Lili Taylor may be about to embark on the yellow brick road of Hollywood stardom with her lead role in DreamWorks' The Haunting, but her fans can rest assured she'll continue to be the same Lili they know and love from such smaller, independent fare as Nancy Savoca's Dogfight, Robert Altman's Short Cuts, Jim McKay's Girls Town, and Emir Kusturica's Arizona Dream. She's just getting a bigger paycheck this time and the opportunity to increase her cache in the industry.
Integrity is a rare word in Hollywood, but that's just what this 32-year-old veteran plans to carry with her as she ups the ante in her career. Taylor represents a rare breed of actor, one who takes roles based on the merits of each individual project. As she expands her repertoire to include bigger-budget fare, Taylor has every intention of continuing her quest for complex, female characters who defy the traditional clich s women have often been relegated to on-screen.
If ever there were an actress you'd want in your corner, this petite powerhouse is who you'd want to fight your battle. Whether playing a vampire seductress in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, an otherworldly Catholic girl in Household Saints, or crazed feminist writer Valerie Solanis in Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol, Taylor always brings a fearless, single-minded intensity to her work.
In 1995, the Sundance Film Festival awarded Taylor the first ever Special Grand Jury Prize for Acting for her body of work in Girls Town, Cold Fever, and I Shot Andy Warhol. Taylor was also honored with an Independent Spirit Award for best supporting actress in Household Saints.
Her instinctual risks have also paid off in such films as The Impostors, O.K. Garage, Pecker, Ransom, Illtown, Four Rooms, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Ready-to-Wear, Born on the Fourth of July, Say Anything, Mystic Pizza, and the yet-to-be-released A Slipping Down Life, opposite Guy Pearce. She is currently working with Nancy Savoca on writing a biopic of Janis Joplin, whom Taylor hopes to soon bring to life on the big screen.
Her television credits are few, but include a recurring role on Mad About You and a guest-starring role on The X-Files, for which she earned an Emmy nomination last year. The New York-based Taylor made her Broadway debut in 1996 at the Roundabout Theatre in Chekhov's Three Sisters. She was a member of the Naked Angels theatre group before forming her own company, Machine Full, where she made her directorial debut with Tom Gilroy's Halcyon Days. The talented actress also starred in the Aven U Boys at the American Place Theatre.
On the verge of becoming a household name, Taylor recently sat down to explain her views on Hollywood, integrity, and the rewards of acting.
Back Stage West: You give such wonderful strength and dignity to your characters-all things which have resonated with audiences. What has acting given back to you?
Lili Taylor: Jeez, that's a good question, because [acting] is almost like breathing. I don't think about it that much and yet it's so important to me. I try to think of it as giving away something when I act-almost as a gift, because I feel like it was a gift given to me. And I feel like if I'm in that sphere of giving, I can't go wrong. It's self-protecting-self-protecting from criticism, self-protecting if it fails-because all the intentions were right.
BSW: It's the work that matters most?
Taylor: Yeah. And if at least one person has some sort of chord struck, then I've done my job.
BSW: How did you get turned on to acting in the first place?
Taylor: I was interested as soon as I could talk. That's why I really feel like it was gift. I don't know how I knew much about acting by the time I could talk, but I knew that's what I wanted to do. I just always wanted to be an actress. My first play was in fifth grade. Then I did a commercial for a friend's father and I made a little bit of money on a voiceover. So I sent myself off to acting camp going into eighth grade. In high school, I did a play, took classes, and did a lot of reading.
BSW: Did you always have that terrifically raspy voice?
Taylor: Yeah. In fact, I was concerned because I wanted to sing more and I went to a speech guy when I was in sixth grade. He told me that my vocal cords were far apart, which created the raspiness.
BSW: So often those qualities that make us unique are the same things we wish we could change when we're younger.
BSW: I understand that you were accepted into the Goodman Theatre School at DePaul University, which you left before your first year was over. Why did you leave?
Taylor: It happened in one phone call with my favorite teacher, but my hardest teacher. Everybody had given me the OK to leave school for one day to do a movie-of-the-week-everybody except for this one teacher. He said, "No, I won't let you leave class." We started arguing and he said, "Why don't you not come back?" And I said, "OK. I'd like not to come back."
It became kind of about my attitude. He thought I had an attitude problem and so did the faculty. And that was that. I think my attitude was springing from my feeling that I did not want to be broken. I feel that those conservatories try to break the spirit.
BSW: Was there a particular acting experience which formed much of your later approach to acting?
Taylor: Yes. I had wonderful teacher, Joyce Piven, who was with Piven Theatre Workshop. They trained Joan and John Cusack, Aidan Quinn. I studied with her at night during high school [in Chicago]. She was a big part of my training.
BSW: You've followed a path in your acting career that has been quite independent, and I'm not just talking about your work in independent films. You seem to have been very selective about the jobs you've taken. Has your career path been by choice?
Taylor: I think it's been by choice. I remember I was nervous when I was younger. I [feared] that I was going to be sold out, lose my integrity. And then a slow dawning occurred-that I have a choice here. I'm not going to go where I don't want to go, like a leaf in the wind. And that changed everything for me. From that point on I realized I had the power to say no.
BSW: How old were you at that point?
Taylor: Probably 23 or 24.
BSW: I don't think many actors at that age believe that they can afford to turn down opportunities.
Taylor: A lot of actors don't. It's a very insidious business, and I think a lot of it's set up to take the power away from the actor-be it agents, producers, or whatever. Actors think they have to play by rules A, B, and C. I realized that it's not that way, that I don't have to go by A, B, or C. I can do it my own way and I'm going to trust that I'm going to get to where I want to go.
