There's something poetic about the girl who WAS cast as the Virgin Mary in her second grade nativity play growing up to be the latest leading lady of legendary director Larry Clark. But such is the show business debut of Tiffany Limos, the filmmaker's sometime girlfriend and star of Ken Park, his latest in a series of stunning and authentic movies chronicling the explicit relationships between kids and their parents -- his hard-hitting films include 1995's New York City skate 'n' sex romp Kids and last year's Florida murder orgy Bully. The director has been trying to make Ken Park for 10 years. "I wanted to make a film about contemporary teenagers, a film about the relationship between parents and children and a lot of the things that I've seen in my life," he recalls. "So all the characters are grounded in reality." Ken Park is actually four stories in one, all about young people facing complex relationships with their parents, while simultaneously diving headlong into the joys of sexual experimentation. Limos plays Peaches, a teenager living between two worlds: daddy's perfect little school girl and sexually experimenting teen.
"I just would not give up," Clark says of making Park, which is slated for release later this fall. "It's a very dark, dark film that I was always going to make straight ahead with no punches pulled and no compromises. It was always going to be more like my early photographs." He describes his early photos as straight documentary work depicting things "you couldn't photograph." "They photograph your first confirmation, why not your first blow job?" he asks. "If I could have seen these things somewhere else maybe I wouldn't have photographed them." Of course, there's more to it than blow jobs. Clark is interested in the parts of life you aren't supposed to record. "It's an unrated film, and it's going to be difficult for some people, but I think it's very valid and authentic," the director observes.
His absolute refusal to compromise his artistic vision or water down the graphic nudity makes him the quintessential unHollywood director. Yet why is it that a critically acclaimed filmmaker has trouble getting financing for a $1.3 million movie? "Maybe it's easier to make a movie that costs $50 million than it is to make a movie that costs almost nothing," Larry explains. "It's difficult if you have a film that will have trouble getting distribution, like I am with Ken Park because it's very explicit."
Still, in all of his movies, Clark has certainly mastered the technique of making a masterpiece on a TV commercial budget. "No one makes films of this kind of quality, that look this good and have this kind of production values for no money like I do," says the director, who enlisted cinematographer Edward Lachman (Erin Brockovich) on the film. "They're all quickies. I made Bully in 23 days [for $2.25 million]. It's really insane and a crazy way to make films, especially if you're trying to make them authentic, as I am. But maybe if I had more time, they would be more studied and wouldn't be as immediate as they are."
A major element in the authenticity of these films is the casting of non-actors. "With Kids, I didn't want real actors," says Clark. "I wanted it all to be real kids. I wanted to work with professional actors, but I found that the pool of actors that age isn't very deep, good actors who can bring the inner life and the emotional trust a film like Bully needs." The director's preferred method of casting is hitting the streets. That's where he found some of the stars for Ken Park. "I went to Visalia, [California, where the movie was filmed], and I saw this kid skating and I thought, that looks like Claude." He spoke to the skater, Stephen Jasso, and read with him. Sure enough, Jasso became Claude. "For me, it's amazing to be walking across the street and say, 'I'm going to make this kid a movie star, and to pull it off and get the kind of performances I got from these kids." His track record speaks for itself: Past discoveries include ChloÃ« Sevigny, Leo Fitzpatrick and Michael Pitt.
He didn't have to look far to find the female lead for Ken Park. Limos made her theatrical debut in second grade, having been voted by her classmates to play the Virgin Mary in her Catholic school's nativity play. Born in Dallas, Texas, Limos, who has a delicious hodge-podge ancestry and a look that's part Tahitian temptress, part Chinese-Mexican vamp, was discovered by a model agent at a mall at the age of 12. She ended up working for years as the Ford agency's "token" ethnic model. Limos hung out at skate parks, meeting a lot of the skater-actors whom she'd later meet again in Clark's film world. She eventually moved to New York at age 15, where she felt she could express herself creatively. "My parents cried," she recalls. "I said, 'Aren't you proud that you have a kid who actually knows what she wants to do? Do you know how many parents would want that?'" She eventually met Clark in 1999 at a book store in downtown Manhattan.
When the director was looking at actresses to play Peaches, the sexually awakening daughter of an oppressive Catholic father, Clark started by going through the motions of seeing professional actors. "Obviously, we needed someone who looked young and was very pretty, and after [each audition] we said, 'Tiffany is prettier and looks younger,'" he recalls. "It happened over and over."
"I wasn't the ideal pretty," Limos corrects.
Clark continues, "I came home and told Tiffany I thought she should try it."
"I know Larry and Larry's work," says Limos, "and I know where the character comes from. I have friends whose parents tried to control them with the fear of God. I thought that was normal."
Clark felt that Limos, who'd had no acting experience since the Virgin Mary incident, was perfectly unspoiled and natural. "If you can find kids who can do it, they're so open and honest and they find something in the performance because they don't know any better," he says. "In Ken Park, we were doing amazing things in front of the camera. Tiffany is the perfect example. What she does in front of the camera is so real and so tender. In the scene where Peaches' father has caught her having sex with her boyfriend and forces her into a ritualistic repentance ceremony [in which she basically marries her father], I was crying the whole time."
How does Limos handle the pressure of living up to Clark's expectations? "I thought if Larry could pick people off the street, I could do it," she says. "What's the big deal? That was my attitude." Since wrapping the film last April, the two have been working on Teenage Caveman, a movie for Cinemax about a post-apocalyptic world of sexually adventurous youth. Limos has written some screenplays for Clark and he's also optioned a comedy -- actually another comedy -- since the director half-jokingly says all his movies are comedies. He's also hoping to shoot a movie in New York next year but can't discuss the details, as the deal isn't sealed. One thing is certain: It won't be a big-budget blockbuster.
"I can't sell out because I do work that's not about compromise," he explains. "I think people that say, 'I'm going to do commercial work to make money to get back to the real work,' never seem to get back to the real work."
"Larry's a true starving artist," says Limos. She smiles and then adds, "Unfortunately."
Clark and Limos Photographed by Alexander Thompson at R Twentieth Century Furniture, New York, Makeup by Elie Maalouf/de fact