With her upside-down childhood it's little wonder that Liv Tyler's idea of rebellion would be a search for stability. Now she's found it and the sky's the limit
Short of the occasional paparazzi shot taken of her as she strolled through her lower Manhattan neighborhood, Liv Tyler has essentially been off the radar for the last few years - a decision that was largely her own, made in order to regroup and refocus her energies on another of her life's ambitions: starting a family. Now, however, Tyler is charging back with Reign Over Me, the first of a handful of roles that, if nothing else, promise to present her in a new light. Here, director James Mangold, the man she credits with discovering her and who cast her in one of her first movies, Heavy (1996), speaks with the actress about aligning her goals and learning to lighten up.
Where are you? I'm in the strangest place - I'm on [California's] Catalina Island. Our son, Milo, is obsessed with helicopters, and Roy [Royston Langdon, Tyler's husband] heard you could take a helicopter here. So he booked us a room, and we flew here this morning. Milo was so excited - it was the cutest thing ever. [laughs] We've just been walking up and down the boardwalk and the beach all day, eating so much junk I can hardly move... [laughs] I have to excuse myself because I've just been curled up watching Casablanca , and I'm half asleep. Ingrid Bergman is so beautiful, and Bogey is delicious.
What inspires you about old films? I guess it's just a feeling. There's something so romantic and beautiful about them, and I'm always amazed at how the stories are so much more complicated and interesting and the characters so much more layered than in films today. And I find the writing kind of amazing.
It's the people that blow me away. I always feel like actors today are under more pressure to be versatile. And it all has to be so raw and real.
There's something incredibly brave about the way acting was done in the early days of movie-making. There's a kind of grace to it, and there's almost a limit to how loud or explosive or sweaty it can be. A certain energy comes off acting like that. I've always been amazed by the beauty of it. If there's anything I really get lost in, it's photography and the way everyone was like.
Yes, there's a kind of high theatricality, whereas the first priority of modern filmmaking is a kind of naturalism - it has to feel real. Also it feels like the actors were more trained in voice and drama and dance, you know?
Well, I think the truth is they came from all places, just as they do today, but I think the pressures were different. Like, I don't think Jimmy Stewart was ever made to feel bad for being Jimmy Stewart. I don't think he went to sleep asking himself, Why can't I be Errol Flynn? This is moving toward one of the things that your work represents for me, which is a kind of grace associated with another era. Oh, thank you!
There are some actors who, when they feel insecure in a scene, will just turn up the volume or the energy to try to electrocute themselves. You've probably been in scenes when you find yourself in a place where you don't believe yourself. What do you do? I just stop and go stand in a dark corner and breathe as deeply as I can into my stomach. [laughs] I know this is going to sound crazy, because I'm not religious at all, but sometimes I pray. I just say, "Please help me. Guide me to feel what this person's feeling, and help me to feel real, feel connected."
Do you blame yourself or get pissed off at other people when you're struggling? No, but are you asking if I spiral? I haven't lately. I worked so much when I was younger, and then I went through a long period when I didn't work a lot, and then I got pregnant and took two years off. I've only just now started to get back to work, so it feels really new. I feel energized and connected to it in a way that I never felt before.
Which aspect of it feels new? I don't know. There were years there where it was like acting sort of happened to me. I mean, you discovered me. [laughs] I was a schoolkid. I loved it, and it was just amazing, but I didn't necessarily know what I was doing. And then there was a long period where I was filled with insecurity. And I asked myself, "Am I any good?" But not only that - "Is this what I want to do with my life? Am I a real actor? Am I not?" And I so badly wanted to be a mother and have a family and have security in my life. And I did that, so when I went back to acting, that yearning part within me was filled. I guess the period of not working gave me the chance to want to work again. And yeah, I had worked hard for it before, but it was happening so quickly that having a break was really important. I was on the set of the last film I did recently, The Strangers, and I remember looking at all the trailers and the crew on their trucks and thinking, God, this is like a circus - we're all like these strange sort of gypsy freaks. And I just felt so at home and so alive! [both laugh] I know it sounds corny, but I felt like this is who I am and this is what I want to do. I felt so sure of it and so excited that I thought, Even if I have to do bad TV shows or soaps forever, this is what I'm meant to be doing. [laughs]
What you're describing makes me think of that moment when you walk onto the set of a movie, and you follow the cables and all the wires, past the trailers and port-a-potties, until finally you get to the place in the center where you or I have our work to do. It's like a military operation on one side and a bunch of crazy art geeks on the other. You know, living in New York, I'll often find myself on my way to the grocery store or the gym, and I'll suddenly happen upon a movie set. [laughs] And I look around and think, [gasps] How can I do this? This is so scary. Or I'll go visit a friend on a movie set, and I'll think, How are they doing this? But when it's your world and you're the one doing it, there's something that's so magical about it that feels so right. I feel so much less critical of myself, and where I used to think, Oh, I could never do that - so-and-so's amazing, I just settled into this I-am-who-I-am thing. Also, that last two roles I've done have been really intense, one of them a thriller, almost, horror movie, and now I'm doing a comedy with Diane Keaton. So they're all completely different from what I've done before. I've really let go in a lot of ways, and I'm really enjoying it. I'm trying not to overanalyze it too much, but I'm quite giddy. [laughs] I feel like I'm 21 again.
