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"Meg o' the Wild"- by Virginia Campbell
With roles in Milos Forman's opulent "Valmont" and the upcoming "Chinatown" sequel "The Two Jakes", Meg Tilly has a rare second chance at major stardom. Anybody else would be fanning the career fires at Spago. Meg's off in the Canadian woods raising her kids in a big log cabin.
Meg Tilly's publicist forwarded the following cryptic instructions once MOVIELINE had agreed to send someone up to Vancouver, British Columbia, to interview the actress: 'Meg wants you to meet her at 2 p.m. at the Town Square by the Community Center. Take a cab, the driver will know where it is off Highway 7.'
I thought at the time: better remember to keep an eye out for the cropdusters. "She'll walk to a restaurant with you from there," the communique continued. "She says she doesn't know the names of any of them and cannot pick a place that way. This will be the easiest way." Yes, well, it wasn't all THAT easy. When I gave the concierge at a Vancouver hotel the name of the area where the "town square" was supposed to be, she pulled out a map, began plotting a course eastward, and was well off the printed page and onto her blotter when she announced, "Uhmmmmm, I'm afraid it's not really in Vancouver..." Then she kind of laughed. "I don't know what your plane flight up here cost, but the cab might be more."
Somewhat later I boarded a local Greyhound bus, and I had an hour and a half, as we proceeded out of Vancouver into a less than stunning countryside - a canoe yard here, a lawn mower repair shop there - to get the rationale behind this journey into perspective.
Meg Tilly had just finished two big films. In Milos Forman's adaptation of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses", titled "Valmont", she plays Madame de Tourvel, the virtuous beauty essayed by Michelle Pfeiffer in last year's version of the same story. And in Jack Nicholson's long awaited sequel to "Chinatown", "The Two Jakes", she plays the unfaithful wife of the other Jake (Harvey Keitel). The latter is a supporting role, but both parts were intensely sought after, and the combination of the two will once again throw a spotlight on Tilly, whose career over the last eight years has been both erratic and remarkable. She debuted as Matt Dillon's believable girlfriend in Tim Hunter's canny little adaptation of S.E. Hinton's "Tex". She made her first big mark in "The Big Chill" as the lissome young enigma Chloe, who tells the grieving friends of her suicide lover what great sex they had the night before he killed himself. She won an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the holy innocent/murderess Agnes in "Agnes of God". And she got good reviews last year as the plain-jane-heiress-with-hidden-passion opposite Rob Lowe's conman/seducer in Bob Swaim's neo-noir "Masquerade".
Tilly's done some bad pictures, too (as the recent "Girl on a Swing" attests.) And though she tends to be good regardless of what she's in, the jury's still out on just how good that is, Oscar nomination or no. Bob Swaim says she's the most extraordinary actress he's ever worked with. Others remain unconvinced. As one casting director put it, "She's on of those actresses who obviously has something, but you don't know whether she can really act or not." Tilly's performances in "Valmont" (out at Thanksgiving) and "The Two Jakes" (due early next spring) are almost inevitably going to swing public and industry perception one way or another, because she's playing characters who, unlike Chloe and Agnes, are grounded in a discernible reality. Before disembarking from the godforsaken Greyhound, I ask, one after the other, five local residents where the "Town Square" is. Blank stares. The bus driver urges me to leave. I step down into what I'd hoped might be a quaint country outpost, the kind of place a confused young actress might consider authentic. But this place is authentic. It's one baked shopping mall after another. Lots of big discount stores. No town square, and no community center. In the next 45 minutes I count the number of people it takes to arrive finally at what approximates, but is not called, a community center - 19 friendly Canadians. And then I am standing at this big clock with the strangest thing on top of it. Along with 20 or so youngsters chanting "the beast! the beast!" I look up at a huge chrome horse. At least I think it's a horse. It looks sort of like reconstituted bathroom sink fixtures, frankly. But then, when the clock strikes two I see, for sure, it's a horse, because it starts rearing up on its hind legs. The children scream with joy and leap into the air as the big metal hoofs click and bend.
When the horse has lowered itself back to its mid-hour position, Meg Tilly shows up. Bright blue Reeboks, khaki pants, rose-colored sweater, glasses, dark reddish hair cut chin length, no makeup, she is indistinguishable from her fellow citizens. Little knowing how amazed I am just to have found her, she apologizes for being a mere three minutes late. She's disarmingly friendly. Already I've lost the urge to point out that her failure to mention the chrome horse as a landmark for our meeting place is tantamount to instructing someone to meet you at a busy Paris locale and leaving out the bit about the Eiffel Tower. So what if she doesn't really know a restaurant to go to? Keeping the spirit of the day, I suggest Richie's Restaurant in the nearest mall. "I hope I say good stuff," Tilly says, when we've grabbed a corner booth. Just to get the mystery out of the way, I start out by asking why she lives here.
