Lili in Bloom;
The scripts provide the lines, but actress Lili Taylor provides the life.

BY Gini Sikes, Special to The Washington Post

Amid the star-studded ensemble in Robert Altman's sprawling, three-hour epic Short Cuts, Lili Taylor is easy to spot and hard to forget. As a submissive wife whose husband, an aspiring makeup artist (Robert Downey Jr.), paints her black and blue, Taylor appears swollen and bruised. It hardly seems a glamorous role in this film based on the stories of Raymond Carver (and opening this Friday), but the part of Honey Bush is pure Taylor -- she is one of the rare actresses with the guts to look like hell on screen.

"I didn't think twice," Taylor says of Altman's casting offer. "I said, 'Absolutely, I'd love to be in your movie.' "

Though Altman may view such fervor as artistic integrity, some studio executives consider it anathema to commercial success. Hemdale Film Corp. nearly fired Taylor from her role as a troubled drifter in the 1991 film Bright Angel, she says, until she agreed to clean up her character's act, getting rid of the greasy hair and dark circles under her eyes. That same year, Warner Bros. executives reportedly had a similar reaction when Taylor, preparing to play a shy, overweight teen who unknowingly accepts an invitation to an "ugliest date" contest in Dogfight, tried to gain 30 pounds. (Her body refused and she settled for 12.)

Taylor's devotion, however, is more than skin-deep. In her other current film, Household Saints, she portrays a teenage religious fanatic who thinks she's Saint Therese. It's a role for which she came even more prepared than usual: She'd previously played the saint in "an experimental play and, actually, I was an amalgam of self-mutilating holy women -- like Saint Lucy, whose eyes were plucked out, and Saint Agatha, who cut off her breasts, I think because someone looked at them."

As she says this, Taylor busily fingers several medals hanging from her neck, talismans of Saint Michael (the patron saint of thespians), Saint Therese (for good luck), Jesus and Mary (for good measure), and Winnie the Pooh and Piglet ("because I like them"). "That character sort of messed me up a bit. I was cutting myself every night, giving myself to God." She lets out a long breath. "I felt destroyed."

Taylor relays this five minutes into the interview, then worries about revealing too much. Until recently, the 25-year-old actress would do almost anything for a film, except promote it. Crouched at a corner table in a deserted downtown cafe, she explains that when she started her film career four years ago she didn't think she had anything to say, and so avoided the media. But she's come to realize that her films "are hard to distribute and it's my responsibility to get people to see them."

The decision comes after two years of working on a series of films. Besides her latest two, she also appears in the just-released Rudy, about an unlikely Notre Dame football hero; Alan Rudolph's bio-pic of Dorothy Parker, Mrs. Parker and the Round Table, due next year; and Arizona Dreams (with Faye Dunaway and Johnny Depp), which, Taylor laments, "Warner Bros. is just sitting on."

Her reluctant coming-out is worth the wait, according to those close to her. Says Altman, "Lili's a remarkable young actress. She's going to be in my next picture, Pret-a-Porter, playing a New York photographer in the mold of Amy Arbus." The director liked the daffy yet fundamentally sound quality that Taylor brought to her character in "Short Cuts." "You really know in that scene where [Robert Downey Jr.] is playing with the knife how far she will go. Lili ... finds her characters quickly. She's going to be an important actress."

"I remember seeing Lili in Mystic Pizza and Say Anything... and thinking, 'I wish this movie was about this woman,' " says Nancy Savoca, who directed Taylor in both Saints and Dogfight. "Lili's not on the career path of most actors. She's following her own track and I don't think she'll be appreciated for a couple years. Most roles for women are so predictable. She's creating new female characters never seen before in film."

And what characters: the marriage-phobic nymph Jo Jo in Mystic Pizza; the lovesick, tone-deaf folk singer in Say Anything... who devotes her entire repertoire to an airhead named Joe; the homely heroine of "Dogfight" who turns honesty into something more desirable than beauty.

