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Actress Lili Taylor has made a career of confronting challenges.


Once considered the queen of independent movies like “Short Cuts,” “Household Saints” and “The Haunting,” she began to change all that when she accepted the role of the whole-Earth mother who mysteriously disappears in HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” That part was supposed to be only four episodes, but ballooned to more than 20.


Now she’s done the unthinkable for Lili Taylor - she’s starring in a TV series. In “State of Mind,” premiering July 15 on Lifetime, Taylor plays a conscientious therapist whose own life is cartwheeling out of control while she tries to steady her eccentric patients.


“I’ve just widened my definition of independent,” says the soft-spoken Taylor, ordering a bowl of mixed berries for breakfast. “I feel autonomy on this project and to me that’s independence.”


She’s been in analysis herself, and says it works for her. “There have been moments in my life where I do feel there’s been a crossing a threshold or a stepping-up to right now and letting go of whatever the old thing I’ve been holding on to,” she says.


“I don’t drink and that was probably a big one - not drinking. I made the decision because everybody in my family had problems and it looked like the proof was in the pudding so that took a lot of strength. I was in my 20s.”


One of six children, Taylor grew up 30 miles north of Chicago and knew early on that she wanted to be an actress. Her dad, who was a poet at heart, owned a hardware store. And exposure to that somehow rubbed off on Taylor who’s wearing khaki cargo pants and a fitted cream-colored corduroy jacket.


“I actually love fixing things, I think that’s one of my favorite things in a handy-woman kind of thing - not intense construction or anything like that. Things are broken, I like fixing them. I bring little tools with me and have things ready to go ... Mothers who are overwhelmed and their door keeps falling off its hinges, I just love getting in there and fixing it so it’s one less stress thing for them. I spent some time in the hardware store but I didn’t realize I love fixing things like this until five years ago. Now it’ like people wait for me to come around and will say, `Can you fix this for me?’”


Though she seems to have a transcendent calm about her, she wasn’t always so serene. She was kicked out of college because she needed to miss a day of class for a performance and one teacher objected. “They had a problem with my attitude and told me not to come back. I told them I didn’t WANT to come back. My dad gave them hell for that ... He was posing as a journalist actually, to try to tell them what they’d done to Lili Taylor,” she smiles.


She landed her first job because she showed up at the wrong time at the wrong place on the wrong date. “If a movie would come to Chicago they would pull students to come in for a cattle call. I misunderstood the dates and went to the wrong place, which turned out to be the right place because it’s where the director was meeting people with appointments - not a cattle call. And I came in, and I think the director saw me waiting and said, `Why don’t we see her also?’ And I got close. They put me out on something else, and they signed me. I was still a senior.”


But when she quarreled with actor’s Equity about the roles she was taking, she decided things would be more flexible in New York. Though she was only 20, she says, “I’d already done two movies, had some money in my pocket which is how I wanted to do it. I had a job, a play, so it was the perfect way to go to New York - a softer landing. My sister was there and that helped.”


Taylor’s sweetheart is writer-poet Nick Flynn, with whom she shares a home in New York. She’d like marry and have a family someday, she says. “I’m more unconventional than he is but I’m open to it. I’m the only one who’s not married in my family. I’m also not waiting for him to ask me because I would ask him. We’ve done well with a lot of breathing room, that’s been very good for us so you know what? We’ll get to things when we’re ready.”


While Taylor, 40, is up to professional challenges, it’s the personal ones that take the toll. Her toughest mission, she says, “Was when my dad was sick, that was hard. And that was a great moment of stepping up - of showing up for him and realizing what a gift it is to give somebody who’s dying, to give them the gift of helping them to finish business up. And trying to get him home so he could die at home, I thought it was really important. I remember saying to him, `I can hang out with you or I can try to get a job and get you home.’ And he said, `Get the job’ ...


“He passed away but he was totally done. We got him home and I felt like he finished up business with the kids. Dr. Kubler-Ross talks about that, finishing business. Sometimes it’s harder when the person has so much unfinished business.”


___


It came and went quickly but “Factory Girl” is due July 17 on DVD. It’s the fabled story of Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller) and Andy Warhol (Guy Pearce) during the druggy days of the `60s. Pearce, who was so great in “Memento,” says he’s always considered acting sort of Darwinian.


“I feel I’ve always used acting in my life as a survival technique that’s why I don’t really feel at times that I’m a real actor who does his homework and all that stuff. I got into acting when I was pretty young. It is a survival technique. Sometimes in the way ... of being uninteresting, the fear of looking scared, a response to perhaps when I was younger and was thinking about something and my mother would say to me, `Get that miserable look off your face.’ `Oh, I’m not miserable.’ Now somebody pays me to do it. I constantly question it and I constantly question the value of it and see that it sort of perpetuates those insecurities.”


___


Holly Hunter shows up in her first TV series, “Saving Grace,” premiering July 18 on TNT. She plays a cynical cop who reluctantly earns a little help from a friend (in the guise of an unconventional angel). Hunter, who’s played everything from the hysteric newscaster in “Broadcast News,” to the truculent Ed in “Raising Arizona,” says she started out as a very girlie little girl. “I was very, very, very feminine when I was little; always loved to dress up, always loved to do female things. Then I went through a tremendously aggressive tomboy period where I was always in (pants) running around and making my friends execute tests. We’d go through tests like `Can you jump over this ditch? Can you hop from one tree to another?’ These daredevil things. Then I got into boys.”


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Those “American Idol” casting agents are on their way to a city near you. Auditions for the seventh season begin in San Diego, July 30 at Qualcomm Stadium.


Auditions will continue in the following cities: Dallas, Aug. 6; Omaha, Neb., Aug. 10; Atlanta, Aug. 14; Charleston, S.C., Aug. 18; Miami, Aug. 22; Philadelphia, Aug. 27. Check out Americanidol.com for specifics.

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