For a working-class girl from the white-collar suburbs of Chicago who has always refused to have her edges buffed—and who has a resume filled with more damaged, insecure, and shockingly unstable characters than a Hollywood studio boardroom—the journey through moviedom has been less about making choices than winning battles.
Lili Taylor’s onscreen foibles have at times verged on the cruel and unusual: She has haplessly written songs about unrequited love (Say Anything, 1989), has been squired as part of an “ugly date” contest (Dogfight, 1991), and has had her attempts at domestic idyll summarily and fatally quashed (Six Feet Under, 2002-2004)—and that’s just a sampling. There was a time when it would have been easy to peg Taylor as a poster girl for sad naivete. But when it comes to both poking holes in Hollywood’s limited expectations for women and burrowing down to the unbreakable core of the terminally underestimated, she is as shrewd as they get.
After making an impression in early films like Mystic Pizza (1990) and Arizona Dream (1993), Taylor blossomed during the indie boom of the 1990s with a string of critically lauded performances in such movies as Household Saints (1993), The Addiction (1995), and most notably, Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), in which she played sixties radical and Warhol trigger-woman Valerie Solanas. She’s a shape-shifter to be sure. But if Taylor does share one thing with her characters, it’s a compulsion to bare her heart completely. Her own unwillingness to bat an ironic eye at their vulnerabilities and weaknesses—or to obscure them behind any affectations of detached coolness—has allowed her to transform all the bad luck, bad bets, and poor decisions that make them easy marks into a sort of monumental hope that is quickly becoming Taylor’s hallmark.
Having recently reunited with Harron for the director’s new biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page, Taylor will be seen later this summer starring opposite Matt Dillon in Bent Hamer’s Factotum, based on Charles Bukowski’s novel of the same name. Here, the 39-year-old actress talks with her Arizona Dream co-star Johnny Depp, who gets the measure of the woman.
JOHNNY DEPP: Hi, sweetheart.
LILI TAYLOR: Hi, darlin’. How are you?
Johnny: I’m all right. How you doing?
Lili: Thanks, Johnny, for doing this.
Johnny: Oh, no. I jumped at the chance.
Lili: It’s going be hard to keep the focus on me, because I would really love to interview you.
Johnny: You’d be bored.
Lili: No, I wouldn’t. I have so many questions for you. You’re just blossoming; I love watching it.
Johnny: You’re an angel, you are. So what are you up to? You’re doing all kinds of stuff.
Lili: Well, the biggest thing is Factotum, the Charles Bukowski movie I did with Matt Dillon. Are you a fan of Bukowski?
Johnny: Oh, yeah. In fact, all those years ago, back in Douglas, Arizona, where we were stationed for nine months working on Arizona Dream, you and I did a lot of talking about Bukowski and Hunter Thompson, even.
Lili: I knew for sure that you loved Jack Kerouac, but I couldn’t remember if you were into Bukowski. Were you ever going to do a Bukowski picture?
Johnny: No. But I always felt that the sort of stranger books of his, like Notes of a Dirty Old Man would be a really good movie. [Taylor laughs] But Factotum is great. How’d it go?
Lili: It went really well. I think you’d love the film’s director, Bent Hamer. I mean, just being able to say “Bent” was part of the draw for me. [Laughs]
Johnny: So, what was the shoot like? Was it a get-in-and-get-out-quick kind of deal?
Lili: It was. It reminded me of the ‘90s when everyone was doing low-budget stuff. It sort of refurbished my good feelings about the whole independent-film thing, because it was like that kind of down-and-dirty, labor-of-love, money-dropping-out-before-we-started situation. Everybody was there because they wanted to be there. You know, I recently adapted a book for the screen [Hula by Lisa Shea], and I’m going to slowly bring it out into the world.
Johnny: You’re shitting me. You adapted a book?
Lili: Well, I wrote the damn script, but just bringing it out into the world is a whole other deal, isn’t it?
Johnny: Jesus, yeah.
Lili: You were trying to do that, weren’t you? It was called Poop Express or something, right?
Johnny: [Laughs] Poop Express?
Lili: Poop Shoot, maybe? That wonderful thing that we did a reading of.
