From Black Book Magazine - June-August 1999
Gilding the Lili
So I smoke some more and think of how everyone I know loves Lili Taylor's work. She was a philosophical vampire in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, a manic-depressive, gun-toting lesbian in I Shot Andy Warhol, and a frantic kidnapper in Ransom. No matter what part she is playing, there's something uncanny and heartbreaking about the way she throws herself into a role. You forget you're watching a movie. You just want to reach up and help the poor soul she's portraying. This quality makes people feel like Lili Taylor is one of them. A goddess to outsiders and misanthropes alike. This July, Lili stars in the Steven Spielberg-produced The Haunting and so that quality will doubtless appeal to more people.
I guzzle more coffee and think of how odd it is that I'm interviewing a woman who, in fact, appears in one of my own short stories. It's a story narrated by Jack, a maniacal petty thief with a pet horse. He falls in love with a girl who looks like Lili Taylor and thereupon expounds on Lili's virtues for a paragraph, citing Miss Taylor as an example of someone everyone wants to sleep with: "She's just one of those people, not conventionally beautiful but so sexy and genuine seeming almost every guy I've ever talked to, white, black, Spanish, Chinese even, they all want Lili Taylor. And I know women who don't usually have dyke inclinations but you mention Lili Taylor and their eyes milk over and you're pretty sure they're going to have to race to the bathroom and jerk off for a while."
She beams that trademark Lili Taylor smile (you know the one: mischievous yet friendly), shakes my hand, and sits down. She's wearing a long green skirt, a fake fur coat, and a lavender scarf. Her shoulder-length hair is a bit unruly. She's surprisingly tiny and delicate. Passing her on the street, you might not recognize this prolific actress--unless she looked directly at you. Her gaze is memorable, shooting out from a face full of motion and intelligence.
"Oh good, we can smoke in here," she says, nodding at the ashtray.
"I didn't know if you just smoked for movies or real life, too," I tell her.
It's hard to imagine that the woman whose amazing portrayal of chain-smoking Valerie Solanas was acting at being a smoker--you never know where the character ends and she begins.
"Oh no, I smoke," she says, nodding vigorously and pulling a pouch of Drum tobacco from her powder-blue bag.
"But you roll your own so you must not smoke that much."
"I roll fast she says, laughing. She has a great, genuine, and throaty laugh, the kind of laugh you'd expect out of a tough-but-sweet gangster moll or a French chanteuse.
"Should we order some food? Are you hungry? I'm sorry, I'm nervous, I haven't interviewed many people, I don't get out much," blunder.
She laughs. "Don't worry, hon," she says, and I turn on my little taping maching and try to ask interesting questions.
Maggie: Every film I see you in, you strike this chord, this touching moment. How do you do that? [I look to see if she winces at the compliment, but she neither gloats nor withdraws, just takes it in stride the way someone who is humb;e but confident can do.]
Lili: I think a lot of it is just something I was born with. I love what I do and I work really hard. I try to really get into the script and the character. Hit some kind of truth. It's not because I'm amazing, but because I have a gift for getting out of my own way.
When you did Valerie Solanas [the violently radical feminist who was the subject of I Shot Andy Warhol], did she inhabit you for a long time?
It's funny. I'm not method and I usually don't get stuck in the character. But I knew I needed to ground myself with her.
What about The Haunting? How was working on that?
Intense. I was in every scene and it was really hard work. But I was impressed by the whole thing. It was like an independant film with a lot of money. Jan [de Bont, the director] had his own vision and nobody was telling him what to do.
I had this moment a few years back when I was being flown out to LA to meet these agents and stuff and I was so--those people say the most ridiculous stuff, total horseshit, so I was wondering if it's been a wierd transition for you, from indie things to Hollywood.
You know, I was expecting that and it wasn't there. It wasn't. It was very encouraging. I think a lot of it has to do with Spielberg [producer of the film.] He's a good man. And the structure of that company [Dreamworks] doesn't have that corporate mentality. It was a one-for-all feeling. It was great.
Do you get offered a lot of major roles like this?
No. The first time I met Jan, I thanked him for having the faith and casting me. I wouldn't be the normal choice for a $90 million movie.
Your getting a part like this, being visible, it's going to do a lot for all of us who are not the Traditional Chick.
She laughs. She orders a coffee. The place is getting crowded and now and then someone glances in our direction. I'm not sure if they recognize the arthouse star among them, but no one stares blatantly. Lili takes several vigorous sips of coffee rolls another cigarette, and tells me about her boyfriend Gerard, whom she loves. It's the most solid relationship she's ever had and she speaks with tempered enthusiasm, like a woman who's been through a number liaisons but hasn't lost the faith. It makes her even more likable. It seems there is not a bitter bone in her body.
I'm a big Robert Altman fan, so I'm curious: What was it like being in Short Cuts? Crazy?
No, there's a real rhyme to his reason. Just like Abel [Ferrara], Bob knows what he's doing. Though he plays dumb. Before I'd met Lily Tomlin or Tom Waits, Bob took me and just threw me in a trailer with them and watched what happened. He creates an atmosphere for everybody.
You, Tom, and Lily is an amazing trio.
Yeah, I grew up listening to all of Tom Waits's records.
