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Lili Taylor on Creating Characters, Why Horror is Fun, and the Joys of Birding

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Lili Taylor’s career has taken her all over the map. In films, she has played a waitress at a pizza joint (in 1988’s Mystic Pizza), the woman who tried to murder Andy Warhol (in 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol), and a possessed mom (in 2013’s The Conjuring). She’s lent her voice to a number of documentaries, including The Weather Underground (2004), The Ballad of Greenwich Village (2005), and this spring's The Memory of Fish. On TV, she’s been a murder victim-turned-ghost (in Six Feet Under), a cop (in Almost Human), and a mother whose child is sexually assaulted (in the second season of the anthology series American Crime, a role that is garnering Emmy buzz for the actress). Later this year, she’ll appear in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel Leatherface. mental_floss chatted with Taylor about how she chooses her roles, the joys of birding, and Chicago hot dogs versus deep dish pizza.

Your filmography is incredibly varied. How do you choose your roles?

It’s the director. Sometimes I wish I could be more selfish and just do the role, but if the whole thing doesn’t work for me—if the whole experience isn’t fulfilling—[then] it doesn’t have meaning for me. The whole vision, the whole collaboration is what I get a lot out of.

What do you look for in a director?

Well, their own vision, and a commitment to that vision, and I guess a specificity. I really love when directors collaborate. [American Crime’s] John Ridley is a perfect example, [as is] James Wan, who did The Conjuring. Both of those directors—there’s just a great feeling on the set. Everybody has value, everybody’s respected. We’re all working towards the same thing, and that, to me, is the best.

When you’re on a set with a director like that, are you throwing out ideas, too?

I make it clear that I want to first know what their vision is, and then work from there. I could come up with my own ideas, but if it doesn’t jibe with their overall vision, then it’s not worth it to even go down that road. I’d rather first know where they’re at and then build on that. And then ideally it should be a two-way street: sharing thoughts and ideas, inspiring each other; and then that starts to happen [all over the set], so that we’re all working together and listening to each other. I think it makes for a better product and a much better experience.

When you’ve taken on a role, how much research do you do, or how do you prepare to play a character?

The most important thing I need to do is to clear out any preconceived notions and get to a blank slate—which is really hard, because it’s scary to go there. But I try to get there, so that I can [figure out], what does this piece need? Maybe the last piece needed a lot of research. Maybe this piece doesn’t—maybe [I need to] really take the risk and just go with it. Which is scary, because I don’t trust myself in a lot of ways. From there, it can unfold.

One thing I’ve done is make charts. I find that if [a script is] written really well, it usually breaks down into four basic areas of [a character’s] journey. Each area can have one basic theme or name, and then within that, all the different beats of each moment or scene [are] in that area. Then I try to name each moment with one word, and I write it out in the chart, so I’m able to go to this concrete thing to navigate the very amorphous realm of emotions and feelings, and it can help ground me. I’ve done that at least 15 or 20 times.

It’s like creating an outline. What movies have you created a chart for?

The Conjuring, I Shot Andy Warhol, The Addiction, Household Saints, some plays, Aunt Dan and Lemon. I know there have been some more recent ones.

TV’s interesting, because I don’t have the whole deck of cards, you know? So, for me, it’s sort of building a house of cards, building a character. It’s a whole other kind of prep. I may find out this character’s totally different than I thought, so I have to leave a lot of room for possibilities—which is great, because it’s like life that way. But after saying that, what if I create this character, and she’s actually a psychopath and I didn’t know it?

In all fairness, sometimes [the showrunners] don’t know, which is why I think a lot of good TV, when it’s really good, it’s because they’re usually impacted by what’s happening in the episodes, and they can be flexible and change things.

I imagine when you’re working on something like American Crime, because it’s an anthology, that might make it a little bit easier—each season is a self-contained thing, so they have an endpoint in mind.

But [creator and executive producer John Ridley] didn’t tell us where things were going. I didn’t know, and scripts five through eight were redacted. I didn’t know what was happening, but I trusted John. I knew John would tell me exactly what I needed to know, nothing more, nothing less. So, I really didn’t know what was going to happen with her situation, what she was going to do, what she was capable of. [The writers] might have known, but I didn’t—but they did make changes along the way. Maybe not big plot points, but they changed some things.

It seems like it would be really fun, as an actor, to work on an anthology series. You’re working with the same people, and you’re comfortable with them, but you’re getting to do different characters. It’s the best of both worlds.

It totally is, and I think audiences are liking it, too. It’s no mistake that theater companies got this secret early on. Things deepen because everybody knows each other better. When I saw the Steppenwolf production of August: Osage County, the depth of that production—the stuff that we were feeling as an audience—that s*** comes from being together 20 years. It’s just deep. I think probably more people are going to start doing anthologies. It works and everyone’s liking it.

I like to ask a few off-the-wall questions to shake things up. Here’s one: If you could go back to any time period or to any event and be a fly on the wall, what would it be?

Whoa ... that is a good one. [pauses] I think I’d like to see Darwin on the HMS Beagle, figuring out evolution. That would be pretty cool.

And Darwin wasn’t just doing the evolution thing. He was also riding tortoises! Switching gears: You’ve done a few horror films—including The Conjuring, which I think is one of the scariest movies in recent memory, and you have The Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel, Leatherface, coming up. What is about the genre that appeals to you?

On some level, it’s just fun, but I think it’s sort of a way to work through our fears in a really healthy context. We know we’re going to be OK. It’s not happening to us, but it feels like it is, you know? It’s thrilling. I love horror movies, and I love getting scared, and I love seeing when people are scared.