"My ex-husband (producer Tim Zinnemann) was willing to co-parent and he gave me the names of places he thought were fine and Vancouver was one of them. I feel so strongly about raising my children in a normal environment, not in L.A. I didn't want them raised with children who are raised by housekeepers, and I didn't want to be the only mom at the park."
"I flew here and called a real estate place from the airport and said, 'I want to look at houses for this much with a little bit of land, privacy, about an hour from Vancouver, and I'll be right over.' They thought I was a wacko right off the plane. I didn't say who I was, I just said this is what I want to do. So then I was looking through these real estate papers and I saw what's now my house - 'log house, five acres' - and I said, now this, even if it's in a crummy area, this is what I want. I went and looked at it and the next day made an offer. That's how I do things. You just go on your gut feelings and if things are wrong I just gradually fix it."
A milder version of the conviction you detect in any Tilly performance, no matter what the merit of the movie, radiates from across the formica table. Every time a child's wail echoes throughout the mall she looks up instinctively, but other than that, she's all concentration. I indulge the opportunity to stare at her astounding face, with its oriental mask-like reticence and depth which obviate questions of beauty. She reads as fragile, but that is not how she talks.
"I was raised in the San Juan islands off Canada," she begins. "There were six kids plus three stepbrothers and sisters, so nine. I was in the middle. It was good to grow up that way because then you didn't have such a sense of self-importance. We had a farm - chickens, ducks, a cow. But we didn't really farm - we made a pathetic attempt."
Were her parents proto-hippies? "Hippies? I don't know. If I look back now... No, my mom was a teacher and my stepfather didn't have a beard or long hair. He liked wheatgerm. But I don't know. We didn't have TV or a phone, but I don't know if that makes you a hippie. Maybe I'M a hippie. I think some people may think I am. I don't think I am. But sometimes when I wear my long skirts and long sweaters...lots of times when I'm home I like to be barefoot. Does that mean I'm a hippie? I don't do drugs or drink. Does that mean I'm not? We let the matter drop and I asked her what kind of an adolescence she had.
"I went to one rock concert, but I don't remember who it was. One guy had a car and eleven of us fit into it. I don't know how. I went through a period where I got all my teenage angst out. I'd talk back to teachers and not do homework and if you weren't allowed to wear shorts to school, I would. Looking back, I was probably unhappy but at the time I was very much myself. I've always prided myself on being different. Now that I know I'm different, I'm being more normal."
"Ballet was the focus I needed for all the energy I had. I'd go after school and work 4 or 5 hours. At 14, I was late starting - I had to start with 5-year-olds. Everybody said I couldn't, but in a couple of years I was winning scholarships. Whenever anyone says you can't, then I'll say I'm going to. That's how you get to do what you want to do."
"I wanted to study ballet in New York City. Nobody I knew had ever been there. They said you can't go there. But I'd been working as a waitress since I was 14, til 3 and 4 in the morning on weekends, at a Chinese restaurant and then at a deli that was fun because I was behind a counter and it was nice and clean and people didn't try to pick you up or throw up in their food."
"So I took the bus. I arrived at the bus station in New York. You know what that's like? All these guys were trying to talk to me. I'd ridden from Victoria and was wearing my little flowery pastel dress because I wanted to look nice. I was scared but I was trying to be tough. I went to this girl's apartment where I was going to stay for a day. I didn't know her and there were three other girls in this one-bedroom apartment. That night two guys who were lovers in the next apartment had a big fight. One was screaming, 'Don't kill me, don't kill me, ahhhh....' And the guy goes, 'Put the gun away!. Put it away!' Then somebody called the police and they came and the guy who was being really mean was suddenly calm and said 'Everything's fine,' and then when the police left he screamed, 'You little shit!' and there was more banging and yelling. That was my first night in New York."
Meg Tilly talks really fast in a sort of syntactical grape-shot. But there's an endearing earnestness to her storytelling. You get the feeling she's told some of these stories before, maybe even that her sense of her own story helps her build up steam for the choices she believes in making. Whatever it is that sustains her has been sorely tested - if you count the breakup of her marriage, she's faced three heavy disappointments that are on record. The first came when she was dropped by a ballet partner and injured so severely she was told she could never dance again if she wanted to be walking when she was 30.
"Dancing was everything that was holding me together," she says of that catastrophe. "I couldn't picture life without dancing. So I figured whoever was in charge was telling me that I was going to die and to get everything in order. I'd gone home to Canada and I was really nice to everyone because I wanted them to miss me when I was gone. I thought maybe I'd be hit by lightning, just something real simple. But I didn't die, so I thought maybe I'd missed the signs. I'd had a dream that I realized afterward was forecasting what was going to happen with my back and the dancing. I've had dreams that predict things that will happen and dreams that tell me about the mistakes I'm making in my life. I don't pay much attention to it, but once in a while it's so strong it overcomes. The only thing I could do was acting, so I did that."
