The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Just a few days after Heath Ledger’s death on Jan. 22, 2008, EW spoke with actor Christopher Plummer, with whom Ledger was starring in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a movie he was working on at the time of his death.
Last week in London, Heath Ledger was busy wrapping up nearly six weeks of long days and nights he’d spent at often-frigid outdoor locations, filming scenes for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But with Ledger’s death on Tuesday in New York, the movie has become a reported $30 million question mark, since there were additional weeks of studio-soundstage filming yet to be done in Vancouver.
Imaginarium is a fantasy tale, co-written and directed by Terry Gilliam, a filmmaker known for his outlandish visual invention (he previously worked with Ledger on 2005’s The Brothers Grimm). Christopher Plummer, who’s now 78, plays the title character, an eccentric theatrical trouper trapped in a deal with the devil (Tom Waits) that dooms Parnassus’s lovely daughter, Valentina (played by British-born model Lily Cole). Ledger was playing Tony, a roguish charlatan who gets mixed up with the troupe and begins a series of through-the-magic-mirror adventures to a strange parallel universe.
Early on Sunday, Jan. 20, Plummer boarded a plane back to New York and went on to his Connecticut home. Ledger took a different London-to-New-York flight and repaired to a SoHo apartment where, two days later, he was found dead. EW spoke with Ledger’s final costar about what happened, what the filming was like, and what may or may not become of the last scenes Ledger ever performed.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It seems incomprehensible.
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: We’re all a bit befuddled at the moment. It’s so sad. Heath did have a terrible, lingering bug in London, and he couldn’t sleep at all. We all — I thought he’d probably got walking pneumonia, which they seem to think he had. Of course I don’t really know, but that’s the latest.
Where had you been working?
In and around London. Lots of sinister-looking, horrible locations. Places like Battersea Power Station, where the interior’s all open, with huge hanging girders. The light comes in and creates this sort of vast, horrible Valpurgis Night. It’s a very sinister building, and it’s used sometimes for films. They shot some of [the new] Batman film in there. It’s a designated building, protected, so they can’t tear it down. It’s just standing there gaping at everybody. Very effective. The last few days we were shooting outside a pub. Always outside. Cold as bejesus. You know how damp it gets in London. And at night the temperature drops horribly, and that little breeze gets up. You have to wear tons of stuff.
How much is left undone on the film?
Oh, there’s an enormous amount left to do. This is why we were going to Vancouver. All the technical stuff, the green-screen, was to be done in Vancouver. God knows what’s going to happen now.
That seems like a pretty substantial blow to the movie.
Of course it is. The film wasn’t half made…. It’s just terrifying. It had so much going for it, and there was so much new stuff we were all going to put into it to help it along. It was a sort of work of invention, from all hands…. And Terry [Gilliam] has had this experience before, with [The Man Who Killed] Don Quixote, with Johnny Depp.
Which famously fell apart early in the filming.
And here it is again. My heart goes out to him because he’s worked so hard to get it off the ground. It just drives you mad thinking about it. I have no idea, and I can’t say, really, what’s going to happen to the film. We’re still in total shock over Heath’s death. It’s sort of literally unbelievable, because apart from the sleeping, he was in such good form…. There was a sweetness about him. He was a very charming and gentle guy, actually.
NEXT PAGE: ”He was in such a good, happy mood about the picture. He was enjoying the film thoroughly, and I’m here to say so.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Ledger had mentioned in a New York Times interview last fall that he had sleep troubles, and that he’d used sleeping aids to try to cope with that.
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: That’s interesting, I didn’t know that.
Did he ever seem or look tired on the set?
Oh no. Great energy. Always wonderful energy. In fact he did some of his own stunts just before we left London, some jumping and leaping about. Not horrendously dangerous stunts, but physically challenging stunts. Like leaping onto a rising stage from this rather quite high-up spot. He wants to do everything himself? Well that’s all right — he’s 28 years old. We all did. [Gentle laugh]…. Anyway, it’s so sad. I think he was just too over-exhausted: 28 years old, you think you can bounce back. But maybe not with heavy pneumonia on your chest.
There was an initial, seemingly groundless wave of speculation that it could be suicide, based on some inaccurate and incomplete reports about sleeping medications he kept in his apartment.
