Living on her own
by Will Lawrence, Sunday Herald, August 2008
On-screen in The Strangers, and following her real-life marital rift, Liv Tyler is making a new start as an actress and mother
Liv Tyler is chattering while she's chatting. It's minus something-or-other on an uncharacteristically chilly South Carolinian morning and The Lord Of The Rings star is smoking a cigarette. There's a small heat lamp nearby, but we may as well seek warmth from the tip of her tab. "It might be cold, but I love being out here in the country," she says between puffs. "The Southerners are so friendly. The other day one of the neighbours popped round and said Are you lonely, honey? We're going out for ladies' night on the town if you wanna come?'" And did she go and savour the delights of girls' night in the sleepy town of Florence? "I was tired, so I couldn't go," she sighs. "Plus I was covered in blood ..."
At this particular juncture, being soaked in gore is an almost daily experience for Tyler. She is shooting the taut psychological thriller-cum-slasher film The Strangers - "It's gritty, it feels like the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre" - which, incidentally, was the first script she picked when she decided to go back to work in 2006 after taking a year off following the birth of her baby boy, Milo. The difficulties of bringing to the screen a small-scale horror helmed by a first-time director coupled with the ever-changing nature of Hollywood release schedules mean The Strangers is only now hitting UK cinemas.
"It has taken a long time to get going," she smiles, her soft voice slightly strained from extended bouts of screaming. "I didn't meet the director until a year after I said I wanted to do it. Actually, we met up at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, draining whiskies and smoking cigarettes for three hours." She had obviously missed that during her pregnancy and the first year with Milo. "Oh yeah," she laughs, "and actually I think it turned out to be my longest meeting ever. I wonder why?" She smiles. "Seriously, though, at the end it was a done deal. Really, a script like this comes along once every blue moon."
Looking at Tyler's choices since The Lord Of The Rings, where she shone as the elf princess Arwen, some might think that those blue moons have been a little inconspicuous. After wrapping up the final instalment in the epic Tolkien trilogy she went on to shoot Kevin Smith's irksome bid at a "personal comedy", the Ben Affleck vehicle Jersey Girl, followed by Steve Buscemi's competent drama Lonesome Jim, then Adam Sandler's dreary attempt at post-9/11 angst Reign Over Me and, finally, the equally uninspiring comedy-drama Smother. Her performance in The Incredible Hulk, meanwhile, did little to enhance her credentials.
As we shiver on set, Tyler's slender form drowned by an enormous white coat, the turbulent events of her annus horribilis are still keenly felt. Not only has this year seen The Incredible Hulk stumble at the box office, but just a few weeks before its release Tyler announced that she and her husband of five years, British musician Royston Langdon, were getting a divorce. Not surprisingly, the 31-year-old star has refused to discuss the subject. "I feel it's too early," she said last month. Her publicist has insisted the couple "remain good friends and devoted parents to their son". In truth, the breakdown of their marriage comes as something of a surprise: neither party has been caught philandering around town and Milo, of course, remains a relatively recent arrival at just three years old. With a stuttering career and her marriage on the rocks, these are testing times for Tyler.
"Actually, my priorities have changed a little recently," she tells me, perhaps suggesting that, even several months before the announcement, not everything is rosy at home. "I don't feel as torn as I did. Once I used to harbour that dream of running away from it all, moving to the countryside and having lots of babies. I no longer feel that longing for family or for stability. Now that I have my son and can take him with me on set I can focus differently."
Indeed, Milo is here with his mother in South Carolina, while Langdon "has been to visit a few times", and the boy is revelling in the country life. It's certainly a long way from his New York home which, Tyler moans, used to be in a lovely family neighbourhood. "Now we have Sex And The City tours pulling up outside the house. It's great out here, though. We're staying in a country club and he loves the golf cart. He calls it a tractor and during my days off I have to spend the whole day driving around on this golf cart, which goes about three miles per hour."
Tyler defends her post-Rings choices - neither Incredible Hulk nor Smother lit up the box office - arguing that after taking an extended break she felt a passionate need to work, tempered, of course, by the demands of being a new mother.
"Because I'd taken such a long break, and had been pregnant and had my son, it was the first time in my career - I'd been working non-stop since I was 14 years old - that I could enjoy a really interesting, reflective period. It made me realise that I do love my career. And what was interesting was that I'd never had that feeling of missing my work before, because I'd always just worked and found things that I loved.
"During the pregnancy and Milo's birth, I was in bliss, having that break and just being a mommy, and feeling all those things through the first period in his life. And while I wasn't freaking out about not working - I was offered two things I really wanted just after he was born, but he'd have been three weeks old and I'd have to stop breastfeeding and go straight to work - I was ready to get back. And you have to remember that with a lot of those films, like Reign Over Me, it was nice to just get back to work while being a mum. So you want smaller, supporting roles; those kinds of parts were important for me then. Especially after spending so long working on The Lord Of The Rings."
