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Liv for the moment

by Rachelle Unreich, The Age, August 2008

After two years' maternity leave, Liv Tyler is back in the spotlight - not just with a new movie, but a high-profile divorce. She talks about family and fear with Rachelle Unreich

Who says acting is glamorous? Liv Tyler, who can get red-carpet-ready with the best of them, spent most of the time on the set of The Strangers last year barefoot and crying. Playing a woman stalked by three masked people while she's staying with her boyfriend in a remote country home (cue scary music), Liv had to dig deep - and the result wasn't always pretty. "I had boogers running down myself, and strange, guttural sounds coming out of my mouth - it was very freeing for me," she says.

For anyone who's been unable to see beyond those blue eyes, high cheekbones and plump lips, Liv leaves no doubt that she can act in this movie. There's very little dialogue; instead, she and onscreen boyfriend Scott Speedman spend a lot of time breathing heavily, dodging axe-wielding crazies and appearing scared out of their wits. If she hadn't been able to perform in this way, The Strangers would've been unwatchable. Instead, it was a box-office hit in the US.
"(Doing The Strangers) was actually very therapeutic for me, and helped me get over some of my own neuroses and anxieties and fears ... because I was so vulnerable," she says softly. "I did feel very scared (wondering) if I would be able to conjure up the emotions that I needed to, and I didn't really know myself in that way. I'd never been that scared before."

True, but she deals with a different brand of invasion in real life - paparazzi. She has always looked a little like a deer caught in the headlights - doe-eyed, gentle, startled - but, since separating from erstwhile English rocker Royston Langdon, her husband of five years, Liv seems more vulnerable than ever. She's not ready to talk about that at all, she says.
"That's too personal to talk about because it's terribly sad," she told OK magazine last month, just after the news broke. And that was her last word on the subject. I've interviewed her twice before - once as a teenager, when she was quite open; and once in her early twenties, when she was markedly less so - and it's comforting to hear that she's again the bubbly chatterer that she was in her youth. But such is her enthusiasm to steer the conversation away from her failed marriage that she talks instead about such touchy issues as her weight and her relationship with her mother. Anything but her ex.

A question about her family leads to talk about the recent death of her grandmother, and Liv's desire to stay connected to her relatives. Any inquiries about her private life are led back to her son, Milo. Liv, who recently turned 31, is familiar with the curiosity of strangers, but she's feeling more timid than ever.
"Even in my own home in New York City, I often feel scared. I live on a corner in a neighbourhood that used to be very family-like, and now it's very touristy. There are people out all night and sometimes fans will come to the door. I feel a little bit afraid of that."

Paparazzi can be even more aggressive.
"That part's scary, especially as a mother. Imagine if you had strange, creepy men following you around or spying on you in an inappropriate way ... When you're with your child, you just want to protect (him)."

This level of intrusion, she notes, has changed from when she started modelling, in her teens, and then acting, in movies such as Silent Fall (1994), Heavy ('95) and Stealing Beauty ('96).
"When I first started acting, I was in big-hit movies, but people didn't follow me around like that. When I was working, I had to go to Cannes or promote a film, and you'd do your publicity and put on that face and get dressed up. And then (you'd) go home and have your privacy and get to be the normal part of yourself. That doesn't really exist any more. It's like we're all puppets and we're expected to play out this part for everyone's imagination. "I stopped reading magazines in the past couple of weeks completely, because I just felt so inundated by media and information. It's just bollocks. I felt stress and anxiety and I (said), 'I'm just not going to do this any more. I don't even want to read fashion magazines. "That time that you spend reading a magazine, (you could be) reading a book or watching a film or looking out at the trees or talking to your child, (and you would) feel a lot better about yourself."

In fact, Liv does spend a lot of time talking to her child, the now 3 1/2-year-old Milo - and trying to be as hands-on a mother as possible.
"I always wanted to be a mother, and ... I wanted to be his mother (and not have) someone else raise him. I have a nanny and I have an enormous amount of support and help around me, but I try to be as consistent as I can with him. I try to come home every day by four or five so that I can spend time with him and cook dinner and have a bath. I always want to be the one to read to him and fall asleep with him, and be the one to get up with him in the morning. I really enjoy my time with him so much. He's so amazing and learning so much, and I just don't want to miss any of it."

Raising a child has helped Liv gain more understanding about her own unusual childhood. Her mother Bebe Buell, a former model and famous groupie, led her daughter to believe that musician Todd Rundgren was her father, and it was only after meeting Steve Tyler - and spying her lookalike half-sister Mia - that Liv herself guessed at the truth.
"I always wondered why I couldn't have a more normal childhood. My mum had me when she was 23, and she wasn't in a relationship and she was really alone in a lot of ways ... I didn't necessarily always understand that, and I understand that now as a mother myself. When I had Milo, I was 27, and wealthy, and I worked. I had a career and nanny and help, and it was still even hard for me."

Returning to work presented a welcome challenge. (Her films range from phenomenal blockbusters such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Armageddon to ones that disappeared with little trace, such as Jersey Girl, Reign Over Me and Smother)
"At the time I made (The Strangers), I had taken two years off and I hadn't worked at all. I had enjoyed, for the first time in my life as a young woman, being ... normal and not working. This was the one thing that I read and really fell in love with; I had a gut reaction to the material for the first time in years." Not that Liv is always such a good judge. She's worked on a lot of turkeys. But she's unapologetic about the varying success of her roles. "I read a lot of things, and I've never worked on anything I didn't absolutely want to desperately be a part of, ever."

The physical requirements of her latest movie -
"I was running around sweaty all day" - saw Liv return to her model-svelte shape. "I'm an Amazon compared to most actresses, who are so petite and tiny," she says. "They're little things ... I've never been that way. I'm five foot 10 (almost 177cms) and have a size 10 shoe." Is there pressure on her - and her peers - to be a certain size, and look a particular way? "When I first started modelling, samples were a six to eight, and now they're a zero. There's no way I can fit into them. There's definitely pressure in that sense. And when you're being scrutinised and criticised and blogged about - if you pay attention to it - of course, it'll affect your self-esteem and make you feel bad. I try and not look that much (at what's published) and just feel as good as I can about myself."

That might also include not watching herself in her own scary movies.
"I'm such a wimp! I bought the movie The Orphanage on DVD, and I've been trying to watch it for weeks, but I'm too chicken!"