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, 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" at the major youth-culture glossies (SPIN excepted), which is just one way to measure her integrity. She's one of few actors whose progressive sensibility is traceable across all her films, and whose commitment to the bolder variety of indie cinema is laudable at a time in her career when it would pay better to do otherwise.
We met her in the corner booth of 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 in November), 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 said of Girls Town. "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. Jim's faith in the project and his intentions were so high, and he made so many sacrifices in order to step out of the way and give it over to us [the actors]. And that takes so much maturity and humility."
Despite her goal of getting into the shoes of an 18-year-old girl, Taylor found the project not to be research intensive. "A little bit goes a long way," she said. "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. 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."
We suggested that Girls Town couldn't have been made as a studio film. "There's no fuckin' way," Taylor said. "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? I think 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, it's just like a lot of times, the movies haven't had what I've needed to fulfill me," Taylor said. "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 sitting in the corner with my little morals. But this year I'm realizing that the hard work has 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." (Nelson)