by Phoebe Magee, Bust Magazine, April/May 2011. Photographs by Warwick Saint, Scans by Jacqueline.
A fresh-faced young model turned cinema ingénue, Liv Tyler first found success when she was just a teen. Now 33 and reinventing herself as a single mom, this daughter of rock royalty reveals that she's ready to move beyond being a damsel in distress.
"Chicken-liver toast," Liv Tyler says, placing our order at The Spotted Pig, one of her favorite N.Y.C. pubs, before turning to me to ask, "Would you like a beer?" She then politely requests two half-pints and pronounces, "It's beer o'clock," into my recorder, testing its acuity.
This is not a conversation I ever thought I would be having. First, I don't eat things like chicken liver, on toast or otherwise. And second, this is Liv Tyler. When I was a kid, my friend and I watched Empire Records approximately 342,800 times. Tyler's performance in that 1995 coming-of-age film about employees at an indie-music store introduced me to her unique brand of brainy beauty at a time when I really needed to see it. And now she is introducing me to chicken-liver toast.
A working model at 13 and an actress by 14, Tyler earned critical acclaim while still a teenager in the 1990s for her work in small thoughtful movies like 1995's Heavy and 1996's Stealing Beauty (the film that made her a star). She then garnered international fame, and the devotion of nerds everywhere, for her role as the half-Elven Arwen in the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy from 2001 through 2003, before becoming a scream queen in the 2008 horror thriller The Strangers. As a young star, Tyler predictably became tabloid fodder, but not for the usual reasons like disastrous fashion choices or hard partying. In fact, it was revelations about her paternity that first landed Tyler on their front pages. Raised to believe rock star Todd Rundgren was her father (she still considers him a parental figure), she later found out from her mother—the model, musician, and free spirit Bebe Buell—that her biological father was actually Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler.
Despite a life spent almost entirely in the spotlight, however, part of Tyler's success as an actress surely comes from the fact that she radiates a genuine, down-to-earth sweetness. When she arrived for our interview wearing black leggings, a floral dress, a comfy pullover sweater, and her favorite ("stinky and old") black Converse sneakers, Tyler familiarly greeted the restaurant's staff, poured some water for me, and solicitously asked what I'd like to eat. As we talk, she tries to ask just as much about me as I ask about her, and when I tell her something, she really listens. It's a character trait I soon discover isn't just a natural part of her personality but something she actively cultivates. "When you're in a scene with another person, some actors will just be thinking about what they are going to say, and they're not really listening to you," she explains. "And I think that's similar to being out in the world. Some people aren't listening to you. But I always try to really listen to what the other person is saying, and watch them, and try to be as connected to them as I can."
As we get deeper into conversation, the whole sweetness thing gives way to a more complicated story. Tyler grew up on horror movies, feels conflicted about playing the love interest or the ideal woman, and is interested in more physically demanding roles. At 33, she's already had a successful career, a high-profile marriage (to British rocker Royston Langdon, with whom she has one child), a divorce, and a hard couple of years since the split. Now she's ready to rebuild something for herself and her son. So while everyone knows she's sweet, one of the many things I learned about Tyler, as you'll see below, is that she's also tough. And brave. And I'm not just referring to her food choices—although it turns out I'm not the first person she's turned on to chicken-liver toast (which, by the way, is delicious).
Are you hungry? Yes! I didn't get to eat breakfast. I forget sometimes, rushing out the door trying to get Milo together for school.
Milo is your son. How old is he? He's six. Being the mom of a kindergartner is not for pussies. I feel I was naturally really good at the baby part. Being pregnant, I felt really strong and comfortable and good at it and proud of myself. When he was an infant, caring for him and loving him came really naturally to me—feeding and breastfeeding and cooking and all the things that came along with it. But this part is a whole other kind of universe. Things are so different now. If Mom was having a hard day 20 years ago, she could have a cocktail and a cigarette in the kitchen while she was cooking dinner, and dinner was a can of cream of chicken soup over noodles in the oven called a casserole. Now you're working all day and then cooking up an organic, vegan, three-course meal. And there's no cigarettes or cocktails at all! There's a lot of pressure as a woman in general, to juggle everything, to wear all hats and be all roles—to be perfect or to look perfect and then to be the perfect mom. This year we moved back to New York from L.A., so it's new school, new house, and a lot of adjusting. I grew up in Maine and New York, but I really wanted to know what it was like in L.A., to have a house and a yard. And I have to say that part of it was really nice. But I didn't like not seeing people. I really like that about New York—just bumping into people, knowing the guy at the deli who knows how you like your coffee. It's nice how in-the-street everything is. In L.A., everything happens in the home, and the part out in the world is very quick and isolated. Here is the opposite: all the magic happens out in the world and out in the street! You meet your friends out for dinner or for a drink, or you go for a walk.
