Lily Cole is a fashion model, actress, social entrepreneur and activist who has become one of the iconic faces of her generation. Lily was the youngest model to appear on the cover of British Vogue. As an advocate for socio-political and environmental issues, she has employed technology, writing, filmmaking and public speaking as means to build awareness and encourage dialogue. Two years ago, she began developing impossible.com, a social network that encourages users to exchange skills and services for free in the hope of encouraging peer-to-peer gift economy. She published a book, audiobook and companion podcast: ‘Who Cares Wins: Reasons for Optimism in Our Changing World’ in the summer of 2020.
Lily, you were the youngest model to appear on the cover of British Vogue. You’ve worked with many prestigious brands. Which modelling experience of your career was the most special for you?
My first thought is of a shoot I did with Tim Walker for British Vogue many years ago, I think probably when I was around 18. It was an epic shoot. We went to India together, me and Tim and the team. We traveled all across different regions and shot in these incredible places that for tourists it’s hard to get access to and it would’ve been hard to know about or find in any other way. It was abandoned palaces and remote villages, I was wearing crazy dresses and we were really exploring. We were there for about 10 days, maybe two weeks, which is quite unusual for a shoot and it was just such a beautiful team of people. We got to see so many kind of unique sides of the country that it feels very, very memorable for me.
Your acting career started at the very early age of 6. How would you compare acting then, when you were younger and now?
I did start acting when I was six and we did some kind of commercial jobs when I was that young, like in TV shows, but it was always quite small parts. It kind of gave me a taste to what it feels like to be on set and to dress up and to perform. And I think I kind of got the taste for it then, making short films and things like that, but it wasn’t like acting in the way I think of acting now, in terms of trying to find a character and interrogate the story and the scenes that emerged later.
I kind of carried on acting through school, but then when I was 17, 18 is when I started making films. That’s where I got a much more serious education in character development and what acting can mean. And I think that’s just evolved over time. Each project is different, I learn something new for every project. Every director has a different style, every character invites me to explore a different part of myself. So it feels like an evolving journey that I’m still learning from and developing every time I take on a new project.
The last film I just did is called ‘Hilma’ and it is directed by Lasse Hallström, who’s a wonderful director, made lots of made films like ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’, which remains one of my favorite films and was kind of big childhood film for us growing up. He’s kind of big on improvisation, so a lot of the scenes that we were doing during ‘Hilma’ relied on improv as much as or even more than the scripted dialogue. And that was such a wonderful and unique experience. Every time I do a different project there is kind of a new challenge or a new invitation and I think that part of what makes it interesting is that it doesn’t feel repetitive.
In 2009 you had your first leading role in ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, alongside talented actors Christopher Plummer and Heath Ledger. How would you describe your role in this film and working with these two amazing actors?
The role I played in ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ was a girl ward Valentina and she’s kind of a gypsy creature. She grew up in this very unusual environment where her dad had this performance vehicle and they were doing performances. She was sort of homeschooled by her family and immersed in her father’s world, which was all about magic and illusion. And she falls in love and goes on a series of adventures through the film. I remain very fond of her, she was a fun character to play. It was one of the first films I’d made and it was such a big challenge over months of shooting in London and then in Canada and with the most incredible people, Christopher Plummer and Heath Ledger amongst them and Terry Gilliam himself. Many of the other actors who came on board, it felt like a real group of artists and kind of many masters of their craft coming together. And Terry manages to make quite a collaborative environment where he really listens. I was only 19 at the time and I really felt listened to and my ideas were listened to and I felt like he was like that with everybody he invited in. It doesn’t mean he always agreed, but he’d always listen to your ideas and pick out what he thought worked. It was a really amazing experience to work with these creative giants that has stayed in my heart ever since.
You have also written several documentaries, shoot photography and directed many short films. Do you prefer being on the other side of film making than in front of the camera acting?
I directed a few short documentaries and then I directed my first fictionalized story called ‘Balls’ a few years ago. What I really love about film in general, whether it’s acting or directing, is that you get to be creative in an incredibly collaborative context. And you know, it’s not something you can do alone. The DP on Doctor Parnassus used to always say that the great thing about film is you can’t make it alone and it requires you to collaborate with other people. And if you are collaborating with good artists and people you respect, then for me that’s super exciting. Cause it kind of helps elevate my own ideas and my own work. And I just thrive in those environments.
