From Elle - October 1996
The block on which Ron Howard is directing the exterior scenes for Ransom (Touchstone Pictures' $50 million-plus thriller opening this month) is so heart-stoppingly bleak that, despite the hive-like bustle generated by a Hollywood film crew, my first feeling is that everyone has packed up and left the planet. Lined with cement-block warehouses, vinyl-sided homes, and corrugated-metal security gates that don't seem to get opened much, this desolate street in Astoria, Queens, is the perfect place for Ransom's desperate gang of kidnappers to hold the child they've abducted, the son of a wealthy corporate tycoon played by Mel Gibson.
Though I've known Lili Taylor casually for years--she shone as the luminous would-be martyr in Nancy Savoca's screen version of my novel Household Saints--it takes me a while to recognize her when I arrive on the set. Dressed for her role as Maris, one of the kidnappers (black leather jacket, hooded sweatshirt, jeans, engineer boots with buckles, a hairdo that might have been done by a friend in cosmetology school, a tattoo of two hands, a heart, and crown--an Irish symbol--on her neck), this brilliantly gifted rising star, who had just received a Special Jury Prize for Acting for her searing portrayal of Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol at this year's Sundance Film Festival, could pass for one of the tough young neighborhood women wheeling their baby strollers over to watch from the edge of the set. The only tip-off is that she's the street kid whose unstylish bright-blue eye shadow is getting a last minute touch-up from the makeup department.
When Lili sees me, she mugs a giant wink and mimes, "We can talk in a few minutes." What I've forgotten about her (perhaps because I've seen her most recently in Warhol as the haunted, half-mad assassin manque Solanas) is how adorable she is. Offscreen and on, she suggests a small, endearing creature transfigured from within by the force of an intensity that's almost otherworldly. She projects a subdued, thoughtful, sly reticence--her trademark voice is a smoky whisper--barely concealing a fire so propulsive that you might not be entirely surprised to see her levitate or move objects telekinetically from across the room.
In the scene they're shooting this morning, Lili rushes down an alley with a briefcase and a backpack. Suddenly, Gary Sinise, who plays a cop, appears at the end of the passageway. Lili sees him, and freezes. The camera films her from behind, and it's astonishing to watch the range of emotions--shock, terror, panic, a tremor of fatalistic resignation--that she conveys with a few subtle shifts of her back and shoulders. Ron Howard only needs a few takes to get what he needs. The camera stops rolling, but when Lili and I sit down to talk on a sunny stoop across the street, she's still in character, still using the complex diphthongs of Maris's thick Bronx accent. How has Ransom been going?
"Y'know," she says, "it's kinda suproysing for a Hollywood film. We've all been having a really good toym." In fact, she's been having a great time. At twenty-nine, after more than twenty films, she's finally seeing her quasi-underground reputation emerge into the light of day. Four of her films will be released this year. Three of them (Fridrik Thor Fridrikson's Cold Fever, Girls Town which she starred in and co-wrote with director Jim McKay--and Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol) were shown at Sundance.
"It meant a lot to me to see so much come to fruition, and to be recognized at Sundance. I didn't think I needed that recognition. And I don't need it. But it was very affirming. It's nice to know that you're not totally crazy." Though quite a few of the women she's played (Solanas; the vampire graduate student in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction; Faye Dunaway's suicidal daughter in Emir Kusturica's Arizona Dream)have been deeply peculiar, Lili has never in fact had a reputation for being crazy or difficult--or even, for that matter, neurotic.
What the Chicago-born actress is known for is the uncanny radiance with which she lights up the screen so that even her smaller parts (the bride who faints at her wedding in Mystic Pizza, Lili's first film; John Cusack's guitar-playing chum in Say Anything...;the war widow in Born on the Fourth of July) are memorable. She's admired for the fierce integrity with which she chooses her roles: the hapless house-sitter in Robert Altman's Short Cuts and the photo-journalist in his Ready to Wear; Edna Ferber in Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle And yet only recently has Lili come to believe that she can choose her direction, and that she can work in both independent and mainstream films, including Ransom, her first truly big-budget Hollywood project.
"I always thought I didn't have much choice. But now I believe that you have more choice than you think. It's taken diligence, discipline. Patience, I guess. But what I've learned is that you can follow your heart. It's really hard to listen to your heart. But you have to--it can be trusted."
