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||What in an actor's deception do we revel in so willingly? More interestingly, what do we fear? In the case of Lili Taylor, a performer of almost occult empathy, it might simply be recognition of how provisional identity really is.
Although she's most often likened to emotive actors like Brando or Dean, a more telling comparison might be with the great Italian film star Giulietta Masina. If the movies they've made are strategically dissimilar, there's one impossible quality that unites them on-screen: an ability to project complex power and feeling through deceptively artless physical expression. It's a sleight-of-hand that pulls the viewer to pure identification, for better or worse.
When you talk to Lili Taylor in real life her charm is equally unhesitant. So much so that you find yourself wondering if the warmth is somehow not genuine, that maybe another kind of performance is taking place. At certain points, you become aware that she's relating personal, painful things in a manner so intimate it's difficult to remember that you just met. Only then do you realize she's thinking rather more universally than you are, something probably gleaned from believing honesty to be the most interesting policy. Especially for an actor.
STEVE: You know you're burning up the X-Files fan websites since you were on the show.
LILI: Am I really? You mean they didn't like it?
STEVE: No, most of them thought it was great.
LILI: Well, it turned out to be much more challenging than I thought. It was really like an independent movie in a way it's about two million dollars for an eight-day shoot. And Kim Manners is a terrific director. I really thought the way he was shooting it was interesting. I was challenged and it was hard work.
STEVE: You didn't expect that.
LILI: I didn't. I'd never seen the show because I don't have a TV. You know, you think with TV that you just come in and do it quick. But this was like, oh my god, the script's seventy pages. It was fun.
STEVE: You also just did another Mad About You all this television work.
LILI: Yeah, well, Helen and Paul care about the show, and really work on it, so I thought why not? Actually, it was like doing a one-act comedy sketch with a live audience. But I wouldn't do most TV. The Larry Sanders Show I would have done, or The Simpsons, but that's about it.
STEVE: So we can rest assured you've not gone missing from low-budget film.
LILI: [laughs] Yeah, I'd still be more apt to throw myself into something like that than something that's big-budget but soulless.
STEVE: For you, is it really so much corporate versus indie? Or are you mainly focused on the results?
LILI: Frankly, the experience of working on something a whole bunch of people coming together, working real hard and being forced to be creative is energizing. And that's what I get my kicks from, really. Even if maybe the final product isn't great.
STEVE: That's the classical view, and it goes a way toward explaining the unsettling presence good actors can have on film. A friend of mine calls it "live on-screen." But after pushing a role that deeply, you must feel a little unanchored once the thing's wrapped.
LILI: You know what? It might have to do with that, but I also feel that just working is important. My work is playing another person, so yeah, I think the two are intertwined. But I also like not working. Like right now, I'm preparing for a character. I just started. And I feel I have to make more room in my psyche for this character. I can feel a healthy resistance to that, part of me doesn't want to do it. Who would? The healthy ego, the good aspects of the ego, don't want to go there and I don't blame it.
STEVE: Wow, it's that hard?
LILI: Because it is like a death. It's a letting go, a saying goodbye to certain things that I know, certain relationships, because the energy in the psyche has to shift. But I've been dying to work. I haven't sunk my chops into something for a while and it's been uncomfortable, probably because I haven't been able to play somebody, but I think really because it's important for anybody to just work.
STEVE: I want to hear your thoughts on Cannes. Didn't you just get back from the film festival?
LILI: Cannes is a very strange place. I tried to show up as best I could and to try not to be cynical. [laughs] I was trying to challenge myself and look at it from different angles, and step back a bit and find how it's sort of interesting. Basically, you have art and commerce coming together in such a dramatic way. And what I find interesting for me as an actor is how we can blend the art and the commerce with as little compromise as possible. So at Cannes you're witnessing that. In a way it's like, "The horror! The horror!"
But to try to be somewhat positive, it's also a place where a lot of things are born. On an international level, that's where the shit's happening. I understand, too, that Cannes is a launching pad. For instance, The Impostors, the film I was with, we took it there and I realized that a lot of press can get done, a lot of work can get accomplished in order to send it off into the world. And it wore me out, I didn't feel so good when I got back home. But the film got received really well by the public, although the reviews weren't so great, so that was sort of a drag.
