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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.

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15 Incredible Facts About Pigeons
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Though they're often described as "rats with wings" (a phrase popularized by the movie Stardust Memories), pigeons are actually pretty cool. From homing instincts to misleading rump feathers, here are 15 things you might not know about these avian adventurers.

1. THEY MIGHT BE THE FIRST DOMESTICATED BIRD.

The common city pigeon (Columba livia), also known as the rock pigeon, might be the first bird humankind ever domesticated. You can see them in art dating back as far as 4500 BCE in modern Iraq, and they've been a valuable source of food for thousands of years.

2. THEY WON OVER CHARLES DARWIN—AND NIKOLA TESLA.

Pigeon-breeding was a common hobby in Victorian England for everyone from well-off businessmen to average Joes, leading to some fantastically weird birds. Few hobbyists had more enthusiasm for the breeding process than Charles Darwin, who owned a diverse flock, joined London pigeon clubs, and hobnobbed with famous breeders. Darwin's passion for the birds influenced his 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, which has not one but two chapters about pigeons (dogs and cats share a single chapter).

Nikola Tesla was another great mind who enjoyed pigeons. He used to care for injured wild pigeons in his New York City hotel room. Hands down, Tesla's favorite was a white female—about whom he once said, "I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman and she loved me. When she was ill, I knew and understood; she came to my room and I stayed beside her for days. I nursed her back to health. That pigeon was the joy of my life. If she needed me, nothing else mattered. As long as I had her, there was a purpose in my life." Reportedly, he was inconsolable after she died.

3. THEY UNDERSTAND SPACE AND TIME.

In a 2017 Current Biology study, researchers showed captive pigeons a series of digital lines on a computer screen for either two or eight seconds. Some lines were short, measuring about 2.3 inches across; others were four times longer. The pigeons were trained to evaluate either the length of the line or how long it was displayed. They found that the more time a line was displayed, the longer in length the pigeon judged it to be. The reverse was true too: If the pigeons encountered a longer line, they thought it existed in time for a greater duration. Pigeons, the scientists concluded, understand the concepts of both time and space; the researchers noted "similar results have been found with humans and other primates."

It's thought that humans process those concepts with a brain region called the parietal cortex; pigeon brains lack that cortex, so they must have a different way of judging space and time.

4. THEY CAN FIND THEIR WAY BACK TO THE NEST FROM 1300 MILES AWAY.

A pigeon flying in front of trees.
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The birds can do this even if they've been transported in isolation—with no visual, olfactory, or magnetic clues—while scientists rotate their cages so they don't know what direction they're traveling in. How they do this is a mystery, but people have been exploiting the pigeon's navigational skills since at least 3000 BCE, when ancient peoples would set caged pigeons free and follow them to nearby land.

Their navigational skills also make pigeons great long-distance messengers. Sports fans in ancient Greece are said to have used trained pigeons to carry the results of the Ancient Olympics. Further east, Genghis Khan stayed in touch with his allies and enemies alike through a pigeon-based postal network.

5. THEY SAVED THOUSANDS OF HUMAN LIVES DURING WORLD WARS I AND II.

Pigeons' homing talents continued to shape history during the 20th century. In both World Wars, rival nations had huge flocks of pigeon messengers. (America alone had 200,000 at its disposal in WWII.) By delivering critical updates, the avians saved thousands of human lives. One racing bird named Cher Ami completed a mission that led to the rescue of 194 stranded U.S. soldiers on October 4, 1918.

6. TWO PIGEONS ALMOST DISTRACTED FROM THE DISCOVERY OF EVIDENCE OF THE BIG BANG.

In 1964, scientists in Holmdel, New Jersey, heard hissing noises from their antenna that would later prove to be signals from the Big Bang. But when they first heard the sound, they thought it might be, among other things, the poop of two pigeons that were living in the antenna. "We took the pigeons, put them in a box, and mailed them as far away as we could in the company mail to a guy who fancied pigeons," one of the scientists later recalled. "He looked at them and said these are junk pigeons and let them go and before long they were right back." But the scientists were able to clean out the antenna and determine that they had not been the cause of the noise. The trap used to catch the birds (before they had to later be, uh, permanently removed) is on view at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

