The actor: A steady presence in film and television for more than 20 years, Lili Taylor has a face viewers will probably recognize even if some can’t quite remember her name. She’s popped up in a slew of roles over the years, from Say Anything… to Ransom to Six Feet Under, frequently in supporting roles that she elevates with an authenticity and humanity. Taylor began acting while attending high school in the Chicago suburbs in the ’80s, and she discovered her calling before she graduated. She landed some small roles in TV and film, but began to gain notice with 1988’s Mystic Pizza, where she played one of a trio of central characters working at the titular pizza restaurant. She’s stayed busy since—her IMDB page shows only three years since 1986 without a project, and when she wasn’t onscreen, chances are she was onstage. Her latest appearance comes in Antoine Fuqua’s crime drama Brooklyn’s Finest, as the wife to Ethan Hawke’s anxious detective.
Brooklyn’s Finest (2010)—“Angela”
Lili Taylor: Antoine was in town, and they were auditioning people. I liked the script, and it was just one of those average, “Do you want to go on this audition?” sorts of things. When I went in and met him, I really liked him a lot and I thought, “I hope this works out.” Because I liked his intimacy; I liked how, if something wasn’t working that was written on the page, he’d say, “Let it go. Let’s find ourselves.” I love that kind of flexibility. When they said “Do you want to do it?”, it made total sense to me.
The A.V. Club: You aren’t in that many scenes, but you’re the reason Ethan Hawke is doing what he is doing. Is there any sort of special preparation in that regard, like you have to make everything count in order to convey something important?
LT: I think if the director is good—and Antoine is good—he knows what he has to do. If I feel connected to a director emotionally and intellectually, I find it helps them do what they have to do directorially so I’m connected to him on a few different levels. If he’s doing his job—and I know he is—then I can just not worry about it. I can just trust myself that I’m going to convey it emotionally and that the audience will get it, you know what I mean?
Crime Story (1986)—“Waitress”
She’s Having A Baby (1988)—“Girl At Medical Lab”
AVC: The first thing on your IMDB page is Michael Mann’s Crime Story, which aired on TV in 1986. It seems like everyone has one of these credits—“Waitress,” “Guy At Deli,” etc.
LT: [Laughs.] Totally, that’s how you get your Screen Actors Guild card. You have to do one of those—I think you actually have to do two, and then you get your card or something, so it’s “Waitress” or “Woman One.”
AVC: Was Crime Story filmed in Chicago?
LT: It was, definitely. I was still living there. I was in Chicago until ’88. That was one reason I did Public Enemies. The part was more like a cameo, but it felt like Chicago, Michael Mann, like this thought coming around again.
AVC: Did you have any lines in Crime Story?
LT: I feel it was just the average waitress lines like, “What are ya havin’?” or “Can I get you another?” I think Ted Levine was the cook.
AVC: It’s similar to your credit from She’s Having A Baby.
LT: Exactly. I’ve heard that that doesn’t even sound like me. I have a feeling that they used another actress over my voice, actually.
High Fidelity (2000)—“Sarah Kendrew”
LT: I think John [Cusack] or Steve [Pink] called, or D.V. [DeVincentis] called. It was probably Steve or D.V., because I think they co-wrote it with [Stephen] Frears. And they were like, “Hey, you gotta come back and do this!” I thought “What the hell,” because a lot of my family is still there, so I said, “Totally.” It just felt like the right thing to do.
AVC: As John Cusack walks away after saying good-bye to you, he says, “I could’ve had sex back there.” Do you think Sarah would have given it up to him?
LT: Probably. [Laugh.]
Six Feet Under (2002-2005)—“Lisa Kimmel Fisher”
LT: I think that was my first consistent TV role. I’d dipped in and out of TV a little, but it was my first—you know, it was almost like doing a really good one-act play each week. With TV, particularly with HBO and stuff like that, the writing comes first, just like with a play. They have to get every word just right. There’s just a lot of respect to idea and to the words. They’re still willing to change things, but people won’t make that big of a deal about it at all. And it just felt like the craft was really strong, and the acting felt really strong. It was a great experience, but it was hard, because you didn’t know what was going to happen from episode to episode. That’s not my preference. I’ll do it, and there’s certain interesting things about it—like any time you’re in the unknown, it’s good, because life is the unknown. But it’s not my comfort zone, and it’s not how I like to build a character. So if I had known some things, I might have done auditions differently in terms of building her psyche or building who she was inside.
AVC: So you didn’t know that she was having an affair?
LT: No, no, I didn’t know any of it. I don’t think that they really knew. I think that’s one of the many reasons that they don’t tell anybody what’s going on, because they don’t know, and they need that freedom in the writers’ room. I think a lot of times they do know what’s going on, but because of leaks, they don’t tell you. I didn’t really find out until the third episode from when it happened. That’s huge information, and if I had that information, I would have done some things differently, but that’s the way it was.