I really love directing because of that, because I got to collaborate with lots of different creatives during the course of the process, from collaborating through the process of writing, then collaborating with the producer and the set designer and the cinema photographer in the pre-production process. Then obviously collaborating with everyone on set, the actors, the cinematographer, the IDs trying and pulling it all together, which was pretty crazy cause it was like having 12 babies and two and a half days to film it and we were filming on real film. And then afterwards with the sound designer, the editor, the creator and so it is just a very interesting procreative process that I really loved. And I would definitely love to do more of directing.
It’s hard to compare it to acting. Acting is very different, it’s much more specific. You have one specific role, which means you ultimately have a lot less control over the final outcome of the film. But it’s also a really interesting different challenge where you’re looking into an aspect of yourself or a particular character in a really intense way. I really love the journey that can take me on, depending on the script and the story and the project. For me it’s also been a great opportunity to see how the directors work and learn from different teams that I’ve been collaborating with.
You’re an advocate for socio-political and environmental issues. What are the biggest socio-political and environmental issues today in your opinion and how do you think they should be approached?
It’s really hard to say what’s the biggest issue we have to deal with. I think that most of our social political issues are very interconnected. Probably one of the most urgent that I worry most about is the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis. And there seems to be an awakening consciousness around that, but then when you look at how to solve the biodiversity and climate crisis, you end up intersecting with so many other issues, whether it’s equality or politics or economics. So I find it hard to separate one out.
In 2019 you started developing impossible.com, a social network encouraging users to exchange skills and services for free. What is the main purpose behind this project and what made you decide developing it?
impossible.com began as a gift economy online. It was actually the impetus for my book because Penguin were aware that I developed this platform and asked me to write about it.
The reason why I developed this online gift economy was firstly because me and a friend had the idea and it just felt like a really powerful idea. The idea was: can we use technology to connect people to trade skills, services and things without money needing to be the medium? I was in my last year in university and started researching what I came to become aware of as the term ‘gift economy’ and lots of arguments around the gift economy, doing kind of things for each other for free in anticipation of being given reciprocity. People doing favors back in return is the most natural way of organizing human societies and many anthropologists think it is the way that human societies organize themselves for tens, hundreds of thousands of years before barter and then money was invented.
There’s lots of research that suggests that when we do those small favors for each other, we build up a lot of psychological and social wellbeing. So you feel more connected, you feel a sense of belonging to a community. You actually release chemicals when you give. And certainly that’s been my own experience in life. The gifts build community and the community and relationships are an essential part of a happy and healthy life. So, the utopian dream was that we could use technology to catalyze that again. Particularly in big busy cities like London, where it’s so easy to not know your neighbors and for everything to feel very anonymous.
That was the basis with which we saw the platform and we ran it for a few years. It had over a hundred thousand users around the world and lots of beautiful stories. I capture a lot of those stories and also the research behind it in my book. Ultimately, we’ve made the technology open source and stopped investing in it ourselves to run it. I came to the conclusion that I don’t know if technology is the right medium to create gift economy, because gift economy is so anarchic in a way, organic and natural. And technology needs to be designed from top down and expensive. I hope maybe somebody will get that right, but somehow it didn’t feel the right way to approach for me at the time. Instead, impossible has evolved into a different type of structure. We started developing other projects and we are now kind of an incubator that considers more conscious technology. The framework we use is planet centric design and we are thinking about designing products and services, taking into account their social impact and environmental impact from the very early stages of design
We have already mentioned your book ‘Who Cares Wins: Reasons for Optimism in Our Changing World’. Can you tell us more about the book and what are the main focuses of it.
I wrote the book in response to these interconnected crises, particularly the biodiversity and climate crisis. My approach was to try and focus on solutions because I think that there are firstly lots of solutions and secondly, if we don’t focus our energy on solutions, we’re unlikely to see those come to fruition. Often the narrative is very negative and around fear and focuses on the problems. And so I wanted to shine a light on all the amazing projects and people in organization trying to solve these issues and different ways we can think about change. The book looks at around roughly thousand different ideas and solutions from conscious consumerism, movements in the fashion, food space to different policy ideas, different technologies, nature itself and nature based solutions. And then finally towards the end, of the area that I’m probably most invested in these days, which is more like shifts and values. What can we learn from indigenous cultures? What are the value shifts that we can make, each of us for ourselves and also as communities and as societies more collectively, to change how we see our own relationship to each other, to the natural world. You know, questions of what we think is important. I think those are the deeper aspects of our culture that then influence everything else. And unless we change those kind of deeper roots, we’ll always be band aiding our problems.
