by Chrissy Iley, Sunday Times Style, July 2011. Photographs by Rankin. Scans by Lorna.
Despite a rock'n'roll upbringing and a painful divorce, the actress and single mum Liv Tyler is back on the track. She tells Chrissy Iley how she got through it
I am waiting for the actress Liv Tyler in a bohemian French cafe-bar in Los Angeles, the nearest you get to Europe on the West Coast of America. The maître d' has shown me to the best corner table, complete with plush armchairs. As soon as Tyler arrives, looking both flustered and relaxed from a Korean spa massage, she wants to move from the table, because the armchairs are so chunky, we will be too far away from each other. We move to a lesser table, where her melodious voice wraps easily around me.
She lives in New York, but is in LA to promote her new movies, Super (a dark comedy) and The Ledge (a thriller about a love triangle), which are both indie and interesting. She's instantly girly, explaining how she brought "loads of black tights, but I am sweltering and I don't know what to put on". She's wearing a black floaty blouse—it could be an exotic pyjama top—and a creamy-pink thin cardigan. She's beautiful, of course, but not in an overdone or self-consciously modellish way. At 33, she seems accessible, relaxed in her own skin, a smile playing on the famous pillowy lips inherited from her father, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
She tells me she chose our location "because they have the most amazing butter here, and I love butter on anything". There's no sign of it on her lithe figure. She loves a full English breakfast and Yorkshire pudding the way her former mother-in-law used to make them. She was married to the British rocker Royston Langdon of Spacehog (who had a string of hits in America in the 1990s), but they divorced in 2008 after five years together. She won't talk about the reasons for the split, but afterwards she had to take some time off to regroup. "Since Milo was born, I've been going through all kinds of personal things—getting divorced and trying to allow myself the room to heal from that and rebuild my life," she says. "Milo and I have been in such transition—I've been trying to be patient. I can't go to work and be happy unless he's happy and feels secure." Milo is six. She shows me pictures: how tall he is, how blond. "A proper English lad," she says. With the Tyler pillow lips.
We order Campari sodas—refreshing "but with just a little buzz". You can't help but warm to an actress who wants to drink at lunchtime in LA.
When I told friends I was meeting Tyler, all of them—men, women, gay, straight—excitedly told me how much they love her. Perhaps it's because some of her earlier movies—Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings cycle—were such landmarks. All of them also said they liked her because she seems so normal. It's a curious thing that Tyler manages normality so well when her upbringing was, by any standards, weird.
When Tyler was born, her mother, Bebe Buell, a model known for a succession of romantic links with rock stars, was just 23 and living with Todd Rundgren. For the first eight years of her life, Tyler assumed he was her father. Then she met Steven Tyler and realised that he was her birth father, after all.
"People have this idea of me growing up on tour, and that's not real at all," she says. "My mum was young, and I think she might not have had the emotional tools to know exactly how to take care of me, so she turned to her family for support. Her mother and my aunt helped to raise me. I spent two years with my aunt, a year with my mum and two years with my grandparents. I feel grateful for those dynamics. My grandmother, for example, is an etiquette teacher, so she taught me everything I know about how to communicate and to have good manners.
"My mother was incredibly artistic, and I had opportunities with her that a normal kid might never have had. My aunt and uncle lived in a farmhouse in Maine, so I could run around fields and play in the chicken coop. I'm good at adapting, so it's easy for me to suss out a situation and adapt to it. At this point in my life, however, I'm trying to define a bit more of what I want, as opposed to adapting to what other people want." Her eyes seem to fill with a momentary sadness.
Tell me about your two dads: how exactly did that work? (Both of them turned up for her wedding and had an equal part in it.) "Todd was my dad. I didn't live with him, but I saw him on holidays at Christmas and Labor Day. He was always loving and kind to me, and he put me through a wonderful private school. He decided before I was born that I needed a father and he was going to have that role in my life, so we have a special bond. It's the most generous act that anyone has ever shown me.
"Steven? I met him for the first time when I was about eight. I figured out that he was my dad. Everyone else was cautious and tried not to tell me. Steven wasn't in a position to be my father at that time," she says diplomatically.
Does she mean he was a crazy rock'n'roll person? "Yeah. He's always been amazing, though. I remember the first time I met him. He brought me a Shirley Temple [a nonalcoholic cocktail] and he was magical to me. I loved him as soon as I met him. And when I met my sister, Mia [Steven Tyler's daughter with the actress Cyrinda Foxe], it was like meeting my identical twin. She is a year younger than me. We look different now—she has red hair and lots of tattoos and piercings."
She still seems awestruck by the fact that she instinctively knew Steven Tyler was her biological father. "If you passed your father in the street, there's something so powerful there, you would know. Becoming a parent yourself and looking back at your childhood makes you see your parents in such a different light. You realise they're just human."
You imagine it wasn't easy for her to be so calm. Milo must have changed her perspective on so many things, such as her career, which has been quite stop-start. "My modelling career is thriving more than ever [she has a long-standing contract with Givenchy]—I'm doing Pantene this summer. I enjoy it and it's convenient, because it doesn't take me away for such a long time."
She explains that she only takes on projects that don't involve leaving Milo for too long. "When I was making Super, I went back and forth every week from Louisiana. And when I made The Ledge, Milo stayed with Roy. When Milo was starting kindergarten, I didn't want to read any scripts, because I didn't want to be tempted to go away and work. Kindergarten is really intense for children and for parents, so I didn't want to leave him." He recently graduated and they celebrated with a milk shake.
She doesn't say it, but it's clear she wants to give him the stability she never had. People are always coming up to her and saying: "I really like your dad." "Sometimes they're talking about Todd and sometimes Steven. When this first happened—I was about nine—I remember spending six hours on a chair looking out of a window, thinking that everything happens for a reason. I chose to see the positive side and to not come out of it angsty or angry. They made their decision to protect me. It wasn't conventional, and that has affected how I try to raise Milo."
Has her upbringing affected her relationships with men, her choices? She almost splutters out the few sips of Campari she has just had. "Any answer I would give would either be too vague or too personal. Roy is an incredibly special man. A wonderful father. I love him very much."
They clearly still see a lot of each other, and she talks so fondly and with such ease about him, it makes me wonder, does she think she might ever want to reunite with him? "How could you ask me that?" she says, genuinely shocked. I don't get an answer, but she has said many times that the break-up was really difficult for her. Right now, though, she says: "I am happy. Tremendously happy."
She shows me a picture of her dog, a king charles spaniel [called Neal]. "Look at that. Isn't he the cutest? Such a sweet, loyal dog." She is also very fond of "beautiful jars cucumber juice and coconut water from Organic Avenue in New York". Does she drink them for her skin? "No, I have good genes. I eat jam, sugar, meat, everything. If I'm preparing for something specific, I might avoid wheat or dairy, and eat brown rice and kale for two weeks—not to lose weight, but because it makes me feel centred and calm. How your face looks has a lot to do with it. I'm not strict because I enjoy cooking and being with friends and being flexible, which you can't if you're on a strict diet all the time."
What makes her happy? "Honestly, the simplest things. I don't mean that in a cheesy way. I mean, no matter how exciting and grand things get, it's the little things that make me happy. Being here this weekend. Staying with my girlfriend and her daughter. Giggling and gossiping. Drinking wine and listening to music. It's lovely." Of course, that's what makes her lovely, too.