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American Crime’s Lili Taylor on Diversity on TV, Beyoncé, and Why She Believes in the Youth

Photo: Courtesy of Lili Taylor

The 2016 Emmy race has begun, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until voting closes on June 27.

Veteran actor Lili Taylor devastated viewers most recently with her moving portrayal of devoted mother Anne Blaine on the second season of ABC’s American Crime. Playing the mom of a teenager who is sexually assaulted and spirals out of control was overwhelming, the twice Emmy-nominated actor told Vulture. “Theater has more rituals for the actor to help the actor deal,” Taylor said over tea at the Four Seasons Hotel. “It is harder to find it in film and TV. I was wearing a wig and that helped. I’d leave her in the makeup trailer. I’ve done you for a little while, you must stay here, and I must have my life, and I’ll see you in the morning.  But it wasn’t enough.”  Taylor and the young cast rented a private karaoke room one night for fun. “I’d never done a private room. Then I went back the next night because it felt so good and I pretended that I was meeting somebody because it’s a two-person limit. I really needed it.”

Music, it turns out, is a big part of Taylor’s life. In addition to American Crime, Taylor spoke to Vulture about the youth, Beyoncé, and how badly she wants to be in a musical. She is currently in negotiations to appear in the third season of American Crime.

Did you feel heartbroken the entire time you were filming? It must have been tough to experience for you for all those weeks.
It is heartbreaking. What partly helped was that the work was so good and the content was so good and John Ridley’s so great. When you’re working with great people, that outweighs some of the pain of what you’re doing. The feeling that we were doing good stuff made it deal-able.

I interviewed Connor Jessup and he talked about how working with you is the best experience he’s ever had as an actor, so far.
I love Connor. We’re really close. We have a love for each other. I’m finding this with a lot of younger actors because I’ve been playing more moms — I’m finding their ethic is so great, their curiosity, and wanting to be better and wanting to learn. I’m so encouraged by it, because we hear all this other stuff about youth.

You had so many acting challenges this season, with everything that happens to Anne’s son. Was there one in particular that when you read it in the script, you were like, Whoa, I have to go there?
Honestly, every single script was like that. The first day I was doing the 911 call from the first episode. And I was like, “John. John. Is this how we’re starting? Is this what we’re doing? Out of the gate?” And he was like, “It’s only gonna get worse.” And I was like okay, so I just put my seat belt on and I knew it was gonna be hard but, because it’s all on the page and because John is such a great creator, everything’s in place in a really specific way and for a reason. The writing is supporting me. And if there’s anything that’s loose, I’ll tell John and he’ll fix it, if there’s some little thing that’s not getting me where I need to go.

The way he shoots is fascinating. You might be the character talking, but the camera’s looking at whom you’re speaking to.
I know. I love it. All the energy stays in the scene because it’s really shot how it should be — not like reverse, reverse

You talk and I talk.
Boring. And the scene’s dead. The audience might still get the life because the editors came in and fixed it, but there’s no life left. Nothing’s wasted. And you all feel it. The crew does, too. No one’s bored. Everyone is right there.

What were you feeling when you got to the school-shooting script? It was such a roller coaster, not knowing if he was committing suicide, blasting the school. Then he changes his mind, but the shooting happens anyway.
Which was very important for me, because I really needed to know, and that wasn’t clear at first, if he had gone there with the intention to kill. Or if he had gone and it happened like it did. Because if it was the former, I couldn’t have gotten behind him in the same way. But if he didn’t go there to kill and it happened, then my son’s not a murderer. That was really important.

This anthology genre that’s developed recently with the same company of actors playing different characters must be a dream for a character actor like you.
Yeah! For actors, we’re very comfortable with this. In our souls we are, but also this is what theater companies have been doing. Shakespeare did this. It’s a win-win because the actors win because the writer knows them, the directors know them, and the audience wins because it’s deeper. The canvas is a lot richer. It’s like when I saw Osage County by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. They’d been together 20 years. I could feel that. There’s something that happens with knowing each other. And that’s what we’re starting to get.

I love in season two how it turned all these stereotypes on its head. The wealthy family was the black family. Even what was going on with the principal in the other school was fascinating. It’s really good for humans to have their assumptions challenged. Our neurons grow. And that’s what John would do to me. I fell for it. I was like, “Oh my God, I though just because they’re black, they can’t be elitist. I’m having all these assumptions challenged. This is so great.” John had such a great barometer. He could feel when it was getting a little preachy, and he would say go and rewrite. He’s gonna be one of our great showrunners. He’s gonna go down with [David Chase], [Alan Ball], [David Simon], and [Vince Gilligan]. The first day of shooting, he gathered the whole crew, and I’m talking including the guys who were moving garbage around, and said to everybody, “Thank you for being here. I respect all of you. We’re going to work our hardest. I expect everything from you and you can expect everything from me.” He’s got an Obama thing.

