May Be Steven's Daughter, but She's Nobody's Little Girl
By Lucy Kaylin, GQ Magazine, August 1998
She emerged from her crazy, sped up girlhood sweetly unscathed, and now Liv Tyler is facing even bigger challenges—like dodging asteroids with the Hollywood boys' club in Armageddon
Liv Tyler has just turned 21, and already she's ruing the geekiness of youth.
"When I was about 10 or 11, I wore skintight stretch jeans with zips on the side and I had a perm and I was tall and I had boobs and a big, fat butt,"
she laughs, pulling a cigarette to her lips lightly, like a bubble wand. "I would go to the roller rink on the weekends, and I listened to Motley Crue and Ozzy and Black Sabbath and Slaughter and Aerosmith."
Sitting on a couch in a Hollywood Hills house that's being rented by her boyfriend, Joaquin Phoenix, she tries to tuck her long legs underneath her. Liv is bulkier than her feathery voice would suggest a robust flamingo; a self described "big boned mama." "Then I went through a homegirl phase. I wore lots of makeup and big door knocker earrings and these huge jeans enormous. My girlfriends would tell me that the boys didn't like skinny girls, so I'd put sweatpants on under them. Such a weirdo,"
Liv says, rolling her eyes.
Liv talks about adolescence as if it's ancient history. But in every sense, she's still a woman in the making—all femurs and forearms and huge feet and hands; the oblivious woman child scampering about on coltish gams. She's got that youthful enthusiasm when she talks about fun things, she actually growls with pleasure. Liv is a sexy girl not quite onto herself yet, which is a quality that doesn't go unnoticed in Hollywood. At 16, when she swung sweetly on a stripper's pole in a heavily rotated Aerosmith video, the town took to her like great whites to fresh chum.
So fresh was Liv, she wouldn't even have to say or do much to register on screen. She'd simply have to let her nubile Livness ooze through. The best example of this is in Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty
, in which she plays the virgin Lucy among a band of ruined sybarites on holiday in Tuscany. Loping loose jointed through the thickets, widening her paisley shaped eyes at the sight of adults at play, she nails that slippery moment when a young thing is on the verge. The same happens in Heavy
, in which Liv plays a morbid loner's obsession. It's her authenticity that is so riveting here, as she tilts her head compassionately at the poor man who is slain by just such a look. In both movies, as well as in That Thing You Do! and Inventing the Abbotts, her roles capitalize on her compassion, for Liv rings true as a girl worth loving a girl in whose hands your heart is safe.
Perhaps it is inevitable that a girl like this will eventually be served up for worldwide delectation. Still, there is something horribly incongruous about Liv in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, especially the $140 million full metal ejaculation Armageddon
, wherein she competes for screen time with an asteroid and Bruce Willis's scenery chewing blue collar heroics. Not exactly art house. But being on a first name basis with Hollywood's boys' club, in a movie with global appeal, never hurt anyone's career. Besides, the project got a big thumbs up from a key adviser—her father, Steven Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith, who knows a little bit about career building.
"I said, 'Do it!'"
he remembers. The idea was to allay Liv's fear of such a baldly commercial endeavor: "'Take it from someone who never had hits in the early days and was damn proud of it. It wasn't until we had one that I realized the worth and the weight of it."'
Such a grown up dilemma for someone so young. But then it's often easy to forget just how young Liv is. Sometimes it seems as if she's been around the block a bunch of times—as when she's chain smoking like a diner waitress or singing along to a Patsy Cline CD; Liv has a thing for weary female crooners who took their knocks long before she was even born. "Talking to Liv is like talking to a wise grandmother,"
says her friend Victoria Clay. "It's kind of shocking."
Then there are other times when she may as well be roaming the malls with a pack of giggling girls. Liv speaks in Italics; everything's amazing, be it Bruce's jet, Joaquin's tabouli or cigarettes: "One in the car is amazing,"
she says. "One on the phone is amazing. Even one on the loo sometimes is amazing."
Ask her opinion of the presidential sex scandal and she's suddenly a clueless adolescent. "I actually don't know much about it at all,"
she says. "I always manage to avoid the major events in our society."