7. YOU CAN TRAIN THEM TO BE ART SNOBS …

Japanese psychologist Shigeru Watanabe and two colleagues earned an Ig Nobel Prize in 1995 for training pigeons, in a lab setting, to recognize the paintings of Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso and to distinguish between the painters. The pigeons were even able to use their knowledge of impressionism and cubism to identify paintings of other artists in those movements. Later, Watanabe taught other pigeons to distinguish watercolor images from pastels. And in a 2009 experiment, captive pigeons he'd borrowed were shown almost two dozen paintings made by students at a Tokyo elementary school, and were taught which ones were considered "good" and which ones were considered "bad." He then presented them with 10 new paintings and the avian critics managed to correctly guess which ones had earned bad grades from the school's teacher and a panel of adults. Watanabe's findings indicate that wild pigeons naturally categorize things on the basis of color, texture, and general appearance.

8. … AND TO DISTINGUISH WRITTEN WORDS.

In a 2016 study, scientists showed that pigeons can differentiate between strings of letters and actual words. Four of the birds built up a vocabulary of between 26 and 58 written English words, and though the birds couldn't actually read them, they could identify visual patterns and therefore tell them apart. The birds could even identify words they hadn't seen before.

9. FLUFFY PIGEON FEET MIGHT ACTUALLY BE PARTIAL WINGS.

A white pigeon with curly feathers and fluffy feet.
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A few pigeon breeds have fuzzy legs—which hobbyists call "muffs"—rather than scaly ones. According to a 2016 study, the DNA of these fluffy-footed pigeons leads their hind legs to take on some forelimb characteristics, making muffed pigeon legs look distinctly wing-like; they're also big-boned. Not only do they have feathers, but the hindlimbs are somewhat big-boned, too. According to biologist Mike Shapiro, who led the study, "pigeons' fancy feathered feet are partially wings."

10. SOME PIGEONS DISTRACT FALCONS WITH WHITE RUMP FEATHERS.

In a life-or-death situation, a pigeon's survival could depend upon its color pattern: Research has shown that wild falcons rarely go after pigeons that have a white patch of feathers just above the tail, and when the predators do target these birds, the attacks are rarely successful.

To figure out why this is, Ph.D. student Alberto Palleroni and a team tagged 5235 pigeons in the vicinity of Davis, California. Then, they monitored 1485 falcon-on-pigeon attacks over a seven-year span. The researchers found that although white-rumped pigeons comprised 20 to 25 percent of the area's pigeon population, they represented less than 2 percent of all the observed pigeons that were killed by falcons; the vast majority of the victims had blue rumps. Palleroni and his team rounded up 756 white- and blue-rumped pigeons and swapped their rump feathers by clipping and pasting white feathers on blue rumps, and vice versa. The falcons had a much easier time spotting and catching the newly blue-rumped pigeons, while the pigeons that received the white feathers saw predation rates plummet.

Close observation revealed that the white patches distract birds of prey. In the wild, falcons dive-bomb other winged animals from above at high speeds. Some pigeons respond by rolling away in midair, and on a spiraling bird, white rump feathers can be eye-catching, which means that a patch of them may divert a hungry raptor's focus long enough to make the carnivore miscalculate and zip right past its intended victim.

11. DODOS WERE RELATED TO TODAY'S PIGEONS.

Two blue and green Nicobar pigeons.
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Though most of this list focuses on the rock pigeon, there are 308 living species of pigeons and doves. Together, they make up an order of birds known as the columbiformes. The extinct dodo belonged to this group as well.

Flightless and (somewhat) docile, dodos once inhabited Mauritius, an island near Madagascar. The species had no natural predators, but when human sailors arrived with rats, dogs, cats, and pigs, it began to die out, and before the 17th century came to a close, the dodo had vanished altogether. DNA testing has confirmed that pigeons are closely related to the dodo, and the vibrant Nicobar pigeon (above) is its nearest genetic relative. A multi-colored bird with iridescent feathers, this near-threatened creature is found on small islands in the South Pacific and off Asia. Unlike the dodo, it can fly.

12. AT ONE POINT, MORE THAN ONE-QUARTER OF ALL THE BIRDS LIVING IN THE U.S. MAY HAVE BEEN PASSENGER PIGEONS.

Wild/feral rock pigeons reside in all 50 states, which makes it easy to forget that they're invasive birds. Originally native to Eurasia and northern Africa, the species was (most likely) introduced to North America by French settlers in 1606. At the time, a different kind of columbiform—this one indigenous—was already thriving there: the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). As many as 5 billion of them were living in America when England, Spain, and France first started colonizing, and they may have once represented anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the total U.S. bird population. But by the early 20th century, they had become a rare sight, thanks to overhunting, habitat loss, and a possible genetic diversity issue. The last known passenger pigeon—a captive female named Martha—died on September 1, 1914.

