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Mary Harron’s THE MOTH DIARIES (currently available on
demand and opening in select theaters this Friday, April 20 from IFC Films) has
been described as a vampire movie, but that’s not quite right. It’s just as
much a modern Gothic mystery, and at its center is a beautiful enigma named
Ernessa, played by Lily Cole, who explored her character in an exclusive Fango
In the film, Ernessa is a newcomer to an elite boarding
school for girls who draws classmate Lucy (Sarah Gadon) under her spell—much to
the concern of Lucy’s best friend Rebecca (Sarah Bolger). Already grieving her
father’s death, Rebecca becomes convinced that Ernessa is a vampire, and
responsible for the deaths that begin to occur on campus. And yet, as presented
by writer/director Harron (adapting Rachel Klein’s novel), those demises could
just be accidents and Rebecca’s suspicions of Ernessa might just be jealousy.
MOTH DIARIES is one of a few notable journeys into the unreal for Cole, who
previously co-starred in Terry Gilliam’s THE IMAGINATION OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS
and later this year appears in the epic screen fairy tale SNOW WHITE AND THE
FANGORIA: Ernessa is a difficult character to get a handle
on, because we see her through Rebecca’s unreliable point of view. How concrete
was the character on the page, and in your mind when you were performing her?
LILY COLE: That’s a very good question. I was really drawn
to the character because, as you said, she’s unusual and hard to pin down, and
I love the ambiguity of the narrative in general. You don’t know how much of it
is Rebecca’s projection onto her, or how much to believe of what Rebecca’s
accusing her of. I tend toward reality, obviously, in terms of the way I approach
a character, because it makes it much more tangible and easier to relate to.
And I really like the idea of the vampire as a metaphor for the dynamics in
human relationships, where something can be manipulative and dark. We played
with how far we could push those dynamics, while still having empathy for
Ernessa, in a way, even if it doesn’t come across when you see it.
It was actually very interesting when I first saw the film;
I was like, “Oh my God, she’s really creepy.” Because I didn’t set out to play her
that way; even if you’re ultimately playing a creepy character, you have to
empathize with where they’re coming from, to the point of becoming that person.
FANG: To your mind, is Ernessa a vampire, or is that just in
COLE: Personally, I like to think that a lot of that is in
Rebecca’s head, but I also like to keep it a question mark, because I think
that it would be to the film’s detriment, in a way, to say one way or another.
I know ROSEMARY’S BABY was one of Mary’s main reference points while we were
making it, and I love that film so much. At the end, even though you have that
scene that’s quite concrete where you see the witch setup upstairs, you still
come away from the film—well, I did anyway—thinking, “Did she just imagine
that?” You could compare that to the scene where I’m in the trunk, which is
quite definitive visually when you see it. But actually, Rebecca’s gone down
this mental journey to such an extent that you don’t know if that’s reliable at
FANG: Then there’s the “shower of blood” scene, which could
be a fantasy as well.
COLE: Yeah, exactly. The way I liked to think of it was that
regardless of the vampire idea or the reality or whatever, there’s a truth in
the metaphor in terms of why she’s playing with Rebecca, and the alter-ego
manipulation, that was really interesting to explore.
FANG: The shower of blood also looks like it was very
uncomfortable to film. How was your experience shooting that?
COLE: Kind of cool. I like doing stuff that’s surreal, so it
was like, when am I ever in a library with red liquid being poured down on me
and then watching it. They’d given us these little cameras to film
behind-the-scenes stuff, and I just filmed obsessively where it was dripping
onto the table and the books, because the whole table became this bloodbath. It
was visually quite amazing. I think if I had been doing that every day for
three months, it probably would have been a bit much, but as it was, for those
two days, it kept its charm in a way. And everyone treats you special when
you’re walking around covered in red [laughs].
FANG: Did you go back to the source novel while shooting, or
were you familiar with it before you even got the role?
COLE: I didn’t know the book before I got the role, but
obviously when I got involved with the film, I read it. And Rachel Klein came
up when we were filming, which was great, and I got to have a conversation with
her about the characters, the story, etc. I don’t think I went back to it once
we were filming, because I kind of went into the space of the film, if that
makes sense, but previously I used it as a big reference point.
FANG: Did you ever go to a school like the one in the movie?
COLE: Not as extreme, but I did go to a girl’s school, yeah.
