Lily Cole on playing Queen Elizabeth I – and disagreeing with the monarchy
“The institution connects us to a feudal age of hierarchy and power through birthright. Fundamentally, I don’t agree with it”
There’s a problem with Lily Cole playing Queen Elizabeth on television: she doesn’t like the monarchy at all. “It’s not their fault they were born into these positions,” says the model, author, social entrepreneur, documentary-maker and actor. “And I’m sure it brings them complications and difficulties as well as a lot of benefits. But the institution connects us to a feudal age of hierarchy and power through birthright. Fundamentally, I don’t agree with it.”
Happily, then, the 29-year-old Cole isn’t playing the present 91-year-old incumbent, though she’s not afraid to age up for a part. “I played a really old character in Snow White and the Huntsman,” Cole says of her role in the 2012 movie starring Chris Hemsworth and Kristen Stewart. “And that was heavy, heavy prosthetics.”
Instead, she will be the first Queen Elizabeth, who ruled from 1558 to 1603 – the Armada-beating one with frizzy red hair, and a downer on Roman Catholics, who apparently remained a virgin with no children. All of which intrigues Cole, who has a daughter, Wylde, born in 2015. “Elizabeth was so hell-bent on not letting Catholicism take over the country after she died,” she says. “The easiest way to avoid that would have been to have had her own child, and yet she didn’t.”
Cole is certainly queenly enough for a role previously filled by Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren. When I meet her at a West End hotel, she strides across the suite, a giantess in cork heels. I tell her how striking the publicity shots of her in character as Elizabeth are, which she likes.
On the catwalk in 2009
“The only real knowledge I had of Elizabeth prior to doing this was through the contemporary portraits,” says Cole, possessor of a double first in history of art from King’s College, Cambridge. “So in many ways the attraction was through her image, not just the paintings themselves but the image in our imagination of Elizabeth as an almost mythological part of English history.”
Cole has her own mythology. Her career started by accident in 2002 when, aged 14, she was spotted by a model agency talent scout while eating a burger in London’s Covent Garden. “It was totally chance,” she says, of the destiny-changing encounter. “So I have a lot of faith in life. Things I’ve wanted to do have presented themselves and come into my life at fortunate moments.” Being picked up by the modelling industry when you are an adolescent isn’t always the best thing to happen, but Cole thrived.
“I hadn’t seen the world or been exposed to any of that, so there was something amazing and magical about it, suddenly travelling and being in crazy shoots,” she says. “There was a whole world that I didn’t know existed, let alone been a part of.”
An intellectually advanced teenager who enjoyed reading “layman’s versions of quantum physics”, Cole claims she took this turn of events as perfectly natural. “Quantum physics validated my instinctual belief that life is actually much more magical or complex than classical Newtonian physics has taught us. More than just solid, liquid, gas, cause and effect, logic.”
Queen Elizabeth I: The Armada Portrait
Freed of solid, liquid, gas and logic, Cole went on to a starry catwalk career modelling for Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Jean Paul Gaultier and Versace, featured on countless magazine covers, dated Jack Dorsey – the billionaire co-founder of Twitter – and hung out at Radiohead gigs with Jude Law. Her partner now is Kwame Ferreira, the hitherto low-key social entrepreneur with whom, “driven by an interest in political, philanthropic pursuits” she co-founded Impossible, a website and network for trading skills.
She uses her undoubted celebrity to push the company, interviewing Paul McCartney for an Impossible webcast. Is she at all nervous around such famous people? “I weep and cower. Ha ha. I treat them like normal, interesting people. Usually they’re quite interesting. Not always, but a lot of people I’ve met are super-talented and creative. And I’ve been involved in that world for so long now that I dare say to me it’s normal.”
Cole has an enviable lifestyle she appears to accept as her due. When I ask where she would go if I gave her a helicopter she says, “A helicopter doesn’t go very far.” A private jet, then? “The Maldives. I haven’t been there yet and I like a nice hot beach.” She wouldn’t be the only ecologically concerned actor to jump on a Learjet, but perhaps the first to also be such a vocal supporter of the Green Party. “I think Caroline Lucas is awesome,” Cole says of the party’s joint leader.
