Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Lili Taylor

Casa de los Lili

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Veteran actress Lili Taylor has appeared in more than 40 films and TV shows -- not to mention various stage plays -- over a 20-year stretch. And even at only 35, she has racked up such an impressive body of work that the Mill Valley Film Festival honored her with a tribute. She has worked with many acclaimed directors and collected several awards, though an Oscar nomination still eludes her. Her latest excellent performance can be seen in John Sayles' Casa de los Babys now in release.

Q: In Casa de los Babys, you work with an excellent ensemble cast of six women, including yourself, Rita Moreno, Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Did you use your strength in numbers to gang up on Sayles?

LT: It was the opposite. It was a real love-fest. We all adored John. We all had a lot of respect for him. But it was all healthy. It wasn't like he was this god walking among the set. We just adored him. We were there to execute his vision.

Q: He strikes one as a hugely organized filmmaker.

LT: He's highly intelligent. He was a lot more spiritual than I thought. He has a faith, or something more intuitive than I imagined. The thing with john is that it's kinda like a play in that what's written is what stays. I think Marcia wanted to change one word and he said, 'no.'

Q: The film takes place in an unnamed South American country. Where did you shoot it?

LT: Acapulco. It's kinda gross. It's kind of like that land that's been raped and built up quick and that kind of thing. We were in this gross tourist hotel where the water was so dirty you couldn't swim in it. But Mary Steenburgen found a villa for us, and it made all the difference in the world. So we moved into the villa on day two and we were there altogether. It was a very rich experience. We had a cook. The food was delicious.

Q: The film is about waiting to adopt children. Are you interested in having kids?

LT: I'm fascinated with parenting and child psychology and all that stuff. It's not easy at all. This was just more food for thought, but I guess I'd already been thinking about it.

Q: You have such a lovely, soothing, kind of sexy voice. Why haven't you done more voiceover work?

LT: I'm really trying. The government doesn't subsidize actors, so I've got to keep trying, especially if I love my independence and my theater. I hear that eventually you'll break through. It just takes time.

Q: You recorded a voice for a penguin in a recent animated cartoon, "Penguins Behind Bars." What was it like?

LT: It's abstract. I find that those things, like books on tape, I find that I come out kind of busy. There's all this oxygen coming out, and it's kinda like, where have I been for the past 9 hours?

Q: An actor once said that if you're flawlessly beautiful, no one will take you seriously. But if you have a hooked nose, they'll think you're talented. Now, you're quite lovely, but you played an ugly girl in one of your first films, Dogfight. Do you think that helped your career?

LT: No. I think I was already there before that. I've always felt like I'm not going to play the pretty girl. I don't have an easy look. That helped right away. I remember my agent in Chicago. I think I had only gotten one little thing and she pointed to her nose in reference that I should get a nose job. I just knew, even then at 18, that, no. Uh-uh. That's a blessing. I don't know where that came from. I've always found that I could say no, even very early. I've been blessed.

Q: Were you ever offered any standard-issue American Pie-type films?

LT: It doesn't feel like I was offered them, but I could have gone with those movies. I did Mystic Pizza and Say Anything in Chicago and then I went to New York. I just found that I couldn't do it. I'd read the script, and even if you forced me to say the lines, the words just wouldn't have come out. A lot of that comes from a place I don't understand. It feels bigger than me. It's coming from someplace higher.

Q: What was it like working on your first big breakthrough film, Mystic Pizza (1988)?

LT: There's this scene, a little monologue. I didn't like the way the original was written and so I re-wrote it. That was a case of not being able to say the original words because I didn't believe them. I remember feeling good about that. I'm always scared about being kind of struck sold-out or something, like somehow I was going to be a leaf in the wind. But I realized I was going to be fine, that I'm part of all this.

Q: Since you're here for a tribute, can we talk about some of your older films?

LT: Sure!

Q: What was it like working on Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993)?

LT: Bob was the main thing, and just being really taken with the atmosphere that he creates. Really, what he's doing, he's an amazing party planner and then he just steps back and lets the party go. But it takes a lot of hard work. He developed an arm to go under the camera so that the camera has its own marks. So there are no marks. He's also developed a sound system so that we're all individually miked and the soundman is a big part of the whole thing, and is working with our levels so we don't have to worry about overlapping. So those are two huge things that make it very, very natural.

Q: Can you talk about working on Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995)?

LT: He is insane, but there is a rhyme to his reason. But I love Abel. I loved working with him. He was one of the most creative people I've ever worked with. He has no shot list. What's really great about Abel is if it doesn't feel right, he'll rip the whole track up if it doesn't feel right, even if it takes an hour. It's gotta feel right. He'll talk to you right while you're filming. He's right there with you, like kinda how Cassavetes was. I loved working with Abel. I'd do it again in a second.

Q: Arizona Dream (1993) is another good one of yours.

LT: It's so neat walking around in Paris. Everybody knows Arizona Dream over there.

Q: It barely opened here in America.

LT: Speaking of that, can we talk about my new film A Slipping Down Life? That needs help. It's coming out in the spring. It's been in a quagmire for about 3 years. Lions Gate is finally releasing it in the spring. It was adapted from an Anne Tyler book. Toni Kalem directed it. Guy Pearce is in it. It's a really nice movie. I play a girl who is a little bit lonely and a little lost. And she has an obsession with Guy, who's a musician, so much so that she carves his name into her forehead, but she does it backwards -- in the mirror. She's not insane or sick -- she just does a really insane act and comes to terms with it. I'm glad that one of these is finally getting out of the damn starting gate. 'Cause Julie Johnson, another film I did for the Shooting Gallery, had bad legal problems. But I do things for the experience, so I can't lose.

October 3, 2003

Partial Lili Taylor Filmography:
Mystic Pizza (1988)
Say Anything... (1989)
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Dogfight (1991)
Arizona Dream (1993)
Short Cuts (1993)
Household Saints (1993)
Rudy (1993)
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)
Prêt-à-Porter (1994)
The Addiction (1995)
Four Rooms (1995)
I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)
Girls Town (1996)
Illtown (1996)
Ransom (1996)
Kicked in the Head (1997)
The Impostors (1998)
Pecker (1998)
A Slipping-Down Life (1999)
The Haunting (1999)
High Fidelity (2000)
Gaudi Afternoon (2001)
The Weather Underground (2002) [narrator]
Casa de los babys (2003)
Factotum (2005)
The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)
Starting Out in the Evening (2007)
The Promotion (2008)
Brooklyn's Finest (2009)
Public Enemies (2009)

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