Lili Taylor Doesn't Play It Safe

By Mary Ann Marshall

Lili Taylor is thinking deeply, chewing on salad she brings to her lips with her fingers. She's trying to recall the rudest question a journalist has ever asked her, and perhaps she's finding it difficult to narrow it down. I remind her of the time when Details magazine asked her, "Do you always go without makeup?" and "You don't shave your armpits!"

"I was really infuriated by that," she says, her mouth still full, which, considering that she's a woman infamous for flouting convention, could be a political statement. "I'm not going to perpetuate things I don't believe in--that women should only wear makeup and tight dresses and look pretty. I can wear pants and I don't have to wear makeup," she states. The Details interview is only one of a myriad of annoyances that keep her on the verge of a justifiable rant, and, unlike most let-me-check-with-my-publicist-first actors, she's completely unafraid to let it fly. No airy ingenue or blond bombshell, she's on a par with some of the most respected actors working--Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alfre Woodard, Judy Davis--actors whose beauty is consequential, not cosmetic.

At 28, Taylor has established herself as a feminist actor who plays lead roles in small, independent films, or smaller roles in bigger movies. A native of Chicago, Taylor acted in high school and, after graduation, enrolled in De Paul University's Goodman School of Drama. Expelled after two weeks, for "creative differences," she nonetheless rustled up steady stage and film work. Her grassroots, left-bent politics clearly imbue her work--she won't take roles that she believes portray women negatively. "Movies like that make me feel hopeless and helpless and sick and like we've got too many problems," she explains. What she's looking for are challenging roles like her current one in Girls Town, a strongly feminist film directed by Jim McKay. Girls Town is about three female high school students dealing with their close friend's suicide. The three survivors are seemingly quite different: black, white, and Latina; the first two are college-bound; the third, trapped by poverty. Yet, when they discover that their friend was raped, the suicide forces each of them to confront their own demons.

The rest of Taylor's roles have been all over the map, from a charmingly horny bride in 1988's Mystic Pizza to radical feminist Valerie Solanas in 1996's I Shot Andy Warhol.

With more than 18 film roles in eight years under her belt, she clearly gets work. That said, what about the possibility that she won't ever achieve the recognition she deserves because she refuses to play the game--refuses, even, to be styled for photo shoots or dolled up onscreen? "That's O.K.," she replies. "How will it validate me any more if a million people know me, instead of 20,000! It's a weird system we've got going, that the amount of money that your art makes or the number of people who've seen your art validates it. I won't work under that system." More power to the girl who can talk revolution while throwing down a mouthful of lettuce and red pepper.

In high school, Taylor was diagnosed as manic-depressive. However, she decided not to take drugs to treat the condition because she was afraid it would interfere with her life as an artist and she wasn't convinced that the diagnosis was correct: "Women are diagnosed with depression twice as much as men. Basically, I had a tough time in my adolescence. You can go pretty damn crazy, and other times you can be O.K."

But even Taylor hasn't been immune to conventional Hollywood demands. She was nearly fired for not adopting the stereotypical sex-kitten role in Bright Angel, an art-house Western, in 1989. Her take on the character differed greatly from the filmmakers': "It wasn't sexy or simple or safe enough. The topless scene they asked me to do was just to show tits. That was the biggest compromise I ever made in my career and I don't feel good about it. I was still young and didn't know what kind of fight I could make. My spirit was just crushed."

It is her widely known feminist politics, along with her deep commitment to her work, that drew independent filmmaker Jim McKay to offer her the role of the single mother, Patti, in Girls Town--a brilliant, wildly progirl story. McKay conceived of the film, but recognized, he says, that "as a guy, I didn't have the experience or vocabulary to make this into what I wanted it to be." So he cast Taylor, Bruklin Harris, and Anna Grace as the main characters. Then the three actors cowrote a script, largely through improvisation, around the idea of women, silence, and revenge--and why revenge usually doesn't follow victimization. GirlsTown, an odd, powerful, groundbreaking film, dives into the multilayered fabric of these young women's lives, indulging their impulses toward their raw, blinding rage and their deep sorrow over not being able to save their friend. "Just to go into depth with three young girls is itself a radical notion," Taylor says. "And then to go on to show three girls who aren't what people are telling them to be."

Meanwhile, she has finished a role in Ransom, a blockbusterish Mel Gibson actioner in which she plays a kidnapper. Taylor reads my mind--it seems out of character that she would do such a huge film after establishing herself as an actor's actor--and says out of the blue: "I do need a little bit of money. Jesus, I live in New York." But ever the grassroots artists, she points at my plate. "Are you gonna finish that?" she asks.

Mary Ann Marshall plays drums for the band D Cup in New York City.

Ms. September/October 1996

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