Julie Taymor
The Tony Award-winning director and artist—and the roar behind Broadway's The Lion King—pounces on the subject of creativity: its spark, risk, and heart-stopping power.
A few years ago I experienced one of the most unforgettable moments in Broadway theater—the opening scene of The Lion King . In the days leading up to the performance, my best friend, Gayle, who had waited a year to get 15 tickets for her kids, her sisters and their families, and all their children, kept telling me, "Get there on time, Oprah! Don't be late!" And she was right: The animals and characters parading down the aisles during the most magical, fantastical opening I've ever witnessed are enough to leave any audience near tears. I left the show feeling more alive. After the performance I remember thinking, "What person could have conceived all this?"

That person is Julie Taymor, the director who brilliantly elevated Disney's 1994 animated film into a theater performance in which actors, in full view of the audience, operate life-size animal puppets. Her imaginative twist paid off: Since its Broadway debut in 1997, The Lion King has grossed more than $150 million and garnered six Tony Awards—including the first Tony to go to a woman for directing a musical.

Taymor's stellar career as an artist, director, and designer began long before The Lion King . By age 7 she was staging backyard performances for family and friends in her hometown of Newton, Massachusetts. At 10 she started working with the Boston Children's Theatre. In the coming years, her passion for folklore, mythology, mime, and theater would take her to Sri Lanka, Paris, and Indonesia, where, for four years during her early twenties, she lived in a dirt-floor compound with no running water, electricity, or telephone. While there, she created and directed a trilogy called Way of Snow , which explored, among other things, the tensions between traditional Indonesian society and modern influences. The performance included puppets and masks that Taymor carved herself using wood from a tree outside her house.

Over the past two decades, Taymor's experiences abroad and her trademark sophistication have shaped her award- winning productions. Among the works she included in her book Playing with Fire (Abrams) are The Haggadah (1980), Liberty's Taken (1985), Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (1994), which Taymor later directed as a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, The Green Bird (1996), and Juan Darien (1996), for which she received a Tony nomination for best direction of a musical and best scenic design. As the famed composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has said: "Julie is uncategorizable as an artist."

Taymor and I met one evening at her Manhattan home, a tenth-floor loft that she shares with her partner and collaborator, composer Elliot Goldenthal. The space reflects her creative genius: A mask she carved for the 1984 production of The Transposed Heads is suspended above a red spiral staircase, an alabaster bust from Juan Darien perches on a stool alongside a piano, a hallway leading to Elliot's music room bears a poster from The Lion King , with the words UNLIKE ANYTHING BROADWAY HAS EVER SEEN at the bottom.

As she spoke, often using her hands to amplify a point, I could see she is confident and fearless—someone who has never allowed others to put a box around her. During our talk it became clear that the creative force she is now, at age 48, has everything to do with the priceless gifts her parents gave her—the freedom to create her own life and an unshakable trust in herself.

Start reading Oprah's interview with Julie Taymor

Note: This interview appeared in the November 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Oprah: Your creativity is a gift. Does it come naturally, or can the rest of us tap into what I see in you?

Julie: Both. Creativity is a gift, but if you don't know how to use it you might not even know it's there. There's a lot of creativity in the air, but it's meaningless if you're not open to receiving it. For instance, I have asked my partner and the composer I work with, Elliot Goldenthal, where he gets his talent. He says, "It's not me—the music is already there. I just know how to snap it up." In a way, artists are shamans, facilitators who take what's there, channel it through themselves, then put it out there for people to appreciate. Growing up I had amazing parents who really let me be creative and free. I was the youngest of three by six years, the child who was the outsider and observer. When I went off to Boston to act, I was very young—10. And my parents didn't fear that. They had the respect to let me make my choices.

Oprah: Didn't you grow up in a suburban, Beaver Cleaver family? I saw a picture of your house, and I thought, "Gee, Beav would have been happy there!"

Julie: Not quite Beaver Cleaver but, yes, suburbia. But every day after school, I went to act in Boston, where I met kids from varied social and racial backgrounds.

Oprah: I have a friend, Dr. Phil, who says that everybody has at least ten defining moments in their life. For you, wasn't one of those moments when you went to India at age 15?

