Rebel Girl Actress Lili Taylor has Carved a brilliant career out of playing weird, ugly and homicidal characters. Only In Hollywood.
By Charles Aaron.The scene: high-school graduation party. New-wave hits pumping outside, diet Coke tears flowing inside. A girl, Corey and her unplugged electric guitar. She's tried to commit suicide over a boy, has written 63 songs about it, and is singing most of them. "He likes girls", she starts strumming with folky resignation, "named Ashley " Then in walks Joe, her ex, a new Ashley on his arm. Abruptly the key gets minor. Glaring right through him, Corey growls, "That'll never be me/No! Don't you ever think it!" Later, she laments, "Joe lies/Joe lies/When he cries." Even her friends snicker. But when Joe asks her to have sex because his girlfriend is going off to college and he's lonely, the burden suddenly lifts. Sighing bittersweetly, Corey pats him on the shoulder, says, "Goodbye Joe," and never looks back.
From pained to pissed to pathetic to self-assured, all in the time it took the class geek to genuflect before the porcelain altar. The movie was 1989's Say Anything, the actress, Lili Taylor. Wise but curious, beautiful but realistic, vulnerable but never a chump, she seemed destined to create her own Hollywood archetype. But if the business of movies was all about acting, Liv Tyler would be schlepping through a Def Leppard comeback video instead of losing it for Bernardo Bertolucci. So despite starring performances in 1991's Dogfight and 1993's Household Saints that were both mesmerizing and unnerving--like reformatory pleas from '60s good girls--Taylor's career still felt like a secret. The indignity might have peaked in '93, the so-called "Year of the Woman."
"That whole thing was a real joke," she says evenly, relaxing over coffee near her apartment in New York's Greenwich Village. "These guys in Hollywood were like politicians saying, 'Okay, here you go, have a few crumbs,' while we're chipping away at your entire foundation, while you're getting paid 60 cents to our dollar, while we're telling you what to do with your body." Though she's been accused of lefty rhetoric in the past for little more than declining to wear makeup, Taylor's manner is far from righteously hectoring. She listens intently, often smiling when you might expect her to rail.
And after years of refusing the Hollywood routine--play charming and/or troubled prostitute (see Klute, Pretty Woman, Mighty Aphrodite), get props--her career is finally taking off. There's the anti-star turn in I Shot Andy Warhol, an improvised riff on a Queens B-girl mom in Girlstown, a hilariously volatile cameo in the Icelandic road flick Cold Fever, a costarring role in Nick Gomez's Illtown, a spot in Ron Howard's Ransom, and the possibility of playing Janis Joplin in a film by Nancy Savoca, director of Dogfight and Household Saints. Blurbs about the 29-year-old Taylor being "the best actress of her generation" have started popping up.
"It's a miracle that I've worked in, like, six movies in the past year," she says. "Before, I've always had a sense of being frustrated, that I wanted to be included, that I wanted more than I was being offered. So many female roles in commercial movies are just devices, not a lot of energy, not a lot of fun. I always wanted to be the detective or the pirate, not just the girl by his side."
While many young actresses--Winona Ryder, Samantha Mathis--have shown an unpredictably original edge in their early performances, that edge usually gets buffed to harmless adult cliché in higher-profile period dramas and action schlock. A rebellious sort like Jennifer Jason Leigh takes stock roles and wrecks shop, basically skinning the skin flick alive. ("She despoils any romanticism you might have," says Taylor admiringly. "You feel the price she's paying.") By neither tarting herself up nor settling into the desexed buddy role, Taylor, too, has paid a price. There's the lack of recognition, of course. But there's also what she calls "spiritual damage." For example, almost being pink-slipped from 1991's Bright Angel.
"At first they said I just wasn't acting sexy enough, and then they decided that my whole being wasn't sexy enough," she says in her naturally raspy and, yeah, sexy voice. "I was really messed up about it. The producers hated me, but I had to stand by my truth. It's like, these actions I've taken, my belief in not playing up to somebody else's fantasy, I had no idea if it would ever 'pay off'. There have been times when I thought I might have to give up and find something else to do."