Johnny: Oh, Tight Wad. [Both laugh] You mean Meet Mr. Tight Wad. It’s still being tinkered with. Doing something like that is a whole other animal, isn’t it? It taps a completely different section of your brain—of your everything, really.
Lili: Oh, yeah. I mean, I love acting. It’s still infinitely appealing to me. But that other part of the equation interests me too.
Johnny: Do you reckon that you’re going to direct the movie and act in it as well?
Johnny: Good move. It’s nice to get into the ring for that initial bout without having to split your mind in two like that.
Lili: Did you act in the first thing you directed? [The Brave, 1997]
Johnny: Yeah. It was a nightmare. I just thought I was going to die every day.
Lili: That’s what I hear. There are a lot of feelings involved in acting, and the process can get messy. And then to have to move away from those feelings and into the kind of straight thinking that directors have to do must be very difficult.
Johnny: When you are driving the beast, you have to be aware of everything. People ask you weird questions, like, “What color do you want the white car to be?” [Taylor laughs] “Well, white. How about white?” So you get into all those fun little details of things, and they just spin you out.
Lili: I feel like I’m at least a year away from getting this thing done.
Johnny: I think your sensibility and your knowledge of the process is going to be a real gift to whomever you are working with. Getting back to Factotum, were you a fan of Bukowski before you did the movie?
Lili: I went through a period when I loved it. It seems like a lot of people go through that at 16, 17, 18. Then I went through all sorts of confusing things in my twenties, and I wasn’t so sure how I fit into the Bukowski world as a woman. I wasn’t sure if Bukowski was a sexist, or what the hell was going on with the guy. Then I reread his work when Factotum came up, and I didn’t really find it to be sexist or misogynist. He was just working out his own issues with that stuff in a totally honest and gorgeous way. A lot of people have asked me if it was tough to play a woman in a movie based on a Bukowski book, or if I was resistant to playing that sort of character. And, to tell you the truth, I felt my part in this movie was much more multidimensional, much more heartfelt, and much more complicated than a lot of other female characters written by interesting women. I was also very into the whole working-class thing he explores. I missed that part of his work when I was younger. But as an adult, I appreciate that he was writing for the working-class guy.
Johnny: You bet. And yet he was kind of a great romantic too, wasn’t he?
Lili: Totally. I think Bukowski is about to have his turn, the way all these various writers have their turns at different times. There was that documentary about him [Bukowski: Born Into This, 2004] that was released a year or two ago. And now this film is going to be released, and hopefully a few more people are going to start reading his books.
Johnny: When the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas  came out, good old Hunter Thompson was just amazed, because even though only seven and a half people saw the movie in the theaters, the number of people who came into Hunter’s life after that was really astounding. Now, there is something I’ve been meaning to say to you, because I haven’t seen you for a while. Do you remember a few years back when we were at my house here in Los Angeles and we were painting?
Lili: Honey, I was just looking at your painting two minutes ago. I’ve got it up on the wall.
Johnny: I remember that we were painting and you grabbed the tiniest canvas and it was all pink and you painted this beautiful little girl in this sort of bluish protective sphere in the center of it. We were using these really heavy oil sticks and just laying it on really thick. Anyhow, there were two things I wanted to say to you about it. The first is that after, like, five years, your painting is finally dry. [Taylor laughs] And the second is that I have it up here in my house, and you should come see it sometime. It’s a beautiful little painting. Over the years we’ve talked a lot about painting and art brut and naive art and things like that. But it’s just one of my favorite paintings ever.
Lili: Sweetie. I’ve got the one that you made for me with a three on it and a man’s face. I’m holding it in my hands right now. It’s so great that we’ve got each other’s little projects. Are you still in that house in Los Angeles?
Johnny: Yeah, still there, same joint. What used to look like Dracula’s castle now looks like Dracula’s castle crossed with Toys R Us.
Lili: [Laughs] The light from the kids has really brightened up the place, huh?
Johnny: Toys everywhere. It’s madness.
Lili: That’s sweet for the kids.
Johnny: Yeah, they are good kids. Really good kids. I’m so happy you’re writing. I remember when I was in New York a couple years back, and you were working with all these little kids with that group.
Lili: The 52nd Street Project.