There are traces of the girl woman dichotomy in the Hollywood Hills house as well. She arrived yesterday, Valentine's Day, after having been in London for several weeks shooting a period movie called Onegin
with Ralph Fiennes. And despite its being sunny and spacious, with a pool out back, the house has the feel of a dorm room: the abandoned backgammon game; egregiously misspelled notes and reminders written in Liv's childish hand; a teddy bear and a heart shaped box of chocolates for Joaquin; a copy of Mojo magazine on the bathroom floor. But there is also a black negligee hanging on the back of the door and a pair of strappy black heels lying on their sides like felled beasts, which attest to a rather grown up homecoming last night. Then there's the tiny black velvet box on the table, which contained the antique diamond and emerald ring that's now on one of Liv's long fingers a Valentine's present from Joaquin.
"We were sitting on the couch cuddling and kissing,"
she says. Her shirt gapes between the buttons, and there's something scribbled on the back of her hand. "And he looked really shy and I couldn't figure out why and then he put his hand in his pocket and I had my head buried in his neck and he took it out of his pocket and there it was and I just went ehhhhh!"
But the Tiger Beat reverie gives way to mild panic when Liv realizes that the token might be mistaken for an engagement ring, which it most definitely is not.
"I'm really not ready for that! And what if maybe I bought the ring for myself ? I bought this necklace for myself,"
she says, fingering a diamond on a short chain. "Johnny [Depp] would give Kate [Moss] diamonds all the time, and I'd be like, 'Kate, oh my God!' She had pounds of them. And it didn't mean anything."
But if Liv and Joaquin aren't engaged, they are everything but, judging from the way they dissolve at the sight of each other. Or the way Liv deep kisses Joaquin like a war bride before he goes out to buy a few more CDs. They met almost three years ago, on the set of Inventing the Abbotts. "I just walked into this room and he had his back to me and he was getting his makeup done and he stood up and turned around and I just went "
Liv does a combination of "glug glug glug" and "hummina hummina." "And I got the biggest, goofiest grin on my face I've ever had in my entire life. Thank God he's so shy—he kind of looked down at the ground and I had to turn around and, like, stop my smiles from happening. It completely took me over."
They seem well matched: Both would have made excellent hippies. Under Joaquin's aegis, Liv has become a vegetarian. And they revel in the story of Joaquin's sister's childbirth—at home, in a pool—which they both attended. Liv was especially wowed by the freaky looking placenta. "What an outrageous thing,"
she says. "It's heavy, like a brain. We kept it and put it in the fridge for a little while. Then they planted it in the yard with a tree, which I thought was a really sweet idea."
Skeevy is more like it, but somehow you forgive that, coming from Liv.
Late in the afternoon, Joaquin pulls up in his mustard color Pontiac and wanders in from his errands. He's got milky, agate eyes that dart around in shyness. His hair is bluish and his eyebrow is pierced bits of character for his part in a Nicolas Cage movie called 8MM.
It comes up that some paparazzo recently took a shot of him and Cage on the set, wandering through a meat market. "You mean there were carcasses just hanging there ?"
Liv says, with a supplicating look. Joaquin's voice rises: "There was a cow hanging there with no head or hooves, dude."
He shakes his head and looks down at his feet, which happen to be shod in a plasticky material that could pass for leather. "It was rugged."
You keep forgetting, but they really are just kids. Kids who happen to star in movies, vacation in Mustique and live in chic neighborhoods. But showbiz precocity is nothing new for Liv. Growing up the daughter of rock's premier groupie, Bebe Buell (who describes herself as having been "a free spirit before it was fashionable"), Liv was weaned on heavy metal accompanying her mother to Kiss and Slaughter concerts, being hit on at the age of 12 by hairy drummers backstage. With such a hip upbringing, Liv didn't have much to rebel against: She was an atypical teen in that she didn't jones for mischief. "My mother would always warn me about things that I would never do—things that she did, but I would never dream of doing, because I had no interest. She had nothing to worry about,"
Liv says, adding, "I never felt like my parents were the enemy."
"To try drugs and not continue to do them,"
Steven Tyler says of Liv, in utter wonderment. "For all the rehabs I've been in where they say it's genetic and you better tell your children' cuz they're doomed to relive your life, I say, 'Oh yeah?! ' "
If anything, Liv may have longed for conventionality from time to time. Like when she and her mother had just moved to New York City and had to crash with two friends who happened to be the editors of Mad-inspired Cracked magazine. Immediately, Liv got her first period. So that night, they took her to an Indian restaurant where everything was red: walls, tablecloths, napkins, floor. "As a joke,"
Liv says, "which was really not funny at all."