AVC: When you say that, what comes to mind?
LT: Well, duplicity. That’s a huge part of somebody’s character. If you were going to write down her characteristics on paper, if duplicity is part of, say, her main 25 characteristics, that informs so many other things. If she’s duplicitous, that means she is capable of dishonesty on many other levels. Once she’s crossed that line, her trust is called into question, then her relationship with Nate—there’s just so many other things.
AVC: Does it screw with your head when you’re doing a character whose main trait is, “Oh she’s ugly”?
LT: Yeah. Well, a few things screwed with me, and that was first: She was heavy. At first, I tried to gain weight and it was hard, like my body does not work that way, and I was getting thick, and it sucked. I gained 20 pounds, and it wasn’t enough, and I felt a tremendous pressure of letting down the premise of the movie. But I talked to Nancy [Savoca], and I said “I think it’s more interesting if she’s not ‘fat,’ because it says more about perceptions, about content. Her being fat or whatever, that’s not as interesting as our ideas of beauty and how narrow they are, and how they’ve changed through the times, and not changed, and so on.” So I said to Nancy, “Why don’t we make it more about that?” So she’s a little heavy, but it’s believable for this dogfight. Why don’t we say more about the guys’ perceptions? And I think we did. We were also able to justify, because she was a little overweight, that’s why she was picked, her being a little overweight and it being down to the 11th hour. So that’s what I find more interesting about it, was the definition of beauty.
AVC: That does give it a little more than the obvious “Oh she’s a big fat girl.”
LT: Exactly. But it did feel rotten, because River [Phoenix] was very into the character, and it did end up bleeding over, as it should, because if you’re into the character, that’s what’s going to happen. But it did feel lousy sometimes. But actually, I felt like that in high school, and I was, whatever, okay-looking, whatever that means, but I still felt “less than” in a lot of ways.
AVC: River Phoenix only did a few more films after Dogfight, before he died of drug-related causes in 1993. He had a reputation of being a pretty intense actor. Was that your experience with him as well?
LT: Yeah, very intense. Had he done My Own Private Idaho by then?
AVC: Yes, I think they came out in the same year.
LT: Oh wow, yeah. He also hadn’t gotten into any—he was just drinking then, too. It was different. It actually probably allowed me to see him working on his acting more, because drugs weren’t a part of it, so that probably affected his acting. That was actually a hard part for him, because it was so radically different from who he was. He was such a hippie, and here he was playing this marine. It actually caused him a lot of discomfort. I don’t think he enjoyed that, actually, getting into that psyche.
Short Cuts (1993)—“Honey Bush”
Prêt-à-Porter (1994)—“Fiona Ulrich”
LT: Well, I auditioned for Bob [Altman] and for Short Cuts, and it just felt like such a great meeting. We know he was one of the greats, you know? You could tell, walking into the room. I was just so happy when it came through. I think he called me up and said, “Do you want to come join the party?” Something like that. I was like, “Oh yeah.” And it was like a party. Every day after filming were dailies—he invited everybody to come. He made popcorn. There’d be drinks, and we’d all sit together and talk. He loved talking about his ideas and his craft. He had so many ideas. He’d invented a few things. You know how Altman came up with that overlapping [dialogue] idea? He created this sound cart where the soundman is constantly adjusting each actor’s mic. He invented this arm that would go on the camera and would help allow the actors to keep moving and the camera would find its marks, and the actors wouldn’t have to worry. He loved talking about that stuff. So it was not only a joy, but it was really an education as well. And then he said with Prêt-à-Porter, “Do you want to come to one of my parties?” I said, “Yes. Absolutely.”
AVC: There’s a quote attributed to you on IMDB, where you say how much you’ve enjoyed working on your ensemble pieces, but you weren’t sure if you needed to do any more, because they’re difficult when it comes to anchoring a character.
LT: Yeah, ensembles, it’s hard on a lot of levels. I might have said that after not working for a while, or after coming off a few in a row. Like, right now, I would do another, but they’re not easy. That’s what I was trying to say. It seems like they’re easy, because everybody’s having fun. It’s almost like that jump-rope game, where you have to jump in when the rope’s already [going]. It’s hard to find that timing when to jump in, and how to keep that rhythm when you’re in, and when the hell to jump out is just as important.
AVC: Is it a sense you develop pretty quickly?
