In Conversation with Lili Taylor

Lili Taylor has played a variety of characters on the silver screen from a romantic lead in Say Anything to a kidnapper in Ransom to a mother who refuses the benefits of modern medicine in The Cold Lands. But while every character may seem cut from a different cloth, the actress says she has to find the humanity in every one of them before she can bring them to life.

“If I can’t picture a character eating cereal in the morning, they are not human to me,” she said.

Taylor spoke with Sarasotan cinephiles at a special In Conversation event at Florida Studio Theater on Friday, a day after the North American premiere of Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands at the Sarasota Film Festival.

Taylor discussed movies from Mystic Pizza, her first studio project and breakout role, to the dramatic art film that brought her to this festival. Along the way, she shared stories of the Chicago acting community, including frequent screenmate John Cusack, and about why she would call Johnny Depp if she ever needed to get bailed out of jail (she actually already has before).

The variety of characters in her discography, some of whom have suffered from memorable mental illness problems, could leave a different actress struggling with complex emotions and lasting baggage, but Taylor said she tries to use a theater sensibility to bringing characters to life, then leaving them behind. “Theater has an expression, ‘Wipe your feet at the door,’ which means to let life go on when you are done everyday,” she said. “Theater has these rituals; film doesn’t so it is a little trickier.”

In headier moments of the conversation, she discussed the influence of psychotherapist Carl Jung and the use of active imagination in her characters. She finds the archetypes of characters and can even have conversations in her head with the characters she plays.

During the conversation, led by Paste magazine’s Michael Dunaway, Taylor told tales of rewriting lines in Mystic Pizza and refusing to film unless the director made her changes. The story seems strange from someone who today says she prefers to work with strong directors, but she attributes that to her innocence and arrogance as a young actress getting her first break.

A surprising amount of discussion surrounded a part she played in Arizona Dream, a film seen by few viewers in the United States in which Taylor plays a suicidal character trying. That one was harder to shake when she went home everyday, and since various problems prolonged that shoot to a year-long effort, it was a character she couldn’t get away from quickly.


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