Jennifer Tilly is many things: an Oscar nominee, a horror icon, a poker champion, and, in her own words, “a runaway train.” Speaking from her Los Angeles home, Tilly is a whirlwind — funny, self-aware, prone to going off on a tangent or two — and it’s instantly clear why she’s been Hollywood’s go-to pick for outrageous, glamorous scene-stealers for over 30 years.
The actress is camp incarnate (“I put on red lipstick just for you,” she says at the top of our Zoom call) and she has never been given a more fitting vehicle for her talents than Tiffany Valentine, the hard-bitten sweetheart of everyone’s favorite serial-killer doll, Chucky. With her perfectly pitched coo and alluring aesthetic, no one could play Valentine but Tilly, and Seeds of Chucky, the 2004 sequel to Child’s Play, shrewdly embraced this fact by having the doll possess the body of a fictionalized Jennifer Tilly. She’s been playing a vampish, unhinged parody of herself ever since.
When Tilly got the call for season one of Chucky, Syfy’s riotous small-screen continuation of the Child’s Play series, she believed it was her farewell to the character. “I thought, I’m going to just put on my high-heeled Tiffany shoes one last time for the fans,” she says. “I didn’t see it as opening a door and plunging back into the Chucky world. I thought it was my last hurrah.”
Instead, Tilly returned for the currently airing second season in an expanded role that came to a delightful peak this week with an episode that features a party turned murder mystery centered around Tilly herself. To mark the occasion, Chucky creator Don Mancini enlisted Tilly’s Bound co-stars Gina Gershon and Joe Pantoliano, her sister Meg Tilly, and her dear friend and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Sutton Stracke, all playing heightened versions of themselves.
Do you take it as a compliment for this show to refer to you as a horror icon?
I love it. But Tiffany is very grandiose and delusional, and she starts getting herself confused with Jennifer Tilly. Seed of Chucky was a little bit bad for my career because I like to make fun of myself. We have “Jennifer Tilly” as a declining movie actress and being very jealous of Julia Roberts, thinking she could have played all the parts Julia Roberts did. Don and I would get together and I’d say, “Can you make Jennifer Tilly be like a spoiled diva?” We were making these types of lines exaggerating what bad shape Jennifer Tilly’s career was in, and I thought it was hysterically funny until the critics started repeating these things — but not knowing they came from me.
I used to be really big on self-deprecating humor but then I realized that whatever you put out there is how people see you. I used to say when I started out acting that “I’m not the girl next door, I’m the girl next door to the girl next door,” or “I’m the freaky weirdo down the street.” But now I look back on my career and I look at parts I did like Bound, and I really sold myself short. I totally could have been the leading lady. I always used to be up against Joan Cusack because the types of parts she’d play were the types of parts I’d play, but I was never up against movie stars like Julia Roberts. So I do enjoy in this show that people are saying, “Oh, Jennifer Tilly, she’s a world-famous actress!”
How did Don Mancini approach you about dedicating this episode entirely to you?
Don wanted to do it. I called Gina and Joey up. They are both film actors and not really television actors. I was so ecstatic because I loved doing Bound and I have a great relationship with Gina and Joey; they’re so funny. When they got to set it was like no time had elapsed at all. It’s been, I think, over 20 years. They squabbled like dogs and cats on the set of Bound and then also on the set of Chucky. It was like they just took off where they left off, but it’s a good-natured, brother-sister relationship.
How did you persuade Sutton Stracke, in particular, as she’s not an actor?
Sutton is a nonactor, she’s so cute, and she’s one of my very best friends. The studio wanted her to do it because Universal does Housewives and they also do Chucky, so they thought it would be really good cross-promotion. I haven’t seen nearly as much of Sutton since she started doing Housewives because it’s so all-encompassing. I’ve been on the show because it’s her birthday party or she’s having a store opening and I have to be there for her important events — but it’s no fun. You’d think it’d be so much fun, but as an actress you’re an extra in somebody else’s show because all these parties are a backdrop for the women to argue about whatever they’re arguing about in every episode.
