Fantasy on the real

Profile Supermodel, stellar student and budding actress: it's all in a day's work for Lily Cole.

Lily Cole attends the Julien MacDonald show during the Spring/Summer 2007 London Fashion Week collections, at the Hilton Hotel, Park Lane, central London.
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"I was the face of the year: last year." Lily Cole couldn't have asked for a more apt first line than the one she is given in Rage, the director Sally Potter's alternative look at the New York fashion industry. It's the perfect statement on how the life of a model is usually a short one; over in the time it takes to strip off a set of false eyelashes. That is, unless you are one of the exalted clan of supermodels. Cole burst into this club when she appeared on the cover of Italian Vogue in 2003 and ever since it's been clear that the lady born in Torbay in the south-west of England on May 19, 1988 is nothing less than super.

There are several features of Cole's stand-out looks that make it no surprise that she was approached to model on a London street when she was 14: flame-red hair, an oval face, pencil-thin lips, skyscraper legs and porcelain skin. In person, these features look gangly and awkward, but filtered through a lens, they are incredibly photogenic. However, concentrating on Cole's looks would do her an injustice because what has made her stand out from the model crowd has nothing to do with magazine covers or catwalks. She achieved 5 A-grade A-levels and is currently reading history of art at Cambridge University. Then there is the nascent acting career that began with a turn in St Trinian's. It continues with her performance as a model in Rage, after which comes her appearance in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the movie that Heath Ledger was making when he died last year.

Usually models turn to acting when they're nearing the end of their careers. It's partly why the acronym MTA - model turned actress - is so maligned. Strangely, it seems that the redhead shares some of the scepticism that accompanies models when they try their hand in front of a motion rather than a still camera. "I can't speak for models that start acting at the end of their career, but it says a lot if they're not interested in acting at a younger age," Cole says in a matter of fact way that suggests she does not intend it to sound catty.

She continues: "I've always been interested in acting, and I feel a lot more interested in acting than modelling, so it's something that I've pursued. In the same way, there is a generalisation that most models don't study while they are working, but I did it." Cole says that it didn't take long for her fellow students to stop looking at her as famous and see her for what she is, just another undergraduate. "It was strange going to university at first," she says. "But this was more because most of my friends were older than me and I was suddenly surrounded with people my own age. But this had a lot to do with fear and fear in itself is juvenile. It didn't take long for most people to get over the fact that I was in their class and realise that I'm pretty normal. I look bad on Monday mornings, I'm sometimes boring, at other times exciting, just like everyone else."

Rage is an unusual film in that it is a series of monologues cut together. None of the actors met each other on set. All talk straight-to camera, and had two days to film their monologues. Cole found kinship with the role she ended up playing because of the similarities between her own career and that of the character, marvellously named Lettuce Leaf. "Although it was a character, I could see things from my own career in her, especially the sense of loneliness that comes from working at a really young age and grappling with all the many different characters that you meet in the fashion world," she says.

There is no one in the cast better placed than Cole to judge how effectively Potter is in capturing the crazy world of fashion. In this department, the supermodel gives the director a mixed score card. "It isn't fashion how I've necessarily experienced it," say Cole. "But I think that is part of the point and power of Rage. These are caricatures and they all have humanity and a reality that emerges as they break down because of the events that happen. It uses fashion and the dramatic idea of death to expose real and relevant issues about the world."

Death was something that the actress had to deal with during the filming of Dr Parnassus and she speaks highly of the late Ledger, saying: "He was an extraordinary person, very talented. I feel very lucky to have got to know him." After his death, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law stepped into Ledger's considerable boots. Of the sudden changes to the cast and direction of the film, Cole puts it all into context: there is always something unusual happening on a Gilliam set. "So many parts of that situation were very strange, so it's hard to isolate one from another," she explains. "It was just an extraordinary experience all round, the actors involved were all amazing. I think, essentially, Terry is brilliant and decides only to work with brilliant people. I just felt lucky to be a part of it. They are all there because they like art and want to make interesting films. It was my first exposure to such a large scale, collaborative process."

Cole is also set to star in the rocker Marilyn Manson's long-gestating fantasy movie Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll, where she is scheduled to play Alice, but from her exasperation ("If they managed to produce it then I shall be in it"), one suspects that the film may be a long time in coming. The films that she is connected to all have something of fantasy about them and this is something that Cole believes is connected to her modelling career. She says of her attraction to fantasy roles: "In all honesty, part of it is lent to my aesthetic. Often when modelling, I do the fantasy type of pictures: big stories, things that aren't generic. A lot of the imaginations of photographers working on these shoots are in the realm of fantasy. I really admire and love the way that they think and I feel lucky to be part of that."

Cole's whole life seems to be one big fantasy. It's the dream of many to study at Cambridge or to have an apartment in New York, and Cole can already check off those boxes. However, the way she puts it, everything seems so mundane. Now she needs to conjure up a trick of her own and become one of the few universally known for their modelling that also make a successful fist of it in the movies. So far the signs are good: she has worked with interesting directors such as Potter and Gilliam, and if she is half as successful an actress as she's been a student and model, there's no doubting that Cole will become a fixture in our movie theatres.