Unknown Source - 1998


To me, indie stalwart Lili Taylor is one of America's best-kept secrets. She is a chameleonic actress who can do just about anything well. Throughout her distinguished career, Ms. Taylor has excelled as outsiders, often downplaying her natural attractiveness in favor of the character. We recently met at the Essex House to speak about her role in John Waters' new comedy Pecke and about her career. Wearing no make-up, a white top and lilac sheer skirt, Ms. Taylor proved to be just what I thought she would be: a woman of integrity. She looked fabulous (she has great bone structure) and answered my questions in that sexily husky voice of hers.

INTERVIEWER - In looking over all the research material about you, I found an article from about five years ago where you said that you found these sort of interviews difficult.

LILI Hmmm!

INT: Has it gotten any easier over the years?

LILI: Yeah, it has. But gosh, I'm wondering if I -- I mean, I said it to whatever, so something must have been going on, but ... I find the "machine" difficult. You know, the whole machine. Obviously, I'm participating in it, you know what I mean, so I'm culpable. So that's what I find difficult. On principle. ... It's a strange machine.

INT: In a lot of the interviews I read with you, you seemed to be struggling with commerce versus --

LILI: Exactly! That's exactly what it is! Right! It's not like I'm complaining or anything, because I know it's a reality. So, how can I deal with it in another way.

INT: Well, in view of what Pecker has to say --

LILI: Umm, hmmm.

INT: Is that what drew you to the role?

LILI: What drew me was John [Waters]. I hadn't even read the script. I just knew when I heard, "John wants you to do this thing," I said, "Absolutely!" And then when I saw and read it, I went like, "Aw, great!" Like one of my favorite fables is The Emperor Wears No Clothing. It's not that Pecker's art was a sham, it's like how people just puppet the general thought without ever investigating it or thinking about it or knowing it. How it spreads like quickfire and that's what I really liked about it. I just really loved -- the sad part is I loved the exaggeration of it. How Pecker becomes so dramatic and must return home away from that horrible world.

INT: In the film, you play a very savvy art gallery owner, did you do a lot of preparation for the role?

LILI: Not much. With John, it was important to be open. We didn't rehearse at all, I could tell he didn't want us to get bogged down into any kind of ideas or pre-conceived notions or intentions. But just to kind of walk in and be very open. I didn't mess around too much with penetrating the script.

INT: Did you have any familiarity with the New York art scene?

LILI: No, I didn't. Not really. I could go into galleries once in a while but not really with the workings of it. So I checked out Chelsea [Note: which has a burgeoning art scene here in NYC] quite a bit. So, yeah, there's a little bit of prep there but when I got down there [to Baltimore], no prep at all.

INT: You've spoken of having trouble shedding certain characters in the past. This role is, to me, subversive casting, since you normally play the outsider and here you are in Pecker as the ultimate insider. That's clearly John Waters' sense of humor. Was this a character that stayed with you?

LILI: No. It didn't take as much to decompress because I think with comedy, it's easier. You just don't go deep in the same way. And it was lighter and it was ensemble, so the part -- it's more like my job isn't so much as to penetrate the character but really, really fit into John's mosaic as best I can. I always try to serve the director, you know. But this one, like, I think serving him was coming with as little baggage as possible to each filming day. So I didn't really have to get to know her too much.

INT: In a rather well-noted interview in The New York Times Magazine, in which you and Sharon Stone spoke, you said that you felt you were holding yourself back career-wise. But yet, when one looks at what you've managed to accomplish, it's amazing. Do you feel that you're moving in a different direction now?

LILI: I think what I had started to do in a way was take changes in the economics of it and in just other areas of how the business has changed personally. Taking it personally as if I was at fault or something. You know, then it took me some time to understand the external changes that had occurred that had nothing to do with me at all. And then I started to think about how I'm going to deal now with these new changes. I feel much better about things. I'm clearer now. I've been able to articulate what some of the problems are. I've had other people echo or confirm the same feelings that I have. So I don't feel like I'm going crazy. You know, I've gotten very clear on that I love acting. I mean, I've always known I did. But it's like I guess I had to really get extra clear because maybe I was going to have to do some things -- almost like sacrifices -- in order to protect what I love. And if that means taking something that would put me into a very great financial realm -- because like banks now, banks, cold banks are saying yes or no -- nothing to do with your talent. So, if that's the people that are like making the decisions, well, that's the reality. And if it means that I'm going to have doors closed to me and beautiful little projects, then I'll do what I have to do.