This is totally separate from what we were originally talking about — they are really being incredibly cruel to her on this season of Housewives.
Oh, I know! Sutton told me they piled on her when she was doing it. She was like, “Wow, they’re even meaner to me this season than last season.” I thought, I don’t know if that’s really possible, but then I was watching it and I understood why she was too exhausted to go out and have adventures because she’s being a Housewife 24/7. I didn’t think anyone could be worse than Erika Jayne last year, but it’s like they’re in a competition to see who can be the most mean to Sutton.
The good thing is that the fans absolutely adore her.
I think they were trying to take her down and I think that it backfired on them. Because they were pretty upset last season that everybody was criticizing the cast members for not going after Erika Jayne, and Sutton was the only one who raised questions. So this season, I think, they are out to prove that she’s unbalanced and wrong and it just didn’t work.
Back to Chucky — what was it like having the opportunity to act opposite your sister? Had you ever acted together before?
It’s the first time we’ve acted together since high school. One of the movies we did in high school was Frankenstein, and I was Elizabeth, the bride of Victor Frankenstein, and Meg was a gypsy girl that came in and screamed for two pages. Afterward everybody was talking about how Meg was such a good screamer. I was like, “Well, what about me? I wore beautiful outfits, and I was the lead,” but they were like, “Meg screamed really, really loud” and I thought, I must never work with my sister ever again! But now she’s in this show and I’m the bride of Chucky, and in a later episode she screams really loud. It’s almost like history repeating itself.
She actually got offered another television series at the same time where she would have been the lead and it was a whole season, but she had already signed on to do two episodes of my show. I was like, “Meg, do the other one, it’s a steady paycheck and you’ll be the lead,” but she said no, she always wanted to work with me and she was really looking forward to it. So she turned down this other show. I have to say it was very bonding.
For how long do you plan to play Tiffany?
When Don sent me the first script for Chucky the very last line in it was a phone call and you see these lips go “Good luck” into the receiver, and that was the end of the episode. I thought that was my whole part and that was Tiffany passing the baton. Don called me up and asked me what I thought, and I go, “Oh, it was wonderful. I guess I’ll start practicing my line right now, so I don’t forget it.” And he goes, “Did you think that was your only line?”
I was really happy because I thought that Tiffany would progress. I used to make jokes that Chucky is going to be chasing me and my walker around the old folks’ home, but apparently Tiffany is Peter Pan and she never gets old. I’m always begging Don to please light me very well, not because I’m an actress and I’m vain, but because it’s a plot point that Tiffany has to look good and sexy because she really has not aged much. I hate the whole thing in Hollywood where women are put out to pasture when they reach a certain age, and I just love that Don sees me-as-Tiffany as eternally sexy and obnoxious and snarky.
I wanted to ask about your poker playing — are you still active in the game?
Oh, yeah! Just after I finished Chucky season two, I went to Las Vegas and I filmed three days on High Stakes Poker where you play with your own money. I started playing online when I was up in Toronto [filming Chucky] but then all of a sudden, the government pulled the plug on online poker in Toronto so I couldn’t get my gamble on. I play pretty high stakes and it’s really volatile and it affects my moods, so when I’m acting, I don’t do poker. It’s a career, I love it, but it’s a bit of a vice.
The things that people mostly know me from are Chucky and poker. People tell me I’m a great poker player, but I always remember the bad hands that I play. I don’t know what’s out there in the poker-verse, but there are apparently a lot of hands that I played very well, so it makes me feel good when people admire me for it. I’m really lucky that I don’t have kids or anything because a lot of poker players have to support their families, so when I lose a huge amount of money, I’m like, Okay, no new car. I’m super-good to live with the consequences of my actions as long as nobody gets hurt — besides me, of course.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.