SUMMER OF LILI|
the original indie queen tries on a
$90 million movie -- and it fits
words by Alison Lundgren
phototgraphy [sic] by Jonathan Ressler
Lili Taylor is explaining, in her trademark whispery tongue, why America is obsessed with movie stars: "In a way, celebrities today are perceived as gods. There are a lot of ritualistic things about the movies: the dark theater, the mere fact that the image is so big, the people on screen who are larger than life."
Don't get her wrong. Taylor, main character in this summer's most anticipated freak out, The Haunting, is, by standard definition, a movie star. And she's about to become a bigger one. But Taylor doesn't see herself that way. You can tell, the way she talks about "them" - those worship-worthy actor gods - that Taylor is not your garden variety celebrity. For one, she harbors not a trace of self-importance. Secondly, though the notches on her movie belt include Mystic Pizza (the flick that launched Julia Roberts' career), Say Anything (the one that did ditto for John Cusack), Born on the Fourth of July (the one that earned Tom Cruise an Oscar nod) and more recently, I Shot Andy Warhol, Girls Town and Ransom, Lili Taylor is not yet a household name.
"Lily Tomlin?" someone asked when I mentioned my recent interview with Taylor. "Oh, you mean Liv Tyler? Man, she's hot."
Fact is, the people who know and love Lili Taylor's work, the ones who've been fans since she appeared as "Girl at medical lab" in 1988's She's Having a Baby, like to think of her as their little secret. A flower in a town full of weeds, if you will.
All of this is about to change. The Haunting, a $90 million thriller directed by adrenaline movie master Jan de Bont (Die Hard, Basic Instinct, Lethal Weapon 3, Twister), produced by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks and featuring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson, is expected to be a big, big, big summer hit. The flick's tagline? Some houses are born bad.
You might think, after examining Taylor's list of credits, that the original indie queen would get swallowed up by such a massive motion picture event. You also might think she's ditching her artistic roots, maybe even selling out. But Taylor, who was handpicked for the role of Eleanor Lance by Jan de Bont, begs to differ. She's the first to assure you she's no Will "Men-in-Black-independence-Day-Wild, Wild, West-how 'bout-I- write-a-catchy-theme-song-to-go-with-my-summer-blockbuster" Smith. "In a way I felt like I was working on an independent movie," Taylor says. "Jan created an atmosphere that was intimate and hands-on. A lot of times I was the only actor on set. The shoot lasted 89 days, and I had a total of two days off. There was an all-for-one feeling. The crew was fantastic. Jan's very involved. You can tell when a director cares about you and is in sync with you. Sometimes Jan would be off camera making the sound effects himself or talking me through the shot. He'd stand in and wave his hands to imitate what the special effects would look like. We would look at the script and talk about my character. If something needed a rewrite, I'd show him my ideas and we'd work on it together. Yesterday, for example, we rewrote a bit of a scene and he hand wrote it for me on a piece of paper. The movie was kind of homemade in that way. It just didn't feel like we had a lot of money in terms of squelching the spirit."
There's a hard and fast rule when it comes to making movies: Show business is a business. In other words, if the film you're in doesn't make money, you're not bankable when it comes to future projects. Tom Hanks? Bankable. Julia Roberts? Bankable. Lili Taylor? We'll see. Taylor has a knack for abiding to this rule while maintaining, as they say in the biz, her artistic integrity. Don't think she hasn't been offered crap roles in shit movies for big bucks. "My agents don't even bother sending me that stuff because they know I won't do it," she says. She calls her ability to just say no "a gift." "Choosing roles is a matter of respecting that gift," she says. "It takes discipline, and I had it early on. I've always compared it to not having sex when I don't want to have sex. With someone I don't like, I'm just not gonna go there. It's the same thing with certain roles or projects. It's just, like, 'No.'" On the other hand, Hollywood is all about the Benjamins.
You get the feeling, chatting with Lili Taylor, that she'd rather have a heart-to-heart about life than talk about herself. Call her, if you will, the anti-egotist.
