From Dazed and Confused #27
LILI TAYLORINTERVIEW JEFFERSON HACK PHOTOGRAPHY RANKIN
"There's something so pure about two men in a ring, beating the shit out of each other." You could mistakenly believe these to be the words of Valerie Solanas, feminist author of The SCUM Manifesto, and not those of Lili Taylor, the knock-out actress who triumphs as her in I Shot Andy Warhol. It is early morning, about 3 or 4am. The scene is Bar Italia and Lili Taylor and her boyfriend, actor Michael Rapaport are watching Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield slug it out on the big screen. It's already late and, as it gets later, the atmosphere in the small, crowded, caffiene-fuelled bar turns aggressive. "It got kind of violent, so I left, but Michael gave me a blow by blow account over the telephone," she recalls, laughing.
Lili Taylor is a 29 year-old actress breathtaking range and startling conviction. She has appeared in over 20 feature films and has had an extensive career on stage in New York. You may not instantly recognize her, know anything about her, or even register her name, because until recently she rarely gave interviews and rarely appeared in the press. She chooses films for their spirit and untypical female roles, not just the size of the budget or the stepping-stone opportunity they might afford. It has made her the preeminent female actor in independent American film, with critical acclaim, commercial Hollywood offers and inherent credibility sown up.
In 1996 alone Taylor made six feature films. In the first to have been released she shoots Andy Warhol, in the second, Ron Howards' blockbuster Ransom, she is shot and killed and in the third, Abel Ferara's black and white The Addiction, she is living dead as a vampire looking for blood on the streets of New York. Directed by Mary Harron and co-written with Daniel Minahan, I Shot Andy Warhol is a stylish mix of documentary and dramatized fiction. The film characterizes a cultural clash of politics and fashion in late'60s America. Perhaps Solanas would have remained a footnote in history had she not shot Warhol, and perhaps no one would want to see a film that was merely called I Shot Some Bloke, but that's the irony, and the tragedy. Warhol was adored and Solanas was ignored and this is the cliché that binds the polarity of their lives.
Warhol is the catalyst, the metaphysical manifestation of celebrity, artist, millionaire and socialite. The opposite of everything Solanas represented. She was a radical feminist and a pay-the-rent prostitute, a self confessed lesbian with no known lesbian relationships. A hotbed of contradictions and confusion.
And Lili Taylor takes this all on in a multi-layered, multifaceted Scooby-snack of a role as chief agitator Solanas. It is her most outstanding performance to date and has earned her many awards and accolades, most notably The Special Jury Prize for Acting at the Sundance Festival.
Taylor lives in Greenwich Village, New York, where she runs her own theatre company Machine Full along with ex-boyfriend Michael Imperioli, who played the part of Ondine in I Shot Andy Warhol. She also works with disadvantaged inner city children, writing and performing plays for the 52nd Street Project. She became involved when a friend took her to see one of their plays, written by kids and performed by adult actors: "It was just the purest thing I'd seen. It was so beautiful."
Taylor grew up in a suburb of Chicago, the second youngest of six children. She was a quiet outsider; not odd or weird, just, "like a lot of teenagers. I didn't like high school." While still at school Taylor was diagnosed as being manic depressive. She says it was a misdiagnosis, but, "it allowed me to sorta breathe, because someone's finally said 'you're right, there's something up.'" When she was growing up she didn't think about becoming anything other than an actress. She enrolled at the Goodman Theatre School, from which she was eventually expelled, but not before appearing in two films, Mystic Pizza and Say Anything.
Taylor moved to New York in 1988. Her film roles include a lot of short, but unforgettable cameos. Remember the war widow visited by Tom Cruise in Born On The Fourth Of July, the religious ascetic who hallucinated conversations with Jesus Christ in Household Saints, the hippified housesitter in Short Cuts, Edna Ferber in Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle, or even the cynical lesbian photojournalist in Pret-a-Porter! All Taylor. Not forgetting the witch alongside Madonna in Allison Anders' fourth room.
Two outstanding performances in brilliant but largely misunderstood films went straight to video in the UK. In Arizona Dreams Taylor battles hilariously for the attention of Johnny Depp and in Cold Fever, she does a funny, psychotic, hitchhiking double-act with Fisher Stevens.
Taylor's signature is that she brings a sense of dignity to her characters, regardless of the role whether it's 'psyche-whore', 'ugly girl' or 'vampire seductress' she humbles herself, opening channels that allow her character to come through. It's the risk she takes with every role and it is tantamount to her self conviction that the risks have been paying off.