STEVE: The Impostors is a comedy, right? Comic roles aren't so much what you're known for.
LILI: Well, it's a throwback, a classic farce set in the '30s. I thought it was challenging for Stanley Tucci to take that on and he really stepped up to the plate. It's just a shame that things get dismissed so easily. I mean, the art of critique is completely dead. I just think these people aren't educated. They don't understand the context with which to judge it. Farce is a very difficult medium, especially if you're not Buster Keaton or something, where you have this innate understanding of it. Stanley did a beautiful job, and I think the performances are beautiful.
STEVE: Are you going to be thinking more about comic roles for yourself?
LILI: I am, but I don't find a lot of them funny, that's the problem. Because I don't think they're written like they used to be. Also, I think women fit into comedy a certain way formulaically, and it's not that interesting to me. But damn, when a good one comes along, I'm gonna jump on it.
STEVE: In the past you've really gone after Hollywood for its microscopic range of female types. You're also known for being choosey about what roles you'll take. But would you do, say, a prostitute if you were given free rein over the portrayal?
LILI: Absolutely. My thing is that anybody's interesting if you go into the complexities. That's my problem with the whore. We've seen the whore, obviously, two-dimensionally, one-dimensionally. But if we're truly going to portray a whore in a complicated light, then I'm interested.
STEVE: I'm not sure how equipped you are to even do a character one-dimensionally. When you're on screen, there's a quality of someone moving through a real experience.
LILI: Yeah. [pause] The main thing is that because I'm kind of doing it for the experience, I can't lose in a way. Basically, when the filming's done there's so much that I'm powerless over. If I'm hedging in the results stuff, I'm going to be blown around too much. But because I'm doing it for the experience, I can't lose. As a result, I've had a lot of great experiences with great people. And I don't think a lot of people can say that. I love what I have, I really do. It's kind of beyond my wildest dreams.
STEVE: What's happening with the Janis Joplin bio you were going to film with Nancy Savoca?
LILI: It's close, but it's hard. Nancy and I are not box office thrills. But we're very close to getting the money, we have all the rights, the script's done. She needs to find a co-writer and do another draft. Basically, we just need to find the rest of the money. But I can see it happening, maybe by the fall, at least getting it all cemented.
STEVE: Joplin seems so in the air right now.
LILI: What's interesting is that there are three projects on Janis movie-wise, two people writing books about her right now ... something's happening. It's as if the collective is asking for her story. I feel it's gonna get told. Somehow the movie's gonna get made, whether I'm in it or not.
STEVE: Do you relish the idea of becoming her?
LILI: Yeah. It's a task, though, it's a task. I would need at least four to six month's preparation. And I'd have to get into a certain alignment before I started, in terms of really standing by the Janis that I've created because I know there's a lot of territory to the memories and just making peace with a lot of stuff. And when it comes out I wouldn't read anything. I know there would be a lot of people who wouldn't like it. But I really do feel my intention is just to be a channel for her, and try to listen to how she would like to be represented. That's my task.
STEVE: You're a great fan of Nina Simone, too. Ever think about trying to become her?
LILI: No way. She'd shoot me. Oh no, I don't wanna make Nina mad. She'd come back from Paris and get the fuckin' guys from 42nd Street. [laughing] Who are they ... the Jewish anti-Semitic blacks? You know the ones I'm talking about?
STEVE: They'd have Wanted posters of you all over Times Square, true.
LILI: Yeah! But this woman was telling me about Lupe Velez, and she was saying, "You really should check into her life," and I feel kind of weird about that. Because there are so few roles for blacks and Hispanics, that the few that are out there should really go to them.
STEVE: Agreed. What Nina songs knock you out, though?
LILI: Oh gosh, there's a bunch. I love the one on Live from the Village Gate, the third song, "He Was So Good To Me." I love that, and I love "The Other Woman." Oh my god, that kills me. And I love "Just in Time."
STEVE: Have you ever heard her do "Keeper of the Flame"?
LILI: I'm not so good with the titles. Do you know which album it's on? I may have it, because I have most everything. I'll look.
STEVE: Do you ever get tired of acting?
LILI: No. No. I mean, there's a price. But I think there's a price to anything, any occupation, and there's burdens and prices that come with mine. But really, I just ... I love it. I know I'm gonna direct some day, and write, I don't know when. But for now I'm very, very satiated with the acting. A lot of it's still very mysterious to me. A lot to learn, particularly with film.
