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American Beauty

W Magazine, November 2001.

J.R.R. Tolkien fanatics are an obsessive lot.

When they first heard that Liv Tyler had signed on to play the milky she-Elf Arwen in Peter Jackson's three-film adaptation of Tolkien's Lord of thee Rings, they roared through hundreds of chat rooms and online forums to vent their fury. Their gripe wasn't only with Tyler - 'too Hollywood, too Armageddon,' they moaned - but with the way her character had been rewritten: Big-screen Arwen was purported to go to battle, an emphatic departure from the text, and in pink-and-purple 'Barbie clothes,' no less The Tolkienists dubbed her 'Xenarwen' - a snarky reference to Xena, the bodacious television warrior princess played by Lucy Lawless.

"Let's get this straight," says Tyler, who is huddled in a big sweater on the first cold night of the year, on the outdoor patio of a Chinese restaurant in Woodstock, New York "Arwen is so not like Xena in any way. She's a totally kick-ass, tough chick, but she doesn't fight. Those are all just rumors. Peter Jackson asked me to do this, and he's an incredible lover of Tolkien. I had to trust that, and so should the fans. If you don't want to see what another person does with the part, then don't go to the movies."

So there. In fact, Tyler - raised mostly in Maine, by a notoriously progressive quorum of parents including mother, two fathers, cousin and grandmother - is probably the perfect quirky Hollywood hippie chick for Tolkien's naturist universe. (It would be hard to imagine, say, Charlize Theron learning to speak Elvish.)Tyler, who tends to play the same whispering gamine in person that she does on-screen, is flustered by this riptide of premature criticism. She's also depressed, a feeling she hasn't been able to shake all week. Four days earlier, on September 11 - only a few hours before this interview was originally slated to take place- Tyler woke up uncharacteristically early to the shriek of sirens outside her apartment on East Ninth Street. She turned on the TV to see the World Trade Center in flames.

"There's an interesting thing about New York people," she says with a few days' distance. "They never look up. Because of that, I always look up. I'm curious. But on the day after the disaster, every time a car backfired or a plane flew overhead, everybody stopped froze and looked into the sky. It was like war."

Tyler left town the following afternoon for Woodstock, where for many years Todd Rundgren, the singer-songwriter who is one of two men she calls her father, had a house on Mink Hollow Road - and where Tyler and her fiance, Royston Langdon of the Brit-pop band Spacehog, rented a house for the summer. They drove up the West Side Highway just as a fleet of Humvees, tanks and aircraft carriers was descending on the city.

"We're such a naive, innocent culture compared to the rest of the world," says Tyler, lifting a lighter to her first cigarette of the night. "Whenever I go through periods of watching the news a lot and reading the paper, I get depressed. This week I started bursting into tears every couple of seconds. But in another way it's beautiful that everyone's coming together, and that's important because it has been lacking in my lifetime. Normally you walk down the street and you and everybody else are in their own mind. The day that it happened, it was about just looking somebody in the eye with so much compassion, like, 'Are you okay?' No words spoken, nothing. It was so powerful to know that everybody was feeling the same thing."

Before the attack, Tyler had been enjoying what she calls "being a girl." She was holed up in the country with Langdon, reading, listening to records and observing with some fascination the family of wild turkeys who had installed themselves in her backyard. A few weeks earlier, she'd road-tripped to Maine to visit her biological father, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. "Six hours, all by myself," she says, in the diffident, little-girl voice to which she often retreats. "I left a girl and came back a woman after that drive. It was brilliant to spend so many hours alone. Totally rocked out." The CD player flipped among No Doubt, Iggy Pop, Air and Eric Satie.

In July, Tyler celebrated her 24th birthday on a tour bus with Spacehog, Oasis and the Black Crowes. "Kate was with me," she says, referring to her old friend Kate Hudson, the wife of Chris Robinson of the Crowes. "It was amazing. I always knew that my fathers were going on tour, but I never went with them, and it was really interesting to see what that life is like - 14-hour drives at night, truck-stop life. I was a groupie."

