Jennifer Tilly: ‘I know actors are meant to say sex scenes are awful, but I love them…’

‘When I first came to Hollywood, I would wear sexy outfits and be this other person, but it wasn’t who I was in real life’  (Supplied)
‘When I first came to Hollywood, I would wear sexy outfits and be this other person, but it wasn’t who I was in real life’ (Supplied)

Jennifer Tilly is an anecdote machine, vaulting with relentless, uninterruptible speed from one starry memory to the next. There’s the time she wore a bindi for four months after Sandra Oh told her it’d get rid of bad energy. The time she strapped Daryl Hannah to a metal cart on wheels, and proceeded to drag her across a movie set by her hair. The time she bonded with Joanna Lumley on a luxury yacht in Greece. Tilly is only halfway through that story when her laptop microphone malfunctions – perhaps out of sheer overload. For 20 seconds or so, the Academy Award-nominated star of Bullets Over Broadway, Bound, and the Chucky franchise flaps her arms and widens her eyes, but is otherwise rendered mute. We have to restart our Zoom call. Eventually, Tilly will always land on something quietly profound – a glimmer of something personal and touching, which sort of cracks her whole story open.

At one point in conversation, her eyes moisten as she remembers seeing Bullets Over Broadway for the first time in 1994 with her former husband, the Simpsons creative supervisor Sam Simon – they married in 1984 and would remain close friends long after their divorce in 1991; Simon died from cancer in 2015. During a screening of Woody Allen’s theatrical crime caper, she recalls, Simon heckled the screen whenever characters mocked Tilly’s Olive, a loud but eager ingenue in a Broadway show. The part would earn Tilly an Oscar nomination. “I felt like she just really wanted to be taken seriously,” Tilly says. “Sam saw all of Olive’s yearning to be somebody. And because he was married to me for seven years, he saw the Jennifer Tilly in that character, too.”

A quintessential Jennifer Tilly character is someone a little out of whack. Olive can’t really act, just as Tilly’s aspiring singer in The Fabulous Baker Boys can’t really sing. In the 2003 horror comedy The Haunted Mansion, she’s a head without a body. Across four Chucky films and the TV spin-off, she’s been a woman inside a killer doll, and then a killer doll inside faded movie star Jennifer Tilly. “I’m an Oscar nominee, for God’s sake,” Tilly complains in 2004’s Seed of Chucky. “Now look at me, I’m f***ing a puppet.” Discombobulation is her forte. It’s almost as if putting her entire self into something is just too powerful. Look at Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s pre-Matrix, 1996 neo-noir Bound. It overflows with so much carnal yearning between Tilly and Gina Gershon – playing a gangster’s moll and an ex-con, respectively – that it’s no surprise that Hollywood stopped making erotic love stories soon after its release. Once we’d seen Tilly and Gershon together, why bother with anybody else?

Today, the 64-year-old is at home in Los Angeles and bathed in golden light, her eyebrows sharp and arched, her lipstick blood-red. She’s not religious, but behind her is a small altar that she likes to fill with fruits and little pieces of candy for her ancestors. “That reminds me,” she interrupts mid-story. “I need to take an orange out of it before it gets mouldy.” We’re here to talk about Chucky, which has just started airing its second season on Syfy in the US and is coming to the UK imminently. She didn’t expect to act again.

“I was sort of semi-retired, because everybody knows that Hollywood isn’t kind to women over 40,” she says. “And I’ve been over 40 for quite a while now – I’m sure you know how to Google.” She was happy wandering around her house, eating peanut butter cups and playing poker. “I became very obsessed with it. I had ideas about being the grandmaster of poker, getting into the Poker Hall of Fame… Now I look back on it and I don’t think that was a career. I think that was a gambling addiction. What kind of career is it where you work 18-hour days and end up with less money than you started with? So I’ve put it on the back burner.”

At the same time Tilly was turning down work to play poker, Chucky creator Don Mancini called her up and asked her to reprise the role of Chucky’s murderous lover Tiffany, whom she first played in 1998’s baroque Bride of Chucky. Chucky: The Series sees Mancini emphasising the queer subtext always present in the movies. It doubles up as both a dense horror story – full of voodoo, doll sex and a gender-fluid doll child named Glen or Glenda – and a gay coming-of-age tale, with Chucky taken in by a 14-year-old boy slowly coming to terms with his sexuality.

Tilly adores the show; it allows her to be funny and flamboyant and dressed to the nines. For a scene in season two, she asked to wear a tiara. “Our costume designer had to run out [to get one] because I forgot to pack my own – which is not usually like me.” I think she’s joking, but it’d be spectacular if she wasn’t. She does have a natural air of glamour to her, though. When we speak, she’s about to head to New York for work, before jetting to Cape Cod, then Morocco, then Marrakech. “I have the fanciest lifestyle,” she laughs. “I go to fashion shows and charity balls – it’s almost like I’m doing it for the little Jennifer in me.” She couldn’t quite justify bidding on a private tour of the Louvre at a recent auction, though. “Even for me, fancy Jennifer Tilly.”

