Jennifer Tilly: Little voice, big talent

She has made a career out of playing comical, squeaky bimbos, but Jennifer Tilly is no fool, finds Tiffany Rose

Jennifer Tilly has so perfected playing the airhead that I half-expect to encounter this persona when we meet. In fact, I quickly discover ditz is far from her make-up. OK, her breathy, high-octave voice may suggest she can be a bit on the scatterbrained side, but really she's a very smart cookie, and that voice has turned out to be a Hollywood blessing in disguise.

Jennifer Tilly has so perfected playing the airhead that I half-expect to encounter this persona when we meet. In fact, I quickly discover ditz is far from her make-up. OK, her breathy, high-octave voice may suggest she can be a bit on the scatterbrained side, but really she's a very smart cookie, and that voice has turned out to be a Hollywood blessing in disguise.

Her impressive credits range fromplaying the aspiring singer who massacres "The Candy Man" in The Fabulous Baker Boys, to the helium-toned aerobics instructor in Made in America, to her Oscar-nominated performance as Olive Neal, the gangster's moll dying to be a chorus girl in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway. The fortysomething (her age is a another Tinseltown enigma) star has created a new face for the dim chick. But there is no question that she has brains. While many of her Eighties counterparts have disappeared, Tilly has enjoyed over 20 years in showbiz.

At our early-morning rendezvous in the lobby of the Sutton Place Hotel, Toronto, Tilly is glowing.She is oblivious to the admiring glances from onlookers, who clearly recognise "that face" but are having trouble placing it. "They're probably thinking, 'Did we go to college together? Were you a bridesmaid at my first husband's wedding?' or something," she muses.

Tilly, who owes her exotic looks toher Chinese/Native American blood, always knew she would carve out a career as a character actress. "When I arrived in Hollywood, my first job was working on the set of Vanities [a stage drama by Jack Heifner], which was my favourite play at school," she purrs. "The director told my dad afterwards that I was going to have a hard time getting started, because of my unique voice and personality, meaning I couldn't be dropped into a small part.

"He said: 'If Jennifer walks on the set with one line: 'Would you like some coffee?' and then leaves, everyone will be going: 'What's going on with that coffee person? When is she coming back? I know she must have a big part, because she's wacky. She has a funny voice!"

The director was right. With a larger-than-life presence, Tilly deserves her own sitcom. She has the ballsiness of a modern-day Mae West, the come-hither sex appeal of Jessica Rabbit and the sharp tongue of Ruby Wax.

"It was my speech teacher in college who first pointed out that that I had a really strange voice," she says. "He told me that he wasn't going to train me out of it, as it could be my ticket to stardom. And it has worked for me, because I've heard people say: 'The minute I heard you speak, I knew I had to put you in my movie.' But then again, I've also heard through the grapevine that some directors have screamed: 'No way is that voice going to be in my movie!'" She giggles: "On the first day of filming, some directors have tried to get me to do another voice, and I'm like: 'I can't do another voice. I'm sorry, I just can't!' But you'll notice if I'm playing a woman who's not so bright, her voice will be more breathy and slower, and if I play a woman who's more grounded, her voice is a lot lower."

Over the years Tilly may have lost leading parts to bigger-name actresses, but sticking to her guns has paid off. In Bound, co-starring Gina Gershon and made by the Wachowksi brothers (best known for the Matrix films), Tilly plays Violet, a double-dealing bisexual with a voice of silk, nerves of steel and a penchant for ladies in leather. The role won her an enthusiastic gay and lesbian following.

"All of a sudden, I noticed a lot of gay men flouncing around me, and I thought, 'Eh?' That's why I have problems finding a guy, I'm always running around with gay men!" she smiles. "Sometimes if you play somebody who's larger than life, and if you're a border-line drag queen yourself, you pick up gay fans. After Bound I picked up a lesbian following, too.

"A gay fanbase is the best kind to have, because on a whole they are very strong, intelligent and educated. And they are usually loyal and adoring. They are not afraid to run up and throw their arms around me, and tell me how much they love me. After all, everybody needs love."

However, her gay fans may be a little disappointed in Tilly's latest independent comedy, Saint Ralph, in which she plays a nurse. Her character was originally intended to be a lesbian, but her sexual persuasion was edited out in post production. "The film is set in 1954, and I had suggestive scenes with another nurse," she explains matter-of-factly. "The director decided to cut them out as it distracted from the main story."

Written and directed by Michael McGowan, Saint Ralph tells the unlikely story of Ralph Walker, a young, rebellious Catholic boy whose mother is in a coma. In a bid to create a miracle that he believes will bring her back to health, Ralph sets out to win the 1959 Boston marathon, and outruns everyone's expectations. Tilly is a believer in miracles. "I don't think any have happened to me, but I do feel a greater presence looking over me, like an angel," she nods.

"I think it's a miracle that I've come this far in my career. I love it when people shout out 'We love you!' across the street. It makes my day. Besides, who knew I'd have lesbians proposing? They tell me, 'You know, if you ever want to switch over, I'm available!' With my love life lately, sometimes I wish I was batting for the other side."

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