Julie: Yes—India and Sri Lanka. Going to the Far East was my first eye-opener to a world vastly different from my own. Then when I was 16 I lived in Paris for a year and studied mime. At 21 I went to Indonesia. I had planned to go for three months, but I stayed four years. I just got lost in the culture. And I put together a theater troupe [Teatr Loh].

Oprah: And you were still so young.

Julie: Very young. And yet because my parents had given me tremendous respect, trust, and freedom as a child, I knew how to take responsibility for myself. If you're constantly being told "No, don't do that" or "We don't trust you," you can't develop that responsibility.

Oprah: Your mother has said, "I always believed Julie wasn't going to do anything destructive to herself." That's why she could give you the freedom that has created your sense of independence.

Julie: Yes. Some people think giving a child freedom means spoiling the child, but it has nothing to do with materialism. My parents gave me a lot of support—they gave me the crayons and the materials—but their support was there to help me do things myself.

Oprah: What is your process of creation? How do you get inspiration?

Julie: For each hat I wear there's a different creative process. When I'm sculpting, I work with wood and clay, and though some say that an image is already in the material and the sculptor just has to discover it, I also believe you have an image in your head that you're trying to get to. So you're in a dialogue with the piece, a back-and-forth. When I'm working as a director, I might have an idea of my own but I'm also trying to get great ideas out of my actors. Directing is much more psychological—it's a lot like being a general. And you have to be organized. While you're making a film, you have between 2 and 500 people asking you a billion questions.

Oprah: Do you like it when an actor has a different idea about a character than you do?

Julie: Yes. Anthony Hopkins [who costarred in Titus] is a perfect example of that. Here's what I feel: If you have a strong vision, then you're able to throw it away for a better one. The tyrant male directors who have everyone quaking in their boots—and by the way, women can't get away with being tyrants because they're seen as bitches—are so into their vision that they're terrified to let anyone see that there might be another way. That's a shame. I believe that if you really have a strong idea, you can say, "What do you think? Let's see how my idea plays off yours."

Oprah: Did you feel intimidated about directing your first feature film?

Julie: Not really. I put blinders on—that's how I work. Prior to The Lion King, I directed Oedipus Rex, which was my first opera, in Japan. [American soprano] Jessye Norman was in it and, before I even began directing I showed her my concept and she got it right away because she's a smart lady. But before she showed up at the set, an assistant director began telling me what Jessye Norman would never do—she was saying things like "Jessye would never walk up these steps." I said, "Will you shut up? If you tell me what she won't do, then I'll be terrified to ask her. I'm just going to tell her what I want and see if she'll do it." So that's my policy—to be positive, to just hope that something will happen. If you start with all your fears, your receptivity is for the negative.

Oprah: When you're carving masks, how do you create an expression that conveys the essence of a character?

Julie: When creating masks for The Lion King, I tried to abstract the essence of the character to a word or notion. The character Scar is obviously off-center because he has a scar on one side of his face. He's twisted. He's angular. The mask of Mufasa, who is Scar's polar opposite, is all about symmetry. So the rays of circles that surround his head became his mane.

Oprah: But what happens in your brain that gives you the ideas? I get a couple of good ideas while I'm in the tub, but nothing like that!

Julie: Some of my ideas for film or theater come to me in dreams. I'm also very creative when I'm talking to others. I believe in collaboration.

Oprah: It was such a brilliant idea to allow the audience to see the actors and the puppets simultaneously—that way the audience can participate through their imagination.

Julie: Yes. People have become so literal because they're used to reality-based television. I could have used a movie projector to project the image of a sun onto the stage, and I also could have hidden everybody in costumes. But then the audience would have thought, "That's silly—there's a person inside there!" I chose instead to make the people apparent and to have the audience enjoy not just the story but the art and style of telling it. I'm a firm believer in the idea that theater excels over film and TV in its ability to let people play with poetry. I don't mean to sound highfalutin or "artistic"; in America, the word art has become like the word adultery. It's this big scarlet letter. When you say you're an artist, people are like, "Ugh."

Oprah: What does the word mean to you?