STEVE: Here's a quote. This is Peter Schjeldahl on the painter Robert Colescott: "Though he may skewer this or that evil, his aim isn't evil's demise, but an increase of life force, a bonus vitality of glee."
LILI: Oh, that's beautiful. That's something that strikes a chord with me in general, that sentiment. A friend of mine always says, "Walk around until you find harmony." It's kind of like that, walking around, because there is another angle from which to view it. And it's like that perseverance, the struggle, the survival in the face of the odds. That's what gets me. Like workers striking, that moves me so deeply. I try to find that within myself and I think I just naturally look for that in characters, you know?
STEVE: You suss out characters by trying to find their positive center?
LILI: Yeah. I do believe there's good in all of us, even if it's layered over so thickly. I really don't believe in evil, actually.
STEVE: That's something, coming from a New Yorker. So what's your verdict on Mayor Giuliani?
LILI: Obviously the guy's a fascist and a lot of what he's doing is dangerous to the spirit of the city. But then I talk to people who live in bad neighborhoods. A friend of mine lives in the East Village, and he's saying the crime is down, the drug dealers aren't out in front ... so it's complicated. But all that "quality of life" stuff bugs me because it's, like, the quality of whose life? Big lights on Sixth Avenue are to take care of, basically, black kids I mean, just put a roof over Sixth Avenue and you have a mall. And I don't like how money from a lot of those stores is going to places outside of Manhattan. Bed, Bath and Beyond ...
STEVE: To me, the New York real estate market seems ripe for Senate anti-trust hearings at this point.
LILI: Whether this has to do with Giuliani or not, it's scary what's happening in the Village. Leases are turning over that have been around for fifteen years, and the rents have tripled. For instance, this beautiful pastry shop that's been there for seventy-nine years, Lafayette Pastry between Seventh and Christopher, just went out of business. Couldn't afford the rent! Over and over you see this.
STEVE: It's creepy.
LILI: It is, it's creepy. I keep thinking the market's gonna crack, and it's not even close. It's unbelievable, man. I mean, I'm gonna have to get out of New York, too. I can't do it, I gotta split. I gotta go to Brooklyn.
STEVE: I live in still barely affordable Jersey City, and really am digging the quiet of my street it's like Cleveland or Baltimore. Which reminds me, how was working with John Waters? I believe you replaced Ricki Lake in Pecker.
LILI: Pecker was great. It was really nice working with a guy who's been doing it for years. John is a pro. Those powers of example, to see guys who have been doing it for ages, and they're still doing it. He's an independent filmmaker. Even the title, he had to fight for that, which I thought was great.
STEVE: I always pictured a John Waters set being like that out of control merry-go-round in Strangers on a Train.
LILI: He's very efficient though, and much more structured than you'd think. I thought it was going to be a lot more chaos, but it wasn't. And the tone that he sets it's a lot of humor. It'll be out in the fall.
STEVE: In Variety today it said that your other new film, Spring Forward, is being produced by Michael Stipe.
LILI: Is it? My friend Tom Gilroy we have a theater company together he's directing it. It takes place over the seasons of a year, so he's gonna film it during each season. He's stopped now, he already did Spring. And I'm in the Winter section. I won't come in until December.
STEVE: Sounds Bergmanesque. Speaking of which, actually, instead of asking which director you'd like to have worked with, it'd be more interesting to know what period in Hollywood?
LILI: If I was a man, I'd say '60s and '70s. As a female, I'd say '40s.
STEVE: Are you a Joan Crawford fan?
LILI: Uh-huh. Have you ever read that book called From Reverence to Rape by Molly Haskell? Great book. She's a fantastic critic, very enlightening. She goes through each decade. But yeah, the '40s. I don't have a TV or a VCR, so obviously I'm a bit limited in seeing old movies, but when I see them I just love them.
STEVE: Do you picture yourself in that lineage of movie actors? I mean, could you envision your work celebrated someday in That's Entertainment! Part VII?
LILI: I don't know. [pause] I guess if they were gonna do a little show down the line, I think they should just plop my picture in real quick. [laughing] You know what I mean?