Tilly came to L.A., lived with her sister Jennifer and studied with Peggy Feury: "I don't think I'd be doing what I'm doing today if it hadn't been for Peggy. She was an inspiration to me. Whatever character I couldn't do were something in myself I wasn't accepting, I think everybody has all characters in them. I don't thing Peggy said exactly that to me, but that's what I made out of it. I was being the virginal young little thing, the ballet dancer with long hair down to here and frilly dresses and talking in a high voice. Have you ever met a lot of ballet dancers? Not all are like that, but it's a certain type. I made this reality for myself out of what my life was supposed to be rather than being who I was. Pretending I didn't know things that I did. I found it a good protection, I guess, against a lot of men in New York. I would just pretend I didn't know what they meant because the pretense was so strong. Peggy made me be a woman, be may age, and not be frightened and not pretend to be something I wasn't. I'm not sure how she did it."
Six months after coming to L.A. Tilly was cast in "Tex" and her acting career was in motion. Her second big disappointment came after her elusively beguiling performance in "The Big Chill" had brought her to Milos Forman's attention. After five screen tests Forman cast her in the role of Constanze, Mozart's young wife in "Amadeus". On location in Prague, just as shooting began, she damaged tendons in her ankle in a spontaneous soccer game with other cast members. Forman was forced to replace her. "I was devastated. But you grow and you find there's an upside. I'd learned that before and then I had to relearn it. I don't think I was ready for what was going to happen to me if I did Milos’ movie. It was a much bigger part (than the one replacement Elizabeth Berridge played) and I was young and I don't think I would have been ready to handle it. I was having nightmares about this big luxury cat that was on my shoulders. And I was saying, 'Oh, you have such a beautiful fur,' but it was weighing me down. And I saw children running, and they were in tatters, but I was thinking, 'They're so free, who wants this luxury cat?' And I was trying to get it off but it was hanging on with its claws, and I was suffocating. Now that I look back on it, I think these were signs that too much was happening for me. I know it sounds weird, but I think my body just took care of things for me."
It was another stroke of dubious luck that soon got her into a bad movie called "Impulse" that her husband was producing: "They asked me to come into it four times and I said no, that's not what I want after "Big Chill" and "Amadeus". I always went on locations with my husband but I said this time I didn't want to go 'cause I was scared they'd ask me again. He said don't be silly, they've already got someone. So I came with him and four days before they started shooting the actress pulled out and they didn't have anyone and the crew was there waiting. My husband and the director took me out to dinner and asked me to do it. The studio and the director put my husband on the spot, but I was really on the spot, too, so I did it. I didn't like the script. It wasn't something I believed in. I worked as hard as I could to make it good, but it hurts my stomach to think about it."
The screen tests Tilly did for "Amadeus" were eventually seen by Norman Jewison and helped her get the role that won her an Oscar nomination, opposite Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft. Tilly's first impression of her work in that film was not exactly the Academy's: "I saw half of "Agnes of God" and I was devastated, because I thought I was really horrible in it. And I thought all the work I did was lost and ruined and I thought my career was over. I put so much in it from my insides and I looked at the screen and all I could see was my big blank face. I left and called up my agent and said I don't think I can be an actress any more." The agent in question, without seeing the film, advised Meg to make another immediately - the little heralded "Off Beat".
So much for Hollywood advisers. But Tilly herself chose not to capitalize on the offers that came in after she went on to receive an Oscar nomination for the performance that had appalled her: "Everybody said, you can't have children. Get your career and have children later. But I said no, I want to have children. And after "Agnes", everyone said here's the time to cash in, and I said no, I want my children to be close together in age so they'll have each other. So I had another baby. These things set you back. But I live my life, and in between I make movies."
Tilly's career did lose momentum. She came back in an intense, nicely honed performance in Bob Swaim's 1988 "Masquerade", as an orphaned blueblood taken in by Rob Lowe ("I didn't really get to know him. I try to keep things separate...he's a nice boy, though - a boy?? He's a man, I'm sure, but he seems like a boy, doesn't he?").
She also did fine work in the skewed independent thriller "Girl on a Swing", of which she says, "The movie's not what I made. It's so disheartening, it made me feel like quitting acting when I saw it because I couldn't put more into a movie. I had the purest of intentions. I feel exploited."
The part of Madame de Tourvel in Milos Forman's "Valmont" was her first crack at a high profile part since "Agnes." From what she says, just working with Forman was as important as playing the part. "I would be happy just to read and rehearse with Milos because I learn so much. He knows exactly what he wants. He'll give an area this big" - she holds her thumb and index finger around a tiny space - "to work in, and some people find that constricting. He knows every move he wants, how he wants every line said. But within that, there's an incredible freedom. You can breathe, you can think. Sometimes you do something and he'll say, 'no, no, that's stupid, that's awful.' And he'll walk around and mimic you. Some people cringe because it's in front of a hundred people. But I'm used to ballet teachers yelling out, 'What are you doing?!'"