Dazed & Confused: Was it difficult to define Valerie Solanas sexually, and her relationship with Andy? Was it based on historical accuracy or was it speculative?
D&C: There's a lot of contradictions.
LT: Exactly, and I had to find a massive contradiction that would hold all the smaller ones together.
D&C: The way you played it was that she had a crush on Warhol in her mind, whether it actually existed or not.
LT: Right, exactly. Like it was all in her head. That was the chasm between her, her ideas their execution and her actions. They weren't in sync. And I like that, because life is like that. I think a lot of times we have to just stand next to the mystery. Not try to squeeze it into some category.
D&C: Do you think her story is as important in the '90s as it was when she shot Warhol?
LT: We've grown up a little bit since then, but there was no woman like her. She's still very threatening to the female movement and to the world.
D&C: It's almost as if after all the revolutions and movements, things haven't changed that much. The status quo still remains in sexual politics.
LT: It's almost gotten worse. It's like civil rights in America: we've been sold a false bill of goods. And I feel that to say, 'We've made these strides', is just not really that true.
D&C: Now, there have been split reactions to the film from the Warhol camp. Paul Morrissey, the director of many of Warhol's movies, referred to Valerie as 'idiotic and self-destructive'. Glenn O'Brien, the pre-eminent Velvet Underground biographer, accused Mary Harron of canonizing a marginal maniac as a political visionary.
LT: Yeah, so I thought their reactions were much more interesting than the movie. I learned a lot about human nature just by the reactions, how defensive they were. Like Lou Reed was very angry and I think; well, it seemed like something else was going on there besides just him being angry at Valerie.
D&C: It brings us full circle to the fact that she's still a threat. Is that right?
LT: Yeah, man: our scope of females throughout history is just limited. And that's why it was important her story was told. I think she had a lot of problems, but I think you learn, though, from someone who's so destructive.
D&C: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
LT: I don't think of myself as a feminist so much, but I don't feel ashamed to say the word, which I think a lot of people do.
D&C: Well, I'm a bloke, so I wouldn't know.
LT: But I'm a woman, and as a woman I want the same shot as anybody else. I want the same money spent on research for my health. I want the same friggin' money for my salary. It's just simple rights. Same access.
D&C: Do you think people have to be more extreme today? I mean there's been a lot of passive action to try and create change. There have been a lot of youth movements that have held optimism about the future, yet successive generations have found that there still is no change and the situation's getting worse. In a sense, I feel that idealism is back in on the agenda.
LT: I think it's got to get bad before it's going to get better, in some ways that 'bad' is apathy.
D&C: Do you think people should be more idealistic, with actors and directors doing more to turn over established truths?
LT: If they can. The problems are very great. Our society's much more sophisticated and complex, and it's like we see all these problems and we just have to keep chipping away. Apathy is what has made them so damn powerful. They have succeeded. At least in America capitalism has succeeded by the fact that we're all just immobilized. And I feel very strongly about speaking up, about just saying, 'No, I'm not going to allow this'. Everything's a choice and there's a consequence and it's like, 'How can I set my life up so that I'm free to make the choices that I want to make, so that I don't have to take a job that I don't believe in!'. Now I don't have a child, I've not got a mortgage. I set it up so that if I have to do that, then I'm willing to pay that price.
D&C: Now that you're winning awards, and that you're getting a lot of critical acclaim for I Shot Andy Warhol and the other films you've done, are you worried that the quieter, more interesting roles won't be offered to you anymore'
D&C: And that brings Ransom into the equation. Why did you chose to be in a commercial, blockbuster film like that?
LT: There was no reason not to. Ron (Howard) was totally open to all my suggestions. He's a good person. I thought...'Now, this would be an example of an empty principle, if I didn't do it. First of all I need the cash, and there's no compromise; it's a terrific cast.' But, you know, it still has to be right for me and I've realized how seldom those opportunities actually come along.
D&C: Is it possible to act without putting any personal comment into a role?
LT: No. And I find that I don't like it when I don't see anything personal in performances. I used to try to do that, not to have any of me in it, because it's safer. I think a lot of actors think that they are not worthy enough. That if you show yourself, you'll be rejected. What I realized is that the risk is to bring me in, and to face the possibility of me being rejected. I know if I don't do that, then there's not going to be any heart.
D&C: Was there ever a period when you were confused, a period of self-discovery?
