Intersections: Inside the Mind of Lili Taylor

Actress Relies on Psychology to Create Memorable Characters

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Lili Taylor

Actress Lili Taylor, backstage at the IFP Independent Spirit Awards, March 2003. Corbis hide caption

toggle caption Corbis

Taylor, right, with co-star Kristen Johnston in a scene from Aunt Dan and Lemon. Taylor used the psychiatric manual known as the DSM to diagnose her character Lemon as a hypochondriac, a chronic liar and "probably borderline." © Carol Rosegg hide caption

toggle caption © Carol Rosegg
Lili Taylor in 'Mystic Pizza'

In 1988's Mystic Pizza, Taylor played Jo Jo. Her biggest problem is deciding whether to marry. Even when characters aren't complex, Taylor says it's important to consider psychology: "I don't want to go too deep if that character isn't deep." MGM/ Courtesy hide caption

toggle caption MGM/ Courtesy

Actress Lili Taylor is often referred to as "the queen of the independents." Though many may remember her from her first big screen role as Jo Jo in 1988's Mystic Pizza, Taylor has worked extensively on independent films such as 1996's I Shot Andy Warhol and, more recently, John Sayles' Casa de los Babys. She also has a recurring role on HBO's Six Feet Under.

In this week's "Intersections," our series on artists and their inspirations, Taylor talks with NPR's Lynn Neary about her lifelong interest in psychology and the way it has influenced her acting.

Taylor's fascination with psychology grew out of her own family's experience with mental illness: her father was diagnosed as manic depressive, and in high school, she herself was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, though she was not medicated. Her therapist suspected Taylor's symptoms might disappear once she found an outlet for her creative energies — which is exactly what happened, Taylor says.

As her acting career developed, Taylor continued seeing a therapist. "I kind of look at it like an expensive conversation," she says. "I use my therapist a lot with my characters."

Taylor is particularly influenced by the work of Carl Jung. A founding father of modern psychology, Jung developed the theory of the collective unconscious, and proposed the existence of archetypal patterns that help shape personality. Taylor says she sometimes finds it helpful to think in terms of Jungian archetypes when she begins working on a part: "It's another way of helping getting in there, because I have a whole wealth of literature to turn to if I have come up with the trickster, the villain or the great mother or the nag or whatever."

Some characters, says Taylor, are especially challenging. She just completed a critically acclaimed run as Lemon, in the New Group's production of Wallace Shawn's play Aunt Dan and Lemon. Lemon is a strange young woman who lives alone in a one-room apartment, admires Nazis and doesn't believe compassion exists. She espouses her often-loathsome ideas with a kind of chipper innocence. Taylor used the DSM, the diagnostic manual psychiatrists use, to get inside her character, whom she decided was a hypochondriac, a chronic liar and "probably borderline."

"With some characters, you have to [use the DSM]," she says. "I mean, gosh, when I started I was like 'Help!'"

Taylor's newest film, Slipping Away, comes out in May.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from