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EXCLUSIVE: How Lili Taylor's Harrowing 'American Crime' Performance Is a Testament to Her Former Acting Teacher

by Stacy Lambe 12:02 AM PDT, June 16, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

In one of the most harrowing performances of the past TV season, Lili Taylor played a mother struggling to connect with and protect her teenage son after he was sexually assaulted by one of his male classmates in the second season of American Crime.

Even though Taylor appeared on the first season of the award-winning anthology series, which earned 10 Emmy nominations and a win for Regina King, she couldn't anticipate the way audiences would connect with what unfolded.

What audiences watched this season was two teenage boys, Eric (Joey Pollari) and Taylor (Connor Jessup), struggle with their sexual identity in a private school setting as parents and school officials manipulated the situation for their own protection. As the story unfolded, the assault became a social and political lightning rod. Taylor was beaten up by Eric's friends for going to the police -- a decision pushed upon him by his mother (Taylor) -- and he later retaliated by stealing a gun and shooting one of his attackers outside of their school.

MORE: 'American Crime' Stars Explain Why Their Show Is About More Than Murder

"I remember I was on an airplane -- a few episodes were out at this point -- and the three flight attendants pulled me into the back kitchen area," Taylor recalls to ET. "They all had something to say about the show. They were all parents and they were like, 'I'm going through this too. I don't know what the hell to do with my son, social media.'"

"Across the board, I felt like everybody was relating to the things the characters were going through," Taylor says, even though the series -- a powerful look at gender, race, class, and sexuality, offered no answers to the issues at hand. But somehow the 49-year-old actress found comfort in that. "Just the fact that a human being is going through something like that is kind of comforting, you know?"

One of Taylor's most challenging scenes came in episode seven, when her onscreen son comes into the diner after the shooting to be with his mother. "That was done in one take," Taylor says. "Emotionally, it was a lot of places to go in five minutes. I had no breaks to prepare or try to get here. I had to be there perfectly each time because there were no cuts."

MORE: How 'American Crime Story' Producer Nina Jacobson Is Making Audiences Face a Harsh Reality

"I went to sleep early that night," she adds.

Much of the filming experience seemed to echo that intensity. On Taylor's first day of shooting, she was filming the 9-1-1 call, which ends the premiere episode with her saying, "I want to report a rape." And later, she encountered real-life survivors of school shootings and bullying, who appeared in testimonials that followed episode seven. "I thought, 'OK, Jesus Christ. This is what this is going to be like,'" Taylor says.

But despite all of that, American Crime is an actualization of Taylor's talent and career as an actress. Citing a former acting teacher who said that it takes 20 years to learn how to act, Taylor now knows what he meant. "I felt like, 'Oh, OK. I know now.' It was really important for me to have that reflected back, for me to see the tools that I have, the accumulation of ideas put into technique," she says. "It couldn't have been better for me."

MORE: Standout Performances of the Season

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