Emmys: 'American Crime' Star Lili Taylor on Trusting John Ridley With Her Character

Ryan Green/ABC
Lili Taylor in 'American Crime'

The veteran actress discusses tapping into the raw emotion of a struggling single parent and why working with a diverse cast "feels healthier."

In season two of John Ridley's American Crime, Lili Taylor did a 180. During the first season she played a victims-rights advocate, cool in demeanor, but in the show's sophomore run she found herself on the other side of the table as she stepped into the shoes of a working-class single mother whose son, played by Connor Jessup, becomes the victim of a male sexual assault. A longtime veteran of the indie film scene as well as TV series like Six Feet Under, Taylor, 49, brought righteous indignation to scenes where she challenged the private school looking to cover up the incident — and heartbreakingly raw emotion to other moments as she sat quietly with her son as his life unraveled.

What was the first conversation with John Ridley like for season two?

I knew I was going to come back, but I didn't know in what way. It really wasn't until maybe five months after we started shooting, he called and he said, "Listen, I'd really love if you could come back, and I've got a character you might find really interesting." Originally she had a daughter; it wasn't the son. Which is such a smart change he made. I think it made it a lot more interesting because it almost could've been an open-and-shut case if it had been a girl, not that it is in our society — obviously — but in a way it would've felt not as complicated.

What did you tap into when bringing your character to life?

First off, the stage was set in the sense of John and what he created. His work ethic, how he helped the writers, the writers he chose and then Connor, my son, so all I had to do was sort of go — which is easier said than done. Meisner, that great acting teacher, said it takes 20 years to learn how to act. I've been acting over 20 years, but I start to really feel that on American Crime. The wisdom or the experience started to carry me in a way. I have a daughter; I feel very much compassion for that specific issue of rape and the vulnerable in our society — coupled with parents and, how the hell do we be parents? How do we do this? So all of that is what I was working with.

What was it like working with Connor?

Connor's feelings were right at the surface like a River Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio type, which we don't see a lot in young men because it's not easy, it's not encouraged, and he just has that something. We both knew how lucky we were because it's a draw — you get what you get with your fellow actor. We were in heaven.

How did you rehearse? What was the synergy like?

The first day John has a meeting gathering everybody, even the person who takes the garbage out, and just says: "I respect all of you. I expect the best from all of you, and I will give you my best." Already the ethic is laid out. Before every scene the cast has the set and the writers, and we are allowed as much time as we need. There's no pressure; nobody's looking at clocks. That's where the trust starts to happen. So that's how we got to the stuff that you saw — by working it out in a really conducive atmosphere.

How does a diverse cast affect your performance?

Diversity is how the planet exists, what it needs to survive, and I think as humans we do, too. So I think if you have a diverse culture, everything feels healthier — it feels in right order. It's not the air we breathe; it's not the food we eat — whatever those metaphors are, that's what it is. It's what happens after you see Godard; it's what happens after you have a good conversation with another human being — it's that kind of thing.

Does anything change with a female director on set?

I don't think so. John is the perfect example. He's so sensitive — it's as if, if my eyes were closed, I wouldn't know if it was a man or a woman in a way. In a way, the gender doesn't matter. I do find, though, that race does feel a little bit more noticeable to me. Because there's really no denying that a woman goes through the world and has certain experiences, but with a black woman or a black man it's just a different troupe. That, I felt more of a difference.

Was it customary to have the writers there? Was it different from other projects you've done?

On Six Feet Under, yes. On this show, yes. I would imagine any show that is a good show would probably have a writer there. Not so much the procedurals, but anything that has complex relationships and complex moments, I would imagine the writer's gotta be there. But I don't know if the writer always makes changes, whereas John will make changes there.

How does John's method work for you?

TV — at least this new kind of TV we're seeing — for many reasons the actors don't know what's going on for weeks because sometimes the writers rooms don't want to lay out something that's going to change. I found that initially very difficult because for me it's like a house of cards building a character — it really helps me to know everything, and so on. I would've made maybe different choices if I'd known certain things about my character in Six Feet Under that I later found out. For some reason, with John, it's not upsetting because I feel like he's letting me know enough of what I need to know to create a character and keeping the rest of it [from me] to keep that lifelike feeling of being in the unknown, but not so much that I'm not able to do my job. That's not an easy balance.

Interesting that he uses that with all of you. He has your trust.

Exactly. I do feel it's for the greater good, whereas with others I felt like it was either manipulative or a little controlling or infantilizing. But I know John's a collaborator, and this is part of the collaboration. 

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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