Lily Cole on Doctor Who, Russell Brand, politics – and the weird world of modelling

The model and actress plays Helen of Troy in a new radio version of Homer's Iliad - but she's got her sights set on politics

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It probably says more about Doctor Who fans than it does about Lily Cole, but of all the achievements the supermodel has crammed into her 26 years – Karl Lagerfeld’s muse, Cambridge double first in art history, actress and internet entrepreneur – her brief cameo on the nation’s favourite sci-fi drama is the thing that has attracted more fan mail than anything else.

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“I remember sitting in the make-up chair being painted green all day,” Cole laughs about her 2011 appearance in Matt Smith-era episode The Curse of the Black Spot, where she played a fire-conjuring, man-eating siren. “I remember looking quite good being green.”

But it’s perhaps also oddly fitting. Because the actress with the strikingly beautiful face is considering going green permanently. Green in a political sense, that is.

“I’m definitely tending in that direction,” she says when we meet in an east London photography studio. She was due to see her local Green Party parliamentary candidate to discuss policy later that day and had already had an audience with Green MP Caroline Lucas.

“I think there should be more Greens. That’s my feeling. I haven’t committed to it yet because I am investigating it still. But they are the only ones I don’t feel totally disillusioned with right now. I might shortly became one… I’ll let you know.”

It’s a measure of Cole’s seriousness of mind that her vote has to be won so hard. This young woman, who has worked with most of the leading global fashion brands since she was spotted as a 14-year-old schoolgirl by a modelling scout, is also now fully devoted to the serious business of making it as an internet entrepreneur.

After the 2008 banking crisis and a meeting with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, she formulated an idea for a new website called impossible.com. It’s designed for people to post their wishes in a bid to encourage small acts of kindness – essentially trading things without money.

With the motto “Do good, feel good”, it seeks to create value from human skills rather than currency, and has been live for a year. It’s a non-profit-making business that doesn’t pay Cole a salary (she finances herself – and the business – with her savings, earnings from other work and with the support of other businesses, individuals and a government grant) and she’s currently devising a proper business plan to put it on a more stable footing.

Cole with Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

“It’s baby steps but it’s going well. I hope it’s going to be more impactful than it has been so far, but I know that’s going to take time. The fact that it’s even alive, that it’s gone from an idea to a real thing and that there is a community using it and getting value from it means a lot. But we still have a long way to go on the journey.”

Away from her digital ambitions, she spent three months in 2014 playing Helen of Troy, the fabled beauty of Greek mythology, in a new version of Homer’s Iliad written by poet Simon Armitage. The play, The Last Days of Troy, which was performed at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and London’s Globe Theatre, brings the Trojan war to a brutal conclusion, and a version that was recorded specially for radio is on Radio 4 this Sunday. 

Cole already has an acting pedigree, of course, having performed in several films since her debut as bespectacled Polly in the 2007 comedy St Trinian’s, and she worked with director Terry Gilliam and the late actor Heath Ledger in the 2009 film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But it was the politics of Simon Armitage’s play – whose ending conveys an overwhelming sense that Helen’s abduction was merely an excuse for the men of Greece and Troy to go to war – that appealed most.

“It was amazing to see so many elements of human nature and the human psyche – from a construct of a few thousand years ago – that are still really evident today. And that’s really quite depressing. We haven’t evolved at all. We are still doing the same thing. It’s so obvious in the play that no one wins and the war is tearing everyone apart and everyone suffers – so why are we still doing this? It’s so obvious it’s wrong.”

She could probably also apply these words to the modern political sphere. Despite her insistence on the pressing importance of conventional politics, she admits to being put off by the infighting that dogs modern British party politics, but is also wary of seeing herself as a part of the anti-politics movement, whose most high profile proponent is, we both agree, Russell Brand. Is she a fan?

“He scares me when he uses the word revolution. I’m not a big fan of the word revolution. I prefer evolution. If you look at history, revolution has always been… usually not very good,” she adds, carefully. “But I think it’s necessary for someone to have the balls to start challenging things and putting people on the spot. It’s an interesting role being played there.”

Like Brand, Cole has been criticised for promoting idealism from the vantage point of personal wealth, with one newspaper claiming that she was worth £8.5 million, something she strongly disputes.

“Those things are completely made up, and speak to everything we are trying to move away from with impossible.com. This fixating on the idea that money… means something, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing or is worth that much, shouldn’t really matter.

“Things like that irritate me. The arguments are often made with false information and this really limited way of presenting people. It’s partly why I say I’m not comfortable judging Russell Brand without knowing him, because I don’t know if what the media say about him is the truth. I do know that a lot of what the media say about me is definitely not the truth.” 

Just why that is may not be hard to pin down. With her brains, beauty and drive she must have attracted her fair share of envy. “People don’t come up and shout it at me,” she laughs, reflecting on a peculiarly British tendency to put people down. “Yeah, we are very good at that, aren’t we? I don’t love that part of the British cultural psyche.”

Still, she’s forced to acknowledge the significance of having a model play the most beautiful woman in history. “Helen is what everyone wants to see. There isn’t this one image. She’s a projection of everyone’s idea of beauty,” adds Cole, who turned up for our photo shoot as unglamorous as it’s possible to be, without make-up and wearing very casual cotton trousers and sweater. She doesn’t even call herself a model any more.

“I let people call me a model because there’s no point arguing it. But I haven’t associated with that word, I don’t think, ever,” she adds, with a laugh. “I get surprised when people ask me because I have done so little of it over the last quite a few years. A couple of days a year maybe.”

What she does value about her time modelling is the friends she has kept and – you guessed it – the insight into geopolitics that it has given her.

“How designers source clothes and how jewellery-makers source metals and stones is really important, and there are some people in fashion who really care about those issues. And that keeps me really connected. And when I am promoting acting projects there’s always an element of wearing clothes and having pictures taken. I’m still friends with a lot of very wonderful people from that world. I don’t feel completely divorced from it but it is not my day-to-day reality.”

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The Last Days of Troy begins on Radio 4 today (Sunday 11th January) at 3.00pm