Lili Taylor on Creating Characters, Why Horror is Fun, and the Joys of Birding

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Lili Taylor’s career has taken her all over the map. In films, she has played a waitress at a pizza joint (in 1988’s Mystic Pizza), the woman who tried to murder Andy Warhol (in 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol), and a possessed mom (in 2013’s The Conjuring). She’s lent her voice to a number of documentaries, including The Weather Underground (2004), The Ballad of Greenwich Village (2005), and this spring's The Memory of Fish. On TV, she’s been a murder victim-turned-ghost (in Six Feet Under), a cop (in Almost Human), and a mother whose child is sexually assaulted (in the second season of the anthology series American Crime, a role that is garnering Emmy buzz for the actress). Later this year, she’ll appear in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel Leatherface. mental_floss chatted with Taylor about how she chooses her roles, the joys of birding, and Chicago hot dogs versus deep dish pizza.

Your filmography is incredibly varied. How do you choose your roles?

It’s the director. Sometimes I wish I could be more selfish and just do the role, but if the whole thing doesn’t work for me—if the whole experience isn’t fulfilling—[then] it doesn’t have meaning for me. The whole vision, the whole collaboration is what I get a lot out of.

What do you look for in a director?

Well, their own vision, and a commitment to that vision, and I guess a specificity. I really love when directors collaborate. [American Crime’s] John Ridley is a perfect example, [as is] James Wan, who did The Conjuring. Both of those directors—there’s just a great feeling on the set. Everybody has value, everybody’s respected. We’re all working towards the same thing, and that, to me, is the best.

When you’re on a set with a director like that, are you throwing out ideas, too?

I make it clear that I want to first know what their vision is, and then work from there. I could come up with my own ideas, but if it doesn’t jibe with their overall vision, then it’s not worth it to even go down that road. I’d rather first know where they’re at and then build on that. And then ideally it should be a two-way street: sharing thoughts and ideas, inspiring each other; and then that starts to happen [all over the set], so that we’re all working together and listening to each other. I think it makes for a better product and a much better experience.

When you’ve taken on a role, how much research do you do, or how do you prepare to play a character?

The most important thing I need to do is to clear out any preconceived notions and get to a blank slate—which is really hard, because it’s scary to go there. But I try to get there, so that I can [figure out], what does this piece need? Maybe the last piece needed a lot of research. Maybe this piece doesn’t—maybe [I need to] really take the risk and just go with it. Which is scary, because I don’t trust myself in a lot of ways. From there, it can unfold.

One thing I’ve done is make charts. I find that if [a script is] written really well, it usually breaks down into four basic areas of [a character’s] journey. Each area can have one basic theme or name, and then within that, all the different beats of each moment or scene [are] in that area. Then I try to name each moment with one word, and I write it out in the chart, so I’m able to go to this concrete thing to navigate the very amorphous realm of emotions and feelings, and it can help ground me. I’ve done that at least 15 or 20 times.

It’s like creating an outline. What movies have you created a chart for?

The Conjuring, I Shot Andy Warhol, The Addiction, Household Saints, some plays, Aunt Dan and Lemon. I know there have been some more recent ones.

TV’s interesting, because I don’t have the whole deck of cards, you know? So, for me, it’s sort of building a house of cards, building a character. It’s a whole other kind of prep. I may find out this character’s totally different than I thought, so I have to leave a lot of room for possibilities—which is great, because it’s like life that way. But after saying that, what if I create this character, and she’s actually a psychopath and I didn’t know it?

In all fairness, sometimes [the showrunners] don’t know, which is why I think a lot of good TV, when it’s really good, it’s because they’re usually impacted by what’s happening in the episodes, and they can be flexible and change things.

I imagine when you’re working on something like American Crime, because it’s an anthology, that might make it a little bit easier—each season is a self-contained thing, so they have an endpoint in mind.

But [creator and executive producer John Ridley] didn’t tell us where things were going. I didn’t know, and scripts five through eight were redacted. I didn’t know what was happening, but I trusted John. I knew John would tell me exactly what I needed to know, nothing more, nothing less. So, I really didn’t know what was going to happen with her situation, what she was going to do, what she was capable of. [The writers] might have known, but I didn’t—but they did make changes along the way. Maybe not big plot points, but they changed some things.

It seems like it would be really fun, as an actor, to work on an anthology series. You’re working with the same people, and you’re comfortable with them, but you’re getting to do different characters. It’s the best of both worlds.

