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Devil may care in ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’

Tom Waits is careful not to call himself an actor. He is an acclaimed musician, a weary romantic and the singer of epic, theatrical rantings. As for the many film roles he’s performed for directors including Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Jim Jarmusch, he humbly suggests, “I do some acting.”

“Nobody wants you to be good at two things,” Waits adds, speaking by phone from his Northern California home. “They’d rather get a specialist, a guy who just works on eyes or scalp or ankles. Nobody wants a general practitioner. But the arts are such that there’s a place where they overlap.”

His newest film is Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” in which Waits appears as the Devil, a wickedly sharp dresser who sports a vintage bowler hat and a pencil-thin mustache. His Devil is a trickster and a confidence man who calls himself Mr. Nick and torments the title character (played by Christopher Plummer) with endless wagers and claims on his daughter.

In one scene, Mr. Nick sits at the edge of a cliff with a dejected, defeated Parnassus and tries to comfort the old magician by offering him a stick of gum. He then confesses: “I’ve never been into that black magic stuff myself. Can’t seem to get the hang of it.”

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As the Devil, Waits, whose trademark is his gruff, grumbling vocal style, speaks in quiet tones both soothing and insincere, a cigarette-holder clenched between his teeth.

“I wanted to be relaxed,” he says of his approach to the character. “That was the main thing. I figured if the Devil is not relaxed, then nobody is relaxed. You’re just trying to be truthful in your imaginary circumstances -- that’s the trick. Every actor has a completely different approach to how they do it.”

He was drawn to the part before ever seeing a script, he says, mainly for the chance to work again with Gilliam, who directed Waits in a small role in 1991’s “The Fisher King.” Waits compares the director to the artist Hieronymus Bosch and “the closest thing we have to Fellini.”

“I don’t know how he works,” says Waits, now 60. “He’s like a cherry bomb in a cherry pie. He’s like a piñata. I think that’s why people like being around him. He says so many things that you wish he hadn’t said, and you have to excuse yourself a lot of the time. He’s hilarious.”

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Waits did not train to be an actor, though his work as a recording artist always has been filled with drama and dementia of a particularly American character -- evidenced on his most recent musical release, “Glitter and Doom Live” a double album recorded during his spring trek across the West and South. It’s his signature persona, something akin to an enigmatic carnival barker crossed with a blues-hall crooner and traveling medicine man, that has convinced so many fine directors to cast him in their projects.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Waits has a unique perspective on the craft of acting: “It’s like sneaking up on a glass of water,” he explains. “It’s a riddle. What do you do to stay in the moment? The moment is massive and also as big as an ant. You find your own metaphors. I don’t know if I have any genuine technique. I’m falling down the stairs gracefully, ideally.”

None of his scenes in “Parnassus” are with Heath Ledger, the star who died on Jan. 22, 2008, midway into the production, nearly derailing the film until it was rewritten to accommodate three different actors -- Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law -- finishing his role.

“I was looking forward to working with him,” Waits says, pausing. “Time is transient. You think you’ve got a lot of it. Who knows how much time we all have left? Tick, tick, tick.”

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Waits has learned many things from his filmmaking collaborators over the years. One lesson came in 1993, while working opposite Lily Tomlin in Altman’s “Short Cuts.” Soon after arriving on set, he asked the director for details about camera angles: Were they cutting him at the waist, the knees, the ankles? Waits laughs now.

“He says, ‘That’s none of your business. That’s my business. You just go out there and do it. I don’t have to discuss lenses and equipment with you. You’re an actor.’ That was good. That set me straight.”

calendar@latimes.com


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