by Susan Dominus, Stella, June 2008, Photographs by James White, Scans by Sanne
The Liv Tyler of yesteryear was a dreamy, idealistic beauty who played innocents and elves and yearned for domestic bliss. Now, newly separated from her husband and finally coming to terms with her chaotic childhood, the actress is much more philosophical about life
After a long day promoting her latest film, The Incredible Hulk, Liv Tyler retreated to a suite in a New York hotel where she promptly downed a small plastic bag's worth of vitamins. Maybe there's something to those vitamins. Now 30, Tyler still has that luminous skin, those marble-blue eyes steady in the perfectly oval face. Were the vitamins some sort of hot Los Angeles beauty regime? Tyler bristled at the suggestion. 'LA?' she said, with no small amount of offence in her voice. 'Not at all! My grandmother takes them.'
A natural beauty, dressed casually in a loose, yellow silky shirt with a gold locket round her neck, Tyler, is not, not, not, she made it clear during our interview, obsessed with Los Angeles or Hollywood; a long-time New Yorker, she is very down-to-earth, obsessed, if anything, with her three-year-old son, Milo.
Tyler had always made it clear in interviews that she never intended to lead the typical chaotic personal life of the Los Angeles celebrity, that she wanted to be a hands-on mother, to have a stable family life. To her, marriage meant 'a commitment to spend the rest of my life supporting someone, helping them through everything - weakness and strength and neediness and all sorts of things,' she said around the time she was first engaged to her English husband, Royston Langdon, the former bassist and singer in the band Spacehog. She described herself as a hopeless romantic, a dreamer whose fondest wish was for a family. Of the two years she spent as a full-time mother, Tyler told me, 'I loved every second of it.'
Talking to Tyler, it seemed that part of the figurative picket fence surrounding her life was entirely intact, specifically her bond with Milo. But there were obvious signs that the actress wasn't entirely at ease with how her marriage was playing out, so much so that I'd been told not to ask about it. Langdon's name never came up, so that when Tyler spoke about her son she sounded like a single parent. Friendly but guarded, she seemed nervous the conversation might stray somewhere dangerous - was she trying to run down the clock when she wandered off into digressions about her grandmother's etiquette business or the crisis in modern corporate loyalty?
The digressions, the silence on Langdon - it all made sense the next day. Tyler's publicist announced that the couple - married for five years, together for ten - were separating. Before I'd met Tyler one-on-one, I'd joined a round-table interview where journalists had innocently asked questions like, 'Isn't having a young child hard on a romance?' 'There's not much romance - you don't get so much time together,' replied Tyler. Do you have date night? 'No, not so much with the date night,' she said. Her tone had taken on an edge. At the time, it sounded like she thought the journalist was veering into inappropriately personal material; in retrospect, it seemed more likely we were hearing frustration with the state of the marriage itself.
Life experience might explain why Tyler seemed less sweetly ethereal than she has always appeared - both on screen and in interviews - until now. She was more grown-up, her beauty more adult, her soft voice more capable of a touch of edge. The otherworldly quality that made her perfect for the part of Arwen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy has given way to something more savvy. It's a sensibility that makes her perfect for sexy-librarian roles such as the graduate student she played in Jersey Girl (2004) and the professor Betty Ross in The Incredible Hulk, the film we're here to discuss.
Tyler stars as the love interest of Bruce Banner, the genius neurophysicist (played by Ed Norton) who suffers from a mysterious condition that turns him into a monster. Collaborating with Norton was, Tyler says, part of the appeal, but it was largely the character of Betty Ross that sparked her creative interest. Tyler was struck, in one of the Incredible Hulk comics she read while preparing for the film, by some of the thoughts that Dr Ross expresses. 'She was saying how people with very normal lives long for extraordinary things, and, because her life was so extraordinary and crazy, she always longed for some kind of normalcy. It's really true - you long for it!' Tyler laughs. 'My grandmother's always saying, "Livvy! Just accept it - you're not a normal person! You're extraordinary, and your life is extraordinary."'
That Tyler's relationship with Langdon lasted as long as it did is in some ways extraordinary, not just by the standards of Hollywood, but also of her own family. Her mother is Bebe Buell, a famous beauty and girlfriend to rock stars such as Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren. That would have made for an unusual mother under any circumstances, but in Portland, Maine, a small city in a mostly rural state where Buell moved to try to create some stability, Tyler's mother stood out even more. (When she wanted her daughter to behave, all she'd have to do is threaten to get out of the car - with big sunglasses and rocker blonde hair - when dropping her off at school.)
Her mother's glamorous life took her away from home for stretches of time, during which Tyler was raised by either her aunt or her grandmother, a southern belle who teaches and writes about etiquette. 'My mother needed the help of my grandmother and my aunt, and I'm so grateful that she had the sense to do that and that they were in our lives,' Tyler said. 'What's so wonderful about that for me is that I had such variety in my upbringing, so many different worlds. It's made me a bit of a chameleon.'
