At a table in a quiet corner of the legendary Algonquin hotel in Manhattan, Lili Taylor is carefully rolling her own cigarette. Though she is here for a party celebrating the premiere of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle — in which she plays author Edna Ferber — Taylor wears a baggy light-blue sweatshirt over a white T-shirt. She looks as if she dropped by on her way home from rehearsal.
Suddenly, an elegant blond woman in her 50s rushes over. ”I knew Edna Ferber,” she says, staring down at Taylor, who seems a little flustered. ”You were wonderful…But you’re much prettier than she was.”
Those are words the 27-year-old Taylor hardly ever gets to hear. Though she is very striking — with carved-out cheekbones and luxuriant full lips — Taylor, who speaks in whiskey-flavored tones, is the first to admit she’s considered unconventional in Hollywood. The irony is not lost on her that Ferber, the schoolmarmish author of the 1952 novel Giant, was something of an outsider at the famed Algonquin Round Table, presided over by the far more glamorous Dorothy Parker.
”(Hollywood’s) beauty standard is so strict,” says the Chicago-born actress, who recalls that her former agent once urged her to surgically alter her nose. ”Even though I may not be their ideal, it doesn’t mess me up. I feel like some of those money guys are the guys from my high school who didn’t find me attractive.”
Following her film debut alongside Julia Roberts in 1988’s Mystic Pizza and her memorable comic turn as a heartbroken teenager in 1989’s Say Anything, Taylor became the theater-trained diva of acclaimed small films like 1991’s Dogfight and 1993’s Household Saints. Her willingness to play unattractive women in offbeat projects (she claims she has worn no makeup in her last four films) attracted the attention of director Robert Altman, who included Taylor in 1993’s Short Cuts and cast her as a lesbian fashion photojournalist in Prêt-a-Porter, which opens this month. She’s also in Abel Ferrara’s upcoming vampire film The Addiction and has just shot a segment of the anthology film Four Rooms, in which she costars with Madonna.
”I tried to do the commercial thing,” says Taylor, who admits that more mainstream scripts rarely come her way. ”But I don’t want to keep shoving Twinkies down everyone’s throat. People are hungry for something of more substance.” Igniting her latest hand-rolled cigarette with a silver Art Deco lighter, she says, ”I’m glad that I ‘get it’ at a fairly young age, without having to go through so much hell and then finally getting it at 40.”