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[whitespace] Lili Taylor Just Say It

Lili Taylor's career of strange choices

By Traci Vogel


SHE'S FLYING OUT to San Jose to pick up Cinequest's Maverick Award, yes. But Lili Taylor doesn't want to flatter herself.

"I don't think of myself as a 'maverick,'" she says, on the phone during a stopover in Los Angeles (and directly after wolfing down lunch). "It seems like a flattering term, and I don't want to seem like I'm flattering myself. You know?"

I want to tell her I know. I want to say I appreciate her modesty, how it must be difficult to understand your appeal when you're looking out from that sloe-eyed, husky-throated "Unconventional" face, but, well, I'm too star-struck. I'm talking to Lili Taylor. The woman who's been in so many films I love--Dogfight, Julie Johnson, Girls Town, Pecker, Cold Fever, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Short Cuts, and, of course, I Shot Andy Warhol--that the term "maverick" doesn't even cut it.

Instead, I can only squawk, "Hell, if you're not a maverick, who is?"

There is a pause of phone static, and then Lili says, "There's this one guy." Who's that? "Bob Altman. He's done it his own way. You can't pin him down. He's not easy to describe. He's got a lot of different colors going on. He's got that renegade quality."

I couldn't have described Lili Taylor better myself.

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Taylor Made: Cinequest picks Lili Taylor as Maverick Spirit Award winner.

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Renegade RoundUp

Lili Taylor is an indie heavyweight. The characters she portrays consistently tip the scales toward unpredictable in tender, peculiar ways. In many aspects, Taylor is the epitome of a character actor--the type who, freed from the constraints of leading lady-dom, searches out the hidden corners of humanity. Her characters are rebels, or they're outcasts, or they would rather express themselves through folksongs than speaking. They jog along the fringe, and they kind of like it there.

After I recovered from being star-struck, I managed to ask a few questions.

I know you must be sick of questions about your so-called "unconventional beauty," but I wonder if you think that the very fact that you aren't blonde and button-nosed has allowed you to be more of a maverick in your choices of roles, or has brought you more interesting roles--if it has actually kind of freed you from the tyranny of the leading lady?

Totally. I wouldn't trade it. I kind of feel bad for conventionally pretty women, because I think they're given the wallpaper roles. I always wanted to be a character actress when I was little, like Geraldine Page or Betty Davis. Then, all of a sudden these great roles started coming to me and I realized, Oh, it's actually happening. I really am getting these great roles and I think it is exactly because I'm not conventionally beautiful.

There has been a lot of criticism lately, mostly centered around Todd Solondz's movies, about movies that feature characters that the director and actors don't even seem to like. Critics say that these movies are dehumanizing. But you're one actor who can take a character who might be on the edge of being unlikeable or pathetic, and humanize them. How do you do that?

It is really very important for me to have respect for the character. It irks me when I hear negative commenting from the director or the actors about the character they're playing. It's part of my principles--when I'm working on the character, it feels all pervasive. If they do heinous things, that involves going back and seeing what might have gone wrong way back.

Dogfight, the movie you're going to screen here, is a good example of a character, Rose, who might have seemed pathetic. How did you humanize Rose?

It was easier to humanize her because she's so kind. Plus, Nancy [Savoca, the director] and I hit it off right away, and the story is so moving, I just wanted to be a part of this thing that speaks about some of the injustices that are happening, especially to women who didn't fit into a certain kind of role. I wasn't considered a "dog" [in high school], but I felt rejection a lot. It was just such a small niche, what was considered beautiful, so few fell into it--and if you didn't you weren't pretty. That hurt; it comes at you in so many different ways.

Your role in Julie Johnson seemed to embody something that recurs in many characters you play, which is that a person might have a gift but not be able to see until the very end how that gift might change things. Does this recur in your characters because it parallels your own life, or do you think it's a trope of female characters in general?

On an unconscious level it might be going on with me. It must resonate with me because I'm attracted to that theme, and I do think that it's a trope with women--particularly older women from the '50s and '40s who didn't get the same opportunities that we're given, who didn't get to see what their potential might have been. And of course this is happening today, still. I think our stories are still so limited, so much of our potential is limited--we're still not making as much as men, we don't have the same jobs as men, you know?

For a while it seemed like the indie aesthetic was changing that, was making more space for interesting roles for women. Now that indie has been absorbed back into Hollywood, is it becoming difficult again for you to find interesting roles?

It is, because [the studios] started to want to make money back, and when that happens you can't take risks. My hope is that there will be something else that will kind of sprout from underneath, whether digital becomes more available and more viable--I guess that seems to be the next logical thing. But it becomes more difficult to find the next thing, because [the mainstream has] gotten more sophisticated at anticipating it. The same with independents; they found out they could put out so little and make back so much.

What are you working on now?

Right now I'm doing some episodes of Six Feet Under. Another movie I did, Slipping Down Life, is in the process of getting distribution.

Have you ever been to San Jose before?

I don't really recall if I have. If I did, it was years ago and it was kind of a blur. I'm hoping I'll get there and remember. Maybe after the award and after talking to people about it, then I'll be able to say I'm a maverick.


An Afternoon with Lili Taylor takes place March 3 at 2pm at the AMC Saratoga 14.

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From the February 21-27, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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