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Phyllis Belkin

Working Girl: Lili Taylor in "Girls Town"

Lili Taylor talks about breaking the rules in every part she plays, from 'I Shot Andy Warhol' to 'Girls Town'

By Rob Nelson

Lili Taylor was the undisputed belle of the ball at the Sundance Film Festival in January, appearing in no less than three movies (Girls Town, I Shot Andy Warhol and Cold Fever) and doing her part to discuss them all. She took the festival's Grand Jury Prize for Acting for her turn as the would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas, and Girls Town, the film she wrote with director Jim McKay and her co-stars Bruklin Harris and Anna Grace, won the Filmmakers Trophy and a Special Jury Prize for collaborative achievement.

Nine months later, Taylor still hasn't made any of the "hot lists" in the major youth-culture glossies, which is one way to measure the integrity of this performer--among the few whose progressive sensibility is traceable across all her films, and one whose lasting commitment to the bolder variety of indie cinema is laudable at a time in her career when it would pay better to do otherwise.

I met her at Park City's Claimjumper Bar a few days before the awards were announced, when she was talking about the weirdness of having just taken a role in a Ron Howard movie (Ransom, due this fall), and the many pleasures of working at the opposite end of the spectrum in Girls Town.

"The whole thing had such a joy underneath it and a real pureness about it," Taylor says. "I had just finished Warhol, and I was really exhausted, but we had to go because we were getting older, and there was just this feeling that if we didn't go now, we may not go. And so we shot it in 12 days for, like, no money. And Jim's faith in the project, his determination and his intentions were all so high, and he made so many sacrifices in order to step out of the way, to give it over to us [actors]. And that takes so much maturity and humility."

Taylor says that despite her goal of getting into the shoes of an 18-year-old girl, the project wasn't research-intensive. "A little bit goes a long way," she says. "Living in New York, if you just see a couple of chicks hanging out, you can pick up a lot, or if you hear their conversation on the subway. And you remember what it was like to be a young girl. I was concerned that we weren't going to have some of the authentic stuff down. I know kids, and if you're not right on, they're gonna smell a rat. I wondered, 'Is this uncool what we're saying?'

"Mostly, it was visceral. It came from a deeper place. I didn't have to break it down and come up with an arc and all that jazz. When it's working, what acting is really about is getting into the essence of a moment in a creative, joyous way--through whatever frees you up. Because Jim set up such an open and conducive environment, it was easy. We'd do little games before we started, and then we'd do improv, and it was fun. It was more like playing, instead of the 'shoulds' and the 'musts' and all that jazz. We really just tried to honor and respect that time when a girl's self-esteem starts to drop. This was something we felt we had to deal with, absolutely."

I suggest that Girls Town couldn't have been made as a studio film. "There's no fuckin' way," Taylor agrees. "When you get into that kind of studio money, there's a price on everything. And I haven't been willing to pay that price. It's just the reality. If someone puts up $100 million on a movie, they're gonna be concerned about whether they'll get it back. So they're not gonna make a movie about three girls, you know? There's gotta be a hunger for more soul food out there, cause it's absolute shit that we're eating up."

"It's not like I'm anti-Hollywood," Taylor stresses. "It's just like a lot of times the movies haven't had what I've needed to fulfill me. It's been very important for me to follow my gut or my heart, or whichever organ you want to go by. And it's been hard because it requires you to say no a lot. I've had moments of doubt, when I've questioned whether my way is the right way, whether I'll end up alone with my morals in the corner. But this year I'm realizing that the hard work has really paid off--not hard work acting-wise, but spiritually and principle-wise. That's given me faith enough that my heart hasn't led me astray. I've started to realize that you can do it your way. There are no rules."


Girls Town (Rated R; 90 min.), directed by Jim McKay, written by McKay, Denise Casano, Anna Grace, Bruklin Harris and Lili Taylor, and starring Taylor, Grace and Harris, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and at the Palo Alto Square.

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