Jennifer Tilly Unbound
If you know Jennifer Tilly, you probably have a very specific idea of who she is based on the types of character she is known for playing. Tilly has played more than her share of helium voiced dingbats. But it turns out the Oscar-nominated actress is very different from her screen personae. I guess that’s why they call it acting, huh? In the August 1986 issue of Movieline, Tilly talked about her upcoming film noir in which she and Gina Gershon played lesbians who try to steal from the mob. She also explains why she would rather watch the Oscars from home than actually be there.
Jennifer Tilly is sprawled across a sofa looking damn fine in a pair of faded jeans, cowboy boots and a clinging white sweater top. Her well-toned tummy moves with every breath as she talks about Bound, her first big film since her Oscar nominated turn in Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway. “The character in Bound is my favorite so far,” she coos, her voice only slightly less Betty Boop-esque in person than it is in Dolby. “Well, Bound and Bullets Over Broadway. Oh, they both start with a B! And my character is a color in each of them! In Bullets, I was Olive. In Bound, I’m Violet.” This dizzy, stream-of-consciousness rap reminds me of Tilly’s on-screen characters in movies like Bullets, The Getaway, Made in America and The Fabulous Baker Boys, but it’s a misleading first impression. As I am about to find out, in person Tilly is more articulate, insightful, and just plain with it than her screen image to date has shown. “By the way,” she says, abruptly changing the subject, “Movieline is my favorite celebrity magazine.” See what I mean?
DENNIS HENSLEY: You’re currently single, aren’t you?
JENNIFER TILLY: Yeah. I broke up with my boyfriend a few months ago. I don’t like being single in Hollywood. There are so many creepy guys. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t gotten over my ex, but the guys who approach me smell bad, or they touch the small of my back when they talk to me, and I, like, cringe.
Q: OK, let’s pretend there’s a guy you’re hot for, but who’s never seen your work, and he’s going to rent one of your movies. Which would you want it to be?
A: Probably Bullets Over Broadway. I was taking ski instructions [when I was at] Sundance and my instructor kind of liked me, but after he saw my new movie Bound, he acted so weird toward me. My character in that film is so sexual, I think it embarrassed him. I don’t know if I want to be with somebody that really gets into Bound.
Q: Well, by all means then, tell me more about Bound.
A: I play Violet, who is the mistress of a money launderer for the Mob. She’s been living with him for five years when she meets this ex-con played by Gina Gershon. The two women start this torrid affair and plan to double-cross the Mob for two million dollars; you never know until the end who’s going to get screwed. Originally, I fought to play Gina’s character–because I wanted to bust out of the stereotyping I found myself trapped in–but in retrospect I’m glad I played Violet, because she’s much more complicated and deep and murky. She goes all the way down… so to speak.
Q: What was the biggest challenge of Bound?
A: Committing. Bound had a great script, but lots of times when you’re working in a low-budget venue, something you’ve imagined as being the next Pulp Fiction turns out to be the next Red Shoe Diaries, And Bound has lesbian love scenes; you know, the film company can take the film away from the director and go shoot lots of breasts and crotches and things like that. But the Wachowski brothers told me what they wanted to do, and I just thought, “I’m going to trust that they know what they’re doing.”
Q: What was it like working with two directors?
A: It was OK, because they’re like one person. They were so funny. They’d act out our falls and stunts and stuff by having someone videotape them doing them first for us to watch.
Q: Did they wear wigs and heels playing you?
A: No. but with Gina and me, they did show us how to do the love scenes, and that was pretty funny to watch.
Q: How many love scenes are there?
A: Three. They’re amazingly erotic to watch, but when we were doing them, Gina and I would talk so much, the directors decided to buy megaphones so they could go, “Girls, stop giggling!”
Q: “… and tweak her left nipple!”
A: It was like that. They’d put the camera on a crane and one of the Wachowskis would yell through the microphone, “Jennifer, rise!” I’d rise and he’d yell. “Hand!” and Gina would put her hand on my hip. He’d say. “Walls!” and the grips would move the walls, and he’d say “Stomach!” and Gina’s stomach would start undulating. Then he’d say. “Bite!” and she’d bite down on my finger and come.
Q: Did they ever yell through the megaphone, “Come!”?
A: No. “Bite!” was the euphemism for come. So I didn’t have to cry, “Come! Come hard! Come now!”
Q: Like that command ever works in real life.
A: Sometimes it does.
Q: Did your character get to have an orgasm too?
A: [Laughing] My orgasm was cut out of the movie.
Q: Did you feel, “What am I, chopped liver?”
A: Well, Gina’s orgasm was really loud and driving whereas mine was implosive, which is not my own particular orgasm style. I thought Violet would be very ladylike.