You’re partnering with EIICA – Ernesto Illy International Coffee Award, that recognizes top quality growers who sustainably produce the best beans in the coffee paradises across the world, as the Master of ceremonies. How did this partnership come to life?
They asked me to present their awards. I was aware that Arizona Muse had presented them in the past and she’s a friend and somebody I admire very much and I admire her choices with her work. I know how committed she is to sustainability. So that made me intrigued. And then when I started looking into what they do, I was really impressed. They are a certified B corp, a benefit corporation. They pay their workers on average about 30 % more than market rates. And in terms of sustainability, I think they’ve got a way to go and they would say that themselves, but they are testing and incubating, piloting projects towards regenerative agriculture with the hope that they can then expand those when they are successful across their global supply chain.
It felt like an initiative that I wanted to support. And I also like the ethos of the awards, which is all about celebrating growers and calling out the growers who make the coffee beans, because I think so often we don’t, we forget that the things we enjoy have all these people at the early stages of the supply chain who are fundamental to its existence and yet are often invisible.
Why do you believe sustainability is so important in coffee producing? And of course, in all the other aspects of our lives?
Sustainability has to be important in every single aspect in every single industry. Now the stakes are so high, the IPCC report has made it clear from the UN that every single industry needs to transform and play a part in the transformation we need to see. I think there is no industry that will get away from the needs to look at their impact and improve their impact. And I think that’s particularly pertinent with agriculture because it has a very direct impact on the land itself.
When I wrote my book, I was fascinated when I wrote the chapter on food because I realized that food right now very often has a hugely destructive impact. And in the ways that our agricultural systems work, we are damaging soil, depleting soil, creating health risks through the unnatural ways that animals are reared and farmed. Destroying forest to yield other crops, the vast majority of deforestation is for animal agriculture, yet at the same time the agricultural industry has the capacity to be a huge solution, because it has a direct impact on so much of the world’s land. And when agriculture has changed to be done in a more positive way, in a more regenerative way, then we could actually see biodiversity flourish and we could see healthy soil return.
I got very excited writing over looking at agriculture and the capacity it has for such a huge amount of change, to be going from being a problem to a solution. The interesting thing about agriculture too, is that it’s very easy as consumers to have a direct vote on the type of agriculture we want to see in terms of food that we buy and eat, the clothes that we buy and use and even the coffee that we drink. Supporting businesses that are trying to take responsibility for how they touch consumers, is a powerful tool for change.
What are you most passionate about in life?
I think I’m most passionate probably about relationships first and foremost, with friends, family and loved ones. When we are alive and where we are alive and who we share the planet with, who we happen to co-exist with, who we happen to meet and have these experiences with, it feels pretty central and sometimes relationships are not hard to navigate, but they feel like also the most rewarding part of life, to feel a sense of belonging and connection, of fun, curiosity, learning. And I extend that also to nature. I have an ongoing love affair with a natural world that seems to just get bigger over time and particularly wildlife and creatures that we run into and move with, feel really important.
The other big passion in my life is creativity. I love expanding my own creativity and I also absolutely love being inspired by other people’s creativity, whether that’s by reading a book, listening to music, going to a play that’s amazing. That’s the part of life that really lights me up, just how wildly creative the human species can be.
What projects are coming up for you in 2022?
I’ve moved to Lisbon last year and I feel really good about having some time there. It was very busy for me at the end of 2021 and I’m going to try and take things a bit slower because there’s a few projects that I’ve been thinking about working on from a writing perspective and I want to try and make space for those. And then who knows what will come up. I’ve been making music for fun and I might do that a bit more when I get back to Lisbon.
So, creativity, writing, music and being open to what other work possibilities may present themselves.
This interview was done for Numéro Netherlands by Jana Letonja.