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A Wild Child Settels Down - and Lets Us in on a Big Family Secret
by Maty Kaye Schilling, Town & Country, December 2014 - January 2015. Photos by Paul Wetherell.
Liv Tyler said she gave up on happily ever after, but with a new baby onthe way, the house she always wanted,and the most challenging role ofher career, the pieces may be falling into place. after a year she compares to a speeding freight train, she opens up about settling down.
An hour before I'm scheduled to meet Liv Tyler, I receive a text-10 charming and contrite lines asking if we can meet a half-hour later than planned. It ends, "So looking forward to today!" This is likely untrue. It is a brilliant autumn morning, and I can imagine several hundred more appealing ways she could spend her day, none involving a tape recorder or prying questions. Yet despite the cliche (celebrities are never late!), I am disarmed, and also reminded that Tyler is not just the daughter of a wild child pair from the '70s-rock muse Bebe Buell and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler-but the granddaughter of Dorothea Johnson, founder of the Protocol School of Washington and author, with Tyler, of last year's Modern Manners: Tools to Take You to the Top.
Tyler has just bought her first country home, a place in need of furniture. It's not far from Hudson, New York, a kind of holy land for antiques lovers, and our first stop is Neven & Neven Moderne, on Warren Street, the town's main drag. "I'm so sorry," she apologizes again when she arrives. "It was my first night in the house, and I wasn't sure where everything was. It was a bit like camping." She's wrapped in a light gray Max Mara coat, and her signature mane is piled atop her head, still damp.
From the neck up Tyler is timeless, Isabel Archer come to life. I imagine the paragraphs Henry James might have devoted to her stately profile, firm handshake, and direct gaze. Then she smiles, producing a delicious crinkle in her nose, and you notice the well-worn ankle boots and graphic black-and-white leggings, and she's entirely of the moment.
She tells me her nine-year-old son Milo is in Florida, attending the wedding of his uncle, the brother of Tyler's ex, British musician Royston Langdon (they divorced, after five years, in 2008). So she's having an unheard-of weekend alone with a dear friend. "This morning I woke up and looked out the window and thought, 'Oh my god, this is my house, not somebody else's.' "
Tyler, who owns a brownstone in Manhattan's West Village that she once shared with Langdon, had been looking for a weekend place for nearly a decade. The new property, which overlooks the sweep of the Hudson River, clicked with her at first sight. She bought it last December and spent the year renovating it.
"My real personality comes out in the country," she says. "More spontaneous, more excited. There's always someone watching you in the city-you're a sort of zoo animal. My true nature is to want to hide a bit." So there's less anxiety here? Tyler nods. "Yesterday I drove up by myself with Neal [her 11-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel], and it was sunny, and the leaves were turning, and I was singing at the top of my lungs. I got to the house and all these arborists were there, and I put my overalls on and we walked around the property and talked about trees and tractors and barns. I was in heaven."
Tyler stops to look at a lamp that resembles a giant illuminated chess piece. "Wow." A card identifies it as a Vistosi, circa 1960. "Always the light fixtures I love are Italian, from the '50s and '60s," she says. "I'm like, 'What's that? I want it!' And it's always $40,000 vintage Italian." This one is a mere $1,950. She pulls out her iPhone and takes a photo. "I have some people helping me decorate. The place was just painted, and aside from beds there's nothing. Part of me has always imagined secretly living like that, but I'm the opposite-there's stuff everywhere."
Tyler's voice is hypnotic, like the susurrus of a stream; sometimes it takes a moment to register the meaning of what she's saying-like right now: "Oh, I like the smell of that Windex! My sense of smell is so-it's like you're an animal when you're pregnant."
After intense internet speculation in early September, Tyler's publicist confirmed the reason for the matronly dresses she wore on vacation in Spain last August. But she has yet to speak of it. The father is boyfriend David Gardner, a British sports and entertainment manager she met seven years ago through Kate Moss.
"The most fun thing about being pregnant again is having those mom hormones flowing around," says Tyler, who is approaching her fifth month. "You're more present in your body, and it's making me a better mother for Milo. You become more like a child. When you're tired you have to sleep immediately. When you're hungry..." Tyler pauses. "That lamp looks like a Hershey's kiss," she says, pointing to a pendant-shaped fixture hanging from the ceiling. "I think I need to eat something."