Q: Are lesbians going to dig Bound?
A: I think they are. The cool thing is that it’s not about the lesbian lifestyle, it’s about a heist. I think it’s great to see the women being the ones in control.
Q: Were you working with Gina when Showgirls came out?
A: Yeah. Before it came out, she said to me. “My fondest hope is that it becomes this big, campy, cult phenomenon. I’ll feel I’ve succeeded when drag queens get dressed up as Cristal and Nomi and have catfights.” Lo and behold, it’s come to pass.
Q: How did you like Showgirls?
A: It wasn’t my cup of tea, but, you know, maybe I missed something when I was in the restroom.
Q: Lizzy Gardiner, who won the Oscar [with Tim Chappel] for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, was the production designer on Bound. Did you get to wear any hand-me-downs from Terence Stamp?
A: [Laughing] No, but everyone on the movie had a crush on Lizzy, She was the total trendsetter. After the Oscars, she said, “You would not believe how mean people were about my credit card dress.” Well, I had noticed that the minute I got nominated for an Oscar [for Bullets Over Broadway], I started to get such nasty things written about me. I’d never before been important enough for anyone to take the time to be nasty about me. I have to tell you, I was really glad when that was all over and I could go back to my normal life.
Q: What sort of things were written about you?
A: There was this perception that I wasn’t really acting–you know, like Woody Allen just turned on the camera and caught me in my natural habitat, like an ape or something. This one woman journalist said, “Jennifer Tilly, please. She got nominated for playing a ditz, which is what she is.” I was like, ”Hello? Do you know me? Have I met you?”
Q: Was it hard to get to audition for Woody Allen?
A: Yeah. A long lime ago, when I was married, my husband said. “Jennifer, you should do a Woody Allen movie.” It’s funny how people assume that the only reason you haven’t done a Woody Allen movie is because you haven’t thought of it.
Q: Did you start getting a lot more offers after being nominated for an Oscar?
A: Yes. The week after, I signed to do Bound and House Arrest with Jamie Lee Curtis, It’s weird because people assume I have all these options. I don’t have a lot of options. Part of it is that people are not real creative; they see you play a loudmouth bad actress and they say, “Next time we need a loudmouth bad actress, we’ll call you.”
Q: Did you ever think, “I’ve played so many ditzes, I’d better stop”?
A: Well, if it had been anybody but Woody Allen, I probably wouldn’t have done Bullets Over Broadway. I felt I’d gone to the well once too many times with that kind of character. My basic rule is, if a major motion picture offers me that kind of role, I’ll do it, but in independent films I’m doing more for myself, I’m trying to stretch. But the thing is, people don’t see these independent films.
Q: Did you have a good time at the Oscars?
A: No, and not because I didn’t win. It struck me as this big, tacky TV production in which we were just overdressed extras. It didn’t seem glamorous to me. I think it’s because you’re so stressed out. It’s more fun throwing an Oscar party than going there, because you can’t make fun of other people’s outfits when you know people are making fun of yours. I’d always dreamed about being nominated. Now I dream about winning. I plan to be back.
Q: What was the most surreal moment?
A: We were waiting outside for the limo and I remember Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary sword-fighting with their Oscars.
Q: What were your feelings when your older sister, Meg, was nominated for Agnes of God?
A: It was funny, because I came out here [to Hollywood] first. I was an actress and my sister was a ballet dancer. She hurt her back dancing, came out, got a lead in a movie first thing, and took off in a way that hardly ever happens. It’s taken me a lot longer. It was hard in the beginning, because people always assume…
Q: People assumed you were riding on her coat tails?
A: Right, and it wasn’t that way at all, I was really happy for her.
Q: Wasn’t part of you jealous of her success?
A: I’m sure there was some of that. I didn’t feel she took something away from me, though, because the thing she did is so different from what I do. I didn’t want to be her. I wanted to be me, with a similar amount of success. The thing that’s really great about it is that it seemed like things are possible; I mean, Meg and I didn’t have any connections in Hollywood. I think it’s amazing that two girls who grew up really poor in rural Canada came to Hollywood and have successful careers and get nominated for Oscars out of nowhere–out of an idea I had. The thing is, we’re tremendously aggressive; we say, “This is what I want, why can’t that be me?” I just knew I had to be an actress. I had some vision–this was when I was seven or eight–of myself at 40, a housewife with curlers in her hair, watching TV and crying because I had never followed my dream of being an actress. I always remember having that vision.
Q: How would you have handled success if it had happened when you were first starting out?