It totally is, and I think audiences are liking it, too. It’s no mistake that theater companies got this secret early on. Things deepen because everybody knows each other better. When I saw the Steppenwolf production of August: Osage County, the depth of that production—the stuff that we were feeling as an audience—that s*** comes from being together 20 years. It’s just deep. I think probably more people are going to start doing anthologies. It works and everyone’s liking it.

I like to ask a few off-the-wall questions to shake things up. Here’s one: If you could go back to any time period or to any event and be a fly on the wall, what would it be?

Whoa ... that is a good one. [pauses] I think I’d like to see Darwin on the HMS Beagle, figuring out evolution. That would be pretty cool.

And Darwin wasn’t just doing the evolution thing. He was also riding tortoises! Switching gears: You’ve done a few horror films—including The Conjuring, which I think is one of the scariest movies in recent memory, and you have The Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel, Leatherface, coming up. What is about the genre that appeals to you?

On some level, it’s just fun, but I think it’s sort of a way to work through our fears in a really healthy context. We know we’re going to be OK. It’s not happening to us, but it feels like it is, you know? It’s thrilling. I love horror movies, and I love getting scared, and I love seeing when people are scared.

But, you know, there are some people who really can’t do it, and I really got that with The Conjuring. They’re just born that way. I told them, “You should not see it. If you’re that person, don’t see it. It’s not for you, because it’s f***ing scary."

What are some horror movies that you think everyone should see?

My two favorites that I pull out every October or November are Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Those two are just fantastic. And The Conjuring, for me, I think that’s up there now, in terms of really good scary movies. What’s one of your favorites?

I love The Descent. But the original British version, not the version that was released in America.

I haven’t seen that one.

Oh, you have to. It’s so good. You’ll never want to go spelunking again. Bringing it back above ground: You’re a member of the American Birding Association. How long have you been birding?

Officially, I’ve been birding five years. I’ve always loved birds, and I didn’t know there was this whole world out there, a tribe. It’s been fantastic. Birds are like a gateway—they’re a great thing to start with, and if they end up not being your thing, you might get into something else through them.

For me, it’s [about] bearing witness to something other than me, something that connects me to something bigger. I love it. And I think that it’s not just about loving it; I think [birds] really are a way toward helping us understand what’s happening to the climate. They’re telling us—by migrating sooner, or dying off in certain places—warning signs. They are indicators, and I’m just trying to get the word out as best I can.

What birds are on your bucket list?

I’m not a lister, so I don’t really have target birds, but I’d love to see an albatross. I’d love to see the pelagics—some of these birds that live out at the sea, like the storm petrels. I love shearwaters. I’m really drawn to these seabirds.

Forty-five million people consider themselves bird-watchers, to varying degrees. I just love watching birds. I like watching the behavior. For instance, I’m upstate and I just saw a mini-murmuration of starlings. It wasn’t a big, elaborate thing, but I stopped to watch, and sure enough, two minutes later, I saw the red-tailed hawk. If you look in, so much is revealed.

It must be awesome, going on location to film, because you can check out all the birds in the area.

Birds are a great way into a place. Like, for instance, I got into chimney swifts in Austin, where we filmed American Crime. I started counting them because they roost together in chimneys a month or so before they migrate. There was one chimney where 1200 were living in the chimney, and they all circled in at the same time. It was like a vortex of black embers circling into the chimney, and it was so special.

That’s one of the many memories I have from Austin. Birding is a great way to experience a city or town or country. I was just in Bulgaria doing Leatherface, and they have, like, 30 species of vultures thereI took these kids on a birding walk once and when we went back inside, I played the sound of a vulture, which should be in a horror movie. It’s really scary, and the kids just loved it.

Is there one extinct bird you wish you could have seen? For me, it would be the dodo.

I would have loved to see the passenger pigeon. When the sky was black with passenger pigeons, oh my God. I wish, I wish.

I have one last question for you. You’re from Chicago, so I want to know: deep-dish pizza or Chicago dog?

You can’t do deep-dish versus thin? I’ve got to choose between the Vienna hot dog, and deep dish? That’s tough. [Long pause] My mom goes to Chicago Fest every year and sends me a deep-dish frozen, so that’s pretty good ... but I’m going to go with the Vienna dog. I could do two in a row, dog with just pickles, smush the bun—boom! The best.

Now I’ve got a craving for deep dish. OK, I have to go deal with this. There’s a bee in my bonnet now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.