What Lili's heart is telling her to do now is "to play many different kinds of women, as large a spectrum as possible. I'd like to expand our notion of what a female is. Mostly it's so limited. We've seen a lots of ditzes, whores, and house-wives." She pauses to light another Bidi--the hand-rolled Indian cigarettes with the vaguely illegal fragrance--"I'd play a whore if she was interesting. I mean, I played Valerie. And she was a prostitute. Of sorts."
Certainly, Valerie Solanas approaches the outside edge of the spectrum of female types that Lili has in mind. She prepares for roles with a De Niro-like single-mindedness--she gained fifteen pounds to play the awkward Rose in Nancy Savoca's Dogfight and lived on the living-room floor of her rented house in Wilmington, North Carolina, while portraying the obsessively religious ascetic Theresa Santangelo in Household Saints. "For each part," she says, "the thing I'm striving for is to be in a completely open place when I begin--to find out what the part needs. And that's hard. You're afraid, you're in the unknown. You want the security of whatever worked the last time, but at the same time you know that what's needed is something you've never done before."
For Lili, preparation has less to do with learning accents and speech patterns, with mastering a repertoire of gestures and new ways of walking and talking, than with understanding a character's identity on "a deep, cellular level."
"Sometimes I'll see someone on the subway wearing a certain kind of sweatpants, and I'll think, Oh, my character could wear those pants. It helps me to be authentic about style. But finally, it's all got to come from inside, from a deep knowledge of who the character is. After that, I just need to get out of my own way, to get any ideas out of my head, and to let my body go. And my body will know what to do.
"I spend a lot of time thinking about where a character's physical center is. That helps to focus me. The girl in Arizona Dream...her center was a tight, unhappy spot in her chest. Valerie's center was her intellect. And Theresa, in Household Saints, her center was almost outside of herself--it was as if she had a bright light in front of her, and she was always hearing church music, that angelic female chanting in her head."
Preparing for The Addiction, Lili thought a lot about predators. Her character, she came to realize, was "more of a predator than a human. So I rented National Geographic tapes about lions and cougars. That helped a lot. "And how did she transform herself into Edna Ferber? "I decided, well, maybe she'd never had sex. Or maybe just once. And all that sexual energy had gone inside and become stiff and controlling."
Lili found the part of Solanas, the tormented writer and gay protofeminist, to be a particular challenge. She pored over the boxes of Solanas memorabilia that Mary Harron collected, studied Valerie's masterpiece, "SCUM [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto," watched the screen test Valerie did for Warhol, and listened to tapes of her voice. "After six weeks I began to understand who she was. A phrase came into my head: A clear view in a crippled psyche. And that was the linchpin for me.
Though Lili's immersion in her characters is (like everything she does) intense and all-consuming, she never fears becoming them, never worries that the line between reality and art may become a little...blurry. "After I'm finished playing a part, it's almost like a ritual kind of thing. I've brought them to life, they've had their time. And now it's time for them to go back in...in whatever way they do. Then I go on with my life."
At present, the life that Lili plans to go on with involves an effort to at least try and take a vacation, to move to a new apartment ("No, not a bigger place. Not yet. It's just that my lease is up"), and to continue her work with the 52nd Street Theater Project, a Manhattan-based program that teams actors and playwrights with city kids to write and work collaboratively on staging short plays. Though she hopes to take a break from acting, she'll make an exception for any production directed by the talented young actor Michael Imperioli, whom she met while rehearsing Household Saints and with whom she recently broke up. ("It's okay. Really,it's okay. We're still very close.")
Meanwhile, there's the next scene to rehearse; Ransom will be shooting for at least another month. Lili's Bronx accent thickens again, and I watch her, cell by cell, turning back into Maris until suddenly she's speaking from Maris's point of view. ("I'm working-class, from the Bronx. Directionless. The idea of a kidnapping is kinda like the Lotto. It might be my ticket out.")
Now the camera watches from a laundry across the street as the kidnappers' battered panel truck backs up to the basement apartment in which they're holding the ransomed boy. Lili waves, and I wave back, but she's already disappeared--or, rather, she's transformed herself. She's turned into someone else. A desperate tough kid from the Bronx, poised on the knife-edge of disaster, stands on the very spot where just an instant--a heartbeat--before, an actress named Lili Taylor smiled sweetly and waved good-bye.