Having to celebrate your first period with the editors of Cracked magazine could have a warping effect on a budding lass, but Liv has somehow managed to parlay the strangeness of her youth into a kind of preternatural poise and sagacity. After all, her mother was so young, attempting to make her mark as a singer in various bands, that occasionally she and Liv were more like friends (they even wore matching cowboy boots). There were financial struggles, and when Liv started making money in her midteens, she was in a position to lay a few treats on her mom—like a grander apartment and, just recently, a ring encrusted with rubies and diamonds (it's not a ring, Buell says, "it's an extravaganza"
). But for all the ups and downs, there was an enormous amount of love enough to carry Liv through the incomparable mind fuck of finding out her father wasn't who she thought he was.
Liv was the literal by product of sex, drugs and rock and roll. But, luckily for her, her fate was in the hands of an improbably conscientious bunch of pleasure seekers. It's become one of the great music industry yarns—Bebe's getting pregnant with Liv at 21 by Tyler, who, as a peripatetic, drug-taking metalhead superstar, was unavailable for the Father Knows Best role. So Bebe's old boyfriend, responsible rocker Todd Rundgren, became Dad, performing all the relevant duties, from cutting the cord to paying for private school.
Which isn't to say Buell and Tyler hadn't discussed it first. "He'd be in a coma during some of the discussion, but, yeah, we discussed it,"
says Buell, a chatty ex model with the tousled hair and heart shaped face of a Playboy centerfold, which she once was. She's also a talent manager, as well as, of all things, the daughter of a prominent Washington etiquette consultant. "And Todd and I discussed it, and Todd had his points. We weren't sure if Steven would be alive in a year's time, because he was having problems with seizures and convulsions."
(Although, as Tyler remembers it, his heroin addiction wouldn't really kick in for a few more years.) So Rundgren stepped in, posing as Liv's biological father. Shortly after Liv was born, Buell took her to visit Tyler. "He saw her; he met her. What could he say ? He burst into tears. But the deal had been made."
Clearly, this secret wasn't meant to be kept, however. When Liv was 9 and living in Portland, Maine, Buell took her to one of Rundgren's shows in Boston. Tyler was there, too. Backstage after the show, he met Liv, whom he hadn't seen since she was a baby. "And he said, 'Wow, Beeber,' "
Buell remembers. "We've all got dumb names for each other—he's Stervin; I'm Beeber; Liv's Liver and Livy and Livasnaps and Livonia."
(All improvements over the name Liv almost got, "Luv," which proved to be too difficult to write. "Liv" won out one day when Buell saw the actress Liv Ullmann on the cover of TV Guide.)
Anyway, after the concert, Liv was playing with a Casio keyboard that Rundgren had given her for Christmas, and suddenly Tyler's goofing around with her, belching into the thing and pressing the reverb button, teaching her how to play Aerosmith's "Dream On." "And what I thought was freaky was she had on a little yin and yang sweatshirt and Steven had on yin and yang socks,"
Buell says. "I'm serious. It's not like everyone in the world was running around in a yin and yang motif."
Back in Maine, Liv turned her room into an Aerosmith shrine and wrote in her diary, "I don't know why, but I feel like Steven is my daddy."
A few years later, Tyler, completely off drugs by this point "Super clean," says Buell—invited Bebe and Liv to an Aerosmith concert. Also in attendance was Tyler's daughter Mia, who turned out to be Liv's doppelganger "It was ridiculously uncanny,"
Bebe says. "That's when Liv said to me, 'Mommy, that's my father, isn't it? ' Boom. Just like that. And I started to cry."
But Liv was thrilled. "Wow,"
she said to her mother, "this year Christmas is gonna rock!"
Rundgren, of course, was the odd man out in all this; currently, he and Bebe aren't talking. "I all of a sudden grew horns and a tail,"
she says. "Somebody had to take the blame. But I didn't really care what happened to me, if you want to know the truth. It's like I said to Steven: 'It doesn't matter what we feel right now. We're big guys; we can take it. We have to make sure it's OK for Liv.' "
Predictably, Liv's relationship with Rundgren suffered some. She'd had no reason to believe he wasn't her father; they even have the same long, horsey faces (Liv still talks of getting "Todd head" from time to time). Although she doesn't see Rundgren much these days, Liv practically genuflects at the mention of his name for all he did when she needed it most. On the upside, she was drawn intensely to Tyler. "It's so fun to get to know him,"
Liv enthuses. "I look at him, and I'm him!"
Hell, they even wear the same size clothes. "We have fashion shows. I made him try on my beautiful gray stretch Helmut Lang suit, and he looked so cute in it. We just love to shop."
But her father's joy will always be a little tainted. "I didn't get a chance to change her diapers, and I will cry inside for that for the rest of my life,"
Tyler says. "I've come to grips with it, but my insides know exactly what happened."
