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March 2004
Home on the Range: An Interview with Jennifer Tilly

By Todd Gilchrist

Home on the Range: An Interview with Jennifer Tilly

Jennifer Tilly possesses one of the most idiosyncratic voices in Hollywood; her breathy, helium-filled delivery can sound at once seductive and remarkably innocent. As such, enlisting her distinctive pipes for an animated film seems like the perfect idea, and Disney has not let an opportunity go to waste. “Home on the Range”, which opens this Friday, will be the family entertainment company’s last hand-drawn animated film for some time, and Tilly spoke to Blackfilm.com recently to discuss the industry shift that the success of films like “Toy Story” made not only possible but a necessity to remain competitive.

How difficult was it for you to play a character knowing you don't get to show your face?

JT: I really like doing a cartoon. When I first started doing them it was really hard for me because I'm used to working with other actors and I always felt like acting is reacting. The first time I did a cartoon was Bartok the Magnificent and I had tremendous mic fright. Hank Azaria (who voices Bartok) had been in to do some of his stuff and he was really nice. He stuck around to read with me a little bit because I was freaking out, but then, after I got used to it, then I really liked it because, especially where I work, in independent films, you never get enough takes; you get three or four takes, then you move on and I think you would get really good around take seven or eight. Like when I was working with Jim Carrey, he was really not too good until he had his breakthrough take, and then after that, he just got more and more ornate and funnier. And that's what you could when you're doing the cartoons is you're doing the lines over and over again, you do them eight, nine, ten, eleven times and you can do the line as they're written on the page and then you can start ad-libbing and improvising and coming up with alternative lines and you can do it every possible way, so it's really satisfying.

Were the directors averse to ad-libbing?

JT: No, because they love when you [improvise]. Like a lot of times in indie films, when they've written the material, and then they become the director to protect the material, and, you know, they sort of want you to do the line. In cartoons, they love when you bring something to the table because it's not like you're wasting the time. They deliver over to the animators and they like lots of alternatives. And a lot of times, if you come up with the lines yourself, then it's not as much on the page or it's fresh or it has more personality than what's written. Sometimes what's written is better, but sometimes what you come up with is more joyful, so that's what you use...

Did any of your improvisations make the final film?

JT: I'm not sure. I've been working on this movie for three years, for a really long time. They did a lot of tweaking. Not just me- I replaced another actress- but Roseanne also replaced another actress. So it was really funny because I would come in and I would hear the other actress and then all the sudden it was Roseanne like two years later. And the other actress was really good. They just felt like, with Dame Judi Dench, who's really sort of, her character's kind of uptight and my character's sort of floaty, they felt like they needed somebody on the opposite end of the spectrum, somebody who's more earthy and raunchy than the actress they had.

Did you feel any trepidation stepping into someone else's shoes?

JT: You know, she got paid. We all got paid. If I was replaced on a movie, as long as I got paid. If it was a cartoon, I'd be okay with it.

Did Grace change much from the previous actress to you?

JT: I don't know. I heard it wasn't working out with the other actress or maybe her schedule, I don't know. They never played me any of her line readings.

Since you've worked both in traditional hand-drawn animation and computer- generated animation, was the process any different for you from one to the other?

JT: It didn't make any difference, not to me. It just makes a difference in the look of film. And I remember that the people were talking about, when they were talking about what they were going to be doing, they were really enthusiastic, but in a different way. Like I remember, when I was doing Monsters, Inc., they were like, 'The fur on the John Goodman character. It moves in the wind. You can see every follicle,' and I'm like, 'Cool.' And on this one, they're like, 'Every frame is hand drawn and hand colored.' I'm like, 'Wow.' I think it's really different. It reminds me of the older Disney films like Bambi or it's sort of, you have a nostalgic feeling, because it adds to the sort of sweetness. I think that perhaps [computer animation] seems more modern, perhaps. I'm not sure. I have to watch what I say. But, when I saw it, I really liked it. I felt like it really created a tone. Some of the vistas I felt like were very Thomas Hart... You have all the Grand Canyon and it's all hand painted. I'd actually like to get some frames from the film to put in my bathroom...

