After an extended period of maternal bliss spent far away from Hollywood's bright lights, Liv Tyler is tapping into bold new wells of emotion and jumping back onto the silver screen with verve and vigor
When we last checked in with Liv Tyler, she was in Middle Earth - Gondor, to be precise - exchanging elfin immortality for cozy conjugal pleasures promised by Viggo Mortensen. Life has, in a sense, imitated art: Since the last installment of Lord of the Rings trilogy in 2003, Tyler has more or less disappeared into quiet domesticity.
"I just wanted to nest," says Tyler over lunch in downtown Manhattan. "I had been working nonstop since I was 14. From the moment I got pregnant with Milo" - her son with husband Royston Langdon, the British rock musician - "everything else just dropped away. My greatest dream in life was to be a mother. I was never careerist, and so I just wanted to enjoy it. I cooked and gave him baths and read him stories and got up with him in the middle of the night when he had nightmares. And then it was like, 'Okay, I think it's time to lose 30 pounds.'"
It's been so long since we've seen Liv Tyler - indeed, she has been so singularly stealthy in her assumption of the ever more popular role of Hollywood-star-turned-West-Village-mom - that her intense beauty comes as a bit of a shock. At 30, her cheeks still have that rose-tinted porcelain finish that Jane Austen would have called "bloom," and her plump upper lip still hangs like a circumflex over the lower one, giving her face a gentle melancholy with which casting directors have only ever done one thing.
"I'm always playing the empathetic girl, the nice girl," Tyler says. "I suppose that's a compliment, but it's not the complete story. And especially after going through that transformation of getting pregnant and having a child - there's a whole power of personality that I've never let out before. This year, I finally got to do that."
Tyler is back - and this time, she breaks a sweat. In June, she assumes the role of Betty Ross, the Green One's love interest, in Ed Norton's new co-penned and co-produced The Incredible Hulk. Later this summer, she stars in The Strangers, an indie thriller by first-time director Bryan Bertino. In it, she plays a woman who spends a weekend with her husband in a country house, where they are then terrorized by three masked assailants. The movie is so frighteningly realistic, Tyler says, that viewers at the first screenings compared it to a snuff film. It has since been taken down a notch.
"The Strangers was by far the hardest thing I've done in my entire life," she says. "They don't actually harm us for almost the whole movie, so it's really about the relationship between these two people and how they deal with terror. Fear, at least on that level, is not an emotion that one easily deals with in everyday life. Luckily, I've never really experienced extreme fear, and I didn't know what would happen: how I would react, what my scream would sound like. So I just had to put myself in the most vulnerable, terrified place that I could, run around, get out of breath - and finally, it comes out of you." Lord of the Rings character, she was given the quitessential Hollywood mixed blessing: an iconic character in a record-breaking blockbuster series. But it was a character whose beatific smile, silken movements and whispering voice had the potential to hang over her like a lead mantle. Indeed, Arwen guided even the casting of the new Hulk.
"I met a lot of people for the role of Betty Ross - I mean, everybody," says Hulk's director, Louis Leterrier. "Betty needs to be a foil for Bruce Banner, who has his famous anger problem. One night, I was watching Lord of the Rings on TV, and I thought, 'Of course!' Liv has this extremely calm, beautifully serene persona. And yet, she's Steven Tyler's daughter - she can be explosive. The film, which is essentially a manhunt for Bruce and Betty, needed that, too."
Tyler was happiest when Leterrier gave her stunts to perform: helicopter crashes, breathless chases - in short, the stuff only the boys got to do on the Rings set. "I admit that I was somewhat concerned that she'd be too gentle for the part," Leterrier says. "But she said, 'Hey, I'm not an elf; I'm a tomboy.' It's true."
The new Incredible Hulk represents a rather unapologetic attempt to erase the memory of Ang Lee's $150 million flop of the same name from 2003 - a film that Marvel Studios had hoped would be the beginning of a powerful franchise but turned out a doomed cocktail of art-house moodiness and superhero action. Bruce Banner was to tortured, fans said, and the film was just no fun. But the new Hulk is sparking no less controversy among comic book diehards. But that's to say nothing of studio executives and investors, many of whom are wiping the sweat from their brows. Tyler has sidestepped the post-production drama, although she certainly appreciates the burdon of recreating a character who generations of fans have fixed in their imaginations.
"I had an eccentric upbringing, surrounded by all these film buffs and artists and comic buffs and real musical nerds," says Tyler, who was raised in Maine, then in New York City, by her mother, Bebe Buell - the former model best known for her relationships with a string of rock stars - and singer-songwriter Todd Rundgren. (She didn't learn that Steven Tyler of Aerosmith was her father until she was nine; Buell withheld the truth because of Tyler's drug addiction.) "I feel like I grew up being constantly confronted by people's passions and extreme opinions and expectations, so I guess I'm not really afraid of them."
When she's not running for her life, Betty Ross is doing what one suspects might come naturally to Tyler: caring for the person inside the monster. "Liv communicates empathy in the most wonderful way," says Norton. "She's very sensitive to how other people are feeling, and this illuminates her performance, I think. Her feelings for Bruce also transfer to the Hulk: She's the only one who can see past the monster and find her friend in there and understand just how much he's suffering."
With any luck, The Incredible Hulk will put Tyler at the heart of another mega-franchise. If not, she promises she'll be unfazed. "Honestly, if I fail or if the movie doesn't do well - I'm just having a ball doing this again. I took time off because I was unclear about whether I enjoyed my job and what I wanted to be doing. So to take that time and realize, 'Wow, I know I want to do this,' feels great. It's just such a wonderful collaboration among all sorts of creative gypsies. When I was a young woman, I think Hollywood didn't know where to put me. But I feel that these movies - well, it's not exactly a rebirth - but it's a new time for me."
Tyler has also recently shot her first comedy, Smother, starring Diane Keaton, and she continues to be the face of Givenchy cosmetics, a role that sustains her during the quietest periods of the last few years. "I was like the Avon lady," she says. "I flew around talking to editors about my favorite products." But now that she's off-set again, it's back to the nest - although she admits New York City is no longer quite as cozy as it once was for her. "I've started to feel a bit exposed. There are lots of young ladies with very loud voices who like to walk down my street at three in the morning. There was a time when I could really relate to that, but now - well, let's just say a trip to the Beatrice Inn is a twice-a-year event for me. And I get shy and don't like to go out to celeb-type to-dos unless I absolutely have to."
Lately, for the first time in her life, Tyler has gotten an itch to escape New York, but she can't quite figure out where to go. And while her career is heating up, L.A. will never feel like home to her. "I used to come to L.A. and would often feel like an outsider," she says. "I just didn't get how it all worked, and everyone seemed insincere. But I think a lot of these insecurities fell away after I had Milo. I just find that I don't care what people think of me anymore."
Tyler does love a trip to Los Angeles, even if she admits that she still finds it "exotic." She's partial to the Eastside - "so not Bev Hills," she says. She loves strip-mall sushi, Griffith Park, the Larchmont Beauty Center and the Beverly Hot Springs, where she has a tendency to get in trouble for whispering too much with her girlfriends. Of course, it's hard to imagine Tyler earning reproach for raising her voice. According to Ed Norton, she hardly has to use her voice at all. "I love working with actors who communicate so much without words," he says. "Liv would have been an incredible silent film star."