Femme fatale

Top directors wait until she's available. Janis Joplin can wait until she's good and ready. Since `I Shot Andy Warhol', Lili Taylor is Hollywood's most wanted oddball beauty.

Can you really have too much of a good thing? If so, you may want to stay away from the cinema over the next year or so. There is an actress, the best new actress in America today. She is called Lili Taylor, she is 29 years old, and she is going to be everywhere. There will be no escape from her purposeful stride, her precise vowels, or the insistent, inviting eyes, which lock you in their stare until you have to turn your head away. She has five films poised for release. The first opens here next week - I Shot Andy Warhol, in which she manages the considerable task of breathing love and humanity into someone whom you might reasonably suppose had neither. That's Valerie Solanas, the would-be socialite who was driven to shoot Warhol (with a gun) after he lost interest in shooting her (with a camera).

But first: where have you seen that face? That feline arrogance and elegance, with shades of oddball beauty poking out from beneath the surface, like a young Shelley Duvall. How do you know her? A brief resume: in her first film, Mystic Pizza, she passed out at the altar and spent the whole movie trying to decide whether she wanted to get married or not.

Julia Roberts was in it, too. Roberts walked out of that and straight into Pretty Woman. Taylor walked out of Mystic Pizza and straight into Say Anything, which is one of those films that nobody ever watches unless they stumble into the video shop and every other title including Bill Cosby's Ghost Dad has been rented out. If you did catch it, you'll remember that seeing Taylor as the dejected Plath-esque party-goer attempting to regale her friends with dozens of songs about her recent break-up was like striking gold in your backyard. You felt rather protective; you didn't want anyone else to find out about it.

But they did. And there's been more since - over 18 roles in eight years. An angry widow in Born on the Fourth of July; a model in Short Cuts, with Robert Downey Jr as her make-up artist boyfriend using her in his violent snaps; an unhinged hitch-hiker in last year's chilled-out Icelandic road movie Cold Fever; and, best of all, the ugly girl who River Phoenix takes to the dance for a bet in Dogfight. Lili Taylor is now much more than a well-kept secret.

When I meet her over breakfast in a London hotel, she does not look ready to conquer the world. She does not even look ready to conquer the muffin in front of her topped with something that resembles frog-spawn, but may possibly be scrambled egg. It's early and her hair is still wet. She is thin, and dressed in black, with a long, noble face. She is eager to please, treating every question with the kind of concentration that most people reserve for physics papers. She is telling me how special 1996 has been for her in between mouthfuls of muffin and frog-spawn, and still she manages to look and sound utterly cool.

"This year I've been proud of everything I've done," she beams. "It's been an important year because I've seen all these things come to fruition. Before that I was feeling that no one understood what I was doing, that I was acting in these silly - no, not silly, but artsy - little projects. So I feel a general pride for myself."

Of the five features that comprise her forthcoming one-woman assault on cinema, it is I Shot Andy Warhol which will command the most attention. Mary Harron's odd little film drains the late-Sixties Factory scene of its glamour by regarding it through the eyes of Solanas, the outsider who was permitted only the most teasingly brief taste of life at the centre of the party. Such is the nature of scenes. There are casualties. Solanas was one. After a few minutes of screen time in Warhol's film I a Man, she was unceremoniously jilted by the Factory crowd. They weren't interested in the play she had written, Up Your Ass. They weren't interested in SCUM - the Society for Cutting Up Men, of which she was the founder, and sole, member. They weren't interested in her. Why should we be?

Lili Taylor didn't know the answer to that question when she first accepted the role.

"It would have been easy to make Valerie into a monster," she admits. "That's what puzzled me. I couldn't see the goodness inside when I first started. I finally found it but it took hours of extensive work every day; it was almost like being a physicist. Then there was one thing I came up with near the end which helped me: clear vision in a crippled psyche. That's what Valerie had. And when I thought of that, it brought everything together."

Taylor worked with Harron in assembling a workable image of Valerie Solanas. There was no film footage, bar her flicker of stardom in I a Man, and a glimpse of her disappearing into a police car after the shooting. An audiotape only proved obstructive, as Taylor found herself restricted by trying to imitate Solanas's voice. In the end, she trusted her own instincts, and used only a transcript of police interviews for reference.

"There's nothing on Valerie," Taylor announces. "Nothing. It's like a blackout. Even radical feminist literature doesn't mention her."

Was it appealing to play somebody who has been reviled in this way? Let's not forget that this is the woman who was the target of Lou Reed's vitriol in the song "I Believe" ("I believe being sick is no excuse/ I believe I would've pulled the switch on her myself").

"Absolutely. I guess I look for that sort of challenge. But I've had a lot of criticism for the way I played it. People have said, `Oh no, Lili played her too soft.' But I tell you, she was much softer. That's another contradiction with her. The whole thing with Valerie was this chasm between her ideas and her actions. She wasn't nearly as horrible as her writing. She liked men! But there was this disparity - a disparity that ended up killing her, really."

Isn't that true of everyone?

"I think that chasm exists for a lot of people, certainly," she agrees. "And for me, it's something I'm always trying to watch out for. I wanna be more in alignment with my ideas and thoughts. Because I think it can create mental illness if there's a chasm like that operating. Eventually, how can it not affect you?"

Since I Shot Andy Warhol, Taylor has finished Girl's Town, which she describes as a Mike Leigh-style improvisational drama, and polished off the lead role in The Addiction, Abel Ferrara's stylish vampire movie shot in just 18 days. ("We waited till Lili was available," Ferrara says. "There would've been no point doing the film without her. She's incredible. She gets into that space and fills it.") She also turns up in a pivotal role in the tense big-budget thriller Ransom, directed by Ron Howard and starring Mel Gibson.

But isn't she naturally suspicious of Hollywood, as all hip young actors should be?

"Oh yeah!" she giggles. "With good reason. I think it's a well-founded suspicion, because they have money to make back. They're not gonna care about my little moment. And I've had experiences of being excluded by Hollywood. I hate the way it operates, it's so narrow. But Ron really cares about actors, and thanks to him I forgot how much money was being spent. And that says a lot."

But where next when you've worked with the likes of Altman, Stone, Kusturica and Ferrara? When you've established your own theatre company (called Machine Full) and won the Sundance Festival's Special Jury prize for acting; when you've courted Hollywood on your terms: what could you possibly do to top all that? Play Janis Joplin or something?

Yes, actually.

"There's no script yet," she says, sounding more than a little guarded. "But I've made it clear the way I want to do it. I've gotta have creative control. It's gotta be my Janis and if anybody's telling me what to do, it's gonna be a big problem. I don't wanna do an impersonation. I wanna get to the essence. So that one's gonna be - sheesh! - overwhelming. Talk about a challenge. It's going to take every ounce of strength I've got."

She looks alive with goosebumps.

"And I'm so excited"n

`I Shot Andy Warhol' opens on Friday 29 November. `Ransom' and `The Addiction' both open early next year.

Arts Reviews and Listings, pages 19-21

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