Jennifer Tilly as Tiffany Valentine as Jennifer Tilly in ‘Chucky’ season two (Syfy)
Jennifer Tilly as Tiffany Valentine as Jennifer Tilly in ‘Chucky’ season two (Syfy)

As a child in rural Canada, Tilly and her three siblings – including actor and novelist Meg Tilly, the Oscar-nominated star of The Big Chill and Agnes of God – were so poor that they’d sometimes have to catch squirrels to eat. She always knew she’d be famous, though, a kind of cosmic foresight she still can’t totally explain. She once declared, for instance, that she wanted to go to Hollywood and kiss the Fonz. Two decades later, she played Henry Winkler’s girlfriend in a sitcom. “And I got to kiss him every week!”

Tilly moved to Hollywood in the early Eighties, but a breakout acting role proved elusive. “I used to be up against the funny voice brigade,” she says. “Joan Cusack, Carol Kane, Melanie Griffith before she became a star – all the people with the little baby voices.” Quality control was never her concern. “I did this one really bad movie because I needed to pay for some jewellery I bought,” she laughs. The producers of that movie – which she’s far too embarrassed to name – ended up paying her $35,000 in cash in a brown paper bag. “My boyfriend at the time goes, ‘Huh… this money is pink, that’s so weird, it’s like those movies where a squib explodes after you rob a bank’. And what do you know? I’m working with a money launderer!”

She knew how to market herself at least, shifting her personality depending on the scenario. “I started doing this sort of bimbo character on Johnny Carson’s talk show,” she recalls. “I’d put on a Marilyn Monroe voice and act all spacey and confused and then Johnny would make the jokes. I’d basically set things up for him.” Those appearances are all over YouTube today – strange relics of a different era that, even at the time, Tilly grew a little tired of. “I realised it’s more fun to make the joke instead.”

Women are so used to being sexualised in movies, and I felt like I’d played [my character in ‘Bound’] before

And joke she does. Take fashion: “My friends always say that I’m ‘egregiously overdressed’.” Take boyfriends: “I’ve only dated one guy with abs. I’m very attracted to bitterness.” Take sex scenes: “I know actors are meant to say, ‘Oh, sex scenes are awful! It’s always a terrible day to have to get through,’... But I love sex scenes! Who wouldn’t love sex scenes? It’s an opportunity to get naked and fool around with somebody that’s not your partner. And all the people standing around… that makes it even more fun!”

You get the impression it’s all a bit of a show, though, just another facet of the “Jennifer Tilly” character. “I ran into Lenny Kravitz in the neighbourhood once, and he had his jewellery and his leather pants on and he smelt of patchouli, and I’m like… ‘Wow, Lenny Kravitz is always Lenny Kravitz’.” What an amazing thing to live your life so authentically’.” And then there was Tilly, bleary-eyed and picking up the newspaper, “not looking like a sexpot, not making the ballsy, sexy jokes”.

Those dramatic contrasts were partly what drew her to Bound. She initially didn’t want to play Violet, the arm candy to a violent gangster: “Women are so used to being sexualised in movies, and I felt like I’d played that character before.” Then she began to see her differently. “She’s like an iceberg, where you just see the tip of it,” she says. “Most of the iceberg is underneath the water, and very dangerous to passing ships. I liked that it was all subterfuge with her, and the sexuality she exhibited was a tool to get what she wanted.” She ponders it for a second. “I guess if you’re an amateur psychiatrist, she’s sort of a parallel to the characters that I’ve played in Hollywood. When I first came here, I would wear sexy outfits and be this other person, but it wasn’t who I was in real life. I’m actually very prudish.”

Tilly as Violet in ‘Bound’ (Moviestore/Shutterstock)
Tilly as Violet in ‘Bound’ (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

None of that is present in Chucky, but the eccentric raunchiness of her work in it speaks to Tilly’s range. When Tiffany was offered to her, she never anticipated that a killer doll would become her signature character. But 24 years later, she’s embraced the bloody camp of it all.

“I didn’t become the greatest actress of all time and win multiple Oscars, but I’m super happy where I’m at,” she says. “Not a lot of people have had this kind of longevity, and there’s not many parts out there for women my age that are as rich and varied. I get to have sex scenes and kill people and pretend to be a master criminal. I mean, can you imagine me playing a grandma?”

Not really, but she’d probably get a few dozen stories out of it all the same.

‘Chucky’ season two airs on Wednesdays at 9pm (ET) on Syfy in the US, and will arrive on Sky Sci-Fi in the UK this November