Jennifer Tilly wanted to be ‘a big movie star.’ A life in Hollywood changed that
While some people learned how to bake bread or knit during the pandemic, Jennifer Tilly mastered the art of great lighting. Perched at the makeshift desk she created in her hallway, the actor, who just left her L.A. Times photo shoot, is in full Hollywood glam from the neck up — her chestnut curls tousled in an updo with a killer red lip, surrounded by a halo from carefully angled lamps and the natural sunshine from the front door of her Los Angeles home.
“I learned a lot about lighting,” the fast-talking actor explains over Zoom. “I read that you look better if you have lights on in the background with late afternoon light.” It makes sense that Tilly now has it down to a science: The actor has spent her nearly 40-year career on screen portraying funny, ditzy — and killer — bombshells who ooze glamour.
Now, Tilly is returning to one of her vampiest characters: Tiffany Valentine, the psychotic, babydoll-voiced ex-girlfriend of Chucky. For a while, Tilly, 63, had been getting offers for parts she just wasn’t interested in (she considers herself “semi-retired”). But when her best friend and “Child’s Play” creator Don Mancini called and said he was making a TV series based on the horror-comedy franchise, she couldn’t help but be intrigued.
“I thought my acting days were behind me, but I have done ‘Chucky’ since the very beginning,” she says.
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A joint project for SyFy and USA, “Chucky” is a sequel to the seven films in the franchise so far — this time in the form of a queer teen dramedy with the familiar terror of a sentient murder doll. And Tilly, who made her first appearance as the legendary scream queen in 1998’s “Bride of Chucky” — before going on to star in three more “Chucky” films — initially thought her role in the TV series would be just a cameo. Soon, though, Tiffany turned into a full-blown role for the actor, who’s used to being approached for grandma parts she never lands because she isn’t seen that way. In a sense, embodying Tiffany in her push-up bra, skin-tight clothes and high heels lets her defy Hollywood ageism.
“[Don] always writes Tiffany as hot and sexy and gives her all kinds of interesting, not age-appropriate things to do,” Tilly says. It’s what keeps her coming back to the character whenever she thinks she might be done. “There’s a little bit of me that says, ‘How much longer can I play Tiffany?’ But then there’s the other part that doesn’t want to be left out,” she laughs.
Even now, Tilly feels the pressure to look the vixen: “The fans are so rabid, and she’s such an iconic character that I was like, ‘I really want to look good for Tiffany. If not for myself, for Tiffany.’” Knowing that Tiffany would be “more bloodthirsty than ever” — including a bender of sex, murder and bullying children in the season’s closing stretch — motivated Tilly to get back into her pre-pandemic shape. Plus, she was anticipating Tiffany’s fabulous wardrobe: She even prepared a mood board full of Marilyn Monroe photos and images from the 1994 film “Natural Born Killers” for the costumer to give Tiffany a “Marilyn gone wild” look. “I’ll let you in on a secret,” Tilly quips in her signature squeaky tone. “Tiffany’s a little bit campy.”
While the actor was hesitant to originate the role when it was first presented to her more than 20 years ago — “I felt like a horror film is something you did at the beginning of your career or at the end of your career” — “Child’s Play” turned out to be not only a significant moment in her career but also in terms of representation. It’s been all too rare for Asian faces to star in American horror films, and Tilly, who is half-Chinese, has been one of the few actors to do so.
In her career, Tilly has only auditioned for one part that was specifically an Asian character, and that was for “The Joy Luck Club.” “I usually played a lot of Italians, I never ever played anybody that was my ethnicity,” she recalls. She found herself clinging to advice that her sister, actor Meg Tilly, gave her. “If we come to Hollywood and say that we’re half-Chinese, everybody will want to typecast you,” she recalls. “They’re going to put you in the little drawer for people that are half-Chinese and never open that drawer again.” Tilly, who has been exploring her Chinese heritage more than ever, loves representing the Asian community but ultimately hopes that ethnicity isn’t “the huge plot point.”
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Before taking on Tiffany, Tilly had already charmed Hollywood with her distinctive voice and comedic appeal. Born Jennifer Ellen Chan, Tilly began her acting career in the 1980s but didn’t earn her breakthrough role until she starred in Woody Allen’s 1994 black comedy “Bullets Over Broadway.” “I had this idea that I was gonna be the next Judi Dench or ‘a serious actor,’” she recalls.
Though she also earned recognition for her work in comedies like “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” “House Arrest” and “Liar Liar,” Tilly’s most memorable characters have cemented her status as a favorite of queer viewers: the talentless starlet Olive Neal in “Bullets Over Broadway”; Violet, a mafioso’s girlfriend who ends up having a secret affair with Gina Gershon’s Corky in the lesbian neo-noir thriller “Bound”; and, of course, Tiffany.
It’s a mantle she wears proudly: “My ex-husband once said, ‘If there’s a Mount Rushmore of gay icons, who would be on it? You,’” she says. “I know drag queens have dressed up as Tiffany from the Chucky movies and also Violet from ‘Bound.’”
This status has only been magnified by the knowledge that Tilly is a huge fan of “The Real Housewives” and best friends with current “Beverly Hills” cast member Sutton Stracke. (Yes, she’s 100% Team Sutton.)
“Sutton’s born for it,” says Tilly. “She’s such a glamorous girl, she’s really, really rich and she has amazing taste. Her house is so gorgeous, it’s got, like, Andy Warhols.” It’s not likely we’ll be seeing Tilly holding an oversized diamond anytime soon, though: “My house isn’t ‘Housewives’ style.” But that won’t stop her from making a guest appearance or two on the show in the future.
At the moment, she has enough to focus on with Tiffany’s TV debut and her second career as a professional poker player, which began when she met her professional-poker-playing boyfriend Phil Laak in the early aughts. She has since become obsessed with the game: “You know how there’s a grandmaster in chess? I wanted to be a grandmaster in poker.” Tilly began to funnel her passion into poker-playing when work began drying up. “When they write a good part for an older person, there’s like five people in Hollywood that get them. Dame Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep,” she says, trailing off.
Tilly no longer craves being “a big movie star” as she once did. She wants to win more poker tournaments, and she’s thought about writing a biography or “a great American novel.” But she no longer feels compelled to leave a definitive legacy behind, and contentment, whatever that means, will continue being on her terms.
“Once I’m gone,” she says, “I’m gone.”
Where: Syfy and USA
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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