Waits Is Devilish In 'Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus'

Musician Tom Waits has a key role in the new film from director Terry Gilliam. Waits plays the devil incarnate in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The movie also stars Christopher Plummer and the late Heath Ledger. Waits talks to Steve Inskeep about his role as Mr. Nick in the movie.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we'll hear a distinctive voice put to a new use. Tom Waits' songs often sound like they come out of the middle of a lonely, drunken night.

(Soundbite of song "The Piano Has Been Drinking")

Mr. TOM WAITS (Musician, Actor): (Singing) And the piano has been drinking, the piano has been drinking...

INSKEEP: Tom Waits sometimes speaks his lyrics. So it's fitting that he is also an actor who can almost sing his movie lines. In a new movie, Tom Waits plays the devil, about to take the soul of a 16-year-old girl.

(Soundbite of movie "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus")

Mr. WAITS: (as Mr. Nick) Don't we love our children? She's ripe as a peach. Sweet little 16, and, oh, my.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: This movie, "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," made headlines as the final role of the late Heath Ledger. Much of the plot revolves around two other characters: the devil, played by Tom Waits, wears a black porkpie hat and pencil-thin moustache. He's made a deal with a magical storyteller who invites people to step through a mirror into another world. That storyteller, Dr. Parnassus, wants to renegotiate.

Mr. WAITS: You know what happens when you try to change the deal.

INSKEEP: Hm.

Mr. WAITS: I mean, try to change the deal with your kids...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: ...or anybody, you know. And wait a minute.

INSKEEP: I suppose this must be one of those characters where you never have to ask: What's my motivation? You're the devil.

Mr. WAITS: Well, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: I guess - I worked mainly on being very relaxed only because if the devil's not relaxed, none of us are relaxed, you know. So, I tried to - I went to the zoo and looked at the monkeys and worked on relaxation, basically. So, you know, working for Gilliam is an interesting enterprise.

INSKEEP: Oh, you're referring to Terry Gilliam?

Mr. WAITS: Terry Gilliam, yeah.

INSKEEP: People know him from "Monty Python," and now he's a distinguished filmmaker in his own right.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah. You know, the name of his company is Poo Poo Productions, which tells you a lot about Terry. Anyway, we met and got along very well. We both drive a Buick. We both have a vestigial tail. We both have horns.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: Both of our mom's name is Alma. You know, we found all these things in common, you know.

INSKEEP: How did you...

Mr. WAITS: I have a birthmark in the shape of Florida, you know, and so does he. And - so all these things. So we thought we'd better work together, you know.

INSKEEP: Well, now in this movie, the character, Dr. Parnassus, has lost his daughter to the devil, who then offers a chance to win him back. Let's listen to a little bit here of Tom Waits offering a new bet to Dr. Parnassus in this movie.

(Soundbite of movie "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor): It's over. Finito.

Mr. WAITS: (as Mr. Nick) Oh, come on. It's never over. Come on. What have you got to lose? Look, you could end up winning. You could save her. What do you say? First of five souls.

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Doctor Parnassus) First of five?

Mr. WAITS: (as Mr. Nick) Yeah.

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Doctor Parnassus) No tricks?

Mr. WAITS: (as Mr. Nick) No.

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Doctor Parnassus) No? No cheating?

Mr. WAITS: (as Mr. Nick) No cheating.

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Doctor Parnassus) I'd say yes. Deal.

Mr. WAITS: (as Mr. Nick) OK. I love a betting man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: That was quick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: He was easy. He's hungry. It was a lot of fun working with Christopher Plummer.

INSKEEP: Who plays Dr. Parnassus, there. Yes.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah. He's Dr. Parnassus.

INSKEEP: And the bet is agreed: First one to win over five souls wins this bet. You play a devil, who's - kind of tries to be, pose as a counselor, a best friend, a salesman at the same time that he is the devil.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah. Yeah, when you think about it, the shadow of a shadow is really the light, you know. I mean, they're inseparable. There was one scene early on that didn't make it as clearly into the film as I would like to have had it, that really drew me to the story to begin with. There's a kid that goes through the mirror, and in the imaginarium, he's faced with two choices: A long, high difficult climb of piano keys that are arranged like steps...

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAITS: ...or on the other side, it's video games - war video games, you know. Those two choices. And he winds up with the piano lessons, which is kind of, you know, reassuring. You know, forge a path of your own through the woods, you know, or drive on a road that's already been built for you, you know. It is kind of like the choices that we're faced with in our lives, you know.

INSKEEP: You know the actor Johnny Depp...

Mr. WAITS: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...who is one of the three actors who stands in for Heath Ledger in this film, in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, he's quoted as saying: The devil doesn't have the best tunes. Tom Waits does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: OK. That's pretty good.

INSKEEP: Well, it's a compliment, and it got me thinking and wondering, do you think about your lines in a musical way, about the music of a line that you're delivering in a movie?

Mr. WAITS: I'm not really good at memorizing lines. I have a really hard time with it. And fortunately with Gilliam, he'll let you contribute and bend and shape and add. You know, they're his lines, so, you know, he's right there. You know, you can discuss it. You know, he doesn't have to make a phone call.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that sometimes you might forget a line and just improvise something that might feel more in the moment, anyway?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, God. Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: And he's fine with that.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah, I had - yeah. My first scene I had to do with Terry was in a vacant lot and it was three in the morning, and, you know, with horses and extras and I'd been on a plane for nine hours and I'm a little disoriented. And all the lines flew out of my head. He was scribbling them on pieces of notebook paper and gluing them to the camera, you know. And he thought it was hilarious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: And I was having a cow, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: It was a lot of stress and...

INSKEEP: Well, how did you...

Mr. WAITS: ...so, but it worked out.

INSKEEP: When you got into this script that is, in some sense, about storytelling and inventing stories and fantasies, did it make you think new thoughts about the stories that you yourself write and that you sing?

Mr. WAITS: Well, I guess, you become enamored with the many possibilities of the imagination, you know. And it's always - you know, the thing with most of our imaginations is I think that there's a lot of flotsam and jetsam that comes from advertisements and all the things that we take in. I feel sometimes like I've rolled in dirt, you know, and - it's hard to keep the light in your imagination, you know, burning brightly and burning clear. And being around Gilliam is helpful because he kind of commands it and demands it from you.

INSKEEP: Well, Tom Waits, it's been a pleasure speaking with you.

Mr. WAITS: Nice speaking with you, too, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's part of the cast of "The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus," which is now in theaters.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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