All these women rely on Taylor's two increasingly familiar trademarks. The first is her face -- pale and unconventionally handsome, with full lips and small chiseled features so unusually expressive that in "Saints" she's able to play the leading role almost without speaking lines. Practically her entire dialogue takes place, in her head, between herself and God. "I recorded the narration on a [digital audio tape] machine in Nancy's living room with kids running around. We played it while we shot the scenes, so I could hear my voice." That voice is her other signature trait, a sexy, throaty whisper that sounds as if she smokes too many cigarettes.

Which she does, adroitly rolling one now with Drum tobacco -- a habit she picked up while fighting to save the redwood trees, after she learned deer were dying from eating cigarette filters. She recognizes the irony in saving animals and trees while harming her own body. "But," she points out, cigarette dangling from her mouth, "there's always going to be those contradictions."

Taylor grew up acutely aware of contradictions. One of six children (her mother named the second youngest after a favorite song, "Hi Lili, Hi Lo," from the MGM musical "Lili") in a family of modest means, she lived surrounded by wealth: Her father, an unpublished writer and poet, owned a hardware store on Chicago's suburban North Shore, one of the most affluent areas in the country. The suburb also boasts, according to Taylor, one of the highest suicide rates. "You keep repressing the ugly, the shadow, which in my opinion all suburbs do," she asserts, "and it's going to mutate."

Taylor herself became so depressed in high school that for a time she simply stopped going. She also developed an eating disorder, now past. But the actress is noticeably thin in a sleeveless T-shirt and white shorts so baggy the crotch reaches almost to her knees. She orders only a fruit frappe but smiles reassuringly. "I'm not eating because I'm a vegetarian. And this -- " she raises her tiny but well-developed arm, "is the way I always look. But in high school I thought I was much fatter than I actually was. I figured if no one could see my emotional pain, maybe they'd see my bones sticking out and recognize I'm distraught."

She found her solace in performing, and paid for therapy by doing voice-overs for Buster Brown Shoes and Peter Pan Peanut Butter commercials. Things picked up in her senior year, when she met a theater crowd that included John Cusack.

After high school she entered a conservatory, only to be kicked out before the semester ended. Her agent then sent her to Los Angeles to audition for Mystic Pizza and she landed one of the leads along with two other unknowns, Julia Roberts and Annabeth Gish. "I was impressed with Lili's intensity immediately," remembers actor Vincent D'Onofrio, who played Taylor's boyfriend in Mystic Pizza and her father in Household Saints. "We only read through the script once. Julia Roberts was doing the Julia Roberts thing and Annabeth was young and a bit shy. But Lili was Jo Jo. On the set she was always questioning and had differences of opinions that didn't always make things easy for her." Taylor, he says, "is an artist in the true sense of the word."

And she has the accompanying artistic flights of fancy. After the unexpected success of "Mystic" and then Say Anything ..., Taylor returned to Chicago to work at a cafe -- for romantic, not monetary reasons. "I just liked to sweep and close up late at night," she says, dropping a line that could come straight from Saint Therese, who happens to be the patron saint of housework. She also took extended trips to Czechoslovakia to work in stage productions there. When the Chicago Actors' Equity prohibited her from appearing in an avant-garde play by hometown friend Cusack she moved again, this time for good. The obvious choice was L.A., but then Taylor isn't one to make obvious choices. She headed for New York.

Since arriving here she divides her time between screen and stage, ranging from funky East Village productions at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club to Frank Pugliese's very raw "Aven'U Boys," which ran off-Broadway this spring. She's much happier now, Taylor explains, primarily because of the Machine Full theater company she founded with playwright Tom Gilroy and her boyfriend, Michael Imperioli, an actor who appeared in GoodFellas.