Well, I think the biggest struggle we all have sometimes - and I have to remind myself of it too - is to be what you are instead of what you want to be. I'm not talking about being an actor or a director or whatever, but rather about the pressure we put on ourselves to be the kind of movie director or kind of actor or rock singer that inspired us, because you'll never quite be that person - you're always you. You can always spot those projects people do where they're trying to be the thing they wish they were instead of the thing they are. The people who are really happy always seem to know exactly what they are. [laughs] But nobody ever feels that way all the time. I'm always amazed by that when I hear stories about other people, and -
And then you pull the lid off and find out they're insecure. Or right in front of you they're completely open and vulnerable, and you go, "Wow!" I love seeing that. All my favorite people have that; there's something so human about them. Diane Keaton has that. It's so amazing to watch her because she's so sweet and real, and there's a vulnerability to her, but she's also this amazing tough cookie and such a professional.
I remember when we were making Heavy, I ran into you at the Wal-Mart there - or was it Kmart? I don't remember - and you took me on this search to find apricot scrub. [laughs] For my face?
I think it might have been for mine, because I was looking to ravaged. [laughs] Was I trying to give you a facial?
I think so. It was some particular brand you were in search of that you ended up finding. But I remember I didn't know so much about you then, other than you were amazing in the reading we'd just done. We were walking by the very limited CD rack in the store, and when we got to the C bin you said something like, "When I was growing up, my mother dated him for a bit," and you pointed to Elvis Costello. And then we got to the R bin, and you went, "And then for a long time I was living with him, and I thought he was my dad," and you pointed to Todd Rundgren. And then you pointed back toward the A bin with Aerosmith and Steven Tyler... [Tyler laughs] As a writer, I remember thinking, I wouldn't believe this in a movie. You had led this life that was like out of a Dickens novel, only in the rock world. It was moving, and it filled my imagination. Do you think that's why the gypsy world of a film shoot feels so comfortable to you - that there's this kind of reinventing of home all the time? That's so interesting. It is such a part of me, the contant movement, constant change, being a chameleon. I did live with my mom sometimes and with my aunt sometimes and my grandmother sometimes. And yeah, there were Todd and Steven and all those people. I can remember being this little girl, like 5 or 6, and I would fantasize about having children and a stable, secure family. I think I've spent so much of my life trying to lay those blocks for myself. But even though I did have a lot of change and movement, the one contant is that I was always very loved and supported. There were so many changed that happened, like I can remember the day I found out that Steven was my dad and Todd wasn't. Of course, I was completely overwhelmed, but I was very matter-of-fact about it too - just kind of like, "Okay. Well, that's how it is. We'll deal with it." I've always had that. I've never in my life gone into "Why me?" moments. That was something I learned from my mother. She struggled a lot and was on her own a lot, having a hard time paying the bills or whatever. But no matter what, we would talk about it, there would be some sort of growth, and we would move forward.
Not many people learn that so early. As a kid there was a lot of drama you had to witness and be part of. I was thinking that all that bouncing around and all the incredibly varied experiences you had so early may have enabled you to reach the other side that much sooner that most people. It sounds so cheesy, but I feel like right now, for the first time in my life, I'm discovering who I am and what all those things are. And, yeah, I'm incredibly complicated, and I'm filled with anxiety and all sorts of stuff, but it's amazing because I'm able to hide it. For example, I have horrible stage fright, and people always say they can't tell. I think for a lot of my life I've been able to process negative things in a positive way. I've been so blessed in my life in so many ways. I've had a lot of really traumatic of strange things happen to me, but I wake up almost every day and feel so grateful and lucky to be doing what I'm doing.
