Home -> Articles -> Livin' doll
Livin' doll

Empire Magazine, September 1996. Photographs by Bettina Rheims

She's the progeny of the ultimate rook'n'roll couple, she'd give Helen of Troy a run for her drachmas in the looks department, and, goddamnit, she's acting just about everybody off the screen in Bernardo Bertolucci's new movie, Stealing Beauty. David Cavanagh is burdened with the unfortunate task at jetting to sun-soaked Tuscany to discover Liv Tyler, the hottest face of the 90s... Photographs by Bettina Rheims.

"Beautiful? My God, beautiful is not the word. She's absolutely gorgeous." That is just one verdict on Liv Tyler, care of director Bruce Beresford, who cast her. when she was only 16, in her first movie, Silent Fall. "What struck me," says Bernardo Bertolucci, whose new film. Stealing Beauty. Tyler graces with some exquisitely subtle acting, "was that when I was talking to her. I couldn't tell her age. Suddenly she was 13 years old, a kind of little baby. And then you look at her and she's like Gene Tierney in The Shanghai Gesture (von Stemberg, 1941) - a femme fatale. It was extremely stimulating."

"She's unbelievable," says Susan Minot, the American novelist who wrote Stealing Beauty's screenplay. "She's got something I don't know how she knows what she's doing, but she really does."

"Her parents nickname her 'Liver'," wrote the Daily Star back in January, "and that's quite appropriate. For she's certainly going to bring home the bacon in 1996."

Liv Tyler is now 20. She had her 19th birthday on the set of Stealing Beauty, the movie she made with Bertolucci in Tuscany a year ago, which is about to launch her as a serious actress with fabulous potential. She was the indisputable Face Of Cannes '96. gazing smokily down from seemingly every billboard, getting ambushed on arrival at the airport by the paparazzi, who clung to her baggage cart and wouldn't let go.

"I think it's wonderful and I'm very grateful," she told Empire at Cannes in May. "It's a great honour to be part of this film and it'll never be so nice again. But I'm not taking it too seriously, because if I did. I'd be floating up on another planet."

It's the first week of July 1995 and the breathtaking mountains of Tuscany resound with cries of 'Fermi!' and 'Silenzio!' as Tyler prepares for another take. Bertolucci has taken camera crews to Katmandu, the Sahara and the Forbidden City. Now he has come home to Italy - for the first time in 15 years - to make a small, sophisticated romance about a 19-year-old New York girl named Lucy Harmon and the effect she has on everyone around her.

Lucy, whose mother has recently died, is staying at the remote Italian home of a sculptor (Donal McCann), an old family friend. Examples of the sculptor's work - actually made by Tuscan resident Matthew Spender, son of the late Stephen - clutter up the garden of the house on the hill; their anguished contours put Philistines in mind of Tony Hancock's monstrous Aphrodite At The Water Hole in The Rebel.

Uncomfortable in this odd milieu of art, tranquility, decadence and jealousy, Lucy is about to throw a tantrum. Tyler explains the background to the scene.

"I'm a virgin," she smiles, "and Jeremy Irons has just told the entire household about it. And so they have nothing better to do than gossip. I come up to the pool and hear them talking about me - and he (Irons) runs away like a wimp - so I go into my room, very angry, and pack my things, feeling kind of trapped and scared."

She does three takes and Bertolucci lets her go. Those who know the Story of how Tyler came to realise the identity of her real father can find themselves spending inordinate amounts of time staring at her lips. It's very impolite, but it's also difficult to stop. (The finished film will begin with an even less gracious closesup of the crotch of her jeans.)

Making Silent Fall, she explained her family history to Bruce Beresford this way: "I said, 'Well, my father is Steven Tyler and he's in Aerosmith and he's got a really big mouth'."

However, until the age of nine, ten or 11 - the age changes every time she tells the story - she was Liv Rundgren, supposedly the daughter of rock musician Todd. Her mother, Rundgren's then-girlfriend Bebe Buell, had had a brief relationship with Steven Tyler during a separation from Rundgren, had got pregnant, had been reconciled with Rundgren, had given birth to Liv (whom she named after the Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, whose face was on the cover of a TV guide she happened to be reading at the time) and wisely decided to raise the child as a Rundgren, since the Aerosmith singer was at the time heavily involved in drugs. ("I find drugs disgusting," said Liv in I993, "and I don't like to drink alcohol either.") Backstage at a Rundgren gig in the US, the nine, ten, or 11-year-old Liv met Tyler, who, she noticed, was paying her an unusual amount of attention. She studied his remarkable Jaggeresque physiognomy, thought about her own, and promptly guessed the truth. Her mother confirmed it.