In truth, Peter Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien's sprawling saga made huge demands on all the principal cast members, who were required to spend almost four consecutive years working in New Zealand. The demands were so great that Sean Astin, for one, relocated his family for the duration of the shoot, even sending his children to New Zealand schools. For Tyler, who had just met her husband who she is now to divorce, the experience was, at times, a lonely one.
"I know that sounds lame, but that was four years of our lives going back and forth to New Zealand, and every Christmas we'd go and promote the films. It was amazing, but when that was over I definitely felt a little empty and wanted to be a normal person for a while.
"I still see Orlando Bloom and I email Dominic Monaghan, plus Peter and Fran Jackson the director and his wife-cum-creative partner.
"I'd love to work with them again, but I was really homesick when I made that movie. I was madly in love with Roy then, and he was in New York a lot and that seemed too far away from New Zealand. So though I enjoyed the experience - the place is so beautiful - I felt a little alone out there." She laughs. "Really, though, as soon as I had Milo I was, like, Please, send me back.'"
Unfortunately for Tyler, Arwen doesn't figure in The Hobbit, Tolkien's earlier novel, which Peter Jackson is about to put into production in New Zealand with Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo Del Toro behind the camera. Del Toro is also set to shoot a second film that will bridge the period between The Hobbit and The Fellowship Of The Ring, so Tyler may yet get the call.
"Hey, I learned to swordfight in the first films and didn't get to show my skills," she says. In the meantime, she'll have to make do with beautiful locations slightly nearer to home - Florence, South Carolina, for example.
"I'm quite tempted to stay here," she jokes. "Milo loves it down here. He's been living with me here on set. He was such a treat. Because I'm working every day, I thought it would be hard not see him, but he was so fine and so independent. It's kind of hard being in Manhattan, with all the tourists, and the paparazzi outside your house. Yet down here, shooting in the South, even if they recognise you they never treat you like a zoo animal."
Tyler is herself a native of New York - she moved to Maine as a child - and has spent over half of her life in the eye of the camera. She was born the daughter of pouting Aerosmith rocker Steve Tyler and former Playboy Playmate Bebe Buell, although she believed that her stepfather, American musician Todd Rundgren, was her real father until she was 11. She says that she understands the situation - that the hard-living Aerosmith singer wasn't ready to have a daughter - and remains forever grateful to Rundgren. Now she has two dads, she says "which is lovely".
Her professional life began as a model at the age of 14, and she remains an ambassador for Givenchy. "My job with Givenchy is like being the Avon lady," she laughs. "I just scoot around the world, going from one country to the next."
Her first film role was in Silent Fall when she was 16, and she went on to carve a varied career, working with an assortment of directors from Bernardo Bertolucci on Stealing Beauty and Robert Altman - with whom she made both Cookie's Fortune and Dr T And The Women - to Tom Hanks on That Thing You Do and Michael Bay on Armageddon.
While she, unlike other already established Lord Of The Rings stars Sir Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett and Viggo Mortensen, has not kicked her career on to the next stage, The Strangers may just provide the springboard.
The story focuses on a young couple, played by Tyler and Underworld actor Scott Speedman, who return to their isolated holiday home after an evening spent bickering at a friend's wedding reception. The situation then takes a turn for the worse when they hear a rapping at the door. The moment they answer, a gang of blade-wielding strangers blockade their home. The couple's bond - and their courage - are then put to the test.
"I'm in every scene of the movie," Tyler explains. "And while with Stealing Beauty I was in almost every scene, it's not like this. It's been amazing to play a character with all these different layers and to see everything come through. Normally I put that much preparation into a film, but you don't always see that on screen.
"I also love it that it's not very glossy and stylish. It feels like one of those grittier 1970s films, like Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Friday The 13th. And they're shooting it in a really interesting way. There's a lot of movement and we're often not captured squarely in the frame. Best of all, though, not only is it harrowing, things don't always turn out like you'd expect."
The film could provide Tyler with a perfect vehicle to showcase her talents, and it seems the ideal antidote to the big-screen disappointment of The Incredible Hulk. The only problem for Tyler, she says, is that she's not a well-versed scream-queen.
"Actually, I've never screamed before. I've screamed on a rollercoaster but that's it. So I was nervous to scream in this because I didn't know what was going to come out. I was thinking, Oh my God, what if I have the weakest scream ever?'"
And how did she get on?
"It was hilarious," she chirps. "I just opened my mouth and this huge, manly roar came out."