Here's another question: When you read a script, what makes you want to do a part? It's like a feeling - I'll read so many, and then there will be one with something about it.
Is it its world that attracts you? I guess it's the story. And I've always been drawn to the director - that's always my first question: Who's the director? I love being a part of ensemble projects, like working with Robert Altman [on 1999's Cookie's Fortune] or with you in Heavy with that amazing cast. I love to get lost in there, working with all those different people. There will just be that one thing that makes me go, "I need to do this. I can do this, and I've got to do this." What is it for you?
Usually it's thinking, This is a world I want to live in. Like the world of the small-town diner in the movie we made, or the world of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line  - just these worlds where I go, "I could live there" long enough to work on the script, to shoot the movie, and to cut it. Sometimes a world might be interesting, but I have to ask myself, "Do I really want to live there for years of my life?" Because it's that long before you're finished. Right, though the thing I just did, The Strangers, is a world I would never want to live in. It was so scary. But I read it, and I thought, I have to do this! I was taking a flight to Japan, and I had this big stack of scripts, and I took this one because I liked the title - I thought it was a romantic comedy - and I couldn't put it down. It's absolutely terrifying. It's about this couple, and they're going through all sorts of stuff in their relationship. They go to this house in the woods and are terrorized by three strangers. That wasn't a world I wanted to live in, but I thought, I have to do this. I actually persued it in a way that I don't normally. I went and met with every single producer and the director, and I was so afraid because it was something I had so never done before - I had never felt fear like that. But there was this thing inside of me that needed to be let out in some way. I remember during the first week of shooting, there was a scene where I think I'm alone in the house. I go to the door, open the curtain, see someone, and scream. I was like, "What am I going to do? I've never screamed before except on a roller coaster. [laughs] What's my scream like? What if I open my mouth and nothing comes out?" So we went to do the scene, and when I screamed, the biggest, most terrifying sound came out of my mouth, and I scared the whole stage. [laughs] But that was interesting for me, because it was just something I needed to do for some reason.
When you're acting and the camera's really close to you, are you unaware of the lens, or is it like a dance you're doing with it? No, I have enormous love for the camera and cinematography in general. When I worked with Bernardo [Bertolucci] in Stealing Beauty , for example, he would always bring me over to the monitor and show me the shot, almost like it was like a painting. It's funny, because it's very visual for me in that way. So often I need to go and look in order to understand what I have to do with the performance.
I remember that from working with you. You would always show me. If I'm struggling with something, if I can just go and watch the film, that's often when I'll get it. The truth is I can't act when there's no camera, but the second the camera's on, I feel peaceful and intimate.
Well, I think you're a very classical movie actress. Every decision Ingrid Bergman made had everything to do with where that rectangle [of the lens's frame] was. And there are born film actors for whom the rectangle is really important to understanding how to solve the problems of the scene. I know that as a director I feel lost without the rectangle because it guides every decision I make. But then I have friends who don't have that at all - like Joaq [Joaquin Phoenix], I don't think he ever watched Walk the Line.
No, but I think he knows where the corners of the frame are. He may never look at what you're framing, but the fact is he knows. I remember when i made a movie with Sylvester Stallone [1997's Cop Land], the camera crew remarked to each other, "He's never out of focus." He finds where the focus ring is. That's a skill.
There are actors who are born to be inside that rectangle. But anyway, tell me about Reign Over Me - that's a very different role for you. You play a shrink, right? Yeah, that was funny. I took it so seriously. I spent a lot of time doing research with a shrink, and I have all these books about the subject. I was really concerned about knowing what I was talking about. But I don't really get the chance to show that at all. The thing in the movie is that my character is very young, and Adam [Sandler's] character is like, "I can't work with her. She's a baby."
So you don't have to be Freud? No, not at all. And as a matter of fact, I probably tried to be a little bit too much how I thought a shrink would be, and [the director] Mike Binder was having none of it. He just wanted me to come out of that, which was actually really hard. We had a bit of a struggle on one of the first days.
That's a classic director's struggle - you don't want your actors to lose themselves in their intellectual decisions. The gut is so important. Anways, I can't wait to see it. Don [Cheadle] and Adam are both amazing in it. Everybody thinks of Don as this really serious actor, but he's really funny. And Adam was so focused, because he was playing such a difficult character. It was funny how different they both were from what you'd expect.