throws a wrench in Hollywood's star-making machinery
by Christine Spines"I GUESS SHE'S SORTA like this underground chick, right?"
Premiere Magazine - November 1996
If producer Brian Grazer is sounding just a little square trying to describe actress Lili Taylor, forgive him. Like most of Hollywood, he can't immediately pinpoint her appeal: She's not an ingenue, but she's not quite a character actress either. Still, when Grazer suggested Ron Howard cast Taylor in a pivotal role in their Mel Gibson kidnapping thriller, Ransom (which opens this month), he knew exactly what he was doing. "Ron Howard, Mel Gibson," says Grazer. "Those two guys personify big, mainstream, highly successful movies. So I thought it wouldn't hurt for us to have somebody that's hip. Lili Taylor gives the movie the signal of an edge. She has this extra cachet that transcends just being a great actress, this appeal to the whole underground. If you check the groovy magazines, she's the star. She's, like, the hot chick."
In other words, if Ransom were a glass of milk, Lili Taylor would be the Kahlua. It's no wonder that, in the eyes of Hollywood, this 29-year-old actress is the embodiment of street credibility. The collection of Taylor's roles over the years-from social outcast (Say Anything...) to delusional mute (Household Saints) to hippie witch (Four Rooms) looks like a Bellevue alumni roster.
At this year's Sundance Film Festival, she showed herself to be the true matron saint of fringe filmmaking, appearing in three highly regarded films--I Shot Andy Warhol, Girls Town, and Cold Fever-and winning the Special Jury prize for acting. While an army of journalists lined up at the door of her Sundance condo, Taylor was busy breaking a fifteen-year-old smoking habit, prepping for Ransom, and splitting up with her boyfriend of four years, actor Michael Imperioli--in short, drawing on the inner strength that had accounted for all her hard-won success.
"Sundance was cool because I worked really hard in soul ways-not just the actual work but the things that have gone behind the work," says Taylor, huddled over a rickety table in a dark corner of her favorite Greenwich Village cafe. She looks slightly saintlike in her white sundress and white clogs. Her skin radiates good health, good sense, and just plain goodness. Makeup? Don't even think about it. "I don't do lingerie. I don't play roles that diminish females or tell the same story about the whore with the heart of gold. This year was really important to me because it affirmed that my heart has not lead me astray...by taking me down the path that not everyone said was the right one."
Since the first day she stepped onto the set of 1988's Mystic Pizza the film that launched Taylor's and Julia Roberts's career-she has fought tirelessly with producers and directors to maintain her integrity. "I felt like the Mystic Pizza script had potential, but it was like this West Village cute comedy rather than really exploring the working-class ethic," says Taylor. "So I basically rewrote the stuff they gave me and I just told the director [Donald Petrie] that I wouldn't do a scene unless he took what I wrote. I would plug my ears when he would talk to me. I didn't have a lot of diplomacy."
Despite Taylor's insubordination, she has not been blacklisted as a prima donna. Her feisty soulfulness is her currency with directors. "I got the part in Born on the Fourth of July basically because I told Oliver Stone to go fuck himself," says Taylor, who played the aggrieved wife of a soldier killed by Tom Cruise's character in the Oscar-winning picture. "Oliver would give me shit on the set because I wasn't looking too pretty in that role. And I said, 'Look, I'm trying to help you out here. I'm going for verisimilitude.'"
"That's her talent," says Nancy Savoca, who directed Taylor in Household Saints and in Dogfight, in which she played an unattractive girl who wins the heart of River Phoenix's chest-thumping marine. "She's not concerned with being sympathetic, but she is concerned with people empathizing with her characters." Taylor's large-hearted understanding of outsiders comes from growing up in the least wealthy family in the rich Chicago suburb of Glencoe. The second youngest of six children, Taylor was always the excluded among the exclusive. "I just remember Lili in black, sitting up late in the kitchen reading and smoking, says her younger brother, Duffy. "She was perceived as the troublemaker."
Indeed, Taylor seems happiest when she's plumbing the dark sides of her psyche. Since Ransom wrapped last May, Taylor has completed three alterna-flicks--Nick Gomez's illtown; Kicked in the Head, from executive producer Martin Scorsese; and HBO's Subway Stories-all costarring her current boyfriend, Michael Rapaport (Beautiful Girls, Mighty Aphrodite). "I just want to keep doing honest work," says Taylor, "and showing people as many women as I can." Including, of course, plenty of weirdos and ghouls. "Playing a vampire was fun," says Taylor, widening her eyes with devilish delight as she describes her part in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction. "One time, someone fucked with me on the street and I almost bit them. I realized, Wow, man, that's a trip--I want to bite people."