INT: Is that why you're doing more television like Mad About You and The X-Files. By the way, I though you were robbed of the Emmy for The X-Files. You were terrific. [Taylor played a blind woman who could "see" murders being committed for anyone who hadn't seen the episode.]

LILI: Oh, thank you! Thank you very much! I was lucky on that one. I mean, geez, that's like doing, it's like a feature film. That show. With the energy and money they put into it. I think what happened was I just started maybe just -- before where I would say no immediately to things -- I just stopped and listened a little bit. And it turned out that these experiences have been great. And not superficial or demeaning or anything like that. So it's been all right. I guess it's sort of like I've had to be a little more open. Yeah. Out of necessity. I didn't have to before because I was going fine in the independent world.

INT: I know you worked on co-writing the script to a wonderful film, "Girls Town", do you see yourself moving toward that end of the business, writing and directing?

LILI: I would imagine. Parts for women over forty aren't terrific, that's for sure.

INT: But you've got a long way to go before you get there --

LILI: I have a long way to go, but it's nice to have a little bit of protection before all of a sudden, it's like, "Yikes!" and the ground falls out. Even still, I wouldn't go into directing because something else wasn't working out for me. I think that's just where I want to go. And I think I understand it and love actors, I mean, I don't think I understand it so much filmicly, like lighting and shots, but I love acting and I love directing emotions, getting an actor there. I think I have the language for it. So, yeah, I see myself going there.

INT: What about more stage work? Roles for women over forty are much better on stage.

LILI: Exactly. The stage, yeah, it's just got to be something interesting, it's gotta be a director whose doing something interesting or it's just not worth it. It's too hard. I find a lot of the theater very safe and boring. It's too mediocre. A lot of it is -- they're having the same problems that independents and Hollywood's having. They need money and their subscribers and stuff. So, if an interesting play comes along, I'm down for it.

INT: Are you still active in the theater company you founded?

LILI: A little bit. ... Tom Gilroy has written some monologues, so we're talking about me directing maybe half of them, and someone else directing the other half. For instance, with theater I think I'd be more interested in directing right now. Unless it was a really amazing part where I could really flex some muscles.

INT: What did you learn from John Waters as a director?

LILI: Nothing specific that I can articulate. It was more just being around him. What someone like that does for me is, he's a power of example. I think that that in itself is huge. Just seeing somebody, being around as long as he has, I know he can look in the mirror. I know that "to thine own self be true," "through thick and through thin," "for better or worse." And for that, there's a lot of energy in that, a lot of faith. It gives me just hope, hope to go on. It's just strong. That in itself is the main thing. When I heard "John Waters," I didn't even read the script, I just said, "witness that" and to borrow some of it is enough.

INT: Can you tell me something about your upcoming roles, like in The Impostors?

LILI: "The Impostors", well it's a comedy. It's similar to Waters in that she's different. She's kind of sweet. Not that the other was sweet but it's not like who I've kind of played. That's nice to have two out [like that]. It's an ensemble. The other one that will come out in the spring (I hope) is "Slipping Down Life", that one is based on an Anne Tyler novel. That one I just finished and it's a pretty special movie too.

INT: Are you and Nancy Savoca still hoping to team on the Janis Joplin biopic?

LILI: Hoping to. Hoping to. ... I'm not thinking about it too much just because I don't want to -- it still like hurts too much. You know, you get to that line and then it's ripped from you. You know, if it's meant to be, it will happen. Of all the Janis projects may the best one win. It's like whoever Janis wants, that's who should do it.

INT: You've worked with several female directors (Savoca, Mary Harron). Is there any difference between working with female directors and male directors? I've heard other actors and actresses offer their opinions, what's yours?

LILI: The only difference I can at times feel is that if the director is a heterosexual man that obviously -- I'm a heterosexual woman, he's a heterosexual man -- that's obviously just a factor, even if there isn't an attraction, there's still a thing, you know. The only thing with a woman is that because there's no general threat on any level, like oh, we shouldn't be alone after dark, or whatever. It's a little more of a potential for bonding with a woman. That's the only difference.

INT: What's the one question that you haven't been asked that you wish had been asked?

LILI: You mean like recently, or in general?

INT: Well, is there something you wish that a journalist would come in and ask that they never do? This is just a --

LILI: Throwaway question. (Pause) I don't think I have a general thing. But I think that on this Waters picture, I don't. But there have been some pictures I've wished there were more questions about the psychology of the characters, I guess. More getting into the intricacies of what makes them tick and stuff. So far, I'm satisfied with the questions.

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