That doesn’t make any sense. He was looking forward — he was in such a good, happy mood about the picture. Looking forward to going to Vancouver. He was enjoying the film thoroughly, and I’m here to say so. He was also terribly excited about becoming a director.
Right — he was going to direct a movie about a chess prodigy, called The Queen’s Gambit.
I think that’s where most of his ambitions would have lain, for the future. That too is such a shame. He thoroughly embraced the profession, and loved it. He wasn’t suffering for his art at all. He was enjoying it.
Did he talk about wanting to direct?
He was very friendly with Terry Gilliam. They became very good friends on The Brothers Grimm and consequently bonded. And [on Doctor Parnassus] they would consult and they’d look and he’d watch, and he was fascinated. They were having such fun on this one. He was very inventive, Heath, and very versatile, as indeed many Australian actors are. They have a marvelous ear for accents and for character. He gave some very good ideas and pointers. As we all tried to do, but I think he was very serious about directing. Such a shame. He was so talented in so many areas.
You made a film with Terrence Malick a few years back, The New World — and Heath was at one point going to work with Malick on something called Tree of Life, though recent reports are that Ledger dropped out and Brad Pitt may take the role he would have played.
We never talked about that. You know, I didn’t get to know him very well…. There was no time for that, really. You had to take what you got with the weather, and you had to be always on call, standing there waiting for your shot. One could step into a car every now and then and get warm, but shooting at night in a big city, it’s not easy…. We were working in such dire conditions in London, outside every night in the cold. Which may have contributed somewhat to [the state of] his health. We were all armed with antibiotics all the time. It wasn’t exactly joyous, except that the film itself was fun to do.
NEXT PAGE: ”He stuck up for what were the right parts, and that’s very commendable. He didn’t succumb to any of those cheap temptations, and throwing himself into a huge variety of roles.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m only familiar with the broad strokes of the plot for Doctor Parnassus.
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: So were we all. [Laughs] I kept teasing Terry about that all the time. A lot of it is set down [broadly] and then improvised. A lot of the happenings are magical, and wonderfully Gilliam-esque and obscure. It’s sort of the Faust story in modern terms. Doctor Parnassus, whom I play, is sort of a modern-day Faust, who sells his soul to the devil. It’s full of visitations into another world, a rather Narnia-like world. Heath was playing a sort of young mountebank who comes upon the scene. It’s rather difficult to describe the plot. It’s a sort of wonderful yarn of fantasy, sometimes very funny. Heath [was playing] this young charlatan who’s brilliant at fooling people.
And Heath’s character would appear in various guises?
Heath was a harlequin in one scene, a tramp in another. His character steals a lot of the costumes that my character’s troupe have managed to hang on to, though they’re on their last legs. He’s rather like a younger version of my character — a magician who takes family on tour and invites the public to go through a mirror into this other world, the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. How can I describe it? He’s an interloper, who of course falls for the daughter. Or the daughter falls for him, I can’t quite follow it.
Like Johnny Depp, Heath had a strong reaction early on to being packaged as a ”heartthrob” and he fought very strongly against that. He didn’t want to be pigeonholed and stereotyped and turned into a commodity.
That’s quite right. He stuck up for what were the right parts, and that’s very commendable. He didn’t succumb to any of those cheap temptations, and throwing himself into a huge variety of roles.
Was his daughter or anyone else from his family able to be on the set at all, to come and see him?
No, no, no. Just his driver and his friend from Ireland who was helping him. The last day, the last night [Saturday, Jan. 19] we were all working, and then he flew to New York, as I did, the next day. We weren’t on the same plane, but he flew early, and we were looking forward to continuing on.
And you were scheduled to regroup in Vancouver next week?
Yeah. I don’t dare say what will happen until we’ve talked with Terry [Gilliam]. Probably nobody will know until the end of this week what’s going to happen. I spoke to Terry yesterday. We’re all in shock, but he particularly, of course…. It’s just awful. Quite shocking, because it’s so incredible. I just left a very laughing, happy fellow, practically a few minutes ago.
See more from EW on the life and career of Heath Ledger::
Heath Ledger: 1979-2008
Heath Ledger: His Career in Pictures
Heath Ledger: An EW Critic’s Tribute
Heath Ledger: A PopWatch Tribute and Reader Comments