Taylor wears the class ring Imperioli wore when he played her boyfriend, Leonard, in Household Saints. On the set, professional met personal in blessed convergence; the two started dating and now live together in TriBeCa. The 27-year-old actor shows up at the restaurant -- dark eyes, closely cropped dark hair, stubbly chin, holding the corpse of a hand-rolled cigarette between his fingers. He sits down beside Taylor and the two become immediately, visibly in synch. When the subject of nudity in film comes up, the couple declare almost in unison that they don't do it. In Household Saints, Leonard asks Teresa to remove her clothes, and though Taylor is visible only from the waist up and the scene lasts only a moment, it proved a source of anxiety for both actors.

Taylor says she discussed the scene over and over with director Savoca until convinced of its necessity. But she still bristles from the consequences of appearing undressed in Michael Fields's Bright Angel: "What happened afterwards was exactly what I feared. Some guy wrote this book which is just a guide to actresses' nude scenes. He lists where they occur and rates them. And I'm in it. That was like my ultimate fear. If I ever meet this man, I'm gonna wring his neck... .

"But it's deeper than that. I feel like -- "she pauses, searching for the words -- "well, I can only speak for myself, but my being naked distracts from any piece that I'm in. Because we're not living in a time when we can look at a woman naked without that stopping us, without making certain assumptions. ... I don't know, I wish I had more power. ..." Taylor takes a pensive drag of the cigarette. "I'm not going to whisper that I'm a feminist."

In Short Cuts she plays a character for whom feminism holds little meaning -- the humorously named but pathetically vulnerable Honey Bush, who quietly ignores her husband's addiction to adultery. Some reviewers have criticized Short Cuts for depicting women as victims, but Taylor disputes any charges of misogyny. "I think Carver was a humanist, and Altman is too. His portrayals are honest. That's how I draw the line between what's authentic and what's exploitative. I agree we see too many victims who are one-dimensional. But victims exist and it's fair when you give a victim her full scope and show all the parts that make up who she is."

She applies the same criterion to all her characters. It's like this every time before a movie project: Lili Taylor scrutinizes, analyzes, agonizes over a part, knows she should relax but can't. She studies her characters exhaustively, listening to period music, pondering photographs. She dissects the script, drawing maps to chart the action. The night before filming, she sits alone at a typewriter, closes her eyes, envisions her character and types the scenario as it unfolds -- a trick, she says, picked up from Chekhov.

This same dedication to work makes her feel lost between jobs. To keep her momentum going after her last film project, she volunteered at the 52nd Street Project, which sent 10 actors and 10 inner-city kids to Block Island to create one-act plays. "My kid was Fernando. He's part Peruvian and part Colombian. He said he loved to see other people laugh. So I wrote a play about a medieval princess who hadn't laughed for 20 years and he had to make me laugh. His character also had some skewed ideas about girls, and the princess set him straight. It was really fun."

Of course, the kids had no idea Taylor was a professional, but that was fine with her. Occasionally when she was volunteering someone would think they recognized her -- "Like, I'm their neighbor or something. I don't tell them differently. Not because of privacy, but I love to look at people when they don't know I'm watching them. When they're focusing on me, it's not interesting. It's uncomfortable to have an unnatural focus."

As if on cue, Taylor looks up to see a crowd of middle-aged faces pressed to the window a few inches from hers, staring into the restaurant. For a moment she looks queasy under the weight of all those eyes, until she registers that these are only tourists -- here to experience the hipness of TriBeCa, not to scrutinize her -- and she relaxes a bit.

"I think I'm reaching my limit with this promotion thing," she says. "People tell me they thought I would have been more famous by now, but that's not what I wanted. A lot of things are out of my control, but I've chosen the kind of career I have, I've chosen unusual types of roles. You need a real strong psyche to deal with a lot of people knowing who you are." She glances out the window again, her eyes meet a stranger's and she almost blushes. Unconsciously she reaches for her good-luck medals. "I feel all along my heart knew what was the right thing to do."

Gini Sikes is a producer for PBS's "In the Mix," a magazine show for teens, and a freelance journalist.


The Washington Post - October 17, 1993, Sunday, Final Edition
Section: Sunday Show; Page G1
Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

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