Since Grace sort of avoids conflict, how do you deal with confrontation in real life?

JT: Yeah, and I think it's better to sort of be confrontational. It's like, if someone says, 'Will you come to my party?' And you're like, 'Hmmm. Yeah, probably.' And then they're calling like, 'Are you coming to my party? Are you coming to my party?' It's better right off the bat to say, 'Your parties are boring and I'm not coming. And then, you know, it's not stringing them along. This one director I worked with, he would never tell people if he wasn't happy with what they were doing. He just replaced them and I think it would be kinder to say, 'You know, maybe you need to try it a different way.' So I think sometimes it's better to be confrontational, but it works for Grace. She's always sort of pouring oil on the troubled waters and, you know, trying to be the peace maker.

What happened with "The Kid" the internet cartoon you did back in 2000?

JT: I don't know what happened to that, because I did that a really long time ago, like three years ago. When I was doing the voiceovers, I guess it's like an internet cartoon, I thought, 'Gee. I'm really not sure what the audience is for this. It's certainly not the kiddies.' William Shatner is a televangelist, an evil televangelist, and I'm his wife and she's sort of a Tammy Faye Baker type. Not too bright, and then, in the end, she ends up in a pinned stable. She turns out to be his number one "Ho." I had to sing in that, too. I think I sang a televangelist type. But I sing better in that. Yes, in tune. My character had a sort of Marilyn Monroe voice so I sung like Monroe. I wasn't belting it out. I actually can sing and, in this movie, it's a plot point that she can't sing and so, um, I came in to sing my bad song and the writers loved it. And after that, they kept calling up, like every three or four weeks going, 'Can Jennifer come in? We need her to sing another bad song?' And I'd go in and I'd sing a song and they'd bust up laughing. Only like a few of it ended up in the movie. I just think they wanted me to sing because they'd get bored. 'Oh, we can't think of what to do. Let's have Jennifer come in and sing to us some more.' I was a little perturbed to see that they didn't include any of my music on the CD. But I think Alan Menken said, 'I don't want that girl's voice anywhere near my CD. I think it would dash his Grammy hopes.

Were you working with other voice actors while you recorded your dialogue?

JT: No. The first time I did a voiceover was for "Bride of Chucky" and they brought in Brad Dourif and they had us in a room that we could both record at the same time and so we were kind of looking at each other, we were acting. It was like a radio play. So we were overlapping and we'd ad-lib, like, if I'd ad-lib, he'd come right back and me with another ad-lib and so, that was really fun for me. And, like I said, the first one that I had to do by myself, I was freaking out. On this one, you never see any of the other actors at all. Oh, the reason I was saying that about "Bride of Chucky" is that now I'm doing the sequel, "Seed of Chucky" and I went in and now I've been doing the voice overs, the cartoon things, for three or four years and they did the same thing and I found it distracting. I was like, 'Ew, I wish Brad would shut up so I could just do my line.' Because now I'm used to working in a particular way where I just do my lines. You do them over and over again, you know, eight or nine or ten times, never saw any of the other actors, so it's interesting to see, at the end of the day, when you seen the movie, it's really interesting to see which takes they've used and how well we all work together. You wouldn't guess that we were never in the same room..."

So doing voiceover for a live-action film and an animated film are different disciplines?

JT: Yeah, when I did "Stuart Little" it was me and Bruno Kirby and it was similar to "Bride of Chucky" in that they brought both of us in all of the time. And we did so many ad-libs and lots and lots of really funny stuff on "Stuart Little" and then they just used the lines that were in the script. I think that with the animation and it's expense, so maybe they didn't want so much mouse stuff... So, yeah, they cut it down, we did so much recording, and then they cut it down to like about that much. But that's the thing that happens when you're doing the cartoons is that you'll do so much stuff. Like, this movie we've been doing for three years. You record the entire movie in two hours, but then they keep bringing you back in because they're re-writing and they're changing things and, you know, they want you to sing more...

How flexible were the filmmakers with your shooting schedules?

