by Sarah Bailey, UK's Harper's Bazaar, October 2008, Photographs by Cliff Watts
Liv Tyler's life has been turned utterly upside-down in recent months. But now, with two hit films in cinemas, she has her eyes firmly set on the future. Here, she talks to SARAH BAILEY about the pain of separation, getting toned like Gwyneth, and the euphoric joys of comfort shopping.
When Liv Tyler cut her hair short this summer, it was something she'd been yearning to do for a long time. She'd been on set shooting a Gap campaign when she caught her hair in turtleneck like a bob for a moment, and then pleaded with her hairdresser Eugene Souleiman to top it off. 'And it was funny,' she says, 'because neither he not the make-up artist had any idea what was going on in my life, and I was doing a good job of putting on a brave face with everything, but they were both, like, "I think you should do it; it seems like you need that in your life."'
New York. A sweltering-hot July day. Liv, dressed in a little yellow plaid playsuit, a Marc Jacobs chain-handle bag looped over her shoulder, is musing over the menu at Cafe Cluny in Manhattan's West Village ('I can't because I'm on a diet,' she says, 'but the breakfast club sandwich is insane'). Liv has lived in this neighborhood for years, although due to her new status as a single mom (just days after the tress-lopping, Liv's publicist announced the end of the actress' five-year marriage to British musician Royston Langdon, the father of her three-year-old son Milo), she says she feels less comfortable here these days. She worries about the constant predatory presence of the paparazzi; she worries that Milo is going to fall down the stairs in her townhouse; she's stopped going out at night; and she has found herself craving a big grassy garden. 'I've been driving myself demented because I am just in this limbo,' she says with a sigh. 'I think part of the problem is that I have too many options, and I am just trying to come to terms with all this new stuff.'
It's been seven years since I last met Liv. In many ways, she barely looks a day older than when I last saw her. Her skin, scented with the musk oil she picks up from her local pharmacy, is still the precise colour of skimmed milk... although with typical self-deprecatory candour, she reveals she's been afflicted with a rash for the past three weeks ('stress or hormones or something'), which she's only just managed to clear. But in other ways she's changed. She seems softer, less rock kitten-ish, and, despite all the intrusions that attend a celebrity divorce, her demeanour is remarkably serene. 'Oh, I don't feel calm and collected. I feel really neurotic, like Woody Allen,' she says. 'I'm a Cancer, and sometimes I just feel like a crab without a shell.'
The personal upheavals of recent weeks aside, the fact that things have been a little quiet on the professional front for Liv for a couple of years now was entirely deliberate. After the birth of Milo in 2004, she took a self-imposed sabbatical. She had, after all, been working since her teens: modelling at 13, taking the lead in Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty at 18,'...and sort of being the breadwinner, and I was longing for some sort of normal stability, just like being a normal young woman. I really lost my craving to work,' she says.
As it happens, she emerged from her domestic cocoon this summer with aplomb - The Incredible Hulk, her debut contribution to the superhero genre, opposite Edward Norton, was a sassy comeback; and The Strangers is a veritably creepy, sleep-with-the-lights-on-afterwards horror that was a surprise hit at the US box office (costing $9 million to make, it grossed $21 million in its first weekend).
When the producers texted Liv with the opening-weekend returns, she says she jumped up and down on her bed. 'I was so proud that I cried. It was the first time in my life I really went out to get a part,' she says. After playing an extremely contained Elf princess in three Lord of the Rings films on the trot, the sheer let-it-rip physicality of The Strangers came as a gigantic release. 'It just felt so good to run and scream and cry and be sweaty... amazingly liberating.' Plus, she lost 10 pounds in two weeks' shooting. 'I was so thin I was in heaven,' she says, laughing. 'My jeans were falling off!'
For a girl born into the most bohemian of rock families, Liv says she never felt the pressure to be wild. 'Probably the contrary. I was always such a little grown-up,' she says, smiling. 'I felt pressure to be together and responsible.' The story of her childhood is an oft-told tale: her mother Bebe Buell raised Liv to believe her father was Buell's lover, musician Todd Rundgren, and it wasn't until Liv was introduced to Aerosmith rocker Steven Tyler at a concert when she was nine that she learned he was in fact her true father. Being blessed with a preternaturally mature sense of family, Liv took it upon herself to embrace her biological father and all the consequences that entailed. 'I have always felt like I have a little compass inside of me that was guiding me in some way,' she says. And besides, after Buell left Rundgren, when Liv was just a baby, she moved their little family unit to Portland, Maine. Here Liv benefited from the stabilising influence of small-town life, plus the nurture of powerful matriarchal figures – not least her maternal grandmother Dorothea Johnson, an etiquette coach, who is due in New York very shortly to help Liv with the therapeutic post-break-up business of sorting out her wardrobes.