Tyler was raised believing her father was Todd Rundgren, a story her mother told because Liv's real father, Steven Tyler of the band Aerosmith, was all but ruined by drug addiction. But when Liv was 11 years old, Steven Tyler appeared at a Todd Rundgren concert and ran into mother and daughter. Just from looking at him - at his face and his hands, the way he picked his cuticles - she figured out for herself who her father was. She confronted her mother, who confirmed her suspicions. The two became immediately close, but to call their relationship normal would probably be considered an overstatement by anyone who's seen the Aerosmith video Crazy, in which Liv Tyler plays the hot lesbian schoolgirl of every man's dreams.
For years Tyler maintained she was 'excited' by the revelation - that it was fun, that Christmas would be better than ever, that she took it all in her stride. But it's clear now that there were years of painful processing that she's only recently put behind her. 'I have more empathy for my parents now,' she said. 'As a child I didn't understand why that would happen - how that could happen,' she said. 'Everybody had a different interpretation [of the situation] and how they participated. And you know what - I'm OK with that. All that matters is whatever kind of relationship I can have with them now.' She is still close to both men and recently spent three weeks with Milo in Hawaii visiting Rundgren and his family.
Her mother, she said, bore the brunt of her resentment, something she regrets now that she's faced with the challenges of parenting, even if one comes to it (at the outset, at least) with a husband and financial stability. 'I'm aware that I may have been harder on my mother,' she said. 'But there she was at 22, not as worldly and experienced as I was at that age. She had no husband. She had two men who didn't really want her - I don't mean that in the worst way, but she wasn't really with them - and a baby. She did the best she could.' In retrospect, knowing Tyler's marriage was ending, I found it easier to understand some of the ways she'd arrived at that empathy.
Like so many children of wild parents (she once called them 'insane'), Tyler has a surprisingly grounded aura. She says she's never rebelled. 'What could I do? Run away and smoke a joint and go to rock concerts for the weekend? I mean, that's all they ever did,' she has said in the past. For her, the challenge isn't staying out of clubs and away from drugs; it's learning to delegate so that she isn't 'putting my son down and then washing dishes till ten' during a week in which she is picked up for work at five or six in the morning. 'But I want to do those things,' she says. 'I like going to the farmers' market and buying the eggs that were laid that week, or making food for Milo.'
Longing for 'normal' seems to be a recurring theme for Tyler, who apparently pictures normal looking a lot like a picture-perfect little village somewhere. Of small-town South Carolina, where she recently stayed while shooting the thriller The Strangers, she said, 'We lived on a golf course of all places, and made so many amazing friends and did so many fun, normal things - birthday parties and Hallowe'en and play-dates. And Milo went to a cute little school, and it wasn't fancy or anything.'
In general, she said, she likes shooting outside the city so Milo can spend time with 'normal moms with yards'. Locals near her soon-to-be ex-husband's family in Leeds were delighted to spot Tyler shopping a few years ago at Safeway. When I mentioned that I lived in the suburbs outside New York, Tyler showed something like envy - not the usual response from New Yorkers enjoying life in a West Village townhouse. 'Really?' she said, her blue eyes wide. 'You live in the suburbs? And you have a normal grocery store where you drive with your car?'
Her ongoing dreaminess about the symbols of domestic bliss made the subsequent news of her impending divorce all the more poignant. These interviews are one of the pitfalls of celebrity, documenting in perpetuity the judgements, expectations and dreams that everyone else merely passes on to their best friend or mother. 'Lots of people get married and it doesn't work out, which seems strange to me,' she said when she was engaged in 2001, at the tender age of 23. 'To me, when you marry someone, that's everything. You'd better be sure. People don't seem to stick together and try and make it work.'
Just as Tyler has grown to understand her parents more, she no doubt understands better the challenges that even the so-called normal couples she half-envies also face trying to keep a marriage together. Did Tyler feel she wasn't getting the support she'd been promised? Or did she tire of providing support to her husband, whose career seems so much quieter than her own?
Trying to raise a child with successful rock stars posed challenges for Tyler's mother; but raising a child with a singer whose career is in limbo must surely pose its own. Asked if she'd ever consider leaving the business to take care of her son full time, Tyler revealed, once again, that hint of an edge. 'In what universe?' she said. 'Who's going to pay the bills? It's expensive to raise a child in New York.'
But the work still engages her, too. She said she loves the sense of community on a shoot, even if it lasts only a few weeks. The connecting and letting go, she said, is part of life. I wonder if this is as close as she'll get to commenting on her marriage.
'I give my heart completely to the experience and I really connect with people and make friends,' she said. 'I fall in love and then it's painful to move on. I say to myself, "Maybe I should be more guarded and protect my heart," but I just can't do it. I'd rather live 100 per cent and fully feel the sadness and loss than not have lived at all.' After all, then, still a romantic.