Julie: An artist is an entertainer, number one—a storyteller who takes people someplace, who gives them what they didn't know they wanted. A performance can have amazing visuals and special effects, but it has to tell a good story, even if that story isn't original. Are the characters interesting? Is the language fascinating? Is it going to tell you at least a different version of what you know? Is your heart touched? Are you intellectually stimulated? We're really having a problem right now in our culture. I haven't seen one movie lately in which the story and visuals have been equally good. I want to experience a performance on all levels—I want goose bumps and I want to leave the movie or play arguing about something that's unresolved. If you give people what you know they want, which is what most movies do—

Oprah: You're predictable.

Julie: Yes. And that drives me nuts. The story of The Lion King is nothing new—we all know these animals, we all know how the sun rises, so what's the big deal? It's how you tell the story that makes it new. That's what artists do. They let us look at the world from a different perspective. They let us look at birds in a way that makes us never see birds again in the same way. That's why I don't think computers are healthy for kids. They're too literal. You pop a button and a bluebird comes out. You pop another button and you can take the color blue and shove it into the outline of the bluebird. When we were kids, you picked up a little paper and put it on a stick; and when you waved it back and forth, you understood the power of air underneath the wings. In that way, a child begins to understand abstraction, poetry, metaphor, symbolism. You play with the materials you have and use your imagination to make them into something else. That what's so sad about having everything on a little screen—it's not physical and dimensional, and that seems backward. It's less advanced to work with something you can't touch or penetrate, something that doesn't surround you or excite all your senses.

Oprah: And that leaves us feeling less connected with our surroundings, with one another, and with ourselves.

Julie: Completely.

Oprah: Are there things parents can do to stimulate the creative process in their children?

Julie: Yes. When I was growing up, there were a lot more arts in the public schools. Politically, this country has screwed up on that. The National Endowment for the Arts is very important because learning is about much more than science and math. Doing theater, music, and art in school really helps children's minds grow because they're using different parts of their brains. Parents who care should insist on that.

Oprah: Do you ever wish you had children?

Julie: At one time I wanted that. But I didn't start trying until late, and then it didn't happen. To be honest with you, I am delighted. I know that's not what a lot of people want to hear, but—

Oprah: You couldn't have the life you have now if you had children.

Julie: I could not.

Oprah: That's true for me, too. And yet some would still say that we're missing something.

Julie: I know I'm missing something, but those who have children are missing what I get to do. And frankly, I'm probably missing more of what I don't want than what I do. Some may call me selfish or narcissistic, but I don't want to spend my time going to PTA meetings. The only way I could have children and do the work I do is to have a househusband—and I'm not attracted to a househusband. I'd rather affect children with the work I do.

Oprah: Were you afraid to direct The Lion King?

Julie: I wasn't afraid, but I was cautious. Everyone was asking me, "Why are you doing Disney? You do folklore and mythology." My aesthetic is not a Disney aesthetic at all, but when I met with the wonderful producers at Disney, they weren't looking for me to do their aesthetic. I'd already spent 20 years in the theater, so if they were going to hire me, they'd be hiring me for what I have to offer. Everyone learned a transforming lesson from The Lion King: You don't have to patronize your audience, and you can mix art and commerce in a profound way. You can simultaneously play to the sophisticated, 60-year-old theatergoers and to 4-year-olds. I wanted The Lion King to have elegance, to not be cute. I decided to play to myself, meaning that when I created something, I had to like it. If I don't like something, why should I expect anybody else to? I had to take what had been a successful animated film, put it on the stage, and make it equally good. So I had to do what only theater can—to create a visceral experience that surrounds you.

Oprah: You have the incredible ability to direct something as open and airy as The Lion King, and yet you can explore the dark side in a film like Titus. Do you believe we all have a dark side?

Julie: Yes. And we all know it. Americans are attracted to the dark side. But which movies should be allowed to be violent and show that dark side, and which should not? I don't believe in censorship, but I do think there are horrible movies that are bad for you. The idea that all violence in movies is okay simply because it happens is bull. Directors and writers have a responsibility. If you see a film like Titus, you're not going to go out and be violent. It was Shakespeare's most successful and entertaining play because when he wrote it, people were going to public executions. What Shakespeare does is tell a story that lets you understand why people are violent. In Titus you see a character who could be your next-door neighbor, your father, your uncle—someone who goes from being a very good person to being a monster who bakes his enemies' children into pies. It makes you ask yourself, "Could someone I know be pushed to such a degree of violence?" What is justice and what is vengeance?

