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The power of being an optimist

by Allison Glock, More, October 2015. Photos by Jan Welters.

Liv Tyler thinks she knows why she is always late.

"It's because I get so consumed," she says as she meets me around the corner from her West Village brownstone, dressed in a smart black pantsuit and sandals, a delicate necklace glinting from her neck, the chain strung with tiny hearts.

"Every moment is interesting to me," she continues, a bit breathless. "So just walking out of the house, I wind up speaking to everyone and asking how they are, and then before I know it . . ." She shrugs and screws up her nose comedically. "I'm not very good at putting on blinders. What's going on over there? What's over there? I get into everything."

Tyler, 38, smiles and removes the elastic band she's wearing on her finger like a ring, then wraps her long, dark hair into a messy topknot. She recently gave birth to her second son, Sailor, with Dave Gardner, a top sports manager who lives in London (her first child-Milo, 10 - is from her marriage to musician Royston Langdon). But she shows no signs of fatigue or frump. Instead, she smiles and suggests a road trip to Red Hook, Brooklyn, to look at an old friend's art gallery.

Her car, which she insists on driving herself, is freshly vacuumed, belying any trace of her hectic family life as a working mother of two, save the children's CDs tucked into the door pockets. As she pulls onto the Manhattan Bridge - "Maybe I'll put on my glasses so I can see and not kill us" - Tyler jokes that she is often teased about her vehicle, which by celebrity standards is dated and modest.

"I'm pretty smart about spending," she says. "I've had this car for 10 years. Everybody makes fun of me, but I don't need another car. I don't even like new cars."

Tyler prefers knobs to touch screens. She longs to engage fully in her world, using every sense. She fears that modernity is costing us intimacy and connection, not to mention style. "Can we talk about why are there 3,000 different kinds of taxis now? Why can't we go back to the '70s? I want those cool taxis back."

Currently starring as Meg Abbott, a woman lost even to herself, in HBO's drama The Leftovers, Tyler is most recognized for (1) playing the luminous elf maiden Arwen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and (2) being the daughter of Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler, which she was misled about until age nine, having been told by her mother that her father was rocker Todd Rundgren. Suspecting deceit after meeting her look-alike half sister, Mia Tyler, backstage at an Aerosmith show, Tyler confronted her mother, model and singer Bebe Buell, who subsequently confessed to the secret. Remarkably, Tyler held no grudges, perhaps understanding even at that innocent age that hers was a unique family tree and that she would probably need to be the rooted adult in the mix.

"I used to take care of everything," Tyler says of her innate maternal instincts. "I can even remember being six years old and putting my cat, Little Man, to bed with a blanket over him before I went to sleep."

Tyler acknowledges, with no trace of bitterness, that she has financially supported her mother and herself since she was 13 years old, the age at which she gained traction as a model and actress. "I bought my brownstone when I was only 23," she says, "which is the smartest thing I've ever done."

"During my upbringing, I saw glimpses of so many different ways of living," Tyler continues - a magnanimous way of saying that when her mother traveled with her band, Tyler would split her time between an aunt and uncle in Portland, Maine, and her maternal grandmother in Washington, D.C. "My aunt and my uncle are still together and still have the house that I lived in with them. So I had that example. And then I had my mom and my dad, and that was definitely more eccentric."

For Tyler, every paradigm held benefits. "I saw so many forms of love and family," she says. "The main thing I picked up from all of it is that where you live and what your job is - those things are temporary. It's your family, no matter where you are, that always exists. Whether someone is alive or dead or near or far, your people are your people."

We arrive at Pioneer Works, a collective art space in Red Hook, and Tyler parks the car. She hops out and makes herself at home, kissing gallery director Gabriel Florenz hello. She is a welcome fixture on the scene. She takes in the latest exhibits, then retires to the expansive gardens in the back, settling at a picnic table amid tall grasses, her mind still on parenting.

She confesses that her greatest desire in life is to be "a good mother," which for her means being "a present and stable one." For years that intention prevented her from seeking out professional opportunities that didn't fit her "children first" parameter. "I didn't see how I could go away for three months to make a film and be the mother I wanted to be," she says. Then, last year, Milo took her hand at the dinner table and told her, "Mommy, I want you to go forth and make some movies." Tyler laughs at the memory, saying she pushed back, asking her son, "But what about you?" To which he replied, "I'll be OK."

"My favorite thing about being a parent is that I learn so much from the push-and-pull dynamic of mother and child," says Tyler. "Having children, I learned about my own strength."

Designer and longtime friend Stella McCartney sees that fortitude in Tyler, but also a contagious playfulness. The two met years ago at a gathering at mutual friend Kate Moss's house. McCartney says they got on immediately, "like we'd known each other for years," and jokes, "guess it was something in the water that our parents drank."

Tyler and McCartney often relax at each other's homes, chatting into the night. And while both lead what can only be called an exceedingly rarefied life, neither is above poking fun at it. "One of my favorite memories of Liv is when we attended our first Met Ball together," says McCartney. The theme was "Rock Style," and the two decided to don ROCK ROYALTY tees instead of the standard gala plumage. "We did our own hair and makeup. Showed up in a taxi. We really went for it," she says. The gag landed the pair on the cover of WWD, and "we were so mortified."

"When I was younger, I was braver," observes Tyler. "Then I had a weird moment in my early thirties when I felt more insular and protective and not wanting to be out in the world as a celebrity but close to home. And now?" Tyler smiles. "I feel OK with the combo."

