At just eleven years old actress Cassandra Sawtell has made a name for herself by appearing in more than twenty-five film and television projects, including Psych, Harper's Island, and the Lifetime movie Imaginary Playmate. This Christmas, she will take on her biggest acting challenge to date starring alongside Colin Farrell and Lily Cole in director Terry Galliam's long awaited fantasy epic The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Sawtell plays Olga, an orphan who gets inadvertently caught up in this harrowing story of a man who's sold his first-born daughter's soul to the devil. We recently caught up with the young ingénue to find out more about the film. Here is our conversation with Ms. Sawtell:
This seems like an amazing world for an eleven year old girl to find herself in. What was your initial reaction when you first walked onto the set and entered the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus?
Cassandra Sawtell: I was quite amazed. Everything was green. We were working against some very big green screen backdrops, and it was stunning. My job for the most part was to sit in a boat and cry. That's what I did all day. I cried.
You sat on set all day, crying? That must have been draining.
Cassandra Sawtell: It's healthy to cry.
Tell us about Ogla. What role does she play in pushing this story forward, and what did you see in her that made you want to bring her to life?
Cassandra Sawtell: I sympathized with the character. She was alone. She had been abandoned by her parents. She was scared. Initially, it seemed as though Tony, Colin Farrell's character, was kidnapping her. I'm a little afraid of that happening to me. I was thinking about the position she was placed in. And how happy she was that she was going to a better life. She doesn't die, or anything. Tony takes her away from this island and gives her food, and nice clothes. She is part of a more sinister plot. I can't say too much more than that. The rest of it is up in the air. I am not supposed to give anything else away.
What did you think of Olga's costuming in the film? Did you get to have any say in what this little girl would look and sound like?
Cassandra Sawtell: All of Olga's lines are in Russian. Her clothes are very ethnic. Tony takes her into this better life. There, she finds herself in pretty dresses. Her hair is nicely done. I knew a few other languages before coming onto the film, so learning Russian wasn't that hard for me. I also had a dialect coach on set. I already speak French, and I found some similarities between the two languages. Not many. There were actually very few, but it did make it easier for me to learn Russian quickly.
What makes her one of your all-time favorite characters this far into your short but very prolific career?
Cassandra Sawtell: There are many reasons why I like Olga. I don't really know what is going on with her. Throughout the entire movie, you have no reason why she has been left in a boat, crying. She has many mysteries surrounding her. I don't want to spoil the movie for you. I created my own idea about Olga before I even read the script.
What is Olga's on-screen relationship with Colin Farrell and Lily Cole's characters like?
Cassandra Sawtell: On screen? Olga is being saved by Colin's character, Tony. She is also being used a bit by his charity. I had a lot of fun with these actors. They are very charming human beings. Collin is such a gentlemen. He is so kind and generous. And he has a great sense of humor.
Olga finds herself caught up in quite an amazing adventure. What exciting things did both of you get to experience while making this film?
Cassandra Sawtell: All of my experiences on set were amazing. I got to work with Terry Gilliam, Colin Farrell, Lily Cole. And Andrew Garfield. It was great getting to work with all of them. I was a fan of Terry's before coming onto this. I'd watched all of the Monty Pythons. I am a small fan, but my dad is a huge fan of the show. Unfortunately, my dad was not in town when I shot The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. He missed out. Terry was great to work with. It was fairly easy to get into his mindset. He is very imaginative. That is one of the reasons I like him. He is so eccentric and fun to be around. It was a wonderful working experience.
You are also very interested in screen writing at this point in your career. Did you ever ask Terry for guidance in helping you to create your own screenplay?
Cassandra Sawtell: Unfortunately, at the time I shot this, I wasn't very interested in screenwriting. I wanted to be a Vet. Since that time, I have started to fiddle around with my writing. I am starting to think it could be a future career. I might want to do it alongside acting. Being a Vet, I wouldn't want to put animals down. I don't think I'd be able to do that. So I gave up on that idea. I understood it would also take a lot of studying to become a Vet. I think you need about seven years of schooling at a University. I love animals, so I thought the chance to work with them all day long would be fabulous. Then I realized after awhile, working with them wouldn't be as much of a gift. Especially having to do it all day. And I just wouldn't be able to put them down.
It takes seven years to become a Vet, but how long does it take to become a screenwriter? All you have to do is start typing, right?
Cassandra Sawtell: Yes, you have a point. I might study screenwriting at University. At the moment I would like to go to the London School of Performing Arts.
When you are working with luminaries in the field like Terry Gilliam, I'd have to think that was better than any schooling you might receive from a University or Performing Arts School.
Cassandra Sawtell: That's true. He does give lots of great advice.
Did you get to work with any animals on Imaginarium?
Cassandra Sawtell: I'm not going to tell you if there are any animals in the film. What I can tell you is that there weren't any animals in the scenes I shot. I haven't really thought about working with animals. I'd rather do adventure and fantasy movies. That is what sounds good to me.
In the film, Dr. Parnassus helps guide the imagination of others. As an actor in a film such as this, how much did you have to rely on your own imagination, and do you feel your love of imagination is what is compelling you into the field of screenwriting?
Cassandra Sawtell: I've been told that I have a great imagination. I think it does come in handy with acting and writing. Even without reading a script, you can create your own backstory, and play on that. I hadn't really thought about anything that serious when it comes to Olga. I had two ideas behind this character. They have nothing to do with the movie. Since she is inside the Imaginarium when you first meet her, I figured she'd been a part of something bigger. That she had come from a happy place, and it turned into this gloomy, horrible place. I thought about how afraid I would be if I were all-alone in this isolated area with no one and nothing.
You started shooting your part after Heath Ledger passed away. How would you describe the mood on set? And did you feel a sense that everyone was working to make this the best film it could be in honor of Ledger's memory?
Cassandra Sawtell: I think so, in a way. Everyone was still smiling, but the air on set was a little glum. I think they all worked their best to make this movie so that it honored the memory of Heath Ledger. Yes.
When filming, you only got to see your part. Have you seen the final movie? What is it like to see the whole thing? Are you amazed at the amount of hard work that has gone into this?
Cassandra Sawtell: I have seen the movie. I was amazed at how wonderful it turned out. I really don't want to spoil any bit of the movie for your readers. I can tell you that it is edited together perfectly. The film has a natural flow to it, even with the death of Heath Ledger. I think this is a fairly good movie for children to go see. It is in no way inappropriate. But it depends on how old the kid is. It's a fast paced movie, and you'd have to come into the theater with a pretty good imagination. Some scenes are dark. I don't think a parent should take a child that couldn't handle it. It is a very funny movie, too. I can't say too much. I am keeping it all a secret.
You're known as a World Traveler. What sort of new and exciting places did filming Dr. Parnassus allow you to experience?
Cassandra Sawtell: My part was shot in Vancouver. I am a Vancouver resident. The green screen part of it was exciting. I felt very much at home on this set. Everyone was like a big family. With the green screen, I was just amazed. I kept wondering what they were going to create for the background. I wanted to know what it would look like. Terry accomplished something much better than what I could have ever imagined, though.
You can see Cassandra Sawtell in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus when it opens on Christmas day, December 25th, 2009.