I would like to take this chance to say I've seen Empire Records about a million times. I loved your character, Corey, and her fuzzy sweater... Which was, like, up my nose, in my eyes, and on my tongue the whole time! I fucking hate mohair. And what's really funny is, they changed my whole outfit for that movie. The night before we started shooting, the studio decided they wanted me in this sexy schoolgirl outfit. So at midnight we were doing fittings. I remember when I ended up in that plaid skirt and mohair sweater, I was like, You gotta be kidding me. I ended up wearing my own boots. I thought, At least I can wear my boots, and I'll be fine.
How did you know you wanted to be an actress? I was 13, and my mom and I moved from Maine to New York, and I started modeling because [supermodel] Paulina Porizkova and [the Cars frontman] Rick Ocasek were my mom's best friends who lived around the corner. Paulina took all these pictures of me as kind of an experiment, but through that, I started modeling, and really quickly, I was asked to go on a couple of auditions. I think my mom always had this plan in her mind—she used to tell me often that she thought I would be an actor. I always wanted to be a singer because she was a singer, and my dad, and Todd—I just loved music so much. But I went on a couple of auditions when I was 14, and I got my first part immediately, and then it sort of never stopped.
What have your most recent moviemaking experiences been like? The last two movies I did were these tiny little independent movies. One was called Super [out in April] and one was called The Ledge, and they were both filmed in Louisiana. And both of those times, I stayed in little shitty motels on the side of the highway and kind of loved it. The one I did in Baton Rouge, The Ledge, was really nice for me because my godmother, who's one of my greatest friends in my life, lives in New Orleans. On my days off, I would get into my car with a map and the radio and drive to New Orleans. I can remember on that drive just feeling so... free and so alive, enjoying the simplest pleasure of the warm southern sun and the wind on my face and listening to "Spirit in the Sky."
Super is something of an unexpected turn for you; it's a very violent story about a loser guy who tries to rescue you from the clutches of a drug dealer by turning into a DIY superhero. It felt familiar because I grew up obsessed with horror movies. My mom and I would watch Night of the Living Dead and Tales from the Crypt and Creepshow, and I was just obsessed—until I saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It says in the beginning that it is based on a true story, and then I was done. Not that Super is a horror movie. But that style, that campy violence—there's a humor to it. Yes, there's obviously gratuitous violence. But there's something funny to it that I just grew up being used to in some way.
Your character in Super is a drug addict. I was playing someone who was out of it all the time. It was really bizarre—I just had to let go. I actually cried on the first day of work because we shot almost half of my whole part in one day, one take each, on video. I didn't even really get to think. I hadn't worked in a year, and it was fun, but it was a tricky part to play. I remember being a bit frustrated on that first day—the feminist in me. My character is powerful because she is a catalyst in the story, but she's also this ideal of a woman. Besides hearing about her being a drug addict or her past, you don't see the reality of who she is. She is the damsel in distress—so much of her is defined by how the main character [played by Rainn Wilson] sees her. Playing that was quite tricky because I'm such a realist. Acting for me is not acting in a very theatrical way; it's a real experience of finding the truth in something and being it. It was such a strange and delicate balance to play the ideal of a woman instead of a real woman.
Are you interested in exploring more non-damsel in distress parts? I would love to do something very physical just for the sheer fun and strength of it. The Strangers was a movie I loved making. Even though it was about my being victimized and hurt, there was such a strength to my character, fighting for her survival. The things that happened to me every day! I was covered in sores and blisters and cuts and bruises. Bruises that were so weird-looking, they would cover the real bruises to add the fake ones. To know that I could emotionally and physically handle that was therapeutic. The first time I ever had to scream in the film, I was completely terrified I wouldn't be able to do it, but the biggest scream in the world came out of my mouth. I blew the poor sound man's ears out.
The Strangers is one of the last films you did before taking some time off. I took a little time off before Super and The Ledge. I just had a rough couple of years, having Milo and then getting divorced and trying to rebuild my life again. I found it tricky to figure out how to work, and be a mother, and be a single mom. Milo and I have been in such transition—I've been rebuilding and trying to be patient. And I've just put all of my focus on that. Because I can't go to work and be happy unless he's happy and feels secure.