So I definitely knew about those tumultuous female relationships, and how some
girls can be bitches and some can be more gentle. I had—obviously not as
extreme as in the film—but sadly, I did see those dynamics all through school,
especially in my teenage years. I was always probably more on the side of
Rebecca and Lucy than Ernessa, which was why it was really interesting to play
this part. I wasn’t the bullying one, but I definitely saw those dynamics. I
was bullied as well when I was younger, so it was interesting to turn it on its
head and explore it.
FANG: Actors and actresses often say it’s more fun playing
the villain; did you find that was true of Ernessa, even though she’s not as
concrete a villain as usual?
COLE: Yes and no. It was definitely very interesting, and I
would like to go back to that territory again because it pushes me as a
actress. Trying to have empathy and understand somebody who’s cruel is not an
experience I tend to have in my daily life, thank God [laughs], so it’s
challenging to do that. It expands, potentially, my sense of myself. But it’s
quite dark and not something I’d like to repeat right away, so I was quite
happy to do SNOW WHITE afterward. To play a character who’s heartfelt and light
is a nicer space to be in as an actress.
FANG: MOTH DIARIES was kind of a unique experience: You were
surrounded by a cast of almost entirely other women, you had a woman writing
and directing from a book by a female author. Was there a different vibe on the
set because of that?
COLE: Yeah; I mean, ST. TRINIAN’S, the first film I did, was
predominantly female, and I actually came into it slightly nervous that with a
lot of young actresses, there was going to be quite a lot of tension. But I
became great friends with one of them and friends with the others. It was a
nice dynamic, and didn’t feel antagonistic in that way. I love working with
female directors—I did RAGE with Sally Potter too—because for one, they’re a
minority, so the feminist in me is happy to have a female director. But also,
with both Sally and Mary, they’ve got an intuitiveness and a sense of nurturing
that’s really nice to work with.
FANG: Your second film was THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR
PARNASSUS, by the mad genius Terry Gilliam. What was that experience like?
COLE: Umm…mad [laughs]. It kind of felt like my first film,
because my actual first film, ST. TRINIAN’S, I did because it was a great
ensemble to be a part of. There wasn’t huge pressure in the part, so I was able
to feel out the dynamics of being on set and remembering to say my lines at the
right moment—those things that now seem obvious and easy, but are kind of
intimidating the first time you’re actually on a film set. I’m very glad I did
that, to get those initial nerves out of the way. But then to go immediately
into DOCTOR PARNASSUS and be a lead among very experienced actors was certainly
intimidating. And the chaos of the production—I say that with charm and
enthusiasm, not with resentment—and how much was going on, and how demanding
they were and the lead actors being there every day and every night… I didn’t
realize it was…not an anomaly, but it wasn’t like every experience on a film
set. In a way, it was a blessing. I look back on it like a baptism by fire [laughs].
I didn’t quite know this wasn’t the normal way.
FANG: Of course, you all had to deal with the tragedy of
Heath Ledger’s death during filming. How much did that impact your work on the
COLE: I know how it impacted me as a person, but I don’t
know how it impacted on my work. It was, in all honesty, very challenging, and
I didn’t realize it until later. I didn’t do a lot of interviews afterward, and
nobody really asked about that, but coming back was very difficult for
everybody because of the emotions involved. Although, to be honest, in a
situation like that, actually having something to do and some sense of…not
purpose, but a place to put all this emotion in a way that could be valuable…
And I didn’t really think about the dynamic of playing Valentina, my character,
against Tony, Heath’s character, with other actors in the role, and that being
kind of bizarre, until we actually came to the day and I did my scenes with
Colin [Farrell]. I, as myself, was very aware of the tragedy of what was
missing and different about the situation, as was everyone else involved, but I
was obviously playing a character who was oblivious and trying to play out the
same relationship and dynamics. So it was a very weird experience.
FANG: Is fantasy and horror something you want to keep
pursuing? Are you attracted to those kinds of projects?
COLE: Probably they’re more attracted to me [laughs]. I
don’t mind. I’m totally open to “real” genres too, and hope to do as many
reality-based films as fantasy and horror. But I think that within fairy tales
and, as we were touching on, the vampire metaphor, those are often loaded with
touch-points in reality that really resonate. Not just with me as an actor, but
with audiences, and that’s why they still have recurring appeal over the
centuries, where you can have this combination of escapism and tapping into, in
a subtle way, human dynamics. So yeah, I think a bit of both; the main points
that interest me are who’s directing it, who’s the character, who are the other
actors and what’s the story. So the genre’s not my prime point of focus.
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