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Lili Taylor, the queen of quirky characters


"All the feedback I got was that I was very good, but I wasn't, basically, attractive enough," Lili Taylor says on why genuine stardom has proved elusive. Failure to pass the casting-couch test has not harmed her long-term career, though. True, Taylor isn't a classic screen beauty but her chameleon-like screen presence has made her the uncrowned Queen of the Indies. She's carved out a niche for herself specialising in offbeat, often unsympathetic characterisations.

The similarly prolific Parker Posey also vies for the title of Sundance's favourite daughter, but it's really no contest. Taylor's uncompromising method makes her the obvious choice. Can you imagine her playing the comedy New York bitch as Posey did in last year's insipid Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan romance, You've Got Mail? In fact, there's no performer further from the shopping-mall values that Ryan embodies than Taylor, the antidote to Tinseltown predictability.

In 1997, Sharon Stone imparted some career advice during an interview for the New York Times Magazine. "Go to a big premiere. Wear a low-cut dress," offered the tireless self-publicist. "Huh," Taylor replied.

Her choice of roles is refreshingly eclectic, although a pattern is discernible. Take 1996, the year she made six films. In I Shot Andy Warhol she tried to assassinate the artist; in Mel Gibson's blockbuster Ransom, she is fatally shot; and in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, she played the undead as a bloodthirsty vampire stalking the Big Apple's streets.

I Shot Andy Warhol, her 21st film, elevated Taylor to the status of independent cinema's poster girl. She played the prototype celebrity stalker Valerie Solanas, and gave a rivetting, multi-faceted performance as the deluded radical of indeterminate beliefs.

It marked her step-up from an idiosyncratic character actress. Her early potential could be glimpsed in her supporting turns in the cultish comedies Say Anything and Mystic Pizza. While her Mystic co-star Julia Roberts went on to megastardom, Taylor is that actress whom you recognise but whose name you can't recall. Last year, for instance, she was enjoyable as the intellectual, sexually frank art dealer in John Water's comedy Pecker. This year, stardom finally beckons in the shape of Jan de Bont's $80 million horror movie, The Haunting.

De Bont (who directed Twister) is a notable graduate from the "if it moves, blow it up" auteur school hardly the perfect director for an actress who has flourished under Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph. Still, it's unlikely she'll turn up to the premiere alongside her co-star Catherine Zeta Jones in a slit skirt and fishnets. In the movie she plays an insomniac summoned by millionaire Liam Neeson to spend a night in his haunted mansion.

Next, she appears as John Cusack's love interest in the American adaptation of Nick Hornby's best-seller novel, "High Fidelity".

Now 32, Taylor is edging towards the mainstream while keeping her roots intact. She still lives in bohemian Greenwich Village, in New York, and runs her own theatre company. Interestingly, she's limbering up to bring the tortured Sixties icon, Janis Joplin, back to life in the singer's bio-pic. One suspects that Taylor will be able to sing the blues very well indeed.

Five things you should know about Lili Taylor

1 She didn't like high school and was once diagnosed as a manic-depressive.

2 She is a boxing fan and never misses a heavyweight championship fight.

3 She works with a theatre company called the 52nd Street Company that puts on productions by New York's inner city children.

4 She first gained recognition in 1993 in a guest appearance in The X Files.

5 At high school, she joined the Piven Workshop in Evanston, Illinois, whose alumni also include siblings John and Joan Cusack and Aidan Quinn.

The Observer - August 1, 1999
The Observer Screen Page; Pg. 5
Copyright 1999 Guardian Newspapers Limited

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