'I have been very lucky in my life,' Liv says. 'I had a really strange upbringing because I had such a variety of experience. I think it caused me to have a longing and desire for some kind of normalcy, which is the pendulum swing of my life.'
Liv remains fiercely loyal to her mother, recently buying a house for her in New Jersey so she can be nearer to her grandson, and though Buell may not strike everyone as an obvious role model, Liv is warmly admiring of her mother's resilience. 'We had many struggles at times, but the one thing she always said to me was that there was a lesson to be learned in everything, and I really live by it. You may fall down and scrape your knees, but you brush them off, stand up and keep going.' She takes a deep breath. 'But for the first time in my life, it's so much harder for me to get up and brush my knees. I am feeling the pain and the loss of everything, and I am trying to just let myself feel it and not make everything OK. I think here is a moment where you have to mourn and you have to feel that pain.'
It's small wonder, then, given recent events, that Liv chose to celebrate her 31st birthday in June by getting away, and whisked her youngest half-sister, 19-year-old Chelsea, off to attend the couture in Paris. They took in a couple of shows (Givenchy and Dior), partied with Alber Elbaz for the launch of his jeans line with Acne ('He's so cuddly and delicious. I adore him') and ate strawberries with Bruno Frisoni, the shoe maestro at Roger Vivier, who treated them to some of his fantastical footwear. 'They're like little statues,' Liv says. 'Like art!'
Liv has a finely nuanced appreciation of the theatricality of fashion. She describes attending a couture presentation as akin to watching a bullfight. 'All these fabulous, wealthy, well-dressed people sitting round to watch this spectacle,' is how she describes it. Her favourite Paris fashion trip of all time, though, was probably when she stayed on Stella McCartney's sofa when her friend was still creative director at Chloé, just to muck along and observe the alchemical process of creation from a backstage vantage point.
As for Liv's own personal style, she's as likely to wear vintage (the favourite black piece in her wardrobe is a long crepe Ossie Clark original) as she is to hide in anonymous check shirts and jeans from Downtown favourite Steven Alan. And she's only too aware that women's relationship with fashion and their bodies is about more than mere aesthetics - it's emotional. Only yesterday, overwhelmed with the pain of her marriage breakdown and news of the death of her paternal grand-mother, Steven Tyler's mother, she found herself driving past Stella McCartney's store in the Meatpacking District and wrestled with herself, deciding whether she should stop. 'And I had maybe my first ever retail-therapy moment. I actually sent Stella a text saying, "You're a genius. All these things fit me." I went a bit bananas.'
Her retail-therapy haul in full: a sweater dress, 'kind of big and baggy, but also sort of sexy because it's a little bit short', a coral shift dress 'with little, like, petals, so it moves, and an amazing, beautiful pair of boots that are totally vegan, they're a great shape, they scrunch a little bit and the heel wasn't too high.' She shoots me a look - she is, after all, a mother and, therefore, a footwear realist. 'In my everyday life, I don't even wear heels. I wear flats. I'm over six foot in heels, and I feel like such a moose. Everybody says, "Oh, I wish I was tall like you." I don't wish I was; I wish I was petite.'
It was a short blue satin goddess gown by Stella McCartney that Liv wore for the premiere of The Incredible Hulk in June. With her body looking slender and toned - and let it be said loud and clear, completely un-moose-like - she cut a very elegant dash. When I mention this, she quickly bats away the compliment, preferring to chat about the physical reinvention of her friend Gwyneth Paltrow. 'Her body looks insane. She's been working with that amazing woman Tracy Anderson, with that amazing machine. Gwyneth kept telling me she was opening a studio in New York, but then she said Madonna is keeping her in-house.' She groans in faux agony at the injustice. 'I wish I could work out more, but my nature is to be a mamma mia. I want to cook for everyone and run around in an apron like an Italian barefoot mommy.'
Lunch is coming to an end, and conversation turns to family life. Milo, it transpires, has just graduated from a cot to a big-boy bed, but somehow ends up tucked up with his mum each night. 'Which has been really cute,' she says, 'except that I don't sleep because I just stare at him and start crying because he's so beautiful and so sweet.'
It's such an intimate moment that I ask Liv who she last kissed - apart from Milo, of course. 'Oh God, I don't remember. Months and months. You mean like kisses on the lips? I kiss Milo on the lips all the time, but I haven't had a kiss kiss for a very long time.'
It's time to leave, and as we gather our things to face the overheated streets, I ask Liv what lies ahead. 'For the first time in my life, I don't really know. I am trying to just take one day at a time and be the best mom I can... but it is a strange time, like walking down the road with nowhere to go.' She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. 'I have just sort of realised that in life there is no guarantee. But we'll see... we'll see where it takes me.'