From The Advocate - April 16, 1996
By Mark Huisman
"I wouldn't be surprised if I ended up with a woman," says Lili Taylor, her probing brown eyes narrowed to a squint. "I don't send out a vibe, gay or straight, to either sex." Although her lesbian life thus far has been limited to performances on film, Taylor makes it clear that she doesn't rule out actual experiences in the future. "It seems like we're all bisexual," she continues in a low, mellow voice pricked by an urgent rasp, "if you want to get kind of simple about it."
Getting simple about Taylor herself, who is now in her "late 20s," would be difficult, because she's not interested in simplicity. "I read all these ideas of how women act and react, and I just get so mad," she says. "I don't want to do some mythical idea of a woman." Instead Taylor opts for challenging, sharply drawn characters that not everyone wants to (or can) play. Eighteen pictures after her debut in 1988's sleeper hit Mystic Pizza, critics have begun to refer to such parts as, simply, "the Lili Taylor role."
Now, in Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol which opens May 1 in New York and Los Angeles, Taylor takes on the most challenging Lili Taylor role yet-as lesbian firebrand Valerie Solanas, the onetime Factory insider whose 15 minutes of fame began when she shot pop artist/cultural icon Andy Warhol in the summer of 1968. A brilliant thinker who penned the browbeating but bitingly humorous SCUM Manifesto (SCUM stands for Society for Cutting Up Men), Solanas was also a little crazy. "Yeah," Taylor nods. "She shot him. That's the problem."
Sometimes described as diminutive, Taylor in person seems anything but. And though she can seem plain on-camera, her natural beauty is striking, with softly curved facial features and densely flowing brunet hair. Speaking on the Queens, N.Y., set of her current movie, Ron Howard's Ransom--in which she plays a Bronx woman who kidnaps the son of a wealthy businessman, played by Mel Gibson--Taylor recalls the challenges of getting inside Solanas's sexuality. It was a very different task, she insists, from simply acting lesbian. "Who the hell is this woman?" Taylor remembers thinking. "I couldn't imagine her just existing, which is so important.
"I couldn't marry all the contradictions," she continues. "Being a lesbian, never having a lesbian relationship, being a feminist, being a whore. She wasn't really living what she was thinking.
"Valerie was comfortable saying 'I'm a fucking lesbian,' but I don't think she was comfortable with it," Taylor reflects. "Not ever having a lesbian relationship--shit. How do I understand that?"
Taylor had played gay before--as the colorfully loud fashion photographer in Robert Altman's Ready to Wear and as the androgynous East Village philosophy student-cum-vampire in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (for which she had to endure take after take of Annabella Sciorra sucking on her neck).
For I Shot Andy Warhol, Taylor read and watched everything she could get her hands on, including old editions of the SCUM Manifesto, TV clips, and film footage. And she did indeed arrive at an understanding of Solanas. In fact, her performance was so successful that some viewers at the film's premiere at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival reacted with confusion, discomfort and accusatory anger when Taylor appeared after the screenings. "The most amazing thing," recalls writer-director Mary Harron, was that the audience could not separate Lili from Valerie."
Not surprisingly, male and female viewers at the Sundance screening responded differently. "The film definitely speaks to women in a different way," Harron says. "Valerie's manifesto is about women's secret thoughts and anger. She just said it all out loud."
Fittingly, at a festival in which Taylor seemed to be present everywhere (she also appeared in the Sundance hits Girls Town and Cold Fever), her turn as Solanas was recognized with a first-time-ever special prize for acting. For her acceptance speech Taylor whispered, in part, "Valerie, if you're listening, don't hurt anybody."
In contrast to the excesses, of playing Solanas, Taylor says, creating her lesbian character in Ready to Wear was all about knowing when to stop. "I made the choice that she was out" the actress begins. "She knew exactly who she was, and she was OK with that. But how could I convey all that without falling into stereotypes? On the other hand, if I didn't make things clear, maybe they wouldn't know I was a lesbian," Taylor explains, roaring with laughter. "Which says so much! Because it's, like, lesbians are like all of us!"
Taylor finally decided that playing lesbian involved simply "realizing that they see the world differently," she says. "But you have to understand the similarities first, and then you try to understand the differences." She rushes to add, "It's not really a big thing for me. But it is a big thing, because you want to honor that difference." In the end Taylor skipped stereotypical vocal and physical mannerisms and the standard short haircut. She took the advice of gay friends: "Just trust that people are going to get it or they're not."
Taylor has applied this advice to her quirky career as well. In the beginning she worried about achieving fame and fortune. But her fears ebbed as she continued to work. "I realized slowly that I didn't have to do anything I didn't want to do," she explains, lighting a hand-rolled cigarette. "I didn't have to get struck famous or corrupt or bankrupt--any of that stuff. I had a choice in the matter."
What Taylor chose to do was chart her own remarkable course. The fifth of six children whose father ran a hardware store, she grew up on Chicago's affluent North Shore. She fell in love with acting during her senior year in high school and after graduation briefly attended a conservatory (she was quickly expelled). Shortly afterward, Taylor was lured by an agent to Los Angeles for her first film audition. The film was Mystic Pizza.
Taylor's unique presence has been in demand among directors ever since. Her resume now includes major roles in highly praised films by independent directors such as Nancy Savoca (Dogfight, with costar River Phoenix, and Household Saints) and cameos in films by such big names as Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July) and Robert Altman (Short Cuts).
After her second film, Say Anything Taylor moved not west but east, in part because of New York's plentiful stage opportunities. The actress now lives in Greenwich Village, where two years ago she formed a theater company called Machine Full with her live-in boyfriend, actor Michael Imperioli, who also appears in Warhol as scene queen Ondine.
Taylor is quick to acknowledge that, for all her gay-friendliness, homosexual friends have to deal with problems she's been spared. "What would I tell a friend who was considering whether to come out?" Taylor muses. "I'd start by saying, 'You are so brave,"' she whispers. carefully enunciating each word. I mean, the consequences of coming out--you have to know what you're up against. How do you deal with those consequences?"
Psychologically, argues Taylor, a lot of people aren't ready to come out, and she understands their hesitation. Taylor isn't even sure she herself would have the courage. I don't know if I could," she admits. I really don't."
And what about the courage to love another woman? "Sexually?" she says, grinning. "The funny thing is, like, when you love each other so much, what level can you take it to next? How much deeper can it go? To the physical realm? Does it go there?"
Taylor pauses and snuffs out a last cigarette. "I talked about that once with a close friend," she says. "Do we go there? And we decided, No, not that day. But I'm open to it."
Photograph by ANDREW ECCLES/OUTLINE PRESS