He's a god. And Lily Tomlin is no slouch. They were beautiful.
We jabber about music for a moment. She took up accordion a few years ago. I took up piano. We talk about what Bach sounds like played on accordion. She listens mostly to jazz but she loves Bach. I ask about her childhood. She grew up in a suburb of Chicago with six brothers and sisters who she's still close to.
Were your parents artistic?
My dad had a hardware store given to him by his father but it wasn't really what he wanted to do. He was a poet so he always encouraged my own endeavors.
And you're writing a movie about your parents?
Yeah, yeah, I don't know if we'll get to do it, though. Don't know if Dad can handle the schedule. But I really just love my parents and think they're interesting and we don't see a lot of older people on the screen. My brother and I are getting a camera. He's an electrician in Chicago and he's actually going to go off and shoot a quick documentary on this thing Fishing Without Boundaries, where they take people with disabilities to go fishing for a week. So my brother's going to film it and make a documentary. Then I'm going to take the camera and get some footage of my parents, just for the hell of it, see where it goes.
Do you go back home a lot?
I do. I love going home. Every family's nuts, so I get a little nuts when I'm there, but I need to see them a lot. I do.
Do you think you're going to have kids and all that?
Tell me about the 52nd Street Project.
I've been doing that for a long time now. We work with a bunch of kids from Hell's Kitchen. You pair up with a kid and then there's usually a theme, like "playing with fire" or "risk-taking." And then you write a play. I write a play with the kid, and we rehearse it and then eventually perform it. I think they're some of the best plays in town. So pure and so simple. There's no censorship. Also, as an actor, it's fun acting in their plays. It's so pure.
Do you have any animals?
We talk about cats (and horses) at great length, but none of it is terribly relevant except that it is clear Lili is a profoundly empathetic soul, hence some of her power to move us through her work.
What are you working on now?
Nothing. I'm exhausted after The Haunting, so I don't even really want to work, you know what I mean? I'm going to do a couple of days on High Fidelity [the Steven Frears adaptation of Nick Hornby's 1995 novel, with a screenplay co-written by John Cusack]. It's a cameo. And I'm working on the Janis Joplin thing [a biopic of the legendary blues-rock belter].
Right. With Nancy Savoca, who directed you in Dogfight.
You're writing it?
Nancy is, but we're working together. We don't want to do it until we really get it right. Where we somehow manage to encapsulate Janis's passion and breathlessness and emotion.
Fame can really wreck people and turn them into abominable assholes and you're anything but. I guess your recognition has come very gradually, which probably helps. Its probably a blessing that your career has gone the way it has.
I'm so glad it has. I really don't have any regrets. I just start to get a bit concerned about some of economical changes that affect the independents. A lot of indie films now have to cast major stars just to get a deal.
Back when John Cassavetes was making movies or even in the early '80s with Jarmusch and people--they were truly independent movies. And now it's almost like the phrase "alternative rock." It only means they have a slightly lower budget. Because its not a whole aesthetic anymore.
No. It's mostly a joke.
We wax rhapsodic about directors like Mike Leigh (she'd like to be in one of his movies) and Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (it's her favorite movie; mine too). We're both getting hungry, so we start to wrap things up.
How do you feel about your work in retrospect? I read somewhere that you don't read any of your interviews. I know sometimes I see something mine in print and I cringe, and other times I don't. Do you have that, do you just ignore it, do think about what you've done?
Well, I don't have a TV but I do know that when I'm filming, when I watch the dailies, for the most part, I feel fine. I think my work is pretty thorough. I feel OK.
Another quote from one of your interviews, you said "Our scope of females' history is limited." It's frustrating that the women portrayed in film and even in literature are either coquettish whores or psychotic. There's not a lot of range.
No. We've got a ways to go.
I turn the tape recorder off now and we order food. She asks for eggs over easy and whole wheat toast and makes a special request for strawberry jam. When she turns to the waitress to ask, "Do you have strawberry jam?" she looks like little kid, with all this hope in her face--and then beaming smile when she's informed that yes, strawberry jam can be had.
I tell her about a book I'm writing on nineteen century gangster women and Coney Island, and now the tables turn: Lili starts asking me questions; about the book, myself, my boyfriend. After a few minutes I realize she's getting me to open up more than most people who've known me several years can do. It occurs to me that, empathetic as she is, she'd make a hell of a shrink or social worker.
We each get in one more cigarette before the food arrives. I have my own eggs to eat so I'm not really paying attention to what's on Lili's plate until I start to notice that she's taken her eggs and cut them up into egg mush. She then puts jam on her toast and puts the egg mush on top of this. I admired her abandon. Both in eating and in immersing her self in her work and the things she cares about. Her lead role in The Haunting will likely propel Lili Taylor to major stardom. And Hollywood could sure use a movie star who is one of the most intelligent and generous souls I've ever met.
As we get up to leave, we make a date to go to Coney Island together. She hasn't been in years. I watch her walk away up Avenue B, most of her petite frame swallowed by a heap of fake fur.
by Maggie Estep
photography by Ian Crawford
Stylist: Andrea Menke
Makeup: Heidi Le Crow
Hair: Dan Sharp/Garren New York
Film: Kodak Professional T-Max 400