Stage and screen actress Lili Taylor just came back from shooting in Iceland where she acted in Fredrick Fredrickson’s Cold Fever. She is now on her way to Paris to star in Robert Altman’s new picture, Prête Á Porter. Since the Chicago born native came to New York City, she has gone from one project to another consistently leaving her quirky and off-beat elegance on everything she does. Lili is a founding member of Machine Full, a theater company she started with Michael Imperioli and Tom Gilroy, and a member of the actors and playwrights theater company, Naked Angels. Her uncompromising spirit allows her to live in New York, and to thrive in both her stage and film careers. While her tender performances in Mystic Pizza and Dogfight broadened her critical acclaim as an actress, Lili has also starred Off-Broadway in Aven-U-Boys and Off-Off-Broadway with avant-garde theater director Richard Foreman. Robert Altman produced Lili’s upcoming movie, Mrs. Parker and the Round Table, in which she plays Edna Therber, and directed her outstanding and understated performance in Short Cuts.
Nicole Burdette You have just been cast in your third Altman film. How’d all this come about?
Lili Taylor I was going to do a Raymond Carver film with someone else, and then Altman’s got a green light. Altman had asked me four different times, “Would you like to be in my movie?” It’s a defect/asset of mine, where things are no big deal. It’s protective; so I said, “Okay Bob, sure, thank you.” Finally, he said, “I really mean it, would you like to be in my film?” It all happened at the last minute and I didn’t have any time to prepare, but Altman doesn’t really want an actor to get involved in the technique, the intentions—all that stuff bogs you down anyway. He just wants to see behavior, as strictly as possible. I’m not a technical actor but it was still like throwing caution to the wind. I had to, with blind faith, trust him and jump. It was scary, but he loves actors, and if a director loves an actor, they will shine. He got a lot of good performances out of a lot of actors, a hard thing to do.
NB You are, to me and to everyone I know, extraordinary to watch in whatever situation; on stage, in movies—what do you do?
LT I don’t like to impose a false structure on a play. There’s this theory about dreams: don’t analyze a dream, let the dream speak for itself. And you’ll probably find that the dream is very close to a certain situation, a certain way that you live in daily life. And with acting, I close my eyes and see what the character is going to come up with. I watch her rather than impose external “outfits.” That’s where honesty comes in, being honest to the character and who she is.
NB People really get it when they watch you, they’re with you. You don’t have mannerisms, you don’t do weird things, you just speak the words. It’s a magical thing to watch, yet it’s hard to explain.
LT Because it’s of another language.
NB As a playwright, I always look for actors close to my heart. Any playwright calls upon the actor to embody the soul of the play and not clothe it in superficialities. In which directors or writers do you see something in what they do that you belong in? Is there anyone like that?
LT Yeah. That’s an easy one: Jane Campion. Holly Hunter said in her Golden Globe speech that she wishes every actress could get a chance to work with Jane Campion. Emir Kusterica and Nancy Savoca are of like minds in that way, I’m fortunate to have worked with them.
NB So you’re finding the people that relate to you.
LT Yeah, and I’m lucky because I’ve done certain things which people haven’t thought were so wise. For instance, staying in New York, refusing a lot of roles, being maybe a little too outspoken… At times I’ve felt very unsure, like I might get stuck in a corner. But I keep listening to my heart, and I’ve had a lot of things happen that encourage me to keep listening to my heart, that it’s not leading me astray.
NB Don’t you think that would be true for any human being?
LT Exactly. The heart is very hard to hear. I have so many different selves, which is what I apply to the acting. I asked someone, “How many different selves do I have inside?” And they said, “How many different people do you know?” One thing I’ve been realizing is that I lose the context of myself when I do a role. I get very discombobulated midway through whatever process I’m in. I get scared. And then I remember that I’m not myself anymore, that I’ve had to make room for somebody else while the main me has had to go to the back burners.
NB Don’t you feel that a plumber does that too? He comes home to his wife, the real him loves his wife and is happy. But the plumber had a hard day. So it’s the plumber who’s coming home for dinner. Acting is so much more average than people think.
LT I’ve doubted it a lot this year, that heart thing we’re talking about. I’ve lost out on a lot of the roles that I wanted. I’m not pretty enough, or even high profile enough for a lot of independents. I don’t get independent films because I’m not a big enough name.
NB Weird place.
LT Yeah, and it’s very disconcerting because I thought that would be my family, the independents. And I’m realizing they’re actually very dependent, not independent at all.
NB Now they’re becoming like Off-Broadway, which is Broadway for an actress or a playwright.
LT A very wise person called it, “the abandonment of art to the chaos of commerce,” and that is what’s going on. I’ve really gotten into Noam Chomsky lately, and if you look at the problem on a global scale, if it’s all pervasive, how could it not affect art?
NB Emir Kusterica is the Yugoslavian director you mentioned as being on a par with Jane Campion. He completed shooting a movie here. What is the myth behind his movie, Arizona Dream?
LT Oh, it’s gorgeous. When the Arrow Tooth Halibut reaches adulthood, the right eye travels over to the left side. It’s a beautiful symbol. Johnny Depp plays the main character who has this dream which is an analogy for crossing the threshold into adulthood. Part of his initiation is having this affair with an older woman, played by Faye Dunaway, and also going to work for his uncle, Jerry Lewis, at a Cadillac dealership. It’s really wild. And it’s very surreal. I play Faye Dunaway’s daughter, and we have a very complicated relationship: she killed my father because he was fucking around with me. My character’s big fear is turning into her mother; but, I won’t give away the ending. Emir is a beautiful filmmaker, I think he’s a genius. He’s a real anarchist, too. He refused to compromise, he walked off the set. It was unprecedented; the lawyers in L.A. were freaking out. They had never dealt with anything like this. He was quite a bit over budget, and yet somehow the film was resurrected, and everybody got back over two months later. It was a victory for Emir. He’s a true artist, and I don’t think America is used to that. In Europe, there’s a little bit more leeway. If Emir wanted a hundred sheep at six in the morning, he’d get them, no questions asked.
NB Now you have a theater company with Tom Gilroy and Michael Imperioli, all three of you are Machine Full. That’s your core. You’ve worked together on a lot of plays and you have more coming up. What do you think of these little marriages you’ve made along your way? What does that “familiarity” do for you?
LT Well, finding people of like mind is very important. They’re your network, your support system. It happened very organically—I guess you could call it an official theater company—Tom just started writing all these plays. And he presented them to Michael and we put one of them up. Then he wrote three more and we put those three up. It just happened so naturally. We put up fifteen of his plays because he wrote fifteen. We got them up as simply as possible, as cheaply as possible. And now they’re calling us a theater company, and I feel a teeny bit uncomfortable with it.
NB Right. You just kind of do your thing, but if it makes it easier to call it a company, well, why not?
NB Are you going to keep it small, your company?
LT Yes. We’ve gotten very hard-ass. We have a number of friends who we like to work with and who we respect, but I feel a lot of companies get too big and then a disjointedness happens. It’s the question of what comes first, the work or the individual. And in large companies, sometimes the work suffers because certain individuals haven’t been given their “due.” Tom’s plays are changing Tom. And maybe someone who was right for one of his plays at one time, might not be right again. And we don’t want anyone to be promised anything we can’t follow through on. So we just thought we’d keep it simple, and if some people get upset, then that’s their problem.