As Henry James wrote of a 19th-century heroine, Tyler is "a woman of ardent impulses, kept in admirable order" -except when it comes to shoestring fries. More on that in a moment. We've settled in at Swoon Kitchenbar, where Tyler is reveling in another benefit of being pregnant: "It's fun not being on a diet or thinking, 'Oh my god, I have to go to SoulCycle every day.'" Tyler has ordered poached eggs and sausage over creamy semolina, and she heartily seconds a side of fries. I ask if her close friend Stella McCartney gets on her case for eating meat. "Not at all." And then, as the ineffable smell of bacon fills the room, she closes her eyes. "Mmmmmmmmm. There's nothing like the smell of grilling flesh." She unleashes the crinkle and an unexpectedly deep laugh.
Matt Bomer, her co-star in this summer's dark, wacky comedy Super Station 76, had mentioned a goofiness I'm beginning to see. "Liv's inherent elegance and gentility make you want to be a gentleman in her presence," Bomer said, "and then you go out, get rowdy, and laugh until it hurts. She's several steps ahead of almost anyone I know. She's just cool as shit."
Bomer remembered complaining that he didn't see his three sons enough. "She said, 'You're a gypsy. That's what you signed up for, my friend.' It was a watershed moment for me. If anyone has the life experience to tell you how it is in the entertainment biz, it's this girl."
Tyler's backstory is so indelible it might as well be carved in stone. She was born Liv Rundgren in New York City in 1977. The last name belonged to rock musician Todd, Buell's sometime boyfriend, who stepped in because Steven Tyler was notably in no shape to be a father. In 1987, when Liv was nine, Tyler-finally clean and sober-called Buell to set up a meeting. "I just started crying, because it was so obvious Liv was my daughter," he told me of meeting her. "It was like looking in the mirror." From then on Steven was Dad and Rundgren simply Todd. (They remain close.) The formerly hard-partying Steven told me about one of his first parenting experiences with Liv, a funny reversal of sorts. "I was touring, and at one stop I had an adjoining hotel room for Liv, who was nine, and her half-sister Mia. They took a bath and came into my room naked, cussing up a storm. I said, 'You can't talk like that in front of me. And put some clothes on!' "
Buell, meanwhile, a Ford model and singer, had been an off-and-on parent. In essence Tyler was raised by a village: an aunt and her hus-band in Portland, Maine, and her maternal grandparents-Dorothea (the etiquette expert) and her second husband, Lester Johnson, an officer in the marines-in Washington, DC. She split her time between their homes and Buell's New York apartment. I offer that for all that she seems fine. "I worked very hard on myself in order to be fine," says Tyler, now 37. "It wasn't easy."
But Tyler is also grateful to her mother-who now lives in Nashville-for knowing that she couldn't be a full-time parent. "Mom was only 23 when she had me, and there's a version of my story where we could have lived in New York, and she could have had a very high-profile life, and I could have been raised by nannies," Tyler says, pausing to enthusiastically pile yet more shoestring fries onto her plate. "I'm sorry. I'm shoving them in my face. My grandmother would not approve."
She continues: "And then there's the version that happened, and that gave me the foundation that I have." When Tyler was 14 she became the first model signed by IMG, (which had previously been a sports agency). "Liv was so shy, and she had to toughen up," Dorothea Johnson said when we spoke. Success was immediate, but Tyler's interest was short-lived. "Liv came to Washington when she was around 16," Johnson remembered. "She said, 'Grammy, I need to talk to you. I don't like modeling.' I said, 'Why not?' And she said, 'It's too external.' " Johnson laughed. "I had never heard a teenager say that before! I told her I knew what external meant, but what did it mean to her? She said, 'Well, Grammy, all the other models I know would rather put on makeup and go shopping. I'd rather read a book.' "
On a whim Tyler decided to try acting. Within months she was cast in Bruce Beresford's 1994 film Silent Fall; her breakout part came two years later, in Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty. Those and other early roles emphasized her lush, startling beauty (those lips! those eyes!), qualities fetishized by the fantastically fey Lord of the Rings trilogy, beginning in 2001. "That's when everyone started calling me 'ethereal,' " she says, a description she dislikes-or perhaps it's the assumption that acting wasn't involved. "I'm a strong, big-boned girl, and tough," she says. "I played an elf-it was my job to be ethereal."