While she acknowledges that the experience made her feel closer to her fathers, it must have given Tyler a taste of the rollicking life of her mother, the model Bebe Buell, as well Buell, who recently published a memoir called Rebel Heart: An American Rock and Roll Journey, is widely regarded as the original groupie. She has enjoyed the embraces of, among others, Tyler and Rundgren, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, David Bowie, Elvis Costello and Rod Stewart.

Tyler has no interest in discussing her mother's book. (It is, in fact, the only subject she raises her arm against.) "It's her life and her book, not mine," she says, her eyes lowered. "It happens with all three of my parents that people draw conclusions about me. People ask me about drugs - but for me it was very clear since the day I was born how destructive they can be."

She is understandably weary of the thrall in which her complicated family life has kept the media. The story has been told countless times: How Liv grew up thinking that Rundgren was her father; how, at age eight, her mother introduced her to Steven Tyler backstage at a Rundgren concert, and how Steven, whose heroin addiction had forced Buell to keep Liv's true parentage a secret, looked at his daughter and started to cry.

"I completely have two dads," she says now. "I have a really beautiful relationship with both of them, and I feel completely lucky to have two fathers."

Hudson is struck by the protective quality of Tyler's family feeling. 'Liv has an extremely motherly instinct,' she says. 'She loves to take care of people, and everything she does comes from the most honest place - there's not an ounce of manipulative nature there.'

"It's funny how I do all these interviews," Tyler adds, "and people will still say to me, like, 'Tell me how you feel about meeting your father.' And it's like, I'm sorry, but I'm never going to tell anyone. No, it hasn't been perfect, and it continues to be rocky in its way. But I have a family and I'm dealing with it in the best way that I can."

The one professional hazard Tyler doesn't mind is fashion; she calls it her greatest indulgence (apart from the 1861 town house she just bought in Greenwich Village). Today, inside her big sweater, she wears an old YSL T-shirt streaked with the words 'Cheap Date' - the name of the irreverent fashion fanzine published for and by the Chloe Sevigny set. It's a perfect illustration of Tyler's fashion-insider status, a position she brazenly declared at last year's Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by arriving on the arm of Stella McCartney. Both women wore Chloe T-shirts with the words 'Rock Royalty' slapped onto the bosom; they were the instant stars of New York's biggest night out.

"Oh, God," she sighs. "In all honesty, I wore that T-shirt because I had absolutely nothing else to wear. Stella and I felt like such minorities because we weren't decked out in diamonds and ballgowns. The nest day we were on the cover of Women's Wear Daily, which we both laughed about because we felt that everybody there was making fun of us a little, and we were like, 'Have a f-ing sense of humor, lighten up.'"

Though she considers it work to endure the spotlight of a fashion show, Tyler is not immune to a handout - a first-class ticket to Paris, for example, to see the work of a favorite designer. "I wish I didn't love fashion so much, but I do. Dior was great: They put us in a huge suite and gave us a million presents, and we got to go nuts in the store," she says, laughing. "That's really fun because they're using you, and you get to use them back."

Tyler is five-foot-ten. She is, in her own words, "a big girl." Her half sister Mia Tyler is a very successful plus-size model, and in the past, Liv has called herself "chubby." Though someone once wrote that she'd eclipse Gwyneth Paltrow if only she could keep herself thin, Tyler refuses to hew to Hollywood's punishing standard. "To the rest of the world, I'm thin," she says. "Whenever I see a really skinny girl walk into the room, I always think, ew. " She winces. "Helena Christensen is the most goddessy woman. She has an amazing body: breasts, flesh. I love food. I love to cook. And I'm not going to get skinny like-." Now she bites her tongue. "I mean, am I going to f-ing starve myself?"