Cole doesn’t like it when I suggest it’s easier for rich people to care about the environment than the rest of us. “You don’t know how much money I have. Nobody knows how much money I have. It’s not something that we generally know about each other, so there’s always an assumption there.”
Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I
I’m surprised that the assumption of wealth annoys a woman who is very publicly valued at £8 million by the Sunday Times rich list. Does she feel guilty about her success? “There’s always a bit of guilt,” she says. “I think it’s inevitable; it’s a kind of unfortunate symptom. I’ve being trying to teach myself to not feel guilty all the time, because I think it’s a pretty useless emotion. As soon as you start becoming aware of the negative consequences of choices you’re making, you feel guilty – ‘Oh, I wish I’d done that’ or ‘I made the wrong choice there’.”
Could she give me an example of a wrong choice? “Er... no! Those things are going to stay with me.” Any regrets then? “One of the regrets I have is that I really do love acting and I haven’t prioritised it ever since I went to university really. I want to do more. But if I could wave a magic wand and change anything I wouldn’t, because that would mean not having my family, not having my daughter, not being the person that I am right now.”
Cole doesn’t usually talk publicly about her private affairs, but suddenly she is very open about life with her 18-month-old daughter, Wylde. “I ask my mum for advice all the time. Whenever I’m quivering,” she says. “Having a baby is totally life-changing. It’s like there’s the person I was before, and the person I am afterwards.” Will she have some more? “I’m one of two children, and that to me feels like a nice number. I don’t judge people who have more than two but personally I think it’s quite good to replace yourself on the planet. I might have a second, and I might decide not to have a second at all – it’s all possible right now. I might have a second and really feel like I need a third.”
Elizabeth famously said, as the Spanish Armada approached, “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.” Does she think of herself as a courageous person? “I think of myself as emotionally courageous,” she says. “I like to overcome fears. I skydived for that same reason. I don’t think I would jump out of a building in a wingsuit because the death rate on that is one in five. Whereas research shows it’s more likely you’ll die in a car crash than skydiving.”
You did the research into the risk of death? “Yes. So I know the fear isn’t real, it’s emotional, and that’s what I want to overcome. If I think there’s a real risk it’s going to kill you, especially now I’m a mother, I wouldn’t take it. But I went skydiving in Portugal. It was a surprise birthday present from my partner, so I went the same day.” And did he go? “No, he’s paid his dues. I almost want to discourage him from that sort of thing nowadays.”
Presently on the West End stage in The Philanthropist, one review of the play calls Cole “charming in a posh, one-dimensional way”. But the Torquay-born daughter of a boat-builder father and artist mother, who’s also got a part in next year’s film adaptation of the Martin Amis novel London Fields, doesn’t think she is posh at all.
“I was a rough street kid from London!” she says of her youth, after the family moved to the capital. “When I was 15 we were out really late in a park and somebody tried to steal my friend’s phone, and so I took my phone and pretended I was calling the police and went up to them and just told them I was speaking to the police, so you’re going to give it back to me, okay? And I managed to get it back. I think that’s as close as I’ve got to a fist fight. No one was going to nick my friend’s phone, no way!”
She doesn’t want Wylde to be brought up in London. “I don’t want it for my daughter. I wouldn’t change it for myself, I feel like those experiences made me who I am, and I feel very grateful for that. But I think we need to try to move out of the city before she starts turning into a full human being.”
Heading for the Cotswolds to talk social entrepreneurship with what’s left of the Chipping Norton set doesn’t sound very, well, queenly. Is she sure it’s the right decision? “I’m not saying I don’t get things wrong. I definitely have days where I think I’ve gone wrong in my choices or priorities, but by and large I think I’ve done all right so far.”
Elizabeth I: Battle for the Throne begins on Tuesday 9 May at 9pm on Channel 5