Ever since her breakout performance in the 1988 cult classic Mystic Pizza, Lili Taylor has delivered delicious drama.
Emmy-nominated for her weighty work in American Crime, Six Feet Under, and The X-Files, the I Shot Andy Warhol star now returns to the stage as Bessie, an elder caregiver dying of leukemia, in the Broadway revival of Marvin’s Room.
But Taylor, who also plays an anorexic girl’s bipolar lesbian mother in the new Netflix film To the Bone, is even more serious about bringing queer characters to life.
You’re confronting mortality night after night in Marvin’s Room. How do you shake off Bessie when you leave the theater?
I go on YouTube, search for news bloopers, and just laugh. But it helps that the play is a semi-comedy. My character is focused on living, not dying, and that’s saving me.
Even when you do a comedy, you’re still playing a woman with cancer.
[Laughs] Yep. God forbid I go too light.
The playwright, Scott McPherson, was influenced by the AIDS crisis. He and his partner died of AIDS-related causes in 1992, shortly after the play’s off-Broadway premiere. Does that background haunt this revival?
Even though the play never mentions AIDS, you could really feel that connection in the early ’90s. I didn’t see the play back then, but I remember assuming it was about AIDS. So the challenge was actually separating from that and finding how the play would resonate with audiences today.
Were you affected by the AIDS crisis?
I moved in 1988 from Boystown in Chicago to the West Village in New York, a block from St. Vincent’s Hospital, and I was with a friend who died there. I lost so many people. You know, Scott didn’t have AIDS when he wrote the play, but he was later surprised at how much he got right about dying.
You were set to star in a 2010 Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart as a woman who inherits a Fire Island beach house after her brother dies of AIDS, but the show was famously canceled during rehearsals. Were you bummed?
Yeah, that was crazy. They were filling the pool with water when it all fell apart. I call it “Lips Together, Fell Apart.” Marvin’s Room is my third time working with Roundabout Theatre Company—Three Sisters was a disaster, Lips Together was a disaster—so I joke with Todd Haimes, the artistic director, that the third time’s a charm.
Speaking of queer projects that never panned out, I would have loved to see your Janis Joplin biopic in the late ’90s.
Me too. That sucked. But I feel like Janis sort of looked 50, so maybe I could still pull it off, right? Or maybe we could do a movie about, like, what if Janis had lived to be 50? Nah, it wouldn’t work.
You earned great acclaim as Valerie Solanas, a notorious man-hating lesbian, in I Shot Andy Warhol. How much did her sexuality inform your performance?
The real challenge was making her human, because she was more than a militant lesbian. She had been sexually abused, she had paranoid schizophrenia, but she also had feelings and a sense of humor. If I can’t picture a character eating cereal, I haven’t done my job. If I can’t see them as a living, breathing person, how are they going to live and breathe for the audience?
Even before I Shot Andy Warhol, which came out in 1996, you tackled queer roles in Ready to Wear and The Addiction. Were there any hesitations or concerns about you playing multiple lesbians so early in your career?
Definitely. There was always this sigh of, “Oh, another lesbian” from my management—that I’m not with anymore. I was like, “Fuck you! What’s wrong with playing another fucking lesbian? I don’t give a shit. Show me the goddamn script.” Did I always make the right choice? I don’t know. But I had an aversion to commercial stuff and a propensity toward down and dirty stuff.
Nothing’s changed. Last year, in the second season of ABC’s American Crime, you played the mother of a gay high school student who was sexually assaulted. We never see that kind of storyline with two young men, and it’s rare to see such a frank depiction of gay sexuality in a primetime network drama.
What those writers did was amazing. That character was supposed to be a girl, but the show’s creator, John Ridley, changed it to a boy about a month before shooting, which was so smart. Even while filming, we’d look at each other, like, “Is this really happening?” John would say, “ABC is letting us do this—don’t ask questions.” I heard that being in the writers’ room was very painful, because some writers had been through something similar while others were confronting their biases about gay men.
You and Courtney Love starred in Julie Johnson as best friends who fall in love after leaving their husbands. What was it like to work with her?
It was hard. I love her, she’s so brilliant, but she was pretty exhausting. She needs medicine—she was like C-SPAN on acid. And I would say all this to her face. I told her, “Courtney, you’re really pooping me out, honey. You’ve got to fucking stop.”
Was she a good kisser?
She didn’t want to make out with me—that was the problem. She was so afraid of the sexuality, and that took a lot of energy. For all her punk rock attitude, she was fucking scared to kiss a woman.
In Gaudi Afternoon, a 2001 farce, you played a butch lesbian married to a trans woman played by Marcia Gay Harden. It’s weird to revisit all the disrespectful reviews that called Harden’s character “a man.” I’m not sure the mainstream audience was ready for that movie.
Wow, I hadn’t contextualized it like that. I just thought people hated it and that we must’ve done a bad job, but it’s good to hear that it might’ve been ahead of its time. It’s interesting to reflect on how far we’ve come. I’ve probably done a lot of things that society wasn’t quite ready for.
You also play a lesbian in To the Bone, a new film about anorexia on Netflix.
Jesus, there’s another lesbian! This one could’ve become a joke because my partner in the movie does equine therapy—talk about a lesbian caricature. When I read the script, I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” But Marti Noxon wrote it, and that’s what her mom’s lover really did. It would be easy to make fun of these women, but they’re rooted in reality. Audiences can laugh, but I’ll never make fun of a character. Did we miss any lesbians?
Well, you played Kalinda’s ex-girlfriend on an episode of The Good Wife. And if we’re being honest, the best thing about The Haunting is the sexual tension between you and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
[Laughs] Never heard that before, but I love your analysis.
Why do you think you keep gravitating toward queer roles?
It’s about filling out the spectrum of representation, playing people that society doesn’t get to see, and a lot of those people are lesbians. I’ve also found that the people willing to write and make movies about lesbians usually have interesting vision and authenticity, and I’m attracted to that.
Do you feel a responsibility to honor the LGBT community?
That’s where it can get tricky. It’s best to let go of that pressure and not worry about that, because it can really suffocate the actor. That’s not going to help me, the character, or the community.
When did you first become aware of your big gay following?
It started quietly—maybe three lesbian girls would write me notes or come to my theater performances. Honestly, it wasn’t until 12 years ago, when I first went to Provincetown, that I really understood. I felt like the mayor, walking down Commercial Street, doing the royal wave to everybody. My husband said, “You’re famous!” I said, “I’ve found my people.”
I hoped I wouldn’t offend your modesty if I called you a gay icon.
Oh, honey, I accept it completely. Now I go to Provincetown every summer—my kid loves the drag queens, I love seeing John Waters—and if my self-esteem is ever low, I know I can always just walk down Commercial Street. It’s the best feeling in the world to be around people who get you. It’s hard to describe, but I feel such a kinship with the LGBT tribe. It’s like we speak the same language.
Did you ever question your sexuality or have a period of experimentation?
I never completely went for it, but I’ve definitely thought about it. I used to walk past the Cubbyhole, this lesbian bar in the West Village. I knew the bouncer, and one of my best friends went there a lot, and I’d think, Should I go in?
You told The Advocate back in 1996, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up with a woman.”
Did I say that? Well, anything’s possible, and I think my husband would understand. Who knows? I’m not dead yet.
You have a reputation for being pretty serious, but you’re a lot of fun, Lili Taylor.
Thank you! I feel like my persona hasn’t caught up with who I really am, but I’m trying to get the word out.
Marvin’s Room runs through August 27 at the American Airlines Theatre in New York. To the Bone is streaming now on Netflix.