No matter, because Tyler's ripeness has tantalized an impressive roster of directors, including Robert Altman (Cookie's Fortune and Dr. T and the Women) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Stealing Beauty). From the moment she first appeared on-screen, at 16, in the Aerosmith video 'Crazy,' critics never failed to mention her powerful sex appeal, the words 'femme fatale' hanging in the air around her. But Tyler is still more 'fille fatale'; in her prim pharmacy headband and her Nikes, she doesn't yet smolder a la Ava Gardner, an actress to whom she's been compared. No doubt it was the innocence, not the experience, that impelled Jackson to cast her as the angelic Elven princess Arwen.

"The Elves are this totally beautiful race," she says. "You don't move like a human does. You don't slouch. You're poised and perfect all the time. It was really hard." It was hard, too, for Tyler to spend a year and a half in rural New Zealand, where the three films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which will open a year apart, were filmed simultaneously (a first in Hollywood cinema), and where Tolkien's fictional Middle-Earth was realized in painstaking detail.

"It was amazing for me suddenly to be living in the world of that book," Tyler says. "Even when they offered me the film I was like, huh? You mean the thing that the boys used to talk about in school all the time? And when I first got down there, I had terrible nightmares because - I can't even describe it - we were in the world. There were monsters, Uruk-Hais, Orcs, Ents, hobbits, normal people, little people and giant people."

"It was the hardest experience of my life," she continues. "And it was hard because my style of acting was different from the other people's." (Tyler shares the screen with the likes of Sir Ian McKcllan and Cate Blanchett.) "I follow a script as much as I can, but then I have to completely let go. That's just my way. It may be because I'm not trained, but for me acting is - and I hate sounding like a dork talking about it - it's much more of a feeling and an honesty than it is a skill and a craft. Sometimes I suffer from it because I'm not technically prepared. I can come into a scene having a strong idea in my heart who the person is, but then have no idea at all what I'm going to do. That's terrifying."

In The Fellowship of the Ring - the trilogy's first installment, opening December l9 - Arwen marries the rugged human warrior Aragorn, played by Viggo Mortensen. "She chooses a small number of years with this mortal man over her own immortality," Tyler says, "and I relate to that. I understand and believe what that love is about. I'm a hopeless romantic."

Three years ago, she dissolved a three-year relationship with Joaquin Phoenix - her 'first love', who remains a close friend - and quickly began another with Langdon. He offered her a 1920s diamond engagement ring in February.

'They're absolutely perfect together,' says Hudson. 'When you're swept up into the machine of the movie industry and it's out of your control, its very easy to become obsessed with how people perceive you. Or you do the opposite: You sit at home, you cook your man a meal, you read a book. And that's Liv. She's a nester. She's a homebody. She went into herself, she decorated her home, she found her man.'

"I'm madly in love," Tyler says, resting her chin on her lists in the moony manner of Marsha Brady. "It's amazing to be able to feel three years later more in love than I did even when we first met. I've had lots of relationships that I loved being in but that weren't right for me. And now, I feel incredibly lucky that everything I ever dreamed I would have with someone when I was a child - maybe this came from not having the most stable mom-and-dad upbringing - I have found in Roy, and more. When I see him, I blush. Constantly."

Love, it turns out, has filled out the whole of Tyler's horizon for the moment. She hasn't read a script she's liked all year. "That's my pattern. But there's also a part of me that doesn't really want to find anything. Just being home," she says, in flower-child fashion, "is really, really beautiful"

In an especially grim week, Tyler's only joy came when Langdon and his brother invited her into the studio to sing the song they'd been working on. She's always admitted she'd love to be a rock star, and given the dour critical response to her recent films Onegin and One Night McCool's, now may be just the time to give it a whirl - if The Lord of the Rings doesn't change her luck.

"It's amazing to sit with a stack of s-ty movie reviews and laugh about it," she says cheerfully. "It's just the movies." At this point she cracks open her fortune cookie, and a deep grin settles into her face. The pale pink strip of paper offers an apt reflection of Liv Tyler - and a perfect opportunity to change the subject.

"'You are the only flower of meditation in the wilderness'," she reads. "Wow."

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