As one of six kids in an artistic, middle-class family marooned in the moneyed Chicago suburb of Glencoe, Taylor grew up exceedingly self-aware. "My grandfather helped found the town, one of those ancestor things, before it got really rich, but we weren't wealthy. So we ended up pitted against this environment. There was a lot of resentment in my family, probably to make us feel better about ourselves." Much of that class spite was embodied by her father, an aesthete misplaced in Glencoe's property-value abyss. "You know, the suit didn't really fit," Taylor explains with a nervous laugh, like a daughter afraid of being overheard. "He wanted to be a poet, but he was trying to run a hardware store, and we didn't even have a hammer in the house. There was a bit of a clash there. He was a guy who, because of his family situation, had to go to work and abandon his dream."
Taylor's passion for working-class, ethnic characters (a 40-ish woman even stops by our table to exclaim, "You're such an inspiration to us Italian girls!") probably has its roots in her family's dilemma. "Certain people take hardship and turn it into a deeper understanding of who they are and why they feel the way they do," says Nina Gordon, guitarist vocalist for the Chicago band Veruca Salt and a close friend of Taylor's since they met at theater camp as 16-year-old drama queens. "I think what makes Lili a great actor is what makes her a great friend and would also make her a great psychoanalyst."
While researching her I Shot Andy Warhol subject Valerie Solanas--author of the riotous, pre-feminist satire SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto and Warhol's nutso would-be assassin--she actually pored over psychological records, trying to make sense of Solanas' nonsensical life. "Seeing her up there on the screen, the way I played her, some people just can't believe that she had a sense of humor and that she was almost endearing. Before she went crazy, she wasn't that threatening. She was shy, she was awkward, she would try to flirt with guys. She didn't say, 'I want to kill you and cut your balls off,' which is what you'd expect."
Perhaps it's appropriate that for the most prominent role, at least so far, of her complicated career, Taylor plays a rather unsympathetic crank. Answering objections from Warhol Factory vets, most emphatically the Velvet Underground's Lou Reed, that Solanas was simply a marginal nuisance, Taylor had to assert the importance of retelling Solanas' story. "On one level she was shouting that the situation between men and women was getting out of control, which is important in itself. But she also wisely pointed out that it had to do with men's fear of having their authority questioned. A lot of her stuff about the Big Daddy syndrome, about how so much of society is wanting to please your father again and again, really applies to the film industry also. Hollywood is Big Daddy.
In fact, Solanas' deadly wish for a "magic world" where women-only "explore, discover, invent, solve problems, crack jokes, make music," could be seen as an explosion of the frustrations and compromises that so many of Taylor's other characters have endured. Rose, the waitress/folksinger in Dogfight who was tricked by River Phoenix into being his partner for an "ugly date" contest, and Teresa, the religion-obsessed-young woman in Household Saints, both verged on a pitifully deprived naiveté. But since Taylor never winks at her characters' weaknesses, their naiveté becomes a devastating yearning, a desire to give their hearts completely, that feels courageous.
Technically, it's often what Taylor doesn't do that makes her roles so convincing. Even when she goes off, the monologues focus your attention on the scene's dynamic, not her craftiness. "She's really understated, and maybe that's why she's been compared to [Robert] De Niro rather than, say, [Jack] Nicholson, who is a great actor, but his greatness comes out of the extra things he does," says Jim McKay, her director in Girls-town. "Lili's extras are definitely there, but they're more subtle, and more human, in a way."
With her softly tanned, delicate face and crushworthy eyes, it's perverse how often Taylor has been tagged as "offbeat" (and now that she's played a few lesbian characters, forget about it). Maybe it's just because she's so disarmingly direct, or "more alert than women are supposed to be," as critic Pauline Kael once said of Katharine Hepburn.
"She was always so confident," says Gordon, who was introduced to Veruca Salt bandmate Louise Post by Taylor on New Year's Eve 1992. "I just remember as a teenager being terrified if someone whistled at me on the street, not knowing what to do, getting kind of ashamed and embarrassed. But Lili would just confront the person and be like, 'Do you think that makes me feel good? Because it doesn't make me feel good. Do you think that makes me want to spend time with you? No, it doesn't.' It was funny, but it was also inspiring."
Despite such confidence, Taylor is still apprehensive about her future in a business where women are better seen in the shower than heard. "It's so scary how we keep getting this certain kind of passive, fucked-up young woman on screen who doesn't have anything to do with our real lives. And the reason is because that woman isn't threatening. I have a belief deep-down that I'm going to be in big trouble in this profession after 40," she says, pushing her hair behind her ears almost girlishly. "Now, how true that is, and how owned I am by that belief, I guess I'll find out."