JT: It's really great because they work around your schedule. They'll call and say, 'Can Jennifer come in three weeks from now' and my manager will say, 'No, she's in Romania.' And they'll say 'Oh, when does she get back,' and they'll say 'In a month,' and they'll say, 'Okay, in a month then.'

You're in Romania now?

JT: Yes, that's where we're shooting right now. I'm so tired. I flew out there for like a really long flight and I was doing wardrobe fittings and screen tests and everything and then I flew back here to do all the press junkets and now I'm flying back there tomorrow. But it's really very funny.

Who is the director for "Seed of Chucky"?

JT: It's Don Mancini, who created the series. It's funnier. I play two characters. I play Tiffany, the little homicidal doll, and then I play myself, Jennifer Tilly, the actress. The dolls are stalking me. It's really fun because I get to incorporate a lot of my neurosis and things into the character, but I'm sort of doing an exaggeration of myself. I'm not playing myself that lounges around the house in sweat pants and no make-up. I'm playing myself, the parody. Jennifer Tilly, the parody. It takes place on the Universal back lot. They're making a movie of "Bride of Chucky"and I'm playing Tiffany in the movie of "Bride of Chucky". And John Waters is in it. He plays a pervy paparazzi. And Redman, I guess he's a rapper. Redman plays a director. He's directing a biblical epic.

What role are you most recognized for?

JT: "Bride of Chucky". It's really weird. Like, nine out of ten times when people know me from things, it's "Bride of Chucky".

What's the tenth?

JT: "Bound". I'll tell you in the order. "Bride of Chucky", number one, then "Bound", then "Liar Liar", " Let it Ride", "Bullets Over Broadway". That's the top five.

Do kids recognize you from the cartoon voices you play?

JT: Well, it's really funny, because I'll be at restaurant and parents will come over and they're dragging their kids and they'll say, 'This is Celia from "Monsters, Inc." and they start to cry. They're like, 'That's not Celia. She has two eyes. You can't fool me.' But when I call them on the phone, like people are all telling me, 'Call my kid. She's seen "Monsters, Inc."twelve times. So, I'll call them on the phone and I'll say, [in Celia's voice] Googily Woogily.' And they start laughing and they go, 'Celia, is that you?' And they're so excited because they understand the voice, but they don't understand how my voice got in... Because they think they cartoon character is a real person. Somebody said to me that their kid loved "Haunted Mansion" and brought over the kid... 'Do you want your picture taken with her?' The kid was like, 'No.' I had to finally do the voice. They recognize the voice.

Are you happy with the way your career has progressed?

JT: Ahhh. Yes. I had to think about that. You know, the thing that I think is really good, I'm kinda going through my mid-life crisis now, so now I do this thing where I talk about Oh, what ever happened to so and so. Because, when I started out, a lot of the actresses that used to get all the parts away from me have disappeared and I'm still working. I go through the 80's and then the 90's and sometimes year by year. Like, 'Oh, I used to lose out to this person.' Some of them are really big stars and I'm really happy that I'm still working. When I first started, I thought, 'As long as I don't have to waitress between gigs, I'll consider myself a success.' So far, so good. And I like that I can play lots of different parts and my favorite thing now is that I get offered the roles. I'm not a really good auditioner and so people just call up and say, 'Do you want to do this?' And usually I go [she laughs].

How do you decide whether or not you want to be involved in something?

JT: Usually the paycheck. [she laughs again]. No, actually. Lots of times, if it's a character I haven't played that I think is going to be a challenge. Sometimes if I'm scared to do it, then I'll do it. Like when I did "Dancing at the Blue Iguana" because we didn't have a script and I was playing a stripper and so, I think it's like, if it's interesting to me. Lots of times it's the other actors. Sort of the level where I work, I do a lot of independent films, usually the director is an unknown element, so it's not usually that. My first question is, well, if I read the script and I read the script and I really like the script, then I kind of find out who the cinematographer is, because, at my age, good lighting [is] very imperative. And then I try to find out who the other actors are and [it's] tricky sometimes because people are very sneaky. They go, 'Oh. We're getting so and so and so and so, they mean the script is in the mail to that person. So you have to say, 'No, are they really getting that person?' And they're like, 'Well, they're reading it' and you're like, 'Well, I'm reading it, too.' Lots of times there's sort of this dance where your reading it and they're telling the other person you're doing it and, you know, everybody's sort of waiting until the last minute and, a lot of times, you won't commit until somebody else is committed.

