From Out Magazine - August 1999
PHOTOGRAPHED BY WALTER CHIN
STYLED BY TIMOTHY REUKAUF FOR MAREK & ASSOCIATES
It is a quiet, hot afternoon, the first real hint of what a New York summer has to offer. Lili Taylor stops talking about the importance of a good director, stops drinking her iced cappuccino, and in a voice even more distant than her usual husky whisper, asks, "Why's that guy taking pictures?" A man clad in shorts and a T-shirt is standing in the middle of the tree-lined street, snapping photos of Taylor's brownstone, visible from the cafe where we sit. Her question hangs in the air. Then Taylor beats out her very own dialogue of low-grade anxiety: "Well it's probably just someone wanting to see the house, right? OK, maybe ... nah, we're all right. [Pause.] I think. I thought maybe he was going to take another picture. [Pause.] Well, the building's being renovated, and there is some interesting stuff going on up top. [Pause.] Hard to know."
"I guess it can get a little nerve-racking sometimes," I say. "Has this happened before?"
"I don't have that kind of thing yet," Taylor says, turning back to the table, her frankness intact. "I hope never to, you know?"
There's nothing disingenuous about that last bit. Lili Taylor is as circumspect in person as she has been raw and vivid in such acclaimed independent films as I Shot Andy Warhol, Dogfight, and Household Saints. So a month before the release of The Haunting, Taylor's biggest-as in 3,000-plus screens, star billing, summer-blockbuster hype-role to date, she exhibits a humility that could be called superstitious, if it weren't so guileless.
Nothing more, nothing less. To watch Taylor on screen is to consider silence (and her voice) and to contemplate stillness (and her gestures). If she is not giving shape to a character's inner contours with a hoarse, often working-class-accented
insistence (think Say Anything, Girls Town, or even her winning debut in Mystic Pizza), she's cutting through space with subtle precision. It could be the moment when her self-sanctified character in Nancy Savoca's Household Saints stops manically scrubbing a floor to respond to her mother's concern for her sanity. Or, as in Dogfight, when we see only her back as she sits hunched over a guitar, plucking out an earnest folk song.
"With Lili, there is this high level of intensity and honesty," says Christine Vachon, the producer of I Shot Andy Warhol, in which Taylor played SCUM Manifesto author and heartrending nut job Valerie Solanas. "And there's this incredible vulnerability. Some people came to that movie with a lot of baggage: Here's that dyke who shot Warhol. But there's this moment when [Lili's character is] with Martha Plimpton's character and she says, 'I really want to be in a relationship.' And Martha says, 'Well, why don't you?' But Lili makes it clear that Valerie can't, and she knows she can't. What's more queer than that? If you don't grasp that intensity then you shouldn't be going to the movies."
For all her scene-stealing on screen, Taylor is adept at deflecting attention in person. Ask her about silence and she may look quizzically at you. "What you're talking about makes sense to me," she says with characteristic grace, "but it wasn't articulated in my mind like that. Now that you mention it, it's funny. Some people like a lot of music or a lot of noise. I like to work a lot in silence. What I love are the unseen things, the things the unconscious can think upon. And I think that, in a way, i's silent. You're trusting that it's on another level, that it's going to be received somehow without words."
Silence and unseen things-not a bad segue into the realm of the supernatural. The New England mansion of director Jan De Bont's The Haunting-the one that Shirley Jackson made so viscerally real in her 1959 novel, "The Haunting of Hill House"-has it bad for Taylor's character, Nell. Has it bad, and as they say, that ain't good. One of the three people brought to an abandoned and storied manse to participate in a professor's (played by Liam Neeson) mysterious experiment, Nell soon becomes the focus of the malevolent house's intentions. "Nell didn't have much of an opinion [about ghosts] before she came to the house," Taylor says, knowingly, "but once she was there..."
Jackson's book was first made into a film by Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) in 1963, shortly after the release of Psycho. Though overshadowed not only by Hitchcock's urtext of psychological disturbance but also by Wise's musical bonanza, The Haunting was a compelling thriller. It starred Julie Harris as Eleanor, a neurotic, psychically sensitive spinster, and Claire Bloom as the flirtatious Theodora--Theo, as she called herself, a lipstick lesbian decades before those two words were put together.
Psycho and The Haunting were vanguards of the psychological thriller, and the fact that homosexuality, however bent, danced at the heart of each, says much about what the culture of that time found truly scary. It's a neat accident of film distribution that Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho and De Bont's filmwhich is not, I repeat, not a remake of The Haunting-are being released within a year of each other. While in the remake of Psycho, Julianne Moore outted her character-Marion Crane's concerned sister-it appears that The Haunting's Theo, now played by Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, is being touted in press materials as merely an "exotic extrovert."
I don't think the lesbianism in the film is as overt as it was in the original or even in the book," says Taylor, when asked why everyone involved with the film seems a bit cagey about the subject. "There is one scene in which it's implied." Even with The Haunting's lesbianism going subterranean, as Vachon might say, with Taylor on screen, the queerness persists.
Two years ago Sharon Stone and Lili Taylor-two gals who don't bat for our team but nevertheless speak to us-shot the breeze, at the invitation of The New York Times Magazine. The Basic Instinct diva shared her theories of career strategy, complete with makeup tips, while the indie phenom fretted about her stock in the independent feature world and about selling out. The mutual interview was a funny tango around the differences between character work and star status. "The thing is that people have a sense of you as these characters and not a sense of you as an individual," offered Stone. "Because you play fringe characters, I think it's important that people know they can get in a room with you."