You come from a long line of hard-working moms, right? Yeah, My mom wasn't always home with me in the beginning of my life, and then she was. It's amazing, once you have a child, how much you relate to you own parents in a whole new way. I just understand the circumstances of my childhood a little more. It was not normal at all, my upbringing. I think I often didn't understand that when I was younger. In turn, that makes me want to create something very specific for my life. But it's been really interesting, the way things have unfolded. I'm accepting what happens in life, and how it affects you, and how things don't always go as you expected them to. That loss of the dream—because you spend your whole childhood planning how you're going to do things—it's actually very painful but quite liberating at the same time when you have to let go of that ideal and see yourself in an imperfect light. As a woman, especially, having a child and being a mother and dealing with the things that come up is a whole other feeling of strength than any other I've felt before.
Being in your 20s is sort of a selfish time for a lot of people, trying to figure out what you're going to do with your life... But mine was the opposite, which is so interesting. And now, at 33, I'm getting ready to have way more fun than I ever used to, because I didn't let myself when I was younger. I was always working or in a family.
There must be something liberating about finding what you want to dedicate yourself to, and finding it so young, so that now you can spend your time thinking about what else you want to do. I'm bursting with ideas. I feel quite excited about the next couple of years, because there is so much I want to do. Even just with acting. And I would love to produce and direct. I'm filled with so much... richness from all these experiences I've had, the good and the bad. They really expand your heart and your understanding and your whole world. And knowing what I wanted to do—I'm so grateful for that. Almost every day, I thank the stars that I have that passion and that direction. My heart's desire is also a job that I get paid for. My grandmother always said that everyone has a song in her heart, and not everyone gets it out in her lifetime. And I get to speak that truth. We all need that. It comes along also, though, where I've thought, Fuck this! I never got a childhood! I've been working, supporting my family since I was 13! I never got to go to college! Which is silly; I shouldn't be a victim in that. I could have gone to school, but I had all of these amazing opportunities, and I always thought I would go to school later in life and didn't. I've learned and experienced so much, but I do envy all my friends a bit who went to college, who had that freedom to explore and educate themselves and cultivate their minds. Instead, I just jumped straight into the job I love.
You've gotten a lot done by 33. Do you think about going back to school? That's a really good point. I should. But because I worked so hard from such a young age into my early 30s, I'm really enjoying being a mom and just not being in a rush. I have this feeling that we live in a world now where everyone is saying, "What are you doing next?" All anyone wants to talk about is the next thing and the next thing. I don't feel like I'm in a rush. I feel like I'm 33, and I have the rest of my life—hopefully—to do so many different things.
Is being a mom kind of the ultimate creative job? Creating a person? Well, they just come out who they are! You're so quick to judge parents. To judge humans on how they were raised, to judge parents for what they did. But you see when you become a parent yourself, children are really born with this innate sense of themselves. They come out that way from day one. It's interesting to figure that out: how to nurture and guide them but also allow them to be who they are. To see in them what they are naturally good at and interested in and encourage them in those ways.
Did your mom and dad do that for you? Yeah, but it takes a village. In my case it took a village. My dad is very sweet. It's nice to know as a woman that you have your father's love. And I always felt so grateful that I had so much love from Todd, because he wasn't my dad and he chose to be my dad from the moment I was born, and he still takes care of me and loves me. Then my mom, too, and my aunt and my grandmother—they all kind of took turns raising me. And now it's the same with Milo: he's surrounded by so many crazy women all the time. But as a mother, you really need a lot of help and support. It's really good for me, because I always tried to do everything myself. I think for the first time in the past couple of years, I haven't been afraid to ask for help.
It's hard for you to ask for help? It is. I'm quite hard on myself, I think. I'm a strange combination. I'm very sensitive, even vulnerable at times, and I'm tough as nails at the same time. Because I've been through a lot in my life, and I think I'm quite resilient. Now I'm OK with allowing feelings to happen, not being afraid to get messy and feel them. But you have to ask for help! Do you have best friends who help you?
Definitely. I even live with one of them. Don't you love living with girls? Secretly, I would live on a commune if I could. I just love women! I'm so fascinated by them, my girlfriends. I'm fascinated with the way they smell, and the way they look, and the way they think and move and react, and how different we all are. How much we need each other and how valuable those friendships are. I love women. I just love to be around them.