‘Even though I may not be their ideal, it doesn’t mess me up’: Lili Taylor, the actress who was too unique to triumph

The woman widely considered to be the queen of indie film has practically done it all, and done it well, but her resistance to playing by the rules of the industry have kept her from becoming that which, perhaps, she never wanted to be: a star

Lili Taylor
Lili Taylor in 1988.Aaron Rapoport (Getty Images)
Eva Güimil

Variety crowned her “the quintessential indie queen” and critics agree that she improves the quality of any project she touches. But the career of Lili Taylor (Illinois, 57 years old) has not measured up to her talent, perhaps because, as her Things I Never Told You (1996) director Isabel Coixet once said, “she deserved better, but she’s too strange for Hollywood.” Her physique, which show business never knew what to do with, has also played a role, alongside her scant interest in following the rules of the industry. When one of her first agents suggested that she get her nose done, she rejected the possibility outright. “[Hollywood’s] beauty standard is so strict. Even though I may not be their ideal, it doesn’t mess me up. I feel like some of those money guys are the guys from my high school who didn’t find me attractive,” she told Entertainment Weekly.

Those men didn’t lose any time in making it clear which jobs awaited her. In Dogfight, one of her first roles, they hired her to play the ugliest girl that the main character can find. Oddly — or not — the indie queen, who worked with directors like Robert Altman, John Waters, Abel Ferrara and Jim Jarmusch, was never in the orbit of the so-called godfather of independent film, Harvey Weinstein. “He hated me. People would tell me, ‘It’s true, he won’t even see you [for a role].’ I could not get a job with Miramax,” she told The Guardian. When stories about the producer’s sexual abuse surfaced, she was not surprised: “I always knew he was a pig. I didn’t know he was a rapist and serial abuser.”

She witnessed a supposed golden era of independent film, before it was eaten up by the big studios and fell victim to the appetite of cineplexes that leave no room for films that are not assured box office success from day one of their release. Despite being one of the era’s best-known faces, she loathes to idealize it, because it was rife with sexism.

Lili Taylor, photographed in 1993.
Lili Taylor, photographed in 1993.WWD (Penske Media via Getty Images)

Taylor doesn’t think things have changed much. In 2016, she wrote an article for Time in which she called out the lack of women behind the camera and how this scarcity has resulted in a lack of substantial roles for her gender: “When a woman is in front of the camera, she is often partially clothed and seemingly jobless,” she wrote. There have been changes in other areas: nowadays, it’s rare that an actor gets off scot-free after harassment allegations, although that wasn’t the case in 1997, when Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, Michael Rapaport, was arrested for stalking her. He pleaded guilty and received a restraining order and a year of mandatory therapy. The conviction barely affected his career. Today, the man who played Phoebe’s cop boyfriend in Friends is one of the most prolific actors around in film and television.

Julia Roberts, Lili Taylor and Annabeth Gish in ‘Mystic Pizza.'
Julia Roberts, Lili Taylor and Annabeth Gish in ‘Mystic Pizza.'Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

Taylor has also publicly addressed her health problems. She is bipolar, a mental health condition that she inherited from her father and of which she was unaware until, in 1997, she had a breakdown onstage during a Broadway performance of Three Sisters. “The only line I could remember was, ‘I want to go to Moscow.’ Amy Irving took one look at me and bellowed, ‘Get her understudy on now!’ I’ve suffered, but life hasn’t been hard in that same way [since starting medication].”

“You’re a prisoner”

She always knew she wanted to be an actress. After Taylor graduated high school, she enrolled at a theater school, only to be expelled for not attending classes. But it would seem that she already knew enough. Her first major role came in the shape of a story about three friends who work at a pizzeria. Mystic Pizza (1988) has become a classic in its own right, and has fulfilled the prophecy of critic Roger Ebert: “I have a feeling that Mystic Pizza may someday become known for the movie stars it showcased back before they became stars.” In the film, Taylor played her role alongside a young woman named Julia Roberts. They became friends and stayed in contact. Taylor never understood why Roberts accepted her role in Pretty Woman (1990), a plot that offered up a sanitized view of prostitution. “Are you kidding?” she remembers asking Roberts. “And back then I was very much in my angry 20s. Oh, I was furious!” She reunited with Roberts in Robert Altman’s Pret-A-Porter (1994). “I remember being in the back of the car with her and the paparazzi were chasing us and she was slumped down in her seat. I said to her: ‘You’re a prisoner! This is so hard.’ She side-eyed me and probably just nodded.”

Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Christopher Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh in ‘Short Cuts.'
Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Christopher Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh in ‘Short Cuts.'Fotos International (Getty Images)

Even if Taylor never truly became a movie star, hers is a recognizable face to anyone who has seen a significant number of films. She’s worked on several projects that have become minor classics, as is the case of Say Anything (1989), a teen movie touchstone. The image of John Cusack holding a boombox above his head as he blasts Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes has been parodied dozens of times. Not even the irreverent Deadpool franchise has proven immune to its nostalgic charm.

Her path crossed with another indie film icon, River Phoenix, in Dogfight, during whose filming she became aware of the actor’s problems. “He also hadn’t gotten into [drugs] — he was just drinking then,” she remembers. “[His role] was actually a hard part for him, because it was so radically different from who he was. He was such a hippie, and here he was playing this marine. It actually caused him a lot of discomfort.”

Her first starring role came with I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), the best example of what for her, were the glory days of indie film. Director Mary Harron thought she was perfect for the role and there was no studio interference nor producers to suggest a more box-office-friendly star. It wasn’t a likeable role, to the contrary: she was playing Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto (whose title is an acronym for Society for Cutting Up Men), who in 1968 shot Andy Warhol point-blank, twice. “That was one of my favorite [roles], but it was also hard because it set the bar so high,” she says. She won a well-deserved Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, but there was a downside. “I had to realize that it wasn’t personal when that kind of role didn’t come around again,” she says.

Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta Jones in ‘The Haunting.'
Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta Jones in ‘The Haunting.'Archive Photos (Getty Images)

In 1999, she made an unexpected move: starring in a commercial film with a massive budget that became a critical flop: horror movie The Haunting. “I try to maintain equilibrium,” she said, “because generally I do theater in the winter and that only gets me $500 dollars a week if I’m lucky. Movies I don’t like pay the bills.”

It’s easier to imagine her filming The Addiction (1995), Abel Ferrara’s tale of languid vampires, or in Coixet’s cast of the delicious Things I Never Told You, the Catalan filmmaker’s second movie. Taylor’s Ann records the things she never said to the boyfriend who abandoned her, unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide and tears apart a supermarket over its lack of Chocolate Chocolate Chip (no, Cappuccino Commotion is not the same) in one of the best roles of her career, whose viewers will surely never see a laundromat in the same way again.

Then there were the roles that got away: for years, Taylor tried to make a Janis Joplin biopic. It’s hard to think of an actress better suited to play the singer, but the project never got financed. The fact that the names that were later floated to lead the film were those of Michelle Williams and Amy Adams explains a lot about the roles for women in the movies.

Lili Taylor during a press conference in 2022.
Lili Taylor during a press conference in 2022.Jon Kopaloff (Getty Images for Amazon Studios)

Taylor doesn’t fool herself, she knows that her physical appearance has impacted her career, and those of all women in an industry that has such obvious problems with something as natural as the aging process. “It’s a big problem,” she has recognized. “It’s getting to the point where I wonder if we’re going to even know what an older woman looks like. It’s really upsetting and disturbing to me on so many levels. In 10 or 15 years, it’s going to be really scary because then we’re going to see what happens after you’ve had all this plastic surgery. We all know it doesn’t get better — it gets worse.” Taylor has always said that she won’t get surgery, and she seems to have held firm on that point. “You look at someone like Diane Keaton — beautiful, and wow! A woman with wrinkles! We need actresses like that, so a woman can say, ‘I’ve got wrinkles and I’m normal.’”

In television, Taylor has found a way to develop profound characters. In Six Feet Under, she played the evasive and dark Lisa Fischer, perhaps one of her most popular roles. She also appeared on The X-Files and her role in the series American Crime made everyone wonder why she wasn’t making more movies. She would return for the second season of the intriguing Outer Range, and this month comes to Apple TV as Mary Todd Lincoln in Manhunt, a series about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Her face is one of the best-known of the unknown, which allows her to live a relatively relaxed lifestyle. She’s married to writer Nick Flynn and they have a daughter, whom Taylor accompanies to soccer games and on bird-watching excursions in Central Park. Ornithology is more than just a hobby: she brings her $650 binoculars to every set, writes about the subject and belongs to the American Birding Association and several sighting and conservation groups. Yet another layer to an exceptional actress who turned out to be “too strange for Hollywood.”

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