LT: It is. There’s so much going on, so you hope you have it. I remember on Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle, Alan Rudolph had so many balls in the air. There was just so much going on. So many actors were coming up to him with ideas and rewrites and pages. He was so accommodating to everybody, but there were times when I didn’t even want to bother him. I didn’t even want to check in to say, “Do I have the right balance here?” I just thought “If I’m totally off, he’ll let me know. Don’t bother him.”
Say Anything… (1989)—“Corey Flood”
AVC: Was Say Anything… in any way like the end of your high-school experience?
LT: [Laughs.] No, not quite. My last year of high school, I just wanted to get out of there—and I missed so much that year, I almost didn’t graduate.
AVC: Because you were working, or because you were skipping?
LT: A little bit of both. I was just doing a lot of, “No, mom, really. I don’t have to go to school. They said I didn’t have to go today.” That kind of thing. That year in the spring, I did a play, and they were like, “No, no, no. You can’t do this play because you’ve missed so much school.” I said, “Please?” and I begged and I begged, and they gave me a special assignment. So basically, Corey was involved enough that she had a boyfriend, she was at a party, while I so wasn’t there that people thought I had transferred. In terms of similarities to Corey, I didn’t have a lot of similarities.
AVC: In the film, your character and John Cusack carry a good deal of anxiety in terms of what lies beyond high school. Did your real-life experience help inform this at all?
LT: I wanted to get started. I felt like I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I wanted to go and just get going. So I didn’t have that thing of, “Oh Jesus, what’s going to happen next?”
I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)—“Valerie Jean Solanas”
LT: What drew me in was Mary Harron, who just seemed like a really good director to me. Her research was phenomenal. I couldn’t have done it without her, because there was so little written about that character, and I needed every piece of research Mary had accumulated over seven years. [Solanas] was clearly a dysfunctional human being, and a lot of that is because she wasn’t medicated properly, and a lot of it is because of the time she was in. It was sort of getting conscious of all the different types of people inhabiting the planet, and she was one of them. She’s almost a shadow aspect of [humanity]—we may not want to look at it, but she did exist. That’s sort of my attitude, I guess, shining a light on the dark spots we don’t want to look at. The thing with her is, I think, there was something to learn from her. There was some brilliance in her. Her IQ was 130 or something, but the schizophrenia got in the way of what she had to offer. We wouldn’t have done it if she was alive. She would have killed us.
The Haunting (1999)—“Nell”
LT: When I talked to Jan de Bont and saw the script, my impression was that it was going to be a remake of the original. The original was really scary. It was good. That’s what I thought we were going to do. With that same information, I’d do it again, but obviously the final product did not turn out to be what I thought it was going to be.
AVC: Has that happened more than once in your career?
LT: Not too much. I think one reason is that when you start getting into those bigger movies, it’s more likely to happen, because there’s a lot more stuff going on, a lot more people. But when you’re doing a smaller movie, you have a pretty good idea, because it’s more intimate. You’re more connected, and there aren’t as many surprises, which is another reason I like doing them. You’re with them every step of the way.
AVC: So you didn’t have a sense of what The Haunting would be like until the end?
LT: I didn’t, because when you’re doing all those special effects, they’re abstract. You’re just dealing with a LED light and a cone. I couldn’t see what was going on, so I had no idea. I just kept imagining, because you couldn’t see that much.
AVC: You and Catherine Zeta-Jones received a Razzie nomination for worst onscreen couple.
LT: I thought the movie was nominated. I didn’t realize I was nominated for a Razzie!
Julie Johnson (2001)—“Julie Johnson”
LT: Can you even see it? I know it never came out, but I don’t know if it ever came out on DVD. It was a trip. It was insane. Courtney [Love] is insane. I had no problem saying it to her face. I don’t know quite how it turned out. I don’t think it was as great as the director was hoping for, but Courtney was very good at it. She was probably better than me, even. I totally got my ass kicked because she totally beat my ass, because a lot of time she wasn’t available. When I was doing a scene, she wasn’t available for off-camera. So I had to do a lot of my off-camera with an AD or something like that, because she was taking four hours in makeup. You know, I actually really adored Courtney. I actually feel for her, because I think she’s going through a lot of stuff right now, but she’s insane. Maybe I’d work with her again. I do think she’s brilliant, and I do think she’s able to see things a lot of us aren’t able to see, because we’re not keyed into a certain dimension or something. She’s very endearing, and she was kicking my ass. I would tell her that also.
AVC: You had love scenes with her as well, right?
LT: We did, and that was a whole other thing. There were times when I really just had to grab her by the lapels, so to speak, and tell her to just cut it out, zip the lips, and let’s get going. She just has a lot going on. There’s always something going on. There’s a lot of chaos around her. It’s like a tornado. You sometimes just have to hold her, look her in the eye and say “Stop.” And she would, because with independents, you don’t have that kind of time.