By Patrick Z. McGavin
Special to the Tribune

Lili Taylor is such a skilled performer it is easy to confuse her with the intense roles she plays: the doctoral student transformed into a ravenous vampire in "The Addiction"; the obsessed New York Times reporter in "Ready to Wear."

In person, it is another story. Taylor is shy, self-effacing and graced with a soft, easy laugh. She is a young woman on the cusp of a breakout career trying to remain calm and focused amid the hurly-burly. "I think sometimes I'm missing a layer of skin, I absorb a lot," Taylor says in a cafe in New York's East Village, where she moved from Chicago in 1988.

An edgy, virtuoso performer in the works of Robert Altman ("Short Cuts"), Alan Rudolph ("Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle") and Nancy Savoca ("Dogfight," "Household Saints"), Taylor finds herself in the exciting position of seeing public interest finally catch up with her accomplishments. In Mary Harron's debut film, "I Shot Andy Warhol," opening in Chicago theaters on Friday, Taylor is mesmerizing as Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist and author who fired two bullets into Andy Warhol's chest in June 1968 (Warhol survived but it took him nearly four years to recover). For her emphatic and oddly appealing performance, Taylor earned a special jury award at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Taylor also has a substantial part in the August release "Ransom," playing a villain in a story involving a terrorist kidnapping plot, opposite Mel Gibson, Rene Russo and Steppenwolf's Gary Sinise. Directed by Ron Howard ("Apollo 13"), the film seems destined to mark the 28-year-old Taylor's commercial breakthrough.

"All of this attention and being in the public spotlight is a new sort of thing for Lili," says her mother, Marie, who still lives in Glencoe, where Lili grew up. "She's never been one to talk about herself; in fact in the past she's avoided publicity. Now she's constantly being interviewed and doing press conferences. . . . I think if she had a choice, she would prefer to be less coveted. She would prefer to be more quiet."

But she has never shied from performing. Taylor's father, Park, recalls his daughter's first breakthrough moment. "Lili was in 6th grade," he says. "The production was 'Once Upon a Mattress,' and Lili sang 'My Daddy's Dancing Shoes.' She just belted the number out, so the person in the very back row could hear her. She brought down the house. There was a guy with the Chicago Symphony (Orchestra) standing next to me and he said, 'That girl is going to have a future in show business.'

"Even at a very early age, Lili had an incredible eye and ear for detail and assimilation," her father says. "Once the whole family was at dinner. At the table next to us was a Swedish couple. Lili (who was 9 at the time) just watched and listened to them. On the way home, for the next 20 minutes, Lili spoke with a Swedish accent. She never heard one before that time."

Years later, Taylor's intensity, formal technique and uncanny ability to lose herself in the most complicated of parts has some directors declaring Taylor to be the best actor of her generation.

"Technically, as an actor, Lili Taylor has no peer. She is flawless," says Bosnian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, who cast Taylor as an emotionally fragile young woman in his 1993 English-language debut, "Arizona Dream." "No other American actor her age can touch her. She has a willingness and bravery to try anything. I would work with her again in a minute."

She is not unlike Robert De Niro or Gary Oldman, actors who constantly search out the physical and psychological construct of the character to unearth a raw, elemental truth.

In "I Shot Andy Warhol," Taylor sinks into the role of Valerie Solanas, a hanger-on whose failure to penetrate Warhol's inner circle resulted in her attempt to kill the artist.

Becoming her character

"Everybody knows Andy Warhol. I had a lot of freedom because nobody knows Valerie," Taylor said. "There wasn't a lot of information about her. So I had to do a lot of psychological examination and come up with stuff on my own. Valerie became me for a while.

"The first thing I realize is each character is very different. I have to respect that when I begin. I'm open to whatever the particular character or piece may need. Whatever worked on the last one may not apply to this one as far as approaches. With 'The Addiction,' for instance, a lot of vampire movies didn't apply as far as research. But things such as criminal nature, nihilistic nature, animal nature applied. I just immersed myself in anything that made sense. The feelings of that moment are part of a very simple language that I can use to anchor me down. I think it's a whole other language; the beauty is expressed in a mercurial, mysterious way."

