She’s happily settled with a Brit in North London and best friends with Kate Moss and the Beckhams. Now US actress Liv Tyler is perfecting her English credentials (and swotting up on the nation’s history) in the BBC’s big new autumn dramaGunpowder
It’s Saturday afternoon in London’s Primrose Hill and I am sitting with a rock chick, dithering over whether to order cocktails or smoothies. Liv Tyler is glowing when she turns up for our chat, the perfect mix of off-duty mum and North London cool. This may be because the US actress is loved-up with David Beckham’s best mate, football agent David Gardner, and enjoying the second flush of motherhood: she and David have Sailor, two, and Lula, one, together, as well as an older son each.
Liv has the sort of ethereal, otherworldly looks that light up a screen – and famously did so in the 1990s coming-of-age film Stealing Beauty, in which she made her name at 19, and as the half-elven Arwen in The Lord of the Rings.
The daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and model, singer and groupie Bebe Buell, Liv (who for the first few years of her life believed her father to be another rocker, Todd Rundgren) is refreshingly grounded. Best friends with Kate Moss she may be – the supermodel introduced Liv to David and recently attended her 40th birthday party – but she makes me feel as though there’s nothing she’d rather do than spend the afternoon hanging out in a café with me.
The Tyler-Gardner blended family – which includes Liv’s son Milo, 12, from her marriage to British musician Royston Langdon of the rock band Spacehog, and Gardner’s son, Gray, ten, with Hollyoaks actress (and loo-roll heiress) Davinia Taylor – settled permanently in London’s Primrose Hill a year ago, having previously vacillated between there and Liv’s native New York. ‘I am loving it,’ she beams. ‘David and I have these sweet moments where we feel so grateful and happy. The greatest luxury is the simple things: being home together at weekends, taking the boys to the park. We are renting now, but have bought somewhere a bit closer to the centre of town, which I am doing up. It feels like a big new adventure.’
Adding to the sense of adventure is the fact that Liv spent her first British winter commuting between London and Leeds, where she was filming the three-part BBC period drama Gunpowder. Set to be one of the TV events of the autumn, it recounts the story of the 1605 Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, now synonymous with Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night. The series stars Game of Thrones’s Kit Harington as Robert Catesby, the man who masterminded the gunpowder plot
(Fawkes just guarded the explosives) and Liv as Anne Vaux, a Catholic baron’s daughter who fears the plan is likely to backfire. ‘Kit was amazing,’ she enthuses, ‘super smart. He actually plays his own relative: Catesby is his real-life ancestor! Anne is a really interesting, strong woman for her times. I enjoyed being able to get inside her and totally focus for hours, without looking at my phone, and also using my British accent again. I had to practise with my dialect coach – the muscle memory was there from The Lord of the Rings, but I needed to tweak it.’
Another attraction of the role was being able to escape the mayhem of babies for brief interludes while David held the fort, safe in the knowledge that she could get back home quickly. ‘It was the perfect project. I would commute for a day or two to film and then come home. I loved that calm time on the train – it made me envy commuters! And it was great to learn about a period in British history I knew nothing about. My only experience of Bonfire Night was going to [Stealing Beauty director] Bernardo Bertolucci’s communal garden in London, when I had just made the film, and seeing a big bonfire. My youngest are still too little to enjoy it. The loud bangs would scare them! But hopefully it’s a tradition we can take up soon.’
Liv is slowly adjusting to English customs, though our national obsession with football – David and Gray are Manchester United fanatics – is one she struggles with. ‘The other day I found all Gray’s football shirts in the bin. I was so confused. I thought someone had put them there by accident or he had mistaken it for the laundry basket, but then I realised he was angry with them for losing a match! It was such an eye-opener. I’m a creative soul not a sports person, so I didn’t understand.’
But – however mystifying some aspects of British life may be – she must feel an affinity with these shores, having had children with not one, but two English men. ‘Not just English, but northern!’ she says. (David is from Manchester and Royston from Leeds.) ‘How did that happen?’ She and David are ‘engaged’, but have no immediate plans to marry yet. ‘It’s so sweet to enjoy this stage of being together. I am not a woman who is obsessed with having a wedding – and because we aren’t married yet, he has to keep asking me,’ she smiles coyly. ‘I just say, “Maybe.”
‘We moved through the stages very quickly because when we met we both already had children, so we didn’t get that time to just be together that most couples do. Our tribe has been part of our relationship from the start. I always wanted a big, happy family.’ This may have something to do with the fact that her own upbringing was unconventional, to say the least.
Born when her mother was in her early 20s and single (Bebe had a brief fling with Tyler while in an on-off relationship with Rundgren, which ended soon afterwards), Liv was raised by her aunt and uncle in rural Maine and her grandmother in Virginia. She returned to Manhattan – and her mother – at the age of 12, not long after discovering the real identity of her father. Rundgren signed Liv’s birth certificate and saw her as often as he could, but Liv became suspicious when she met Tyler at a concert with his daughter Mia, who looked like her ‘twin’ – and then her mother came clean.
