how that works. It seems to me that sometimes if a certain theme is successful, it helps other movies get made, for example the Twilight and vampire explosion, or perhaps they can stifle it, I don’t really know dynamically how that works.

How does Marilyn Manson differ as a film maker from Terry Gilliam?

I think Manson’s a lot darker, the vision he’s setting out to make, he calls it a psychological Horror film. Whereas Terry’s is much more family friendly, I guess that’s the key distinction.

Because of the behind-the-scenes story with this film, it will direct the audience’s attention in a certain direction, is there something about the film you’re afraid people will overlook – how would you like people to see the movie?

Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), Valentina (Lily Cole) and Anton (Andrew Garfield) © Sony Pictures Classics
Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), Valentina (Lily Cole) and Anton (Andrew Garfield) © Sony Pictures Classics

I had a journalist who said that she’d taken her son to see it. He didn’t know the story line, he didn’t know about the death of Heath, and she wanted to see how he would enjoy it with that kind of innocence, and he loved it.

It’s an impossible thing to ask me because I do know that back story, but I would hope that people could try and push that aside for the two hours they’re watching it, to just see it as a story and a story that we all kind of set out to tell.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.