Waits Goes To The Devil In Gilliam’s ‘Parnassus’

Tom Waits has given the devil his due with wry song lyrics, asking if the devil made the “world while God was sleeping” or musing “don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk.”

Now Waits is the devil incarnate in Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” playing a dapper demon with a bowler hat, trim suit and pencil-thin mustache who loves nothing better than gambling with people’s souls.

Photo: Stephen Cohen

Gilliam had the notion of giving the devil an old-fashioned, gentlemanly look. To help capture the devil’s spirit, Waits spent time with some lower primates.

“I went to the zoo and watched monkeys for a day,” Waits, 60, said in a phone interview from northern California, where he lives. “I just wanted to be relaxed, because if the devil’s not relaxed, nobody’s relaxed.”

Waits’ devil, known as Mr. Nick, may be loose and laid-back, but his outfit is the opposite, tight and constrictive.

“I had to be sewn into my costume,” Waits said. “It’s like Marilyn Monroe when she sang `Happy birthday, Mr. President.'”

Waits, whose albums include the Grammy-winning Bone Machine and Mule Variations, has built an impressive side career on screen, appearing in about two dozen films starting with Sylvester Stallone’s “Paradise Alley” in 1978.

He played Jack Nicholson’s hobo pal in “Ironweed,” one of a threesome of prison escapees in Jim Jarmusch’s “Down by Law,” Lily Tomlin’s boozy trailer-trash companion in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” and the vampire’s raving-mad devotee in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula.”

Waits quickly follows “Doctor Parnassus,” which opened Christmas Day and expands nationwide Jan. 8, with a small role in Denzel Washington’s doomsday tale, “The Book of Eli,” debuting Jan. 15.

The role in “Doctor Parnassus” came Waits’ way by chance. He had a bit part in Gilliam’s “The Fisher King,” and another filmmaker asked Gilliam to see if Waits would be interested in doing voice work for an animated film.

“A lot of people try to reach me through other people. Like neighbors I haven’t seen in 30 years,” Waits said.

Photo: John Davisson
Times Union Center for the Performing Arts, Jacksonville, Fla.

Waits wasn’t interested in the other filmmaker’s animation project but asked Gilliam whether there might be a role for him in his new film. He agreed to do the part even before reading the script.

The film stars Christopher Plummer as Parnassus, who gained immortality and youth in deals with Waits’ Mr. Nick and now is desperate to save his daughter’s soul from the devil. Heath Ledger, who died while the film was in production, plays a shady charity fundraiser who becomes the key to Parnassus’ wager with Mr. Nick.

“Book of Eli” casts Waits as sort of the pawnbroker of the apocalypse, a man who trades for trinkets left from our civilization after catastrophe levels American society.

Washington plays the title role, a roaming prophet protecting a key to humanity’s future. He shares nice moments with Waits when his character comes in looking to trade for a recharge of his portable music player’s battery.

“I really liked working with Denzel. He likes to riff. He’ll throw the book out,” Waits said. “I started asking him if he had different stuff. I figured a character like that, end of the world, some new guy comes in from some far-flung who-knows-where, you’re going to ask if he’s got (stuff). `You got any spark plugs? You got any matches?’ … We started going back and forth like that.”

Film work has brought unexpected benefits, big and small. Waits got to keep the bowler hat from “Doctor Parnassus,” making it part of his stage persona in his 2008 tour and wearing it on the cover of his “Glitter and Doom” live album that came out in November.

“I’m cheap. I got a free hat out of the deal,” Waits said. “I was really against the bowler hat. I wanted something a little more pointy.”

He bought a mouse to audition for a character in “The Green Mile” who has a pet rodent. Waits didn’t get the part, but he kept the mouse.

“I was about to let him loose in a vacant lot in Hollywood, and we looked at each other, and I said, `OK, all right,’ and I put him in my pocket and I flew home with him. That was before the mouse detectors at the airport,” Waits said. “I gave him to my kids, and he was a member of the family for several years. So you never know what’s going to come out of a movie experience, what you can really bring with you after it’s over.”

Photo: AP Photo / PA
Eccentric singer/songwriter Tom Waits performs at the Hammersmith Apollo in London.

While doing the songs for Coppola’s 1982 romance, “One From the Heart,” Waits met wife Kathleen Brennan, who was a script analyst.

His songwriting partner ever since, Brennan has had a huge influence on Waits’ music as he moved from the boozy beatnik style of his 1970s albums into the junkyard percussion, carnival-on-acid sound that backs much of his work from the 1980s on.

Waits has just released a mammoth vinyl boxed-set version of Orphans, his acclaimed 2006 compilation of soundtrack tunes and other leftovers that never made it onto albums. He and Brennan are writing songs for an album they hope to record next spring.

While songwriters such as Nick Cave have branched into screenwriting, Waits said he has no ambitions to spin movie-length stories himself.

“Songs are such a manageable size. People who make films, it’s like being the mayor of a town or the governor of a state. You’re dealing with transportation and plumbing and cops. I don’t think that large,” Waits said. “I like the pocket-size films, which is what songs are. Little movies for the ears.”