LT: Yeah, and it's still going, but what I've realized about myself is at the end of the day, I come through. Sometimes I'll act despite what I'm feeling, and that's what courage is. In spite of the fear, you trudge ahead. What I started to realize in my early 20s was that I had a choice. I can say no but I have to be willing to pay the price. For me, paying the price was having not everyone understanding what I was doing. And it's scary, late at night when you're thinking, 'Maybe I am really going to fuck myself up, maybe I'm doing the wrong thing. Maybe they all know something when they say I should follow this and that rule: what am I doing?' I keep saying these words over and over again, because this is what has sort of anchored me down. What price do I wanna pay? But I still go through a lot of confusion and a lot of doubt.
D&C: You've done six films this year. That's a hell of a lot of work.
LT: Phew, I mean, I just feel like I've paid a physical price. Like my immune system kind of got shot and then I didn't realize that when I did six movies that I was going to to have do the press as well...
D&C: It's like a trade-off?
LT: Yeah. My ass has been kicked: I'm zapped.
D&C: Anything positive come out of that though?
LT: I don't read about anything I've done. I don't look at any of my photographs. I don't read reviews, because I can see how you can get so self-centered. It's not healthy. You've got to keep humble. This year humbled me and it's been an interesting obstacle.
D&C: So would you say that you're in character when you do interviews?
LT: Well, yeah, because there's always some persona.
D&C: Are you now a persona or is this the real Lili Taylor?
LT: That's the other thing that's funky because it's like as an actor, when does your job stop? What are the masks? I really don't know. I had three months off and I realize I'm having an identity crisis because I haven't not done a character for so long (laughs). I don't know who I am, because there's always been someone else inside. We all have our personas though, but I'm not a character now.
D&C: The media has an unhealthy fascination with discovering newer, younger, prettier actors to fill their covers every month. It really waters down the notion of success being related to talent.
LT: The press is just part of the reality of the century that we live in. It's so transparent, it's like, 'I wonder why she's on the cover? Oh she has a movie out.' We're all in collusion together; it's this enormous machine. I'm very fascinated with the media from just a political point of view. I love Chomsky. I'm fascinated with the way our stories are told, the hidden messages and so on and I'm part of that. I'm part of that whole machine on a different level, and the marketing of it. I really do believe that whatever century I lived in I'd be an actor.
D&C: So, for the 21st century actress, do you think the PR machine will just start canceling everything out, to the point where the commodification of culture is saturated and it becomes impossible to tell the wood from the trees?
LT: It's so powerful, the PR machine, and that's funny. Valerie understood PR. She mentioned it a lot in the Manifesto. It's so enormous and insidious, and it has such a hold on us that I don't think we even understand it. I don't know if people are going to get so bloated and gluttonous off it or if it's just here to stay. Capitalism is totally dependent on PR. That's part of my thing, the mixing of art and commerce.
D&C: There's a blackout on information in the mainstream media about it. People like Noam Chomsky are still repressed in their own county.
LT: Yeah, I know, I know. Straight old Fascism is a bit easier to understand, because at least it is the devil as you know it, but here in America it's so insidious. You don't see our forms of oppression, they're very hard to point out.
D&C: Society doesn't want to accept that these things are going on, so anyone who talks openly about it is banded a radical, or an extremist rather than people accepting how fucking obvious it all is.
To change the subject, when was the last time you cried?
LT: Yesterday. I cry a lot. That's something that I'm just accepting; that I'm an emotional person. It's my blessing and my curse. I feel a lot.
D&C: What do you look for in a man?
LT: Compassion, that's the main thing. A white man generally speaking has a little bit more privilege. I think when you have more privilege it's harder to stop and think that there are people that don't, and what is that like and to empathize. A man who does that is what I look for.
D&C: Do you think you could ever be attracted to a woman?
LT: Sure, I mean I am. It's like, I mean I... yeah, but that's a whole...
D&C: Do you think a female-female relationship can ever have what a male-female relationship has?
LT: Absolutely, I've got a lot of gay friends.
D&C: But don't you think the relationships are very different?
LT: Yeah, but I think love is love...
D&C: ...but it's not based on competition, or is it a different type of lore perhaps?
LT: Probably, but it's like that thing that you're born with 83 burdens and don't pick up the 84th, and I think lesbian relationships will have their 83 you know? Equivalence, maybe not the same exact dynamic, but I think love is love you know and it's... it's hard. It's beautiful and it's hard.