Oprah: Your experience as an artist is so broad: director, sculptor, designer, creator. How do you define yourself?

Julie: I call myself a playmaker sometimes—but that's just a word. I don't feel like I have to have a title or a job description.

Oprah: Do you think you see the world differently than most people do?

Julie: I think we all see the world from our own little unique bubble.

Oprah: Do we all have the potential to be creative, or are some people just dullards?

Julie: No. Some people become dullards, but as children we are all creative. It's in the programming, the socialization, that we lose our sense of play.

Oprah: Does creativity affect every area of your life? I don't want to get too personal, but are you imaginative in your sex life?

Julie: That's not for me to say! And no, I'm not creative in every single area. For instance, Elliot is a phenomenal cook, so I let him do most of the cooking. He's a genius who can just make things up.

Oprah: So you're not hanging from the chandeliers every night?

Julie: No, no, no! I am creative in my living space—the designer in me helps that out.

Julie: I'm living the life of my dreams, but probably not one beyond. When I was 10 or 15, I had very big ideas for myself. I was a pretty dreamy little girl. I had a lot of chutzpah then. But to answer your question, I am really...I guess the word is happy.

Oprah: Happy is a good word.

Julie: I'm pretty fulfilled. I have a very good partner whom I live and work with, and we've been together 20 years. We've always been very excited about our work. That's how we fell in love.

Oprah: You're one of those people who has really pushed yourself to live in your fullness—someone who doesn't always play it safe. Did your parents also give you that characteristic?

Julie: Yes, my mother was okay with me not playing it safe. She made an agreement with my father that I was going to be raised differently than my brother and sister were. My parents went through the whole sixties rebellion with my brother and sister. But I didn't feel like I had to rebel because I didn't have anyone telling me I couldn't do something. I never went into that parents-as-enemies stage. The only challenge we had was sex. When I was 14, I had a boyfriend who was 17, and my parents were worried that I'd get pregnant. I told them, "I want to go away with John—and believe me, I'm not going to get pregnant." They said no, but I went anyway and told them I was with a girlfriend. When I came home, I said to my parents, "You made me lie because you couldn't trust me." And that was the end of that: It never happened again. They completely trusted me.

Oprah: How can each of us come closer to living on the edge of ourselves the way you do?

Julie: You just have to throw fear out the window. If there's anything that's going to hold you back, it's fear.

Oprah: Does the commercial success of The Lion King put pressure on you as you work on new projects?

Julie: No, it's a relief. I feel like I've done that, it's nice, and I don't have to do it again. Right after I finished The Lion King, I went to work on Titus. The last thing I would have done was another large musical to see if I could better myself or still be loved.

Oprah: So you live fearlessly.

Julie: Yes. I don't want to sound like a heroic woman or to seem full of myself, but I do have a core of trust that I'll figure things out and find my way. And if whatever I try is not a good experience, even that is a good experience. If something turns out lousy, it's interesting.

Oprah: So is that the secret to your creativity?

Julie: Yes, it's not caring that you may ultimately fail. You have to stop yourself from even thinking about failing.

Oprah: I have a column in the magazine called ""What I Know for Sure",—which is a phrase I got years ago from the late Gene Siskel. What do you know for sure?

Julie: That everything amounts to nothing if you don't love someone or something. I know for sure that nothing ultimately compares to that. What I don't know for sure is what's next for me—and I don't mind that. I know for sure that whatever happens will be interesting and will challenge and excite me.

Oprah: So "What's next?" is not an important question for you?

Julie: No. Whatever it is, I have to really love it—that's what's important to me. I wouldn't have done The Lion King if I didn't believe it has something solid to say to people. When you approach it that way, you come at it with all your soul and intelligence.

Oprah: Yes—and then you can always tell the truth. This has been great, Julie. Thank you for your time.

Julie: Thank you for stopping by.


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