Have you turned down many roles that you kicked yourself for passing on later?

JT: No, I wish I could say that. Like, my sister, she's like, well, I don't no if she turned them down, but everyone passed on "Thelma and Louise" and "Basic Instinct' supposedly and "Flashdance" and I've never passed on anything... If anything has any potential whatsoever, I am all over it. I wish I could say I turned down something, but I could tell you the parts I was up for and that I didn't get, but that's not the same as turning down, I guess.

So, what parts were you up for that you didn't get?

JT: Hmmm. These are the parts I think I was close for: "Steel Magnolias" I almost got. In "The Doors" I was almost the Kathleen Quinlan part. Let's see, there are other movies. There's other parts I got over actresses that went on to be big. I turned down "Working Girl", the television show and Sandra Bullock did it. I got "It's the Garry Shandling Show", I was auditioning against Sharon Stone and "Moving Violations" I was up against Geena Davis and I got it. But then, it's funny, because those are all the parts that they were really lucky... well, not lucky that they didn't get, but then they go on and become really big stars. And I'm like, 'I beat out Geena Davis for a part once.

What are your thoughts on the shift from traditional animation to computers?

JT: I think, in terms of the movies [and] whether they're successful, I don't think it's the kind of animation it is, I think it's about the characters and the writing and if people are involved with the characters. I think technology does move on and I guess it's too expensive and slow. It took a long time for this movie to get to the screen. I guess it's maybe and old fashioned way of working and they want to move in to the 21st century or whatever it is now, but I think that there's a real charm to the old-fashioned, the hand-drawn, hand-colored pictures. I think, aside from being funny or being entertaining, that the movie itself is a work of art. You look at the hand-drawn films and they're really beautiful to look at too. So, you know, hopefully this won't be the last one, but it might be, and in which case it's been a great honor to be in it.

What is next for you?

JT: I'm very excited about playing myself in "Seed of Chucky". I fought tooth and nail against doing "Bride of Chucky" and now I'm really excited to be doing the sequel. Because, so far, it's all about me and I have a lot of input. It's either going to be the end of my career or an exciting new resurgence in my... I'm so tired.

When will it be released?

JT: Halloween, yes. This year. But it's a really funny script. It's great. When I was going to Romania I got this guide book. It's called Lonely Planet and I guess it's for backpackers because I got it in London, because I know nothing about Romania and I had an idea that it's very third-world. And, the whole chapter about Romania was about all the shots that you should get and all the diseases you could get, like, encephalitis (sp?). I mean, like, diseases that you thought were obsolete. And then at said that there are packs of wild dogs roaming the streets, who will tear you limb to limb and a rabies shot is a must. And it said you have to have a money belt because people will pick your pocket before you even get off the plane. So, I was terrified. In the airport, I got a money belt. My mom has been trying to get me to get a money belt since I was eleven years old and this is the first time I felt like I needed to do it. I got there and I guess I was expecting some third world armpit. They were talking about how filthy the toilets were and it's really not. It's a very cosmopolitan city. That said, I didn't leave the hotel the whole time I was there. I thought if I left the hotel and went walking I'd be attacked by the wild dogs. I was just there for a week. Going back tomorrow and then I'm there for a month and a half. But my phone bill for four days was 700 dollars.

Have you been able to keep the Tiffany doll from "Bride" or "Seed of Chucky"?

JT: I want one. They promised me one when I did the first one, but then they reneged on it because those things are really expensive. And they were like, 'We never said that' and I was like, 'You so did.' I have a few things to take up with those people. I think I should get a little bit of the merchandising too, but they're like, 'Oh, we never sold any Tiffany dolls' and I'm like, 'What are those things that everybody's getting me to sign all the time?' You have to track those people down and say, 'Where's my money?'

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