After 30 years as a Hollywood chameleon, weaving between phases as an ’80’s icon (she had memorable roles in such beloved films as “Say Anything…” and “Mystic Pizza”) and a ’90’s indie darling (with “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “The Imposters,” she rivaled Parker Posey), Lili Taylor has played dozens of roles on stages and screens, both big and small.
But in the return of “American Crime” for Season 2 (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC), she did something she never has before, appearing in the same series as a whole new character.
It’s part of an intriguing cast-shuffle that involves such other ensemble talents as Regina King, Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman. But Season 2 begins with Taylor’s voice, calling to report a rape — and in the new storyline set in Indiana, she is primed to be the breakout.
Zap2it caught up with the veteran actress on the eve of the show’s return, to discuss the show’s intense new direction.
“I heard about it in the first season, and I thought it was fantastic and exciting,” Taylor says of executive producer John Ridley’s recasting idea that had her playing outspoken victim’s rights advocate Nancy Straumberg in Season One and under-fire single mom Anne Blaine in Season Two.
“I’ve done a lot of theater, I know a lot of theater companies do this, like Steppenwolf for instance. There’s a lot of depth there, and that’s what John is creating.”
Season One dealt with various offshoots surrounding the murder of a white war veteran and a black murder suspect; Season Two has Taylor’s character grappling with the notion that her high school son may have been raped at a basketball party by another male.
As intense as the subject matter gets, Taylor says the impressive cast just keeps getting closer and more appreciative of each other’s talents.”The actors know each other, the writers know us, John knows us,” she explains. “And all that makes for better results.”
“To me, the difference between the two characters is night and day. I was a victim’s advocate helping Felicity’s character navigate the criminal justice system; it was pretty limited, I was just saying ‘What do we need to do, you need to do this,'” she says of her smaller role last time around. “This year, mine is a working class character, trying to get her son an education — and then things start to unfold.”
“The rawness of it, the immediacy — things are happening really fast,” Taylor says of the new season. “John wanted it to go really fast, to keep that feeling of social media [and how it influences the lives of the characters]; in between episode one and two, there’s just like a day. Things are moving really fast, and to be in a fight-or-flight mentality all the time is really intense.”
Going from a position of guidance in Season One to a character in desperate need of help, Taylor says she’s being allowed to flex muscles at opposite ends of the spectrum. “Getting help is not so easy sometimes; she is very sensitive to feeling like she’s from the other side of the tracks, dealing with an institution that doesn’t want to deal with [poorer] people,” she says of Blaine, whose family is referred to as “white trash” by several other characters on the show.
Out of all her similarly-rebooted co-stars, Taylor says she’s particularly impressed with the efforts of Hutton, who has gone from a sad sack ex-husband to an authority figure basketball coach.
“I think Tim’s change is really interesting, because he has gone from not-really functioning to functioning really well,” she says. “He was emotionally messed-up [as Russ Skokie], and now he’s emotionally strong and physically strong [as coach Dan Sullivan]. That’s been an interesting transformation, and for him to show other parts of himself — a lighter side, a sexy side — has been really nice.”
“American Crime” is a show that wears its controversies with pride — and dealing with issues like guns, racism and rape, they are plentiful. Taylor says that fans of the show are particularly eager to discuss such themes.
“First of all, the diversity — the kinds of people who are coming up and talking to me — is interesting and much more diverse,” she says. “For instance, I had a Hispanic man come up to me in Austin and tell me how important the show is to him.”
And as Season Two plays out, one of the more interesting topics is society’s incredulous attitude towards the idea that a male could be raped by another male. “As human beings, it’s good to have our neurons crossed up,” she says of the show’s skill at making you think one thing (Taylor’s 911 call at the beginning of the first episode plays like she’s reporting her own rape) and then turning it on its head.
“Male and female rape has a lot of similarities, and then things branch out; what is explored here is the idea that a man [needs to be] a strong man defending himself … as if the man doesn’t have feelings, doesn’t have the right to a yes or a no.”
It is a theme rarely explored in pop culture, and one that Taylor hopes will have a trailblazing effect. “I definitely think there’s going to be a big opening for victims to have something reflected back to them,” Taylor says. “It’s just going to get more intense from here.”
“John is so good at surprising you,” she marvels. “So buckle up, buttercup.”