Exhibit A: It's safe to say Taylor will never read this profile, because she doesn't like to read about herself. Not even reviews. "It's not like I don't respect the journalist or their work," she explains. "But reading about myself puts too much attention on my thoughts." It promotes a self-centeredness that's not right-sized. I'd rather be regular, like a worker among workers." That's not to say she never breaks down and dives full-force into a Lili Taylor article. She is human, after all. "Once in a while someone will send me a press clip and it will be there in front of me and I'll be like, 'Oh, fuck it, I'll take a look at it.'"
Exhibit B: When asked questions about such issues as feminism, a subject that is near and dear to her heart, Lili Taylor will volley, "What do you think? What's your take on that?" She ends most statements with, "Y'know what I'm saying?" not as an example of shabby speech habits, but because she really wants to know your opinion. Taylor's so refreshingly humble, in fact, odds are if you had the inclination to unload on her about your shitty day, she'd listen. She'd probably fix you some green tea, turn up the Nina Simone, pull her knees up to her chest, stare at you with her intense eyes and nod her head compassionately. "It's easy for actors to lift their heads up into the clouds and lose touch with reality," Taylor says. "You can see how people can get so self-important when 500 people a day are telling them they're great. But you have to stay grounded. If I get recognized by a fan on the street, I realize it's not really about me. That person might be moved by my work, but I'm more of a messenger who has helped move them. Y'know what I'm saying?"
This is what Taylor thinks about the state of women in society today: "I don't think it's getting any better. The fact that health insurance pays for Viagra, but doesn't pay for birth control, makes it clear that there's still a problem. I've been noticing this new crop
of men's magazines, like Maxim. These magazines, I feel, are not good. Why is there a need to promote such testosterone? There's that whole cigar-smoking, yuppie white male, stock market, Wall Street thing going on. I guess that has to do with the fact that the stock market is doing well and the young males are making a lot of dough and have a lot of power. I just don't like it." Taylor's contribution to the feminist movement is by seeking out interesting roles about interesting women. Think Rorey Wheeler in Pecker. Or Maris Conner in Ransom. Or Micky in Ill Town [Note: should be illtown]. "Women who don't fit into the formula," she calls them.
The first time Taylor performed in front of an audience, she was in the fifth grade. The play? You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. As a sixth grader, she took a turn as the jester in The Princess and the Pea. "it was a much bigger production than Charlie Brown," she says. "A musical. It was so great. "She was hooked. "I wanted to be an actor from the beginning. I don't even remember why or how I knew. I truly think of it as a gift or a calling." Taylor describes her need for acting as almost an otherworldly entity: "I think it comes from a deeper place, some place that's more than me. That's why I respect it. I follow it in a way, listening to it rather than telling it what to do."
In high school, she took acting classes with Joyce and Byrne Piven (actor Jeremy Piven's parents) at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Illinois. Other Piven Theatre alums include John Cusack and his sister, Joan. "Joyce and Byrne are very important to me, "Taylor says. "They had a big impact on me. I consider Joyce my main teacher. I remember loving old Hollywood, women like Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn, but I was more interested in the theater. It wasn't a kind of snobbery, but the theater seemed more genuine to me. I would love to come back to Chicago and do another play with Joyce."
What she didn't learn from doing live theater, Taylor acquired from various books, including Michael Chekhov's On the Technique of Acting: The First Complete Edition of Chekhov's Classic to the Actor.
When a project is finished, though, Taylor has no problem going back to being just Lili. Her character expulsion includes, first and foremost, this simple ritual: She puts her script on a shelf with the rest of her scripts. ("I Wish I had a more concrete ritual like making a little doll of each character and burning it and keeping her ashes in an urn or something," she says with a laugh). Then she "Incubates" for two weeks.
One thing that's definitely on Taylor's plate is the long-awaited biopic about Janis Joplin. Taylor, of course, will play Janis. "We almost have the script exactly where we need it to be," she says. "It will, hopefully, be going by the end of the year." When asked if she'll do her own singing, Taylor once again gets intense. "I don't even want to try," she says. "Janis Joplin had a really amazing voice. I think it's big of me to think I could ever go there."
Make-up: Adele Genovese for Trish McEvoy
Hair: John Barrett for John Barrett Salon