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I'd look at the industry and think: do I want to be part of it?
by Hermione Hoby, The Observer, August 2014. Photos by Mike McGregor.
Liv Tyler was on the brink of giving up acting, leaving the city and retreating to country life. But then the offer came along to star in a new HBO drama, The Leftovers, made by one of the creators of Lost...
Liv Tyler, whose first movie role was two decades ago, may have just made the smartest choice of her career. In the autumn, she'll appear on British TV screens in HBO's The Leftovers – a good move not just because it's her first ever television role, but also because the series is currently the most discussed TV show in the US.
Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, who co-created the series along with Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, it's set in a world where, three years previously, 2% of the world's population suddenly vanished without explanation. The series follows those who have been left behind in the fictional small town of Mapleton, New York. As with Lost, it's a show that likes to confound. Intent on making you feel just as bewildered as the residents of Mapleton, it's unnerving, thrilling television. Perrotta himself has admitted, "This is not a show that's going to give out a lot of reassurance; it's about faith and religion and mystery and grief." Time magazine called it "one of the truest TV evocations... of the waking-dream feel of actual mourning."
Tyler plays Meg, a pale and crumpled woman welling with rage who eventually leaves her fiance for an eerie and nihilistic cult called the Guilty Remnant, who dress in white, chainsmoke and refuse to speak.
Today, in the celebrity favoured bistro in Manhattan's West Village where we meet, there's nothing crumpled about her. She's dressed in expensive-looking and complicatedly tailored black; her nails and lips chime, both the colour of maraschino cherries. She's luminous, so much so that it almost feels painful to sit opposite her – like having a torch shone in your face. But, as with every other female actor who reaches a certain level of fame, her appearance is subject to constant scrutiny.
The next day, for example, the Daily Mail will publish pictures of her taken moments after our interview, under the bitchy headline: "Did she get the designer Leftovers? Liv fails to shine in black overalls and sandals as she visits radio station in NYC." They could just as easily have said, "She wore a pair of black fitted trousers showing off her slim frame and lithe legs" as, in fact, they did days later when they ran shots of her at the airport. How, I ask her, before I even see the article, does she resist punching paparazzi on the nose? Oddly enough, she doesn't seem that antagonised.
"I have to be honest," she says softly, "they're very nice to me usually, but when I was younger, if they popped out from somewhere, I would just have a panic attack – my heart would start beating so fast. But then you just get numb to it and go on. The only time I ever felt scared was when we lived in LA: creepy men in cars following you and your child around and waiting outside your house. That's not normal or OK. But here, I feel like they give me a good distance and they're quite kind and respectful, and if I ever really ask them to go away, they will."
Her role in The Leftovers came at a time of real disenchantment. She was even considering giving up acting all together. Some days, she says, she'd wake up in her Manhattan townhouse with Milo – her nine-year-old son with ex-husband Royston Langdon, the frontman of the British glam rock band Spacehog – and contemplate another life.
"I'd think: maybe I should just move to the country and open a store and write books and make music and have a million babies and take in animals. Part of me always longed for it. I'd look at the entertainment industry as a whole and I'd think: where do I fit into all this and do I even want to be a part of it? Then this came along and it made everything worth waiting for."
Excited by shows like Weeds and True Detective, she and her agents had been actively looking for a TV role for her. Her character, Meg, however, was scripted as a redhead in her 20s. "I don't think they were thinking about someone like me," she says. "I think they were probably going to find a new, young girl, so I did have to go in and sort of show them... I've always been very shy at auditioning; I'm not so great at it." After the audition, "I actually prayed to the universe to show me a sign, that if the project happened, it was a sign that I was meant to keep acting ."
The universe obliged and the bucolic earth mother fantasy was put aside. Instead, she found herself in situations that included being tied to a pole and covered in blood in the dead of night. That particular scene was wrapped at midnight, as she turned 37, so the cast and crew sang "happy birthday" to her. "But they were all in a rush to get home, so they were walking every which way, packing their gear up, but still singing – and I was still tied to the pole; no one came to untie me!"
Tyler was born into fame. Her mother is Bebe Buell, a singer, former Playboy model and permanent wildchild who had an unparalleled reputation as a bedder of rock stars, credited as the inspiration for Kate Hudson's character in Almost Famous. Her daughter's docility makes me imagine the mother-daughter dynamic as that of Edina and Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous.
