Film: `I do all this stuff like going on chat shows. Then people think it's Meg. It's like I'm doing publicity for my sister'

Charlotte O'Sullivan meets Jennifer Tilly, star of `Bound' and sister of the more famous Meg
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The Independent Culture
Jennifer Tilly, star of Bound, a bloody, cartoonish film noir about two lesbians, has always wanted to stand out. But it's not been easy. Tilly is one of three sisters all very close in age. "I used to get really frustrated," she says, "because we all had long black hair down to our waists and people would think we were triplets. Meg and Becky liked to play that up. I would buy a dress and they would go and buy the same one and say, `Let's play triplets again!' I'd end up ripping off the sleeves, just to make mine different."

Today, the identity crisis continues, for Jennifer is constantly confused with her sister Meg, also an actress, best known for roles in The Big Chill, Valmont and Agnes of God.

Until recently, Jennifer Tilly was no one, showing off her memorable parts in a g-string of unmemorable movies. But since 1995 - when she played Olive, the gangster's moll as dulcet as a car alarm, in Woody Allen's Bullets over Broadway - it's been a little different. Thanks to Olive, Tilly was Oscar nominated for best supporting actress. And now comes Bound, a film perhaps less clever than it thinks, but in which Tilly astonishes as Violet, a bimbo with subterranean depths.

On screen, Tilly looks bruised and swollen in an expensively cheap, Melanie Griffith sort of way. Interviewers always have a problem deciding how old she is - one put it at 37 - while she describes herself as being "in her thirties". In the flesh, though, she's sweet and smooth, with a round, warm Harvest Moon of a face, and eyes as dark and delicate as a Chinese lithograph.

She perches on the sofa in a mini-dress, her feet squeezed into chunky, childish shoes that she plucks at with gold fingernails. She looks more playful than pert, and as soon as she starts talking, you realise she doesn't take her "sexy" image seriously. "I identify with Violet," she says in a squeaky, grinning rush: "she uses sex like a commodity. When I was going through my Cyndi Lauper nuclear-holocaust-bag-lady phase, I didn't get any work. The day I went out and got a tight red dress and shoes that crippled me... that's the day I started getting parts."

She is similarly resigned to the press. Her English graphic designer boyfriend, Peter, however, apparently complains about the constant fuss at "dos". "He says, `Why do you need to talk to every news camera? Jodie Foster came in and she didn't talk to anybody!' " Tilly cocks her head like a bird: "I just tell him, `Jodie Foster doesn't have to. When you're on the way up, you gotta advertise.' "

A certain sort of goofy honesty comes as naturally to this woman as posing. When it came to the choice of co-stars for Bound, for example, particularly the part of Corky, Violet's butch lover (played by Showgirls refugee and Chrissie Hynde lookalike Gina Gershon), Tilly had lots to say: "When I heard I might get to kiss Linda Hamilton I was like `Yeah, great!'. But then they said it might be Martha [Gehman] and I couldn't imagine kissing her. Then they suggested Rosanna Arquette and I couldn't see that... And they were going to have Peter Gallagher as my husband. Well, I've worked with Peter before [on High Spirits] - he would have been so boring."

Of course, some might see Tilly's attitude to her fellow actors as a little disloyal. How else, for instance, to read Tilly's Woody Allen stories? Tilly was one of a handful of stars who were "allowed" to ad-lib in Bullets over Broadway. She and Chazz Palminteri, as she says, "had a ball". Others weren't so lucky. "Woody wouldn't tell them directly," she says earnestly. "He'd come up to me" - Tilly puts on a conspiratorial whisper - "and say, `When so and so starts ad-libbing, don't answer him' or `Push so and so out of the door sooner, before he comes up with any more of those ad-libs!'" She has the grace to give an anxious giggle. "Probably I was very unpopular. I was Woody's hall-monitor, basically."

It all makes sense when you remember Tilly's desperate need to be singled out. In the same way, she required reassurance on Bound that Violet was the leading part (originally she wanted to play Corky). "The Wachowski Brothers told me, `Violet's the real part here, she's the one pulling all the strings.' And it's true," purrs Jennifer. "Violet's the real mystery. With Corky, once you've figured her out, there's not much to her."

If Tilly sounds a little insecure, it's easy to guess why. When she was six, her mother decided she was rotting in the California suburbs, divorced Jennifer's father and hitched up with an impoverished hippy. Of her childhood, Jennifer will only say, "We moved around all the time and there was a great deal of turmoil."

Having her own, successful identity has clearly been crucial in restoring a sense of order. The current confusion between her and Meg is thus doubly ironic. "It's so frustrating, because I do all this stuff like going on chat-shows and then people think it's Meg," moans Jennifer. "It's like I'm doing publicity for my sister!" She claims she can't understand why they get confused: "We look nothing alike." (Not true: Diane Arbus would have loved them.) Nor does she think they have similar personas: "Meg's more ethereal, more the child-woman."

To demonstrate this point, Jennifer describes taking Meg to see Bound. "Meg doesn't like violence. She's going, `Oh no, I don't think I can watch it...' So I say, `Meg, I'll sit behind you and tell you when something bad is coming up.'" What happened? Jennifer smacks her lips in disdain. "She didn't trust me. Turns out she had her eyes closed during at least a quarter of the movie!"

It's the sweetest of double-acts but, clearly, adjustments are still being made to the script. In typical breathless fashion, Jennifer notes, "When Meg was really famous - I mean, not that she still isn't..." Her voice trails off. She tries again: "Meg's my doppelganger and it's funny, because she and I seem to have switched identities. Meg used to be the outrageous one, always very popular, very much the leader, and I was the placid one. But now Meg likes to stay home and cook and I'm the single party girl!"

So that's settled then. Or is it? Moments later, Jennifer describes her ideal night as sitting in bed at home, with her boyfriend, in flannel pyjamas, "eating cheese off a tray". Jennifer, it seems, can't decide what she is.

Perhaps that's why a meeting with Jennifer Tilly leaves one feeling a little melancholy. Just before I go, Jennifer brings me up to date with her relationship. Her boyfriend, Peter, she explains, won't go through the press line with her anymore: "We had an argument recently because he just ran ahead." She laughs in her hearty, nervous way, "I'm like, `Peter! Peter! come back here!' " She shrugs. "He just disengaged himself from my hand and suddenly I look like the loneliest girl in the world." No two ways about it - it's a punishing business, this standing out from the crowdn

`Bound' is reviewed overleaf