2013 was a great year for actress Lili Taylor. Not only did she secure recurring roles on both the Netflix original series Hemlock Grove and the Fox sci-fi procedural Almost Human, but she also found herself playing the central character in The Conjuring, 2013’s surprise horror smash that managed the rare feat of collecting both envious box office numbers and accolades from the critical community.
Breaking through with a role in 1988’s Mystic Pizza, Taylor has built up an impressive portfolio over the years that includes beloved mainstream fare (Say Anything…, High Fidelity) as well as revered arthouse/independent projects (I Shot Andy Warhol, The Addiction). Such a diverse career has brought her in contact with directors such as Robert Altman, Cameron Crowe, John Waters, Oliver Stone, Abel Ferrara, John Hughes and Michael Mann—just to name a few.
Taylor talked with Paste about the challenges of playing a futuristic police captain Sandra Maldonado in Almost Human, the success of The Conjuring and why exactly The Haunting—the poorly received remake of the 1963 classic that she starred in—didn’t end up working out.
Paste: Since The Conjuring hit theaters and become a success, have you found yourself being offered more roles now?
Taylor: No, I went right into the TV show [Almost Human] so I become unavailable. The timing was just a little funny, you know? It was kind of a drag. I think there was interest in stuff, but I was just not available.
Paste: I’m looking at your resume and—with the exception of maybe a guest role on X-Files—I don’t see a lot of sci-fi films or TV shows. Was this a new experience for you, doing something like Almost Human?
Taylor: Yeah, I feel a little sci-fi illiterate. I know there’s something going on there. People that I really love and admire love science fiction. It’s funny because I realize I love science and I’m sure I would love science-fiction because of that.
Paste: When you started on the show, did they give you any books or movies that they would referencing for the look and tone of the show?
Taylor: Mostly Blade Runner was the big template and that, of course, I’d seen. I loved Children of Men. I don’t know if that’s technically sci-fi, but that worked for me. I loved that balance of it being not so far away [in the future] that I couldn’t imagine it, so I’ve been working with more of a Children of Men template.
Paste: That’s a good reference. In that movie, the future doesn’t look horribly different from today. It’s not Back to the Future II, basically.
Taylor: And I think that’s what [showrunner] Joel [Wyman] is working with too. It is 2050, but a lot of things are the same. Most of all, humanity is still the same pretty much.
Paste: What’s it like dispensing the technical jargon? Is that challenging at times?
Taylor: Yeah, it can be. Sometimes I just have to stop and say, “you know, I’m not listening to what I’m saying and, if I’m not listening, I can’t imagine anyone else is listening, so I think we need either to get more specific or I think we need to tinker with this because it’s just not resonating.”
Paste: Have there been any specific times where that happened?
Taylor: Yeah, definitely. I felt like it was happening a little bit earlier on, like in episodes two, three and four. It was just one of those things where one of the writers got caught up in the jargon and not splicing it in with the character in that situation. I guess what it becomes is general and I think anytime anything becomes general, it’s not going to work as well.
Paste: The part was originally written for a man; was it just through seeing you that they decided to reimagine the character as a woman?
Taylor: My manager suggested it. “What if Maldonado was a woman? What if you used Lili for this?” And I auditioned and I think they had some other people auditioning—maybe other men, I’m not sure—but they liked what they saw. I thought it was great that they were open to making that part a woman.
Paste: In one of the recent episodes [“Blood Brothers”] it was nice to see you have a bit more stuff to do. Was it frustrating in earlier episodes where you’re basically sitting at your desk and not leaving the precinct?
Taylor: I mean, I’ve started to understand that captains don’t leave much, that that’s sort of the reality. I remember another actor came in to play a part; he’d played a police captain in another TV show. He said, “no no, you’re not leaving.” [laughs] But even still, yeah—I got here and realized, “oh shoot, it’s going to be focusing on the guys right now and that’s the way it is for a first season.” I got that, and I trust that the creators will deliver because they seem to be honest and they said they would get into my stuff. I believe them, but I do understand the pressure they were under to get the [Dorian-Kennex] relationship down. That relationship between the guys has changed a lot.
Paste: That relationship is one of the show’s best assets. They seemed to hit it off instantly.
Taylor: And that’s work. That wasn’t at all where the show was going. It wasn’t as heavy on that relationship. They started to see that it really needed that and so we actually had to reshoot [episodes] two, three and four and change the whole direction. That’s why I think some of the other characters took a backseat because that relationship started to change so much. I think it’s a great relationship. I love it.
Paste: So what was the show before?
Taylor: It was colder. They weren’t pushing each other’s buttons in these interesting ways. They weren’t moving each other. They really are an interesting fit, and there’s tension and humor, and that wasn’t there at the beginning.
Paste:You mentioned the creators have further ideas for your character in the future. Is that something you can hint at, or do you not even know at this point?
Taylor: I don’t know at this point. I think the show has changed so much, they’re still trying to get their heads around what the tone is and the new direction is, and if there’s a second season, I think we’ll sit down and talk. I know the things that interest me are the sacrifices [Captain Maldonado] probably had to make to get to where she is. I think there’s plenty to explore. I know they’re open to it; it’s just sort of wrapping this up and seeing if we get a second season and then, can we get into that stuff?
Paste: Even though you’re playing a captain in the future, did you do any research with today’s modern police captains? Or is it just too much of an alternative thing?