A: I don’t think I would have been able to deal with it. I’ve been in the business a long time, and I see a career as a bicycle: sometimes you can coast, but hardly ever. Most of the time you have to pedal, and sometimes you have to stand up and pedal. People can get a really unrealistic picture of where their career is at because nobody will be honest with them. That’s where you see people screaming, “Don’t you know who I am?” Well, if you have to say that, obviously they don’t. Also, too, since I became a celebrity–[laughing] that can be the title of this article. “Since I Became a Celebrity”–one does get so much free stuff that at, say, the door of a club, the thought can cross your mind. “I have to pay?” You must catch yourself and say, “Oh my God, Jennifer, get a grip!”
Q: Your first film was No Small Affair, What do you remember about working with Demi Moore?
A: I thought she was a total movie star. She was doing that Cyndi Lauper look with the vintage clothing, and I remember saying to her, “Are you going to try and buy some of your clothes after the movie?” She said to me, “I always put in my contract that I get to keep the clothes.” That’s what I learned from Demi Moore.
Q: I checked the reference guide at my video store and apparently, after Bullets Over Broadway, you were in a movie with Alyssa Milano called Embrace of the Vampire. What in the world is that?
A: Please, I did one day on it and I got great billing. I hadn’t worked since Bullets Over Broadway and I really needed the money. The first time I met Quentin Tarantino was so funny. He said, “Jennifer, there’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you.” and I’m thinking, “Which of my distinguished movies is he going to ask about’.'” He goes, “Moving Violations! How did you do that scene in the antigravity chamber?” I thought he was making fun of me, but then I realized he was serious. My friend who was with me said, ”How come I’ve never heard you mention Moving Violations?” So I brushed it off and said, “Well, it was like my first movie.”Quentin went, “No, no, no, the first movie you ever did was No Small Affair, with Jon Cryer and Demi Moore.” And I’m thinking, “If you weren’t Quentin Tarantino, I’d think you were a stalker.”
Q: You can take the boy out of the video store, but…
A: When I ran into Quentin at [this year’s] Oscars, he said, “Jennifer, I just saw a great movie you were in,” and this time I knew exactly what he was going to say. He said, “Embrace of the Vampire,” and I said, “Oh, well, you know…”‘ But he said, “No, that’s a great movie.” I said, “Quentin, it’s a terrible movie,” and he said, “It’s a great bad movie.” So I said, “Speaking of great bad movies, you were good in From Dusk Till Dawn.”
Q: What’s this other movie you did recently, Edie & Pen?
A: It’s with Stockard Channing and Scott Glenn. Victoria Tennant wrote it. It’s a very sweet film about these women who go to Reno to get a divorce.
Q: What’s up next for you?
A: This Disney movie with Dave Foley called The Wrong Guy. It’s a spoof on The Fugitive. I’m, like, the girl. After that, I’m doing a picture with Jeff Daniels.
Q: Let’s get back to your love life. How did you learn the facts of life?
A: I was in seventh grade, and the bad girl down the road told me. I was so grossed out that afterwards, I lost all respect for grown ups. I lost my virginity very late, because when I was growing up, we didn’t have a TV, so our role models were like [the girls in] Little Women–I really thought I was going to be a virgin until I got married. However, in college, every body was incredibly liberated and, since I didn’t think then I’d ever get married, I decided. “Oh, just gel it out of the way,” so I did.
Q: Did your first time live up to the hype?
A: No. It was over in three minutes and then he was sleeping. It wasn’t fun at all. But then one day I went out with an older man, and I thought. “Well, this is more like it.”
Q: You said earlier you’re currently single. Have you thought of using your celebrity to meet a man you’ve dreamed about?
A: Well, my publicist has been trying to set me up with Jon Stewart.
Q: The talk-show-host-turned-actor?
A: Yeah. He’s so cute. I just did his show last week–I mean, he was taking over for Greg Kinnear. Actually, he has a girlfriend.
Q: How old is he?
A: I think he’s 31, 32.
Q: Can I ask how old you are?
A: [Laughing] Let’s just say Jon is not too young for me.
Q: What about all the men who don’t have a girlfriend–are you out there trying to meet guys?
A: I am. I’m really trying to actively be out there and meet people, but no one looks good to me. You know, you go to the gym and the men are wearing the muscle T-shirts, there’s hair on their backs, and they leave little wet spots on the machine. [Laughing] I think that when I’m ready to be in a relationship, all of a sudden everybody will look really great to me.
Q: Last question. What’s your favorite snapshot of yourself?
A: One I really like is me and Michael Madsen, coming out of a bar, on our way to the set [of The Getaway]. I’m poking my head out from behind him, and my hair is in pigtails. It just looks like I don’t have a problem in the world. You know, those moments where you say, “I’m really happy,” are so fleeting. I like pictures where if you saw that person walking down the street, you’d go, “There’s a pretty girl that has a happy life.”
Dennis Hensley interviewed Gary Cole for the July issue of Movieline.