And so Liv Rundgren became Liv Tyler, and her mother took on the challenge of being her daughter's manager.

"I trust her and she knows what I want," Tyler says, starting to laugh. "And I don't have to pay her millions of dollars. Most young actors, they're so silly - they have publicists and managers and they just spit legal fees. They lose all their money immediately."

She is sitting in her trailer, parked up in a lane in some woods. Stealing Beauty is her fourth film - alter Silent Fall, there followed parts in Heavy and Empire Records - and she has only just graduated from high school. At 14 she accidentally became a model, when photographs of her were sent by a friend to Interview magazine. Two years later, bored with modelling, she told a journalist she had aspirations to appear in a movie, whereupon Beresford snapped her up immediately.

"As a kid, I always loved to perform," she smiles. "So many people were musicians in my family. My mother was always a singer (in bands called The B-Sides and The Gargoyles) and she'd play all these gigs. I would get dressed up in all her clothes, like a four-year- old tart with gloves and shoes and boas and jewellery. I had this little red plastic guitar and I'd come out and perform for all the family friends and embarrass myself terribly."

At 17, she was the sexually provocative Catholic girl in the video for Aerosmith's hit single, Crazy, co-starring with her friend Alicia Silverstone. Ironically, Silverstone was then quoted in an interview as saying that she had the part of Lucy Harmon.

"She called me right before I left," Tyler remembers, "and I told her I'd gotten the part. And she didn't really say very much. Then I read the article and thought. ‘Oh God'."

Until she got the role, she knew little of Bertolucci's work, despite seeing The Last Emperor many times as a kid (she was ten when it came out) The directors perception is that she has he manner of a person in transition between girliness and womanhood (with elements of both), a view echoed by 45-year-old producer Jeremy Thomas. Does she understand why these men might think that?

"Yeah," she concedes, "but I've been like this since I was a little girl. A lot of it comes from growing up with a single mother; being a child, but also a confidante and a friend to her, helping her with her problems. I am aware of it. I notice it in the way I think sometimes."

Where dealings with the media are involved, Tyler in person is more girl than woman. Her voice is a level, teenage, descant whine with few emphases. Most situations she discusses are either nerve-wracking (meeting Bernardo, acting in an important scene, 'carrying' Stealing Beauty) or, by contrast, too enormous to worry about (stardom, pressure, long-term career ambitions). She's the sort of person who tells you the names of all her pets. One of them, a Chihuahua called Chiquita, lollops around the trailer as he speaks. (The American magazine Details observed, memorably, that the animal is 'the size of Iggy Pop's penis'.)

Conversely, she is an extremely professional interviewee, wary of indiscretions, quick to seize on weak questions ("I don't understand that; what do you mean?") and easily able to deal with heavy journalists who ask her: "Do you care about beauty, and the fact that it's stolen?"

About 100 yards from the trailer, in a clearing next to a lake, Bertolucci is setting up the shot for a scene where Lucy reminisces to a much younger girl about her first kiss. Her reverie will be interrupted by a group of hunters, noisily descending the hills with shotguns and dogs, who are chasing a wild boar. An early version of this scene had to be aborted when the original boar panicked and made for a group of actors and onlookers; it was overpowered by means of electric shocks and heavy blows with planks of wood. Bring on Boar II. The big joke on set is that we will all be eating Boar I for dinner.

Tyler finds this upsetting and has been given half an hour by Bertolucci to calm down.

"I had my 19th birthday on Saturday," she says, "and we walked in (to dinner) and it was so beautiful, and I looked over to my left and in the middle of this grand long table of food, there was this fucking dead pig. I have always loved animals. I would barely even kill an insect."

The scene eventually gets under way; the boar, however, will not appear in the final cut. Tyler's acting in the clearing is barely perceptible - a bashful grin here, a flick of hair there - but it will look impressive on screen. Indeed, while at no point in the movie does she appear to emote, her character is convincingly, uncannily true to life. This is some achievement, since she's surrounded by Italian technicians whose language she does not speak; since the script calls for a loss-of-virginity scene that would unravel most 18-year-olds ("I found it terribly tortuous," she will later say); and since everyone on the film has a different opinion on what Stealing Beauty is about. It's a Chekhovian drama, full of tension. No, it's a light comedy. Nah, it's a mystery story. Au contraire, pal, it doesn't fit into any genre.

Unbeknownst to Tyler, Bertolucci sees parallels between the virginity of Lucy and his own return to Italy, after many years, to start again and "do something fresh". Lucy's virginity, he points out, is her own trophy of individuality - hers to keep, hers to lose - and although Tyler is oblivious to this section of her director's agenda, she knows intuitively how to play it.