But, you know, there are some people who really can’t do it, and I really got that with The Conjuring. They’re just born that way. I told them, “You should not see it. If you’re that person, don’t see it. It’s not for you, because it’s f***ing scary."

What are some horror movies that you think everyone should see?

My two favorites that I pull out every October or November are Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Those two are just fantastic. And The Conjuring, for me, I think that’s up there now, in terms of really good scary movies. What’s one of your favorites?

I love The Descent. But the original British version, not the version that was released in America.

I haven’t seen that one.

Oh, you have to. It’s so good. You’ll never want to go spelunking again. Bringing it back above ground: You’re a member of the American Birding Association. How long have you been birding?

Officially, I’ve been birding five years. I’ve always loved birds, and I didn’t know there was this whole world out there, a tribe. It’s been fantastic. Birds are like a gateway—they’re a great thing to start with, and if they end up not being your thing, you might get into something else through them.

For me, it’s [about] bearing witness to something other than me, something that connects me to something bigger. I love it. And I think that it’s not just about loving it; I think [birds] really are a way toward helping us understand what’s happening to the climate. They’re telling us—by migrating sooner, or dying off in certain places—warning signs. They are indicators, and I’m just trying to get the word out as best I can.

What birds are on your bucket list?

I’m not a lister, so I don’t really have target birds, but I’d love to see an albatross. I’d love to see the pelagics—some of these birds that live out at the sea, like the storm petrels. I love shearwatersI’m really drawn to these seabirds.

Forty-five million people consider themselves bird-watchers, to varying degrees. I just love watching birds. I like watching the behavior. For instance, I’m upstate and I just saw a mini-murmuration of starlings. It wasn’t a big, elaborate thing, but I stopped to watch, and sure enough, two minutes later, I saw the red-tailed hawk. If you look in, so much is revealed.

It must be awesome, going on location to film, because you can check out all the birds in the area.

Birds are a great way into a place. Like, for instance, I got into chimney swifts in Austin, where we filmed American Crime. I started counting them because they roost together in chimneys a month or so before they migrate. There was one chimney where 1200 were living in the chimney, and they all circled in at the same time. It was like a vortex of black embers circling into the chimney, and it was so special.

That’s one of the many memories I have from Austin. Birding is a great way to experience a city or town or country. I was just in Bulgaria doing Leatherface, and they have, like, 30 species of vultures thereI took these kids on a birding walk once and when we went back inside, I played the sound of a vulture, which should be in a horror movie. It’s really scary, and the kids just loved it.

Is there one extinct bird you wish you could have seen? For me, it would be the dodo.

I would have loved to see the passenger pigeon. When the sky was black with passenger pigeons, oh my God. I wish, I wish.

I have one last question for you. You’re from Chicago, so I want to know: deep-dish pizza or Chicago dog?

You can’t do deep-dish versus thin? I’ve got to choose between the Vienna hot dog, and deep dish? That’s tough. [Long pause] My mom goes to Chicago Fest every year and sends me a deep-dish frozen, so that’s pretty good ... but I’m going to go with the Vienna dog. I could do two in a row, dog with just pickles, smush the bun—boom! The best.

Now I’ve got a craving for deep dish. OK, I have to go deal with this. There’s a bee in my bonnet now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Live Smarter
Stop Your Snoring and Track Your Sleep With a Wi-Fi Smart Pillow

Everyone could use a better night's rest. The CDC says that only 66 percent of American adults get as much sleep as they should, so if you're spending plenty of time in bed but mostly tossing and turning (or trying to block out your partner's snores), it may be time to smarten up your sleep accessories. As TechCrunch reports, the ZEEQ Smart Pillow improves your sleeping schedule in a multitude of ways, whether you're looking to quiet your snores or need a soothing lullaby to rock you to sleep.

After a successful Kickstarter in 2016, the product is now on sale and ready to get you snoozing. If you're a snorer, the pillow has a microphone designed to listen to the sound of your snores and softly vibrate so that you shift positions to a quieter pose. Accelerometers in the pillow let the sleep tracker know how much you're moving around at night, allowing it to record your sleep stages. Then, you can hook the pillow up to your Amazon Echo or Google Home so that you can have your favorite smart assistant read out the pillow's analysis of your sleep quality and snoring levels the next morning.

The pillow is also equipped with eight different wireless speakers that turn it into an extra-personal musical experience. You can listen to soothing music while you fall asleep, either connecting the pillow to your Spotify or Apple Music account on your phone via Bluetooth or using the built-in relaxation programs. You can even use it to listen to podcasts without disturbing your partner. You can set a timer to turn the music off after a certain period so you don't wake up in the middle of the night still listening to Serial.

And when it's time to wake up, the pillow will analyze your movements to wake you during your lightest sleep stage, again keeping the noise of an alarm from disturbing your partner.

The downside? Suddenly your pillow is just another device with a battery that needs to charge. And forget about using it in a place without Wi-Fi.

The ZEEQ Smart Pillow currently costs $200.

[h/t TechCrunch]

15 Reasons You Should Appreciate Squirrels

Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 15 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.


A flying squirrel soars through the air

In one study [PDF] of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet [PDF].


A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.

In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A recent study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.


Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down

Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.


A man holds a truffle up for the camera.

The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.


A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.

You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.


A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.

Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.


An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue

Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.


A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.

If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!


A squirrel runs across a power line.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.


A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.


A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.

Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].


A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.

Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.


A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.


A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.


A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson [PDF]. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.


A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.


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