Tilly explains that "Valmont" is a very different take on the novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" than Stephen Frear's adaptation of the Christopher Hampton play of it. "It's less theatrical, it's more in the smaller gestures and the period," she says. And the main characters, particularly the conniving Marquise and Valmont, are younger. British actor Colin Firth also play Valmont rather differently than John Malkovich did: "You know the guys who are the most dangerous?" asks Tilly. "The ones who make you feel the most comfortable. They make you laugh and they make you feel like the most fascinating person. Valmont LOVES women. And any man who's a philandering womanizer has to really be able to get inside a woman's head, don't you think? Would you fall for some guy who's just obnoxious? Maybe once in a while, if you feel real sorry for him." As it happens, Meg Tilly fell for Colin Firth. "But just don't say it was like Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer," she says, referring to the romance that blossomed during "Dangerous Liaisons" and ended Malkovich's marriage. "Because it wasn't at all like that. I'd been separated from my husband six months. It was after the movie was pretty much over that we decided to go out. Toward the end we started letting our characters go. We were so into them we could let them go. And that's when I realized, hey, I like this guy."
Tilly had met her husband, Tim Zinnemann, on her very first movie, "Tex", which he was producing. "I didn't know who he was, I didn't know what a producer did. He was just somebody hanging around the set. I didn't know who Fred Zinnemann (Tim's famous director father) was. I didn't know how to pronounce Tim's last name till we'd been together for some time. I called him Tim Z. I met Tim's parents on "The Big Chill", but they were just two nice old people. We got married when I was shooting "Big Chill". I'd gotten "Amadeus" and he said 'there's no way you're going to Czechoslovakia for six months unless we're married' and I said, OK. "We've been separated since August a year ago and we're divorcing. I wanted to be sure. We tried marriage counselors, we tried very hard. I've been with him almost eight years, that's a long time. You want things to work out. But I'm happier now. My children call him every day. He's a very good person and a good parent. And he was a good husband. I'd highly recommend him, you know what I mean? I think it was just me. I was barely 21 when we got together and he was 40. The 20's are very important years for a woman. I take responsibility for the marriage not working because I grew and changed and became not the person I was when he married me. If anything, he became a better person."
After Tilly finished "Valmont", Jack Nicholson cast her in "The Two Jakes" in the crucial, though supporting role that Kelly McGillis was set to play in the movie's previous incarnation, back when producer Robert Evans was going to play the other Jake and Robert Towne was directing. "I wasn't sure if I really wanted to do the part," Tilly says. "But when I met with jack and he started talking about the character, my curiosity got struck because I'd seen her differently. It was fun because after Milos, Jack was, like, 'Whoaooo, let's have fun.' It wasn't joking around. He was obsessed with making it better - and for me that's fun. I heard somebody said in some newspaper everybody couldn't wait to get off the set. Some New York paper. Nobody I talked to felt that way."
"Unfortunately, we weren't getting scenes until the day we shot them. One time, Jack had to write a scene himself because it never came. We came to the set and he did rewrites and we were dressed in our wardrobes. The set was lit and we were sitting there waiting for the scenes to come off the xerox. Luckily, this was the end of the movie and I had my whole character and my whole situation and he did, too."
I ask Tilly what her plans are now, thinking she may have a strategy for following up her return to mainstream, "A" films. I should have known better. She tells me she's thinking of taking the year off. It's her daughter's first year of school - she needs to be close to home. How does she maintain a relationship with Colin Firth? "He comes to visit and it's wonderful. He works out of London. I need breathing space. I've gotten out of a relationship that seems very recent, and I don't want to leap too deeply into another. It's nice. He'll come back and visit."
So Meg Tilly will just live for a while in Canada, away from the crowd. "L.A. isn't healthy," she says. "Everybody comes up and even if they're friends or nice people, they say 'So and so's getting so much, you know what their quote is now? And so and so, everybody hates that one now. And, did you see her fat ass?' Everything can get a hold on you and you have to say, wait a moment, I'm really lucky in my life."
As our waitress comes up to give us the check, she looks sheepishly at Tilly and says, "I know you're an actress, and I just can't think of your name. But could you sign an autograph? And could you give me one for the other waitress, too?" Without announcing to the waitress what her name is, Tilly signs two autographs. Then she looks at her watch and registers surprise. "Oh, I've got to get home," she says. "I've got a turkey in the oven." I thank her for the interview and watch her disappear into the mall's thinning population. Later, on board Greyhound for my ride back to Vancouver, I think of her up on one of the surrounding hills, away from the discount stores, taking a turkey out of the oven in her log house.