It is late afternoon, and Tyler is restless. She exits the gallery and strolls the Red Hook sidewalks, admiring the new, trendy boutiques and the old holdouts - a funeral parlor, an American Legion hall. She receives a text. Back at the brownstone, they are hanging family photos. Her contractor installed pictures of Buell in the bathroom, and while the shots are striking, Tyler says she isn't sure she wants to look at her mother every time she pees. She adds it to her to - do list, saying she'll "handle it later."

"We're always doing something, right? My dad says you're a human doing instead of a human being. It's so true. We're always doing, doing, doing. Sometimes you should just stop and look around you and take in what's happening."

Tyler has made a habit of just that, helped by Transcendental Meditation, which she practices as often as she can. "The nice thing about TM is that there is no judgment in it," she explains. "You want your thoughts to come in and go out while you just sit with yourself for those 20 minutes."

When it is suggested that for many tapped-out working women, finding that extra time sounds like an unnerving proposition, Tyler laughs. "The last thing you want to do when you're stressed out and busy is sit and close your eyes, but it is transformational. Instead of struggling with thoughts, which can be obsessive-and everyone relates to that-it clears your brain. Even when I'm driving around thinking, I forgot to do this and I've got to do that, I don't feel so panicked. Now I enjoy the crazy moments more than I used to. I appreciate them for what they are." That clarity and calm has been particularly useful over the past year or so: Not only did Tyler have a new baby, but she also stepped into serial television for the first time, a sharp departure for the film veteran. "With a film, you have the script, and you know the beginning, middle and end," she says. "With TV, they write as they go. I have no idea what my character is going to be doing." Tyler says when she needles notoriously secretive show creator Damon Lindelof for details, he counters, "Do you really need to know, or can you just accept?" "Which is frustrating," she says. "Part of me loves it, and part of me hates it, having no control. Being comfortable in the unknown is hard for humans; even if we don't really know what's going to happen, we kind of trick ourselves into thinking we have a plan. This latest career move has been an exercise in letting go." Her Leftovers costar, Justin Theroux, says he's always considered Tyler a "downtown New York girl," but when they started spending time together, her childlike air engrossed him. "You'd think someone who has experienced what she has might become jaded or cynical," he says, "and she's neither of those things. She's sunny-side up, not sunny-side down. Liv carries this incredible optimism in life. There's a wonder to her."

Tyler's guilelessness has also made TV challenging for her. "I can be shy. I turn beet red and can't breathe," she says, acknowledging that the large staff and turnover associated with a TV production initially scared her. But she overcame. "My grandmother tells me I'm happiest when I'm working, that she can hear it in my voice," she says.

In the days leading up to her TV commitment, she asked a friend to film her. "I spoke to my future self. Like, 'Future self, this is present self.' I said, 'If anything comes from this, then I'm not meant to give up on acting.' And if it didn't, I was giving myself permission to pursue other interests, like directing or writing music, fully."

It begins to rain, and Tyler seeks refuge in a coffee shop. She orders hot tea and stares longingly at the frilly little cakes in the display. She reveals that tomorrow is her birthday and, though "38 is a crazy number" and "it's not fun when you see things start to change," insists she is sanguine about the prospect of aging. "When you're in your teens or twenties, there is an abundance of ingenue parts which are exciting to play. But at [my age], you're usually the wife or the girlfriend, a sort of second-class citizen. There are more interesting roles for women when they get a bit older."

"One of the things that's always been tricky for me is I started working so young," she continues. "If you Google me, the photo that always comes up first is me at, like, 13. A moment captured from another time." In some ways, a more generous time-pre Instagram, Twitter and all the instant criticism those conduits can invite. "I escaped all of that. I was always allowed just to be myself."

It's not that Tyler resents being frozen in electronic amber as an ingenue, but she does find it disconcerting that the public continues to think of her that way when she sees herself so differently, as a grown woman juggling career, partnership and kids. "I feel like I'm conducting a giant orchestra, because there's so many moving parts," she says. "It's like, 'Over there, you guys do that!' And then, 'Over there, you do this! All together now!' " Tyler sighs. "It's kind of what it feels like to be a mom, isn't it? In the modern world?"

While Tyler always knew she'd be a natural parent, she had fewer firm notions about marriage: "I had this philosophy that you should only get married once. But then, of course, that changes." Tyler admits that she'd like to marry again, that she is, romantically, even more open to the "sweetness of marriage" than she was on the first go. "I definitely believe we have lessons we learn through our relationships," she says. "You're meant to work through and mirror each other. It's the thing in someone that drives you the most crazy that is maybe a part of yourself somewhere."

She and Gardner, whom she already refers to as "my husband," are blending their families and lives, his in London and hers in New York. "We're doing everything we can to be together, but right now because of work we're going back and forth," she says.

All the marriage chat reminds Tyler of her sister Chelsea's recent wedding in Big Sur. "We were on the top of this mountain. I was holding Sailor. My dad gave a blessing he'd been writing for months, and it blew my mind. It was the most enchanted, beautiful thing ever. I wish my eyes had been cameras so I could have made my own little movie of what I was seeing."

Tyler's doe-eyed veneration can, from the outside, look like blessed naivete, but after some time in her company, it becomes clear that her outlook stems from a hard-won wisdom, her optimism a choice she makes where others might cave to suspicion or self-regard. Tyler has decided to move through the world with genuine gratitude and awe, to be, as she describes it, not only "open to everything" but "one of those people that no matter where I go, I find the beauty in it or the thing about it I love." "She's a seeker," echoes Theroux. "She's looking for the next most interesting experience in life, in love, in everything." "I'm not a big regretter," says Tyler plainly. "There are so many magical things that happen all the time."

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