BSW: What matters most to you when you're considering work on a project?
Taylor: The director. It matters more than the role. It's not about the character. I don't think, Man, I'll rock the world with this character. That doesn't matter to me. Because even if it's an amazing character, it's not going to matter if the director's vision isn't profound and if the whole context of the filming experience isn't something [positive]. It's about the director and it's about the experience, because that's all I have at the end of the day. I'm powerless when I wrap the movie-the post-production, the reviews, etc. A lot of my movies have never gotten distribution. So for me, I have to have a good experience. That's my marker for when I've done well.
BSW: Much has already been said about you moving from the independents to Hollywood studio fare, and frankly I find it irrelevant, except for the fact that you're getting a much nicer paycheck for your latter work. But when it comes down to it, isn't acting just acting, whether you're in a $100,000 film or a $100 million film? I mean, is there any difference in the way it affects you besides getting paid more?
Taylor: It depends, because with The Haunting there really wasn't that much of a difference. The director, Jan de Bont [Speed, Twister], had a lot of autonomy, and I think he is unique in this regard. The environment he sets up is very protective, he really doesn't allow much room for the higher-ups to get in there and mess with it. So it felt like a real independent vision. Jan allowed me a lot of freedom, especially as a woman, in that I didn't feel the pressure to look beautiful. He allowed me to get my hands dirty. And it felt very intimate with the crew. I think a lot of this was stemming from Jan. Jan was very involved and very intimate.
But I could see how it could be different on a big-budget movie. Then again, I could see how it could be different on an independent [film], if the spirit and the passion weren't there. With Ransom, Ron Howard was terrific and he likes actors, but I have to say that I did feel a bit more of a "bigger movie" feeling on that.
BSW: Were you surprised to find yourself being offered the starring role in The Haunting?
Taylor: It was like it dropped from the heavens. All of us were blown away-my agents, my manager, me. We were awe-struck when it happened. I was about to fly out on my own dollar and fight like the dickens for this role. I just thought that there was no way that I was going to get it and when it happened, we couldn't believe it. I'm forever grateful to Jan de Bont on a lot of levels, and the first one is that he hired me. I guess he just saw my stuff and trusted me. And then throughout the production, he had faith in me.
BSW: To backtrack a moment, you started out working in studio movies, such as Say Anything, Mystic Pizza, and Born on the Fourth of July, but then you migrated towards much more independent projects. Was Hollywood just not knocking on your door during those later years, or were you just not interested in what was available to you in Hollywood?
Taylor: Both. I felt like Hollywood and I were just not caring about each other. And I found that I was perfectly satisfied with the things that just kept coming my way. But now independents have changed.
BSW: You've followed your own path-a path which has allowed you to retain your integrity along the way. Have there been times when that integrity was challenged?
Taylor: For the most part, I have not felt too threatened. So far, I've been lucky by going where it's warm and where there's a like mind. That kind of battle is not going to come up because we're on the same page. If there's a difference of opinion over something creative, we can hash it out. So, for the most part, I have not gone where my integrity is going to be threatened.
But, I did feel that with a movie called Bright Angel. I felt my integrity was being threatened.
BSW: In what way?
Taylor: The [filmmakers] wanted to fire me the first week, but they couldn't really afford it because we had already gone a week in. This was probably in '89. I think it was my third movie. The producer realized that I wasn't the sexpot he wanted and he wanted to fire me. We had to do these reshoots. And I remember they wanted more skin on the reshoots. And my integrity felt very threatened. That's the one time that I did something that I didn't feel comfortable doing. I do cringe at that. But I felt that my job was on the line. Today, I would walk away.
My integrity has also felt threatened when there has been this pressure to take a job because it's a "smart" thing to do. I think The Haunting is going to help with this, because I don't think I'm going to have that same kind of pressure. But before The Haunting, it was almost as if I needed to do something that I didn't want to do in order to get something I did want to do. That's why this film is such a blessing.
BSW: I was talking with Vincent D'Onofrio, who you've worked with on Mystic Pizza and Household Saints, and he told me that he considered himself very much a character actor, a label which many actors avoid for fear that it will limit them in some way. Do you consider yourself a character actor?
Taylor: I do. But I can see how it could have gotten a negative stigma. In a way, it was about people who were relegated to the stage or roles on the periphery because they weren't good-looking enough for film. That's what a character actor usually seemed to be. But now it seems like it's getting a bit more positive. The character roles are much more interesting. So I take it as a compliment. If I was called an ingenue, I'd think, Uh oh. That must mean I'm like wallpaper-not to disrespect the women who do that, but I find the ingenue parts very one-dimensional and boring.
BSW: Is a strong woman, a strong female character, still all that threatening to men in this day and age?
Taylor: I think so. Clearly, we've got a ways to go. We're dealing with such old stuff-thousands of years old. It's almost like our story just started to be told and our voice just started to be heard.
BSW: Are you at all afraid of getting older in an industry that has a bad habit of practicing ageism?
Taylor: Sometimes I get a little scared, but I realized, You know what? There's stage and there's directing and producing. And who knows? Maybe I'll have a total career change. Who knows what will happen? But sometimes I get scared because I think, Jeez, I love acting so much and I'm probably going to love it just as much when I'm 42, and yet there's just not going to be the same opportunities. There just isn't, because that's when I think women get threatening. That's, of course, right when women come into their power-right when they get [taken] off the face of the earth.
BSW: What parting advice could you offer a struggling actor who is trying to break into this business?
Taylor: I'd say have faith and trust. And know that there are no rules. Knock down rules. That's the key, I think. BSW