In 2013 Tyler read the script for the pilot of the HBO drama The Leftovers. Here was a chance to dynamite cemented perceptions. Based on a book by Tom Perrotta (who also co-created the show), the series follows the residents of a small town three years after 2 percent of the world's population has inexplicably vanished. "When I heard the premise, I thought, 'That's right up my street,' " Tyler says. "I'm attracted to things that are a little off. Growing up I was a huge fan of The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, and Creepshow - things that don't provide all the answers."
She was interested in the role of Meg, an oppressed fiance who joins a mute, chain-smoking cult called the Guilty Remnant. It's a fierce part with no room for vanity in an often violent show, and the casting director didn't think she was right for it. "Normally I'd say I'm not a competitive person; I kind of think things happen for a reason," Tyler says. "But for the first time in my life I really went for a role."
Co-creator Damon Lindelof (who also co-created Lost) told me he was surprised by her interest. "I said to the casting agent, 'Are you sure she means Meg? Because she's not going to talk much.' That's the opposite of what most actors want to do." But he was immediately won over by Tyler's audition. "There was an intensity in Liv's eyes I had never seen. And I thought, 'Wow, Liv Tyler's angry? Cool! ' "
Tyler can't wait to begin season two, though Lindelof is notoriously cagey with his actors. "Not only do we not know when we're going back to work," she says, "but Damon loves to tell us we might not even be in the second season. He's like, 'I don't know, there's a version I'm working on that none of you are in.'"
Tyler's weekend guest, Bobby Bukowski, a cinematographer, joins us after lunch, as we stroll up Warren Street. They were introduced in 1996 by her ex-boyfriend Joaquin Phoenix. "He was so nervous about their first date that he asked me to come along," Bukowski says. "I said, 'She doesn't want me there!' But I fell immediately in love, staring into the eyes of this beautiful 18-year-old. She is still the only person I know who really, truly listens." During our three hours together, the only time Tyler displays even a hint of impatience is when I ask about the more famous of her confidantes.
"The press likes to focus on my friendships with Stella, Kate Hudson, and Gwyneth Paltrow," Tyler says. "And I love them all. But, for example, I haven't seen Gwyneth for a year! I have connections just as strong and deep with people who don't have famous parents. Bobby is one of my best, best friends, and Milo's, too."
Still, it's hard to avoid the bold-faced inner circle when the names continually crop up. A chair in a window reminds Tyler of Kate Moss, the friend she shares with McCartney and another best friend, Lucie de la Falaise. (Moss and Tyler are godmothers to de la Falaise's daughter with Marlon Richards, Ella Rose.) "Kate's country house is wonderful," Tyler says of Moss, whom she describes as "magic. She makes everything more beautiful. When she walks into a room-it's the way people talked about Marilyn Monroe." Steven Tyler told me he's most impressed with his daughter's ability to "recognize what she does have and to know that happiness doesn't come from stuff we don't have. She's taught me that time and time again."
Right now contentment centers on her growing family. The red carpet, fashion shows-they're just occasional distractions. Her 10-year run as the face of Givenchy ended in 2013, and some of the fun went out of fashion when Alexander McQueen died, in 2010. "I loved Lee so much. He was such an authentic person. If he was your friend, he was your loving, loyal friend-for no other reason than he liked you," she says. "That world is now all about what clique you're in and who you're with."
Bukowski, an easygoing, wryly funny guy about two decades Tyler's senior, "is a hermit and a homebody like me," Tyler says. The two communicate with the shorthand of an old married couple. Bukowski, in fact, refers to Tyler as his East Coast platonic wife (Patricia Arquette is West). She tells me that when she texted him, confirming her pregnancy (according to Tyler, he guessed it before she knew), "Bobby wrote back, 'I'm so happy for you. Can anything else amazing happen this year?' I mean, for seven years I'd been saying I wanted to do an HBO show with an ensemble cast. And I wanted the house in the country. And getting to have another child? If you knew me well, they were the things my heart longed for. And they all came together, like a speeding freight train, in one year."
I notice there is no mention of Gardner, who remains a bit of a mystery. At lunch I ask what attracted her to him. Tyler looks down. "I'm not going to tell you that." Her smile is a little sly. "If we were girlfriends I would." I remind her of a July interview in which she talked about her evolving definition of love. "You're not in that stage anymore of happily ever after," she was quoted as saying of moving into her thirties.
"But that was months ago," she says, her alabaster skin turning pink. "It's funny how things change."