Tyler grew up with the musician Todd Rundgren for a dad but, aged nine, she noticed that family friend Steven Tyler's daughter Mia looked just like her. Eventually Buell confirmed that the Aerosmith frontman was indeed her biological father. Now Tyler is used to having two fathers (Tyler is "Dad", Rundgren is "Todd").
Bernardo Bertolucci seemed to be playing with this biographical detail when he cast her in her first big movie, 1996's Stealing Beauty. Her character is a 19-year-old on an unfocused mission to find her father and lose her virginity while holidaying in a rambling Tuscan villa. Who, among its guests, might her daddy be? Is it the British playwright (Jeremy Irons) who seems to consider his terminal illness a licence to sexually harass her? Or the inscrutable artist (Donal McCann) for whom she obligingly, dully, plops out a breast as he sketches her under a tree? She's both radiant and inert, not a character so much as a cypher of virginal young beauty. That same year, she reprised this passive-and-beautiful mode in That Thing You Do! as the long-suffering girlfriend of a rock'n'roll singer to whom she finally delivers a lip-trembling valediction: "I wasted thousands and thousands of kisses on you... Shame on me for kissing you with my eyes closed so tight."
Her biggest movie role, though, came in the early 00s. Things may or may not have happened to hobbits, but my memory of the now decade-old Lord of the Rings films is made up, exclusively, of close ups of her gazing face, mistily sorrowful as Arwen, the elf maiden. The franchise pushed her Hollywood A-list credentials even higher but it also posed the question that has hung about her whole career: might directors (and their cameras) be so enamoured with Tyler's beauty that they don't ask much of her? She certainly still seems more ingenue than seasoned actress.
"Every time I go to work," she admits, long fingers drifting and fidgeting over her cutlery, "I feel like it's the first time; I feel terrified and excited and exhilarated and like a deer in the headlights. I think: how do I do this? And then it just happens. Like riding a bike, you know?"
I tentatively bring up that moment of realising who her biological dad was. "Oh God!" she says, then adds, plaintively: "Can we talk about my dad this week, instead of my dad when I was nine? It's so hard for me to remember that any more... I'd have to read old interviews! The truth is both [my fathers] are rock stars and they're not around that often, so we kind of get little glimpses of them here and there when they rush through town. I know that both of them often feel sad about not being around enough and I've always been OK with that. They're just not normal," she laughs, "and that's OK.
"Look, this is so cute," she says as she reaches for her phone and shows me a video taken in her back garden. She's gently cooing the Frankie Valli song Can't Take My Eyes Off You, and beside her, piratical and raggedly glamorous, is Steven Tyler, holding an iPhone up to that extraordinarily malleable mouth of his as he accompanies her with harmonica noises. There seem to be tiny crystals studded in the black polish of each of his fingernails.
"How does he do that?" I ask, referring to the sound effect, rather than the impressive nail art. "Because he's a crazy, magical wizard man!" she exclaims, proud and happy as a little girl. "He just does... we were just sitting around at home and he was like, 'Hey Milo, look at this!' He's constantly doing things like that."
Her dad, plain extrovert that he is, seems like the sort of person for whom fame is almost always fun. She, however, has a more uneasy relationship with it. "Which is why I didn't work for chunks of time. In a way, I probably even turned my back on my career; [I had] this female desire to create and nurture.
"My life has been so extraordinary. I think certain things were sort of accelerated and happened at such a young age that were probably meant to happen a little bit later. I never fully got to experience my childhood. I've spent a lot of time having to sort of grow myself up in many ways and also to sort of slow myself down and allow myself to live at the pace that I am."
She mentions having a baby at a young age as well as the professional responsibilities that came with having a movie career in her teens. "I wasn't totally ready to take on all those things. Even dumb things, like I used to have horrible stage fright, it was so hard for me to go on a talk show or present an award. I wasn't experienced enough or sophisticated enough or versed in my opinions enough, or didn't know myself well enough to be able to feel fully comfortable in a way that I can now. Now I get a little bit nervous but I know that everything's going to be OK."
She has to get to that radio interview, and before we say goodbye, I go to the bathroom, leaving my iPhone still recording on the table. When I play it back later, I hear the moment of quiet, just the dull chinking of plates. And then a little voice starts humming. And then, soft and tuneful, it breaks into song: "You're just too good to be true, can't take my eyes off you..."