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THE ACTOR'S LIFE

Independent films' go-to girl faces facts

Lili Taylor favors gritty fare like `Factotum' -- but it's not the career she once imagined.

September 08, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

As a project, "Factotum" pretty much has "Lili Taylor" written all over it. First, there's the grit factor. Based on the roman a clef of the same name as well as several short stories, the film is a short and not-so-sweet glimpse at the early career of Henry Chinaski, alter ego of Charles Bukowski, the angry bard of San Pedro and official Last of the Beats who for years did his level best to drink himself to death (until, at age 74, he succumbed instead to leukemia). Matt Dillon is Chinaski, with Taylor playing his equally alcoholic lover, offering glimmers of something like love in a relationship that consists mostly of the long daily crawl from bottle to bed and back again.

So not exactly a Ron Howard film.

Then there was the budget (under a million), the studio (none), the distributor (none) and the subsequent release arc (debut at Cannes, noncompetition; get a handshake deal from Picturehouse; follow festival circuit from Poland to Brazil; lose deal with Picturehouse; get picked up by IFC, which takes it to Sundance; begin national rollout Aug. 18).

If this doesn't sound familiar to you, then you are not Lili Taylor. Since her big-screen breakthrough in "Mystic Pizza," the film that also gave us Julia Roberts, Taylor has become the sort of star the entertainment press likes to refer as an "indie queen." This doesn't mean Taylor hasn't appeared in mainstream films; she has, both for better ("Ransom," "High Fidelity") and worse ("The Haunting"). But the vast majority of her movie work has been done with independent filmmakers and not so much the kind financed by the "independent" wings of the big studios. The real kind. The kind that depend on festivals. The kind that make films that sometimes get distribution and find success but often don't, that open big in Europe or go straight to DVD, with any superfluous bit of exposed flesh played as big as possible.

"It's amazing; if there is any skin at all in the film, there it is on the cover," she says, laughing.

It isn't quite the career she imagined back in the '90s, when she was building a "hot but serious actress" rep, when playing disturbed feminist Valerie Solanas in "I Shot Andy Warhol" earned her a handful of festival awards and a cult following. But shaped by the increasingly franchise-obsessed, continually conglomerating entertainment industry, it is the career that 20 years of choosing roles for what they can teach you about life and your craft will get you.

"In '96, '97, I began to notice there was a shift," Taylor says. "Here we all were just doing movies with pretty much no one telling us what to do or how to do it, and then it changed. It became like Wall Street. And I realized that if a studio film goes over a certain budget I was not going to be cast. I couldn't believe it."

It took her a while to get used to the new reality. "I followed Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of dying," she says. "I think I'm in acceptance now. Because I realize it isn't personal. It's like it's the stock market and everyone is assigned this arbitrary value."

Taylor has had enough critical success to use the word "arbitrary" and make it stick. Never a Pretty Girl, she has most often found a place in big films as the grounded best friend or sensible ex. Her lead roles, however, tended in the other direction. Her fondness for broken women has caused consternation among fans, but she is considered a consistently fine actress, able to move easily among film, TV and stage. Five years ago, the four episodes she agreed to do on "Six Feet Under" quickly became 10 and then 23, and this year she starred in two off-Broadway hits, Wallace Shawn's "Aunt Dan and Lemon" and John Guare's "Landscape of the Body," winning an Obie for the former and dazzling notices for the second -- the New York Times referred to her as "peerless."

"Peerless," she repeats, "I can live with that. I could go for more of that."

The way she sees it

Having abandoned her beloved New York for a few days to do press for "Factotum," she is sitting in the lobby of Casa del Mar. Wiry and inevitably intense on screen, she is, in person, small and almost delicate, with a ready and surprisingly girlish laugh. She talks of her career with a frankness unusual in Hollywood and dissects the film industry in the same way -- ruthless but with an air of acceptance rather than bitterness.

She came to "Factotum" via Jim Stark, a friend and fellow indie player. Stark, best known for producing several Jim Jarmusch films, is co-writer and producer of the film, which is directed by Bent Hamer, who is described in press notes as being "a prominent member of 'the new wave' of Norwegian filmmakers." (You don't get more indie than that.)

"I like Bukowski but remember not feeling included, he's such a male writer, and I didn't know if there would be anything for me," she says.

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