Johnny: You slayed me with that. I thought it was such a brilliant thing.
Lili: Oh, man, yeah. I haven’t done anything with them for a while, but they’re such a great organization. I actually just took a full-day workshop on teenage relationships and how to talk to kids about sex. I got a little certificate. But I was thinking about the 52nd Street Project the whole time and about how successful they’ve been, working with kids in the city who have to deal with a lot of stuff that kids in the suburbs maybe don’t have to confront so much. I’m sure that’s something that you think about too, with your kids.
Johnny: Oh, absolutely. [Flicks lighter]
Johnny:Oh, just a little.
Lili: Are you smoking Drum?
Johnny: Uh, yeah—well, Bali Shag. [Laughs] But I’m not far away from quitting. I’ve cut down quite heavily.
Lili: Have you?
Johnny: Way down. It’s such a dumb addiction.
Lili: I know. It’s a bitch.
Johnny: And with the kiddies, man, just being a parent—you start worrying 10 years ahead of the curve.
Lili: You have a girl and a boy.
Johnny: Lily-Rose is 6 and a half years old now, and little Jack is 3 and a half. When I told my brother that we were going to have Lily, he congratulated me and said, “It’s the greatest thing you can do. Nothing will make you happier.” And then he said, “You’ll also never have another calm moment, and you’ll never sleep the same way again.” And it’s absolutely all true, a thousand percent. [Laughs]
Lili: You’ve been doing some movies lately that your kids can enjoy, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. After the workshop I went to, I really got to thinking about that. Obviously, I’m not a social worker. I’m an artist, and that’s what I do. So the question I keep asking myself is, within what I do, what can I do?
Johnny: Well, you have a great conscience, and you care about what’s happening out there—what’s going on, what’s going wrong, and what we can make go right. You’ve always been very smart about the choices you’ve made, and you have really taken great care with the things you’ve done.
Lili: That’s what’s also been so great about seeing your career grow the way it has. There were times when people didn’t really see what you were doing or didn’t catch the movies you were in, and now it’s finally like, “Yeah, look what he’s been doing all along.” I particularly like Pirates of the Caribbean . The attention you got for that was so fantastic, because I think it showed that we as actors can think outside the box, and that there’s actually a lot more possibility out there than people have realized. What I’ve also loved about you are your relationships with directors—the trust that they have in you, and the trust that you have in them.
Johnny: That’s everything, isn’t it, to have that element of trust with your director. You’ve had that. You just did another film with Mary Harron, the Bettie Page movie.
Lili: Right. The Notorious Bettie Page. But I’ve never done a character like the one you did in Pirates. How were you able to go in there and come up with a character like that and have it also be so organic and genuine? It’s just pure imagination. I also know that you use music in your acting. It is just so much a part of your life.
Johnny: Music is everything, sure.
Lili: Once I’m listening, I love it, but I don’t necessarily turn it on. I’d like to start being that person who turns it on. I actually have an iPod, and I’ve gotten much more into music since I got one.
Johnny: I remember, years before there was an iPod, when we were in that tiny little hotel doing Arizona Dream. You were listening to quite a lot of music then.
Lili: Most of it was on those fantastic tapes you were making for me. You made one called “Another Stretch of Doom” and one called “Put a Cow in My Pocket.”
Johnny: I still listen to all the same stuff—you know, Big Star and everything. It still kills me. Anything recent you’ve been listening to?
Lili: Yeah. And Architecture in Helsinki.
Lili: Architecture in Helsinki. Love ’em. And CocoRosie? Antony and the Johnsons?
Johnny: Wow. I don’t know them at all.
Lili: I guess it’s already happened. I’ve crossed over into music land.
Johnny: Good for you, man. I think that’s going to be a very important thing for you when you’re directing your movie. It’s rhythmic on one end and emotional on another end. It will be your pal for sure.
Lili: Johnny, I’d love to see your kids. I do free babysitting.
Johnny: Cool, I’ll take it. You haven’t met Jack yet. He’s such a little guy. Both my kids are so much fun, but it’s amazing how different they are. Lily is so girlie, so refined. And Jack is just a thug. He’s just a dude. [Taylor laughs] I can’t wait to see you. Be well.
Lili: You too, doll.