Lesser beings might have been screwed up by all of this, but Liv sees only positives. ‘I feel lucky to have had so many parental figures and such a varied experience. They say “it takes a village” [to raise a child] and I think my story gives new meaning to that. I recently visited my aunt and uncle in Maine and they’re amazing: so solid, still happily married. My uncle has the same John Deere tractor as he did when I was growing up. He comes home, she makes dinner. It’s very grounding. I suppose as a child I did feel a bit embarrassed that my name was Liv and not, say, Sarah [her mother named her after the Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, having seen her on the cover of a magazine] and that I had an unconventional setup, but it has made me a chameleon’ – a useful attribute for an actor.
‘My mother [who encouraged Liv into modelling and then acting] would go to gigs that I’d bring my friends to.’ I sense that her relationship with Bebe has at times been strained but that they are in a good place now. ‘She was so young when she had me; she was overwhelmed. I’m grateful that my aunt and my grandmother were there to support us. I know my mother is my mother, but it feels like all three of them are.’
Liv’s maternal grandmother Dorothea Johnson, ‘the matriarch of the family’, is a famous US etiquette expert who once worked for the government, training diplomats in US customs. Liv has described her as her ‘best friend’ and the two brought out a book together in 2013, Modern Manners: Tools to Take You to the Top.
‘It’s not about manners in a stiff and formal sense,’ Liv says. ‘Everything she taught me is so subtle – making proper eye contact, listening to people, knowing when to offer to help, respecting elders – things everyone should know. Now, with the older boys, if they get up from a table and don’t push their chairs in, I call them back and explain that they’re being inconsiderate and creating work for someone else.’
Against the odds, Liv has a strong relationship with her ‘fathers’, both of whom she calls Dad. ‘They’re eccentric. They’re rock stars. They’re on the road most of the time. I’m not the first thing on either of their minds. When you’re a true creative, your art always comes first. They’re so connected when you’re with them, but then they’re gone.’ But if Tyler was, at times, an absent dad, he has certainly pulled through on some big occasions: he was present – and even cut the umbilical cord – when Sailor was born six weeks early, while David was away.
‘He heard I was in labour and walked straight out of his door in Nashville and jumped on a plane.’ Nor does Rundgren conform to the unreliable stereotype of the rock-star dad. ‘He knew I probably wasn’t his, but he wanted to act as a father and protect me.’ The two men have met ‘once or twice’, which Liv admits has been awkward. ‘They both love me in that paternal way, so it’s hard for either to let the other relationship happen. I’m sure if we all spent more time together it would be fine.’
Liv is taking a leaf out of her mother’s book in how to handle exes. ‘She only ever spoke glowingly to me about both of my dads, praising their positives and being honest about their weaknesses, but never in a nasty way.’ Liv is doing the same for Milo with his dad. ‘Roy and I met when we were so young. I loved him so much and I love him now. We’ve been friends for such a big chunk of my life.
‘There are times when we disagree and I feel mad at him, but I would never share that with Milo. I only say what I love about him and I tell old stories to keep him alive when they’re not together. When I had Lula I was thinking about how we sell our daughters this idea of falling in love and being with one person for ever. But I don’t believe that you only have one love or that you ever stop loving people. It’s so nice for David and me to be together now, both with the perspective of past experiences.’
Despite appearing to be at the epicentre of a privileged social circle, Liv is adamant that the pair ‘don’t go out a lot’. I ask gently if they see the Beckhams much. ‘Yeah, sometimes. David and David have been friends and played football together since they were 13, so they do, but I’m a homebody and not naturally super social.’
She is more forthcoming about Kate Moss. ‘She is my family. She’s magical – so special. There is no one else like her. She is captivating and riveting; a thinker, a reader, a feeler. Whatever “it” is, she has it. She is so alive.’ She also, says Liv, has a brilliant radar for beautiful things. ‘She can go through the trash and find something gorgeous, and has a way of bringing things to life.’
Having a bestie like Kate in London is just one reason why Liv is happy to have moved. Another is the political situation back home. ‘I find it so upsetting,’ she says, referring to Donald Trump. ‘To be honest, I am trying not to pay attention or even turn on the radio because I don’t want to expose my children to the negativity. [The news] is all stabbings and bombings. I wish the media wouldn’t focus on it so much, because there is still a lot of goodness in the world even if it doesn’t feel that way.’ Filming Gunpowder, she says, with its storyline of Catholics trying to blow up parliament and the Protestant king in protest against their persecution, was a stark reminder of how long people have been committing murder in the name of religion.
Liv is hoping these interesting, meaty roles will keep coming. ‘I’m being offered some really nice parts now. Turning 40 hasn’t made me feel older. If anything, I am stronger and more energised.’ As if to prove the point, she has recently been unveiled in a new ad campaign for Triumph lingerie – ‘one of the oldest and most innovative engineers of the bra’. She was 39 and had recently had Lula at the time she was captured for it by celebrated photographer Rankin. ‘That should inspire all women! I was definitely still getting my shape back. I thought I could either be self-conscious or just go with it, and I chose the latter. I decided to be me and to stand proud.’
This, from the sound of it, is what Liv has been doing – successfully – all her life.
Gunpowder begins on BBC One on Saturday
By Charlotte Pearson Methven