It's no stretch to say Lili Taylor has one of the most wide-ranging résumés in Hollywood. The actor has a knack for slipping into the shoes of complex characters, resulting in a list of roles that range from a serene, overalls-clad earth mother (Six Feet Under) to an angsty teenage girl who won't stop writing impassioned songs about her loser ex-boyfriend (1989's Say Anything). "What I try to do is to really wipe the slate clean with each project, which is very hard to do, very scary," she says.
There is, however, one type of role Taylor would rather not take on: the blank-faced, thoroughly vanilla ingénue. "If the woman isn't defined or real, I feel bad," she says. "Ethically, it doesn't feel right to me, playing someone not fully realized. I'd rather play someone damaged and there than absent and not fully dimensional—even if it's an unconscious person, even if it's a woman who's a doormat. If that doormat is explored, then I'll do it."
Fortunately, her latest role, as brilliant psychiatrist Ann Bellowes on Lifetime's State of Mind, is anything but bland. Ann is troubled by various demons—a crumbling marriage, an overbearing mother—yet still manages to dispense emotionally insightful advice to her patients. "I love how she is complicated and that she [doesn't] have any straight-up neuroses or complexes," Taylor says. "Her struggles and her unconscious stuff [is] coming from a complicated place, but she has some bit of awareness of her shadow or her unconscious content."
Taylor is no stranger to television: She was a regular on 2000's short-lived Deadline and earned Emmy nominations for her nuanced guest-star work on The X-Files and Six Feet Under. And yet fans are much more accustomed to seeing her on the big screen, particularly in the realm of independent film. Part of her attraction to doing a TV series, she notes, was the distinctive world crafted by State of Mind creator Amy Bloom. "It was good material," she says. "[This is] just a different platform, really, than the stage or the big screen. Why would I not do TV? What is the reasoning? It wasn't making sense to me why I wouldn't do it."
Some thespians are inspired to lead the acting life thanks to a particular incident or epiphany. Taylor, however, doesn't recall ever wanting to do anything else. "I don't understand why I decided to do this or when I decided to do this," she says. "It happened very, very young. In a way, it just was a given. That's just always what I wanted to do, and there was never any other thing I wanted to do or be. The inspiration happened before I understood it."
Taylor, who was born and raised in the Chicago area, studied acting at the Goodman School (now called the Theatre School) of DePaul University. "I was basically kicked out [of school]—or I chose to leave. It got muddy, because it sort of became an argument and escalated," she remembers. She had been cast in a TV movie, Night of Courage, and needed to miss one day of classes. The job, she says, would have paid for her third quarter of school. "You have to get the okay from everybody, and I did, except for one teacher who didn't give me the okay," she says. "But I had heard that I could go ahead and sign the contracts, so I was going to be filming the next day. He called me at 9 p.m. and said, 'You have to go to my class tomorrow.' I told him, 'This is how I'm going to pay for the third quarter.' He was a complicated man, and we just started arguing. He didn't like my attitude, I didn't like his, so we just said, 'Screw it,' and hung up, and that was it."
She landed increasingly prominent roles in film and theatre and has worked steadily throughout the last two decades, appearing in such diverse fare as the bittersweet coming-of-age tale Mystic Pizza, the cerebral vampire flick The Addiction, and the blistering indie I Shot Andy Warhol. Her penchant for independent movies has led more than one person to dub her "queen of the independent film," and Taylor acknowledges that she tends to gravitate toward those types of projects. "I like when the artist has freedom, and that happens when the money's not as high," she says. "It does happen on big budgets, but it doesn't happen as much. Also, to get in the door [on more-mainstream projects is tough]—it's tricky convincing the financiers to go with somebody who's not 'huge foreign' [draw] or whatever."
Taylor notes that there seem to be more obstacles these days to getting a film made. "It's just harder to get things done; it takes longer," she says. "I find there's not as much material. That's what I've been experiencing. So in a way I'm just happy to be working. But I'd rather not work than take something that I just don't feel very good about."
To that end, she'd rather say no than play one of those empty, undefined characters she mentioned earlier. "You can say no, even if everyone is saying, 'This is the last role you're ever going to get; you have to do it.' I don't think that's true," she says. "If something doesn't feel right inside, you don't have to do it. There's going to be another role."