13. THEY'RE REALLY GOOD AT MULTITASKING.

According to one study, they're more efficient multitaskers than people are. Scientists at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum put together a test group of 15 humans and 12 pigeons and trained all of them to complete two simple jobs (like pressing a keyboard once a light bulb came on). They were also put in situations wherein they'd need to stop working on one job and switch over to another. In some trials, the participants had to make the change immediately. During these test runs, humans and pigeons switched between jobs at the same speed.

But in other trials, the test subjects were allowed to complete one assignment and then had to wait 300 milliseconds before moving on to the next job. Interestingly, in these runs, the pigeons were quicker to get started on that second task after the period ended. In the avian brain, nerve cells are more densely packed, which might enable our feathered friends to process information faster than we can under the right circumstances.

14. PIGEONS PRODUCE FAKE "MILK."

Only mammals produce genuine milk, but pigeons and doves (along with some other species of birds) feed their young with something similar—a whitish liquid filled with nutrients, fats, antioxidants, and healthy proteins called "crop milk." Both male and female pigeons create the milk in the crop, a section of the esophagus designed to store food temporarily. As is the case with mammal milk, the creation of crop milk is regulated by the hormone prolactin. Newly-hatched pigeons drink crop milk until they're weaned off it after four weeks or so. (And if you've ever asked yourself, "Where are all the baby pigeons?" we have the answer for you right here.)

15. ONE STUDY SUGGESTS THAT, GIVEN THE RIGHT CONDITIONS, THEY'RE AS GOOD AT IDENTIFYING CANCER AS DOCTORS.

We've already established that pigeons are excellent at differentiating between artists and words, but a 2015 study revealed they can also distinguish between malignant and benign growths in the right conditions. Researchers at University of California Davis Medical Center put 16 pigeons in a room with magnified biopsies of potential breast cancers. If the pigeons correctly identified them as either benign or malignant, they got a treat, According to Scientific American.

"Once trained, the pigeons' average diagnostic accuracy reached an impressive 85 percent. But when a "flock sourcing" approach was taken, in which the most common answer among all subjects was used, group accuracy climbed to a staggering 99 percent, or what would be expected from a pathologist. The pigeons were also able to apply their knowledge to novel images, showing the findings weren't simply a result of rote memorization."

Mammograms proved to be more of a challenge, however; the birds could memorize signs of cancer in the images they were trained on but could not identify the signs in new images.

No matter how impressive their results, "I don't anticipate that pigeons, no matter how good they become at pathology or radiology, will be playing a role in actual patient care—certainly for the foreseeable future," study co-author Richard M. Levenson told Scientific American. "There are just too many regulatory barriers—at least in the West."

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Jim Henson's Labyrinth Is Being Adapted Into a Stage Musical
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More than 30 years after its cinematic debut, Labyrinth could be hitting the stage. In an interview with Forbes, Jim Henson's son and Henson Company CEO Brian Henson shared plans to transform the cult classic into a live musical.

While the new musical would be missing David Bowie in his starring role as Jareth the Goblin King, it would hopefully feature the soundtrack Bowie helped write. Brian Henson says there isn't a set timeline for the project yet, but the stage adaptation of the original film is already in the works.

As for a location, Henson told Forbes he envisions it running, "Not necessarily [on] Broadway, it could be for London's West End, but it will be a stage show, a big theatrical version. It’s very exciting."

Labyrinth premiered in 1986 to measly box office earnings and tepid reviews, but Jim Henson's fairytale has since grown into a phenomenon beloved by nostalgic '80s kids and younger generations alike. In the same Forbes interview, Brian Henson also confirmed the 2017 news that a long-anticipated Labyrinth sequel is apparently in development. Though he couldn't give any specifics, Henson confirmed that, "we are still excited about it but the process moves very slowly and very carefully. We're still excited about the idea of a sequel, we are working on something, but nothing that's close enough to say it's about to be in pre-production or anything like that."

While fans eagerly await those projects to come out, they can get their fix when the film returns to theaters across the U.S. on April 29, May 1, and May 2. Don't forget to wear your best Labyrinth swag to the event.

[h/t Forbes]

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