Meanwhile, Bebe has been there pretty much throughout, particularly when Liv went from B list model to serious actress in the click of a shutter. Suddenly, Bebe was fielding calls, fending off tacky projects and attempting to guide her absurdly hot teenage daughter through fame's spooked corridors. Charges of stage mothering were inevitable especially when Bebe ceased being Liv's manager and it looked as though Liv might have fired her. Bebe resents the characterization.
"I was chained to my desk for fifteen hours a day when she started to break,"
Buell says. "I felt terrible! She would come home from school, and she would need me to snuggle her or be her mom, and I would have to finish a phone call or whatever. I'm glad I was able to give my daughter whatever guidance I could about having a good business manager and an attorney and making wise decisions and watching your product and keeping an eye on your agent. But I'm not Mama Rose; I'm not Teri Shields. I'm a talent manager. And my daughter chose to become an actor."
In her eternally winsome way, Liv says it's better now that they're back to being just mother and daughter. "She did such an amazing job of getting me started and helping me organize everything,"
she says. "But I need to learn how to do all that for myself. Because this is my life."
Liv may be in a position to make more of her own decisions. But with mercenary issues such as exposure and bankability bearing down, the decisions are likely to grow trickier by the day. For instance, while Armageddon
guarantees an army of new Liv fans, the material is a crazy leap. (With a straight face, Bruce Willis plays the world's greatest deep core oil driller, who must drill to the center of an asteroid the size of Texas and drop in a nuclear device before it reaches and obliterates planet Earth; Liv plays his daughter.) To say the least, the experience was full of mindblowing firsts.
During one week of the shoot, Liv had to live out on an oil rig, wearing a hard hat, with barracudas swimming around beneath the rig's mesh floor. It was either that or commute to and from the set via helicopter with the guys, including director, Michael Bay, Willis and Liv's on-screen love interest, Ben Affleck. (On the first trip out, the blasé pilot drawled about when to activate the flares and how the trash bags on the life preservers double as wet suits.)
But the filming process was even more hair raising. While Liv is accustomed to having characters gently teased out of her by nurturing auteurs, Michael Bay's M.O. is more akin to battleship assembly. It was new for Liv to shoot scenes so wildly out of sequence, requiring her to act in a vacuum, since much of the boom boom would be supplied in postproduction. Less attention was paid to her character's motivation than to the asteroid's.
"It was really hard,"
Liv says, gathering her long hair into a ponytail and pulling it over her right shoulder. "My first week was all the emotional stuff in mission control while they're in space, and it's like two second snaps of me reacting to things. I'd never done that kind of acting before. You just never walked away feeling good about it. I don't think I ever really came to terms with who my character was."
But if she was looking for a little handholding, she wasn't likely to get it from Bay. "It was funny,"
Bay says, sounding more like a teasing older brother than any sort of artistic collaborator. "She would always say to me, 'But but but I don't understand. I don't understand how this is gonna cut, and I have to match and...'
And I was like, 'Liv, trust me. There are always three things going on at once, so we're going to be intercutting a lot.' That was the hardest hurdle for her to get over. It was almost like I was teaching a film student. It was frustrating for her, and it was frustrating for me."
Bay offers the example of a scene in which Liv was supposed to punch Billy Bob Thornton but couldn't get beyond thinking that she looked stupid doing it. "I said, 'Liv, it's all in the way I cut. I made Will Smith look good doing this [in Bad Boys]; I made Nick Cage look good doing this [in The Rock]. You've got to trust me.' And she was just like, 'I look terrible! This doesn't feel good!' "
Bay laughs. "She has the funniest face when she does something she doesn't like doing. Her upper lip goes up—it's like Mister Ed."
Nothing about the project felt familiar, including working with a star of Willis's wattage. "He had three trailers!"
Liv says. "One was a gym, and he had all these guys who looked like they were from ZZ Top sitting outside on lawn chairs, and I just didn't really get it, you know ? And then I realized that this is his life! He works a lot, and he just kind of sets up camp."
During a break in shooting, Liv got a taste of the supernova lifestyle when Willis flew some cast members, including her, on his private jet to his spread in Idaho to watch the Super Bowl.
So the shoot wasn't total torture. Despite their difficulties, even Bay can say now that Liv's performance is one of the strongest things in the movie. "She's still young,"
he says. "She's still growing up. You could see that when I'm ready to say 'action' and she's taking pictures of a rocket."