Connor said that John constantly asked him if he was okay. 
Then he would say, “Well, young man, it’s only gonna get worse.” Connor would get all red and freak out, and I would say, “It’s okay.”

You’ve been doing TV for a while, do you think this is the best time for a character actress on television?
I do. There’s still a ways to go but TV’s doing better than everyone else. We still need to get more women in positions of power. May we continue to sing the praise of John Ridley. Half of the directors were women. Writing-wise, half were women, minorities. John made a concerted effort to diversify. Executive producers, producers, you name it. And that’s where the change happens. That’s the only place it’s going to happen. It’s going to take bosses like Ridley to make those changes, and he made a concerted effort. Most bosses aren’t doing enough with diversity.

Part of the show covered the highs and lows of the social-media atmosphere that we live in. I know your daughter’s only 8. How much of that rang true for you?
A lot. As parents, every time we think we have something figured out, either the app changes or the way it’s communicated changes, so we don’t know what we’re doing. I’m listening to a lot of parents with kids that are older than mine and listening to them and trying to learn from the pioneers, like my neighbor upstairs. If something happens, what do you do? What are the consequences? How do you take your kid off social media if the social media becomes a problem? If my parents took me away from the telephone growing up in high school, that was awful. It’s the same with social media. If you take your kid off, you’ve ostracized them.  But it’s very serious. We’ve got girls whose self-esteem is starting to go down, and it has very much to do with this.

Our girls need us, and so do our boys. Originally on the show, Anne had a daughter. and John changed it to a son. I loved when it was a girl, and I was like great, and then we he said it’s gonna be a boy. I thought, perfect. Now we have assumptions challenged. Even John was like, “I’m a black man, I consider myself progressive, and I came up against my shit that I didn’t know was there.” My point is that our girls need a lot of help, but our boys do too. And not just our boys who might be bi, gay, or transgender, but our hetero boys need help. If their sex education is porn, you gotta figure out a way to get these kids to see there’s other ways to learn about sexuality. It’s so out of order.

Do you spend much time on social media?
I love Twitter. Twitter’s my thing. But I don’t follow a lot of people, and I don’t follow people who tweet a lot about nothing. I use it more for information. I actually read the stuff on Twitter. I use it for information and that’s important to me.

In pop culture, at least, you’re hearing the word “feminism” more and [more about] gender equality. We might have a female president. And yet there’s all this hate toward women online that it feels like we’re regressing.
It is a weird time. I guess when there’s any sort of change like this, there is a regression. As you move forward, there’s a fear of the change, and so maybe there’s a regression. It’s like when a kid’s about to make a leap, a lot of times they’ll regress and start acting weird.  One of the main things that really smart people who know kids keep saying [is] to just keep talking to your kid. That’s the best antidote to all this. And, actually, driving. I guess the best time to talk to your kid is when you’re driving, where they’re not pressured by, So really. Look me straight in the eye. Tell me. But if you’re looking away from them, casual, that’s when the shit starts happening.

You like to play darker roles.
Yeah, I do. But I’d love to do a musical. I love comedies, too.

You really want to be in a musical?
Mm-hmm. Now, it would have to be character-driven, as we know.

I don’t think people know that about you. Do they?
I’ve been getting the word out quietly, but probably not enough. Like, I don’t say enough like, “I can sing.” My manager says, “Just tell them you can sing.” Whereas I keep modifying it. I need to get more gusto about it.

So then why do private-room karaoke? Why not be like, I’m in a room singing?
I think that’s a thing with a lot of women. There’s a great book called Playing It Big. It’s sort of like … you know, fucking claiming a space.

We have to become Beyoncé or something.
I love what she’s doing as an artist. She’s doing so great. My God. She could have gone another way. She’s getting deeper. When I saw the Formation thing at the Super Bowl, I thought, Wowza. Wow. But this Lemonade? To reveal herself like this? Wow.

Which is what a lot of us have trouble with.
We do. And the thing is, not all of us have that Beyoncé thing. Some of us might be introverts, some of us might have a different process. Because if I tried to be like Beyoncé, it would be ugly. It would be really bad. So how do I do it my way, but not be in a fuckin’ room and sing karaoke by myself? And so, we have to find it in our way.

American Crime’s Lili Taylor on Diversity on TV