"Before we started shooting the film," says "Warhol" director Harron, "we had a party at a friend's house and we made them watch (Warhol's 1967 film) 'The Chelsea Girls.' It was great because Lili came in her Valerie mold, real anti-social, and she stayed in the corner the entire evening. She didn't want to interact. She acted exactly like Valerie."

That dedication has been evident since the time, as a 14-year-old, Taylor rode her bike to Evanston to take part in the workshop classes of the Piven Theatre Workshop. "You could see at the age of 14 she was somebody who had enormous potential," says Joyce Piven. "She was ferocious, passionate and intense. She was incredibly ambitious. She was somebody who had a mind of her own. Watching her grow and evolve from the workshop classes into this artist has really been something to see."

A sensitive young woman who pursued an increasingly inner-driven life, Taylor says she felt out of place at Winnetka's New Trier High School.

"I didn't have a good time there," says Taylor, the second youngest of six children. "It was a horrible experience. I was depressed a lot. Most of it was average adolescent angst. Some of the depression was pretty harsh, like the way (novelist William) Styron described it. I thought I could do something with acting and put that depression somewhere. At New Trier, I was semi-committed and semi-not. I studied hard and stuff, but I didn't want to get professional. I had this feeling in my head I needed all this training before I could become a professional actor."

After graduating from New Trier in 1985, Taylor entered the Goodman School of Drama, although she later left the program in a dispute with school officials, whom she says wouldn't give her clearance to miss a day of school for a professional job.

"I needed money for college," she says. "Even though we lived in Glencoe, we didn't have a ton of money. I made the decision to put my career on hold because you're not allowed to take professional work in the conservatory. The job would have paid for the rest of my quarter. They told me they didn't like my attitude. They had problems with me. They said, 'Don't come back.' I told them I didn't want to come back. So I got kicked out."

Theater still her first love

With her equity card in hand, Taylor continued to work with Piven and act in some Chicago theater productions. "In 1988, we were doing a workshop production of Irene Fornes' 'Mud,' says Piven. "Lili was playing the lead character, Mae, a woman stuck in poverty who worked all day washing and ironing clothes. I ran into Lili out in Los Angeles. I asked her what she was up to and she said, 'I've been ironing.' Lili was ironing for three or four hours a day. She was so determined to get the proper body rhythms, to have the physical look of somebody who irons all day."

Her first film role was in the 1988 romantic-comedy "Mystic Pizza" (the film that launched Julia Roberts), though it was her persuasive turn as John Cusack's best friend in "Say Anything" in 1989 that displayed her range.

Taylor's passion remains the theater. In New York, Taylor, her boyfriend Michael Imperioli ("Clockers," "Household Saints") and actor/playwright Tom Gilroy ("Land and Freedom") have their own theater company, Machine Fold.

"Acting is a way for me to sublimate, or process, a lot of this stuff that I pick up on and am feeling. (Acting) is a way to get it out and get through it on one level," she said.

"I think on another level, people just fascinate me. To be able to get into one for an X amount of time is just fascinating. I've been doing this for 11 years. Three months without working and you just want to get underneath somebody else's skin. I feel like, enough of me already."


'I Shot Andy Warhol" and "Ransom" represent the high-water mark of Lili Taylor's rather frenetic career. Indeed, between last October and this October, Taylor will have had seven films in release.

The other five films are:

- Abel Ferrara's "The Addiction."
- Allison Anders' segment of "Four Rooms."
- A Spanish/American co-production, "Things I've Never Told You."
- Fridik Thor Fridiksson's loopy Icelandic road movie, "Cold Fever."
- Jim McKay's improvisational, Sundance award-winner "Girls Town."

For the future, Taylor is preparing to make a film with independent filmmaker Nick Gomez ("Laws of Gravity," "New Jersey Drive") and has been working on a project with Jennie Livingston ("Paris is Burning").

"I'll tell you, most of the choices I've made, it's just following my heart," she says. "If I don't feel for it, if I don't believe in it, then I'm just not going to do it. . . . In two years, am I going to be totally messed up because I didn't do certain things for power and I'm out of the game in a way? I don't get a lot of parts I want because of the choices I've made. I have to accept that. That's the price you pay."

Copyright Chicago Tribune 1996
Date: Thursday, May 16, 1996

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