STEVE: I keep thinking how ... un-belligerent you seem considering all the things arrayed against you.
LILI: I didn't know if I was strong enough in the beginning. And then, thank god, I was sort of graced with this realization in my early twenties that I have choice, and that I don't have to get stuck in a situation that I don't want to be in. The weird thing about this business and I'm sure this operates in many other things, but it's very present and acute in this business is that a lot of people don't realize that they have power. Particularly actors. There's a bizarre illusion, first of all, of helplessness. That you have to take things that you don't want to do, that you have to play by certain rules. And those rules ... I kept thinking, "Who made these rules up? I don't believe in these rules." So I defied them and it turned out that I was okay. I didn't end up penniless and in a corner with just my morals or whatever.
STEVE: It seems like you're aiming at having an aggressively positive influence, and not only through the characters you play also the manner in which you conduct your career.
LILI: Yeah ... I think so. I mean, it's up to the individual. Everyone's got their own path, and I would never say, "Do x, y and z," but it's worth investigating to see how much power one has and how much choice. Because what is freedom, how can you get freedom? There's prices to freedom, and what price are you willing to pay? It was also very liberating to me when I realized there's a price to everything.
STEVE: Last year The Times Magazine set you up with Sharon Stone for a chat about "independent" films versus Hollywood. That conversation was so interesting and odd.
LILI: It was a weird time for me. I guess The Times Magazine has the widest circulation in the world or something? It was humbling. I wasn't at my strongest.
STEVE: Huh. I liked what you said, though.
LILI: Well, it was a hard year for me. Because independents had changed, and I was very disheartened when we did that interview. I had a moment of a loss of faith, which I haven't had for about ten years, business-wise in other areas of my life, of course. I've just lately had the blessing of feeling ... I don't know, not worried about things. I just keep in the day.
STEVE: In that article, you pretty much slammed the coffin lid on quote-unquote independents.
LILI: Yeah, quote-unquote. It's silly, I don't even like to talk about them. I just don't feel they exist. I'm not angry anymore and not cynical about it. I've found my power again. I understand the situation. I know what I need to do, and I don't mind. I need to do something big. And if that's going to get me more sound and interesting roles ... fine.
STEVE: But a lot of people in the mass audience out there wouldn't even understand what you mean by that. You were in Ransom with Mel Gibson and Gary Sinise, a major Hollywood-money project, and there didn't seem to be a lowering of standards to your performance in it. It was a taut, fascinating character that you brought as much attention to as any other you've done.
LILI: But you see, Ron Howard was willing to accept my terms. He likes actors, and he really gives a lot. Which is rare, but it exists. Those situations come along every blue moon, and I need to seek them out more, 'cause that is the fuckin' deal. And if I don't, I will be in trouble. So I understand that. I know I need to go to L.A. more. I used to just take the red-eye in and out, for a day, you know? I didn't stay. It's funny, I'm aggressive in certain ways. Work-wise I'm aggressive. But I'm not aggressive in terms of seeking stuff out. And that's where I need to make some changes.
STEVE: Okay, so if we can now scratch the notion of "independent" filmmaking off the list, is there room for a "sub-independent" movement? one camera, tiny crew, just get it out there ...
LILI: I think so, but I think it's going to take some time. I'm kind of redefining independents. It's up to the artist to have the freedom of vision. And it doesn't really matter about the money. Independence happens when you have less money, obviously, figure it out, but it can really happen with any kind of money. What I think is gonna happen is that these true artists who are trying to get stuff made are gonna find ways to get their stuff out there, even if it means going down to $30,000 again. But it's going to take some time, because capital isn't there like it was a couple of years ago, and I think the distribution needs to get innovated. You used to have more people distributing and the theaters were able to hold movies a little longer. And a lot of that's changed.
STEVE: And then you've also got your advertising to consider.
LILI: I heard an ad in The New York Times just went up to $60,000 or $55,000. Which is quite an increase. I think it went up, shit, like twice or something.
STEVE: This is all a bit sobering.
LILI: Yeah. And that's where I was at when I did The Times article. Because you gotta go through the stages, right, and the first one is grief. Actually, I was in denial first, [laughing] for about six months I was in denial. Then the grief hit. Then it became anger and then acceptance. Now I'm out of it and I'm happy again.