Taylor: It’s a little alternate, but I feel like The Wire was really helpful, the original Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren was pretty helpful and I have enough to give me the verisimilitude that I need. Then I can sort of adopt the new reality of the new age.
Paste: Going to The Conjuring, were you surprised at all by just how well-received the film was?
Taylor: No. Because I could tell. I mean, you can feel like everyone’s in the zone and then who knows what happens after the wrap. But I knew everyone was in the zone and everyone was at the top of their game. Every department head across the board…we were just collaborating so well. And a lot of that, of course, has to do with James because the director sets the tone and they sort of make or break the whole thing.
Paste: There’s been talk of sequels or prequels for The Conjuring. Would you be at all involved or would it focus on the Warrens?
Taylor: I think it’s going to focus on the Warrens but if [director] James [Wan] does it, I told him I’ll dress up as anything, I’ll be a demon, I’ll be anything. You don’t even have to know it’s me because I just loved working with him so much.
Paste: Prior to breaking through in film, you’d been doing a lot of theater. When you were first making that transition to film, did you feel like you had to adjust your acting style or did it all come very naturally to you?
Taylor: It came natural, but I love theater and it’s very important to me. I still stayed in Chicago after doing the first few movies and then I moved to New York and did some theater there. If anything, with theater, I had to make sure that muscle stayed strong.
Paste: Have there been any characters or plays you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t gotten the chance to?
Taylor I have to think about that. I have to work on imagining that.
Paste: I’m looking at your resume and you’ve worked consistently since you first started in film. What do you feel is the secret to that? Is it luck or are there mistakes people make that you’ve tried to avoid making when it comes to handling your career?
Taylor: One thing I think is “to thine own self be true”—but then, as my friend sometimes says, “which self?” [laughs]—but at least working with whatever self it is to come from that place. Because, at the end of the day, that’s all you’re going to have. Everyone else will be telling you to do X or Y, but you are the one who has to decide, so it’s got to rest with you and what works for you. And that can be hard when there’s pressure. And I think just experience is so important and how to use that experience. To know that you have to experience things to figure it out and let yourself experience things and fall down and get up and keep going.
Paste: If you had to give advice to actors now, what would it be?
Taylor: I think it would be just that—”to thine own self be true.” That’s what it boils down to in a way. What do you want to do? It may not seem like it’s monetarily wise or the best career move, but I feel like doing career moves don’t always work.
Paste: On that note, I’m really glad you were in The Conjuring because—and no offense to anyone involved in this movie—I thought you were good in The Haunting but I wanted another horror film with you that was maybe a bit better than that one.
Taylor: Me too. And, you know, if [The Haunting director] Jan [de Bont] had done an Insidious and I had that evidence…All I had was Jan’s word and—I think he meant what he said, I think he really did believe in this—he said to me, “that which you can’t see is what’s scary” and, you know what, James Wan said the same thing to me. But with Jan, there were huge pressures on him—big studios and so on—and we just lost our way. We saw everything in that movie. Also, because we had the original behind us and we knew how the original worked so well, I thought, “we can’t stray that far.” Well, you know…
I love scary movies and I think they’re important for the culture. They serve a purpose. So I was really glad to be part of such an excellent one, and I do think it’s going to become a classic. For me, I watch The Exorcist every year and I watch Rosemary’s Baby every year. Those are my two favorites. For sure, this is up there. This is like my second favorite horror movie ever [laughs].
Paste: So was playing possessed a dream role since you loved The Exorcist?
Taylor:I have to say, after The Haunting, I was gun-shy. I think the only horror I want to do is no CGI. That’s another reason I think [The Conjuring] works. This is a great movie for just how everyone was happy that there was no computer stuff. Just like going back to old school things—to the human element, to our imaginations. That’s one big stellar point of the movie.
Paste: Is writing or directing your own films something you’d want to do some day?
Taylor: It is. But it’s sort of like when you asked earlier about parts that I want to play and imagining that. I need to do that sort of thing. If I’m going to direct something, you’re leading all these people and I have to be 150 percent behind my vision, especially if I’m taking all these people with me. Until that time, it’s a waste of everyone’s time and my time. So I’m trying to build that up. And I hope it’s sooner than later but if it’s when I’m 70 then it’s 70—whenever I get there. I also think there’s so much content out there that unless I think “why do I have to tell this story now?” and I don’t have a burning answer to that, then it’s just not worth it.
Paste: Looking back on who you’ve worked with in the past, who do you think has been the biggest personality? I would guess Abel Ferrara, but I may be wrong.
Taylor: Abel is definitely up there [laughs]. He is in the top three. And you know something, I loved working with Abel. It was painful at times and toxic, but he’s very creative and I would work with him again in a second. It was really exciting. I mean, that kind of thing can get old and I got him at a point where he wasn’t so out of control. It was pretty bad but…at times something like that might not be worth it, but it was just enough that I would work with him again. Emir Kusturica, the director of Arizona Dream was a great personality. He was a Yugoslavian, underground director and has won the Palme D’or like 100 times. He’s the Fellini of Yugoslavia, and that film took about a year to make. It’s got Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis—crazy cast. If you get a chance to see his movies you’ll know why he’s a genius. James Wan actually—he’s not a crazy personality, but his creative spirit is huge.