Lili Taylor Talks 'American Crime', Independent Film in the 90s, and Birding
Taylor has a career filled with more bravura performances than just about anyone working in Hollywood. She also likes birding.
Illustration by Joan LeMay
If you don't already know the name Lili Taylor, do yourself a favor right now. Bookmark this page, open a new tab with your streaming site of choice, and rent Mystic Pizza or Short Cuts or I Shot Andy Warhol or Say Anything or just about any worthwhile independent film from the 1990s.
One of cinema's true indie darlings, Taylor has a career filled with more bravura performances than just about anyone working in Hollywood. She's a consummate professional, a rare talent, and an endlessly interesting person.
Fresh off last week's second season premiere of American Crime, where she plays the mother of a young rape victim, Taylor sat down with us to discuss the critically-acclaimed ABC series, the incredible spirit of independent film in the '90s, her fascination with birds, and what it's like to be a woman in Hollywood.
Broadly: You made this amazing bunch of indie films in your career as well. What was the spirit on the set back then?
Lili Taylor: To tell you the truth, the spirit wasn't so far away from the spirit that John Ridley (screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave) created on American Crime, which was basically that everybody wants to be there. But the spirit in the '90s was so great because there was Cassavetes and a few others, and then the '90s came and we did it again. Nobody knew what they were doing, and nobody cared (in a way). Nobody was telling who to cast what. It was so exciting. Working with Abel Ferrara. Not having a permit. Grabbing shots from a van. Stealing locations. For me, it's where my heart's at. I mean, that's what I love. I love that everybody's in it together. No one says, "Oh, you shouldn't be picking up an apple box." We're all in it together and it's democratic, and I just love it.
How do you think Hollywood has changed over the course of your career? Do you think it's still possible to make the types of films you were making in the '90s?
It's changed so much. And part of what I start having to realize is that things change, and that they always have. My friend [Ada Calhoun] just wrote this great book called St. Marks Is Dead, where she traced that phrase of that street and how it's been sort of uttered for at least 200 years. Hollywood is dead. Theater is dead. No, but this time it's really dead. You know.
It's changed so much and that's the nature of things, so part of my job is adapting and resilience. The big change I saw was around '98-'99 when the lists started to form of the few actors on the list and those were given to the director. When you kind of felt like a stock number was associated with an actor. They'll bring X amount to the movie. That was a huge change. But then another change was Boys Don't Cry and Hilary Swank being nominated. That would never have happened in the '90s.
So there are good and bad changes.
Exactly. Good and bad. I don't know. I'm just trying to be as friggen' adaptive as I can.
Do you think it's gotten better for women in particular?
No. No, I don't. In some ways, you could say yes, but if you look at the stats and the studies? No. We have a long way to go.
If you hadn't gone into acting, what do you think you would have done?
I'm a birder, so I don't know if I would have known that years ago, but unfortunately I didn't get far in college, so I don't know how I would have done in biology, but I would have loved to be an ornithologist. I like watching behavior and watching birds. I hope I'd be good at data—I'm not sure—but definitely birding.
How do you feel your love of birding crosses over into your acting?
Listening. When I go outside...First of all, I don't really want to go outside. I don't want to go to this emotional terrain, so that's the first parallel. And then it's about letting go of the "no," saying "yes," and listening. It's about observing and not having assumptions. I could easily say, "Oh, that's a woodpecker!" but instead of jumping right to a label, I have to think about what I actually see. I see a bird with black wings.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I think I Shot Andy Warhol has a special place because it was sort of at the peak of the independents. In fact, they started to change right after that came out. It was a woman who was only in two books, and not that often mentioned. So it was Mary Harron's boxes and boxes of research that we kind of came up with her together. It was just one of those things that was totally collaborative. It was a high point for me.
What's one thing, if you could go back, you would do differently?
Say yes more. The first thing I say when I wake up is "no." That's just who I am. I would just say yes more.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
"To thine own self be true." But then, of course, you say, "which self?" and you get into a whole kind of vortex. Though I have to say Olivier..."Check your props" seems kind of superficial, but it's actually very deep when you're doing theater.
What was it like working on Six Feet Under? Do you think that Nate's character was an asshole?
Oh, good question! That's nice. I never get asked that. To me, there were The Sopranos and then there was [Six Feet Under]. It was like, "Is TV good? What is happening?" But it was like working on plays. One act plays. The writer's word was...you didn't change it. If it was "and the," you had to say "and the." So it was like working in theater, except on TV, and that was really wild and different. And I have to say, this is the first time I've ever even had to think of Nate's character being an asshole because I got so much of that, "She's so awful!" all the time. No one ever said anything about Nate, so I have to think about that one. No, I think he was sick and suffering. Yeah. But thanks for saying that he's an asshole, even if he wasn't an asshole. Thanks for saying that. [Laughs]
This season's American Crime storyline clearly has its roots in real life cases out of places like Steubenville, Ohio and Sayreville, New Jersey.
Originally, my character had a daughter instead of a son. I'd been following these real-life cases (and I read Krauker's book Missoula, which is fantastic), and then John [Ridley] changed it to a son, which I thought was brilliant. It's so like John to just make something a lot more complicated.
And it's something that happens frequently in real life, but people assume it doesn't happen to boys.
Exactly! Exactly. And so, just to do the service of getting this conversation going... It happens a lot more than we realize.The show hadn't even aired yet and this guy came up to me—I think he was an extra or something—and he was transgender or was going to be, and he was just sobbing.
How do you think your approach would have been different if the character had stayed a daughter rather than a son?
To tell you the truth, I think it would have been kind of an open-and-shut case in a way for me. It's just like a no-brainer. Daughter, rape, bad, victim, powerless. You know? There might not have been as many obstacles. But even this I think, too, starts to get more complicated because it is grey. It's not as clear-cut as some of these cases are, and that's why they're so tough. It gets complicated. What are my character's feelings about homosexuality? I think my character is a Republican. She's pro-life. She's cool, but I don't know how open she's been to homosexuality, so it's interesting.
She's having a hard time with this.
Yeah, but she loves her son so much. And I think this happens to a lot of parents that find out their son is gay. A lot of them (and also a lot don't react this way as well) realize that the love trumps the politics or beliefs, or whatever it is.
Being a mother yourself in real life, what kind of feelings does this work conjure up in you?
Oh, fucked up. It's fucked up. There's no way around it. When my daughter kind of creeps in because obviously actors use imagination, but also associations and references and sometimes if I'm not trusting myself or not trusting what's in front of me (which is Connor [Jessup], who is amazing), maybe I think, "Uh oh, I better dip in there as if it were my daughter," and I pay a huge price. It's not fair to her and it fucks me up. It doesn't make the acting any deeper, frankly, because actors can imagine and it's just as deep. And it makes me not as capable of doing my job because I can't comprehend it. It's too fucking much to carry.
Is it hard not to bring that home with you as well?
Yeah. It's hard with theater too, but there are more rituals in there. Originally, the masks in Greek theater thousands of years ago were created to protect the actors also, from the character. We don't have these rituals now. So it was upon me to do that. One thing was, I had a wig, so the wig turned out to be a little helpful. There's that expression in theater to wipe your feet at the door, so I could sort of take the wig off and say goodbye every night.
I can't wait to see what happens the rest of the season.
Get ready. As John Ridley likes to say, "It's not going to get any easier."
American Crimeairs on Wednesdays at 10 PM EST on ABC.