Bay literally had to take Liv's camera away from her when they were shooting at NASA, surrounded by some very cool looking aircraft. "She goes, 'Sorry!' like a little kid. But I loved working with her."
Yeah, well, the feeling isn't mutual. At the mention of Bay's name, Liv sticks her finger in her mouth and mimes puking.
On one of those weirdly balmy winter days in L.A., Liv comes to the door like Tom Cruise in Risky Business—sliding sideways on stockinged feet, laughing as she overshoots the entranceway. The plan for today is to have lunch at her favorite restaurant—not El Carmen or Rix, mind you, but some hole in the wall vegan joint in the Valley. "It's just the only restaurant in the world,"
There are booster seats in the vinyl booths, noodles on the floor and the perpetual drone of a blender pulverizing root vegetables into a quasi potable state. But to Liv, this is as good as it gets. She orders chips, salsa, guacamole and a faux-chicken sandwich fashioned of something soy based. Then she pulls out a stack of photos from her childhood: Liv, chubby and smiling, in short hair and bangs, wearing a sweater with her name embroidered on it; Liv dressed as Wonder Woman on Halloween; Liv riding a little pink bike with training wheels; Liv in a ballerina costume. The pictures say a lot about how well Liv was loved, and the efforts that were made to give her a shot at a normal life. The only strange part is how recent this all was. The '80s, for God's sake. It's as if Liv experienced her adolescence through time lapse photography. She was crowned an "It" girl before she earned it.
For a woman of her years, she's had a lot of things asked of her. The masturbation scene in Stealing Beauty
was probably the hardest. "It was always in the script that [Lucy] was restless and couldn't sleep, and she tossed and turned in the bed and ended up on the floor with a pillow between her legs, but I didn't get it at all,"
Liv says. "Then one night, we were having wine and sitting by the fire, and Bernardo says, 'So, you know this scene tomorrow—you are very uncomfortable, very restless He couldn't say it. And I was like, 'What, you want me to have a wank ?' And he says, 'Well, yes.' And I went, 'Bernardo, you're kidding me.' "
Gamely, very discreetly, she does the deed—which, in the final cut, is juxtaposed with a scene where the voyeuristic Jeremy Irons character sniffs Lucy's hand as he returns her cigarette lighter. "I never put it together before, because we shot the scenes on completely different days,"
Liv says, gesticulating in disbelief. "But I just saw it recently, and I went, 'That fuckin' dirty cunt! He sniffed my finger!' Can you believe that ?"
It's the paradox of the woman child: unwitting youth in the creepy service of adult pleasure. Put another way, moviemakers might want Liv to masturbate onscreen, but they won't let her cut that long, swingy hair. Liv, however, has the urge to graduate—change her look, play a baddie. At this point, she needs to prove she can be something other than an ingénue. She has her own apartment now and people other than Mom looking after her affairs. Someday, Liv says, she might even go back to school "and learn those basic things one should know just even my times tables and who the friggin' presidents are."
Her cell phone rings; she fishes it out of her bag. "Hello ? ... Daddy! ... You're in L.A. ?"
Liv squeals, eyebrows hiked, eyes wide, smile bursting she can hardly believe they're in the same city at the same time. Immediately, she starts plotting a way of hooking up with Tyler, for the daddy's girl in Liv is always trying to make up for lost time.
In the car, on the way back from the restaurant, Liv tells a story about the trauma of turning 18. It happened while she was making Stealing Beauty
. She was shooting a scene in which her character comes upon two people screwing, and for some reason, at that moment, it struck Liv hard that she was actually an adult. So she started crying. "It just made me sad for some reason,"
Liv says. Later the cast and crew threw her a birthday party—a feast featuring a roast pig with an apple stuck in its mouth, of all disgusting things. And as Liv strolled about in her sundress, barefoot in the grass, she stepped on a bee. "I'd never been stung before in my whole life,"
she says, her long face getting longer.
Well, yeah, growing up can sting a little. Especially in Hollywood, where aging is such a no no. But Liv—who's got that old-soul thing going, plus a long boned infrastructure that should stand up nicely to the indignities of time—has little to worry about. She's as sweet as they come but hardly dumb. Behind those lips, there is an amazing set of teeth, which she'll use, one hopes, if she has to.
Back at the house, Liv tiptoes around looking for Joaquin opening doors, peeking here and there. Then she scurries back, wearing a yummy look. "Joaquie's in bed, and I'm gonna get in with him!"
she says, pulling off her boots. And with that Liv goes sliding across the tiles on yesterday's blue socks—a pillar of pure girl for at least a little longer.