D&C: Is it a lot harder to come out...
LT: ...as a lesbian? Absolutely
D&C: than it is as a homosexual?
LT: ...oh yeah.
D&C: Is it harder to come out because society perhaps sees homosexuality as an accessory and lesbianism as still a threat?
LT: Absolutely, honey, it's like going against the man.
D&C: Do you think that it takes an element of insecurity to be an actress, to enable you to have the vulnerability to deal with the emotions of a character
LT: Yeah, I do. And I've tried not to fight that so much but just to accept it, and that it's necessary. It's like fear. There's a holy fear and then there's the fear that's like, 'Let's deal with this. This is destructive'. And that insecurity is that rough thing that 'umphs' you on to the next place.
D&C: You have a strong myth that surrounds you for privacy, for not accepting bullshit, for seriousness, for being outspoken. Is that a front? I mean, do you think that in the film industry you have to be ultra-hard not to be treated like shit, to be respected? You have to be more hard than you would normally be.
LT: I found that. Just as a woman I have to work a little harder. I just do, just to get my voice heard. Absolutely.
D&C: Do you find yourself being able to identify with any other female performers who share similar ideas of subverting media myths?
LT: Yeah, there are. One that comes to mind is K.D. Lang who I just met, who is very inspiring in that way. There's not enough though, which is testimony to forces
D&C: Madonna is always championed by a lot of women as someone who has created change: what do you think of her?
LT: See, she's perfect. See, she's the perfect thing to latch on to. You know what I'm saying and it's like, it's it's (pause)
D&C: OK, in the third person then, 'someone like her'.
LT: It's easy, because it's surface, it's really not change. If anything it's not helping at all. It's perpetuating this thing that woman have already got down real well, like sex, and it's just using that sexuality in a different way.
D&C: But only on one level, a level that was reached by Marilyn Monroe.
D&C: That was a '50s concept of sexual liberation. Pre-Solanas even.
LT: That's right.
D&C: Do you think there's anything wrong with seeing a film just for fun?
LT: No not at all
D&C: just for like the junk value of it, buying into some stereotypes now and then. Do you ever do that?
LT: Not really, I probably should more. I just don't get to see enough movies.
The 52nd Street Project
The project brings together inner-city children with professional theatre artists to create theatre through unique mentoring relationships. It was started in 1981 by playwright Willie Reale, in response to a deepening need to improve the quality of life for New York's inner-city children. The Project works with children between the ages of eight and 18 who live in the Clinton (Hell's Kitchen) neighborhood of Manhattan. Over it's 15 year history the project has produced more than 500 plays involving over 600 children and theatre artists. Lili has worked with the project for eight years. It is possible to recreate the project in any town or city with their specially produced Kid Theatre Kit.
The 52nd Street Project can be contacted at 500 West 52nd Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 1009.
Tel. 00 1 (213) 333 5252. Fax 00 1 (213) 333 5598.
Films starring Lili Taylor that are completed but as yet have no UK release date
Kicked In the Head
Directed by Matthew Harrison, whose debut film last year was the high impact, low budget The Rhythm Thief. Martin Scorcese is the executive producer. The cast includes Michael Rapaport, Kevin Corrigan, James Woods and Linda Fiorentino. It is a contemporary New York story about a group of loosely connected small time criminals and low lifes, who become entangled with the Mafia when a cocaine delivery turns into a hallucinogenic ride through a dark Manhattan of the soul. Lili is kidnapped by the mob when they realize their coke never showed.
Directorial debut by Jim McKay. This is the story of three high school girls, Lili Taylor, Bruklin Harris and Anna Grace who deal with the suicide of a friend. The script has been improvised so Lili received a co-writing credit for her input. Shot in a realistic, documentary style drama, this film raised the issues of victimization, solidarity and social dysfunction. This is low budget, self financed film that was shot on 16mm in twelve days following more than two years of on-off improvisation, writing and rehearsing.
Things I've Never Told You
Directed by the Spanish born Isabel Coixet. Co stars Alexis Arquette, Debi Mazar and Seymour Casell.
Directed by Nick Gomez. Co stars Michael Rapaport.
Written and directed by Brendan Cole. Limited information available. The film co stars John Tutturo. Lili's car breaks down and she takes it to a garage and the garage mechanic is a cheat. It's about the situation and how the three characters respond to the situation.
Unconfirmed rumours have it that Lili is about to begin filming the authorized biopic of Janis Joplin.
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