"There isn't a single second in the film where I don't believe her," Bertolucci says emphatically. "I believe her all the time."

"This is the first time I've ever liked and understood a character," Tyler reckons. "She's a lot like me in a lot of ways. I found with parts I did in the past that I didn't understand certain things, or why the script was the way it was. I just did my job and it was over. Maybe it's the age thing (with Lucy). Being at this age where you're very strong and very sure of things, and then in another way you have no clue."

Lucy has, in fact, come to Tuscany to search for her real father, whose identity she has narrowed down to three possible candidates. Perhaps that's why Liv Tyler is so comfortable in the role. No student of acting she has never had formal training - she learns by watching others. She is eager to stress that she has seen a lot more of life than Lucy (one of her best friends is Marlon Richards, son of Keith; her own mother is arguably the most illustrious 'rock chick' in history), yet she confines revelations about her private life to a simple inventory of her New York household: Liv herself, her mother, her stepfather (a guitarist named Coyote Shivers) and a supporting cast of cats and dogs whose names can be provided on request. She is, as Bertolucci says, a mixture of young and old.

"I don't want to make three silly movies in a row to become a star," she says, keeping her voice level. "I don't care about that. I want to work with people like Woody Allen, and I'll wait as long as I have to. (She has since made a cameo appearance in Woody Allen's forthcoming musical Everyone Says I Love You - Ed.) My mother has always said she really wanted me to work in Europe with a good European director. We both started to pray for that... and then this happened. That's usually how my mother and I work. If you have something in mind that you want, and you think about it, it comes."

It is June I996 and she has come to Cannes. Already there are squabbles breaking out over her. Stealing Beauty is "in competition", which has brought Bertolucci to the festival too, but Liv Tyler is the interview everyone wants to grab. Five journalists have squeezed on to a hotel balcony and each is attempting to conduct his own personal one-to-one conversation with the Face Of Cannes. It's all going splendidly ("It was incredible to trust Bernardo so completely, etc. ") until the guy from Radio 1 starts snapping at the showbiz reporter from a British tabloid, who has been interjecting with remarks such as, "Ooh, you clever thing!" and "Oh, no, poor you!"

"We're trying to do this for radio," the Radio 1 man tells him sharply, "and all the time that you're sort of wittering on in this way, we can't use any of the stuff we get."

"Well, we've all been put in here together haven't we?" the tabloid bloke explains.

Tyler tries to placate them: "Yeah, I mean, we're all just having a nice conversation... "

"What I mean is, you could stop," says Radio 1, hotly.

Fractious scenes, to be sure. Manfully, the tabloid bloke controls his urge to gush, except he giggles all the way through Tyler's account of Stealing Beauty's sex scene.

"There was more nudity in the script originally," she begins, "and I was like, 'No way, sorry.' Of course, the thought of showing your body parts is a terrifying thought - I find it terrifying. Let alone showing the whole world. And I fought it until the very end ('Heehee! Did you ?'). But it was done in a nice way and a very beautiful way, and it wasn't unnecessary or boring ('It certainly wasn't.') It wasn't, 'Here, I'm naked, look, haha!' ('Haha!')"

"But the script called for an olive grove, and I'd imagined an olive grove to be this really fluffy, warm, incredibly wonderful spot. In fact, it was this painful, stone-and vine-infested piece of soil ('Ouch!') and I had to lay flat on my back. I had the greatest bruises."

Everybody's a year older now, including the Chihuahua. Tyler's character in Stealing Beauty has, according to Bertolucci, become a strong identification symbol among teenagers in Italy. Two days prior to her arrival in Cannes, Tyler was in California shooting Inventing The Abbots with Pat O'Connor, a movie about the relationship between two families. She is also in Tom Hanks' directorial debut, That Thing You Do, about a mid-60s pop group, which she made after Stealing Beauty was concluded.

"It was a completely opposite situation, because Tom is this incredible comedian," she says. "During rehearsals we would be laughing until we pissed our pants. Practically," she adds.

In ironic contrast to her own real adolescence, she plays a smalltown girl who has never encountered pop musicians before. In reality, Liv Tyler encounters one every time she goes home. (Always remember, no matter how down-to-earth Tyler appears to be, she lives under the same roof as a man who calls himself Coyote Shivers.)

"Right now," Tyler concludes, "I just feel very open to what is given to me. I'm trying to experience everything and learn everything. I'm hoping to do something completely different to what I've done already. I've played a virgin twice, and I've always been a nice girl. Which I don't mind. But I want to... maybe grow up a little."



The original scans (click to enralge):