"What is a character actor?" Taylor ponders, as she sits across the table from me. Then she offers, "I think someone who isn't playing wallpaper. If you're not this drop-dead beauty, I think you have some freedom." On that faraway afternoon, when Taylor had begun to feel shut out of the very industry she had helped make interesting, Stone had observed something else about her. "You know, Lili, you're great-looking," she had told her, with a tone of modest epiphany. "They always make you look interesting, but you're beautiful."
And she is. It's an accessible beauty, maybe even a bit malleable - that face, with its wide brow, hazel eyes, and full mouth. It's a beauty that the 32-year-old Chicago native has blunted in the name of craft on numerous projects. So today, as the lead in a major studio film, Taylor finds herself on an unusual cusp-not wallpaper surely, but what? "I can't play a woman who doesn't have integrity," she says, "who isn't written honestly. I can play a woman who has a lot of problems, who is negative, but if she's not written fully or if she comes from a point of view that's simple or misogynistic, then no. No." It's a lovely predicament, then, for Taylor to find herself the star of a major release. It is a happenstance perhaps more common among the actresses of the '40s that Taylor so admires ("Bette, of course. Bette in anything. Her mere existence, her toughness.") than most of those working today.
"It feels fine," Taylor says of her summer prospects, with a kind of endearing understatement. Sure, she brought edge and startling humanity to her role as a damaged kidnapper in Ransom three years ago. But The Haunting will allow her to do what we've come to expect of her, and on a grand scale: character work as star turn. "It happened the way I always hoped it
would," Taylor continues, "with a good script, an interesting character, and a very good director." The director in question, De Bont, launched Sandra Bullock's career with Speed, and two years later gave TV star Helen Hunt the chance to show what she could do on a bigger screen, with Twister. In a season usually surrendered completely to the inner teenage boy in all of us, De Bont has twice achieved something both subtle and oddly daring: He's given us an FX-laden action flick that conceals the soft center of a woman's film. It's no mean feat, and it's one that is likely to serve Taylor well.
"I like to work with actresses," De Bont says. "They are much more willing to go places than actors, especially the biggest stars who so often set so many limitations for themselves. I think with actresses like Helen Hunt, Sandy [Bullock], and Lili Taylor, if you can create a great relationship, it's sort of like a love affair. What I found with Lili is, if you give her that trust, she will do anything you want her to do, and at the same time she will add so much. Lili brings so much soul to a character. If you don't feel the character she plays, if you don't go along with it, I don't have a movie."
Clearly De Bont gained that trust. "Jan let me go in there and get my hands dirty," Taylor says. "Nell started out as very passive, very undefined, and she came into this environment where there was this entity, but no one else believed it was there. So she has this developed intuition, this willingness, and courage. She confronted that which is scary, and she trusted her intuition, she took action. So she had a very nice balance of the feminine, the intuition, and the masculine--she took action."
Taylor has assiduously avoided Wise's version of the story. And who can blame her? "I love [actress] Julie Harris," Taylor confides, "and I didn't need to see that." Instead, Taylor dived into her usual prep work-intensive rounds of reading and rigorous notating-which she has been employing for almost six years. Although in the case of Nell, Taylor's work aptly begins to sound like a seance.
"The main thing I try to do is just listen," she says. "Not just listening to the script, but listening to the character. I let the character guide me; she'll tell me what to do. A lot of times I'll just close my eyes and watch her do things. I don't know what the hell the scene's about, and she'll just take me through it."
So while Taylor isn't exactly haunted, she often speaks of her life in terms of spirit. "I do sense something spiritually amiss [in Los Angeles], something underneath, unsettled." Or when talking about It's a Wonderful Life, one of her favorite movies (the other is Wings of Desire): "I love that moment when Jimmy Stewart is in the bar and says he doesn't want to live. I love the reaching of the bottom, then the spiritual awakening, and then gratitude. That's a deep, deep thing for me." Or when she discusses her abiding nostalgia for her relatives. "Part of me is like an old spirit in that way, like I just wish the families were closer. [Pause.] They crack me up. I just get such a kick out of them."
Taylor's parents still live in Glencoe, Illinois, where she grew up. The second youngest of six kids, she assures you she wasn't a loner, but instead was a tomboy and, yes, a bit of a searcher. "I remember I wanted to connect with something," she says, when asked if the spirituality that surrounds her is the product of a religious upbringing. "I went to temple and Hebrew school with my friends, even though I wasn't Jewish. I went to church-the Union Church, the Episcopalian. I tried." She smiles a bit while reflecting upon those efforts. "I believe in God. I have a god of my own understanding." She also believes in ghosts. "Oh, yeah. I believe in-ghosts," she says. "I believe they're pieces of a spirit, an incomplete spirit."
This belief is likely to come in handy. Taylor's next project is a biopic of Janis Joplin, a fragmented spirit if ever there was one. The prep work necessary to evoke the destructive, iconic, jubilant rocker for the Nancy Savoca feature will be arduous and isolating. "The Solanas prep was difficult, but no one knew her," says Taylor. "There's a lot of information about Janis, and it's a bit more of a burden. But I'm not going to sing. I had a camera stuck down my throat to see if I could get there. I could, but it would probably take us six months to a year-and then it's like, why get there? First of all, it's underestimating how great her voice was, and I'm not doing this just to replicate, to mimic, to get only the essence."
Taylor, after a few months of rest, will no doubt get Joplin down and dirty. But today-wearing an orange-and-yellow knee-length print dress, white platform sandals, and the most divine purple nail polish (called Seaside Sapphire)--she disappears up the steps of her brownstone. The fruits of an intriguing relationship-between a woman of rare, honorable talent and a director with an impressive streak for helping actresses break through-will become evident in less than a month. But no matter how many films Taylor carries, she will never be mistaken for wallpaper.