Hats Off to Tilly
By Carol Crenna
You would think that Meg Tilly had a fairytale life. Raised on a pristine little Gulf Island in British Columbia, she won a scholarship to pursue her passion, ballet, in New York, and then became a Hollywood actress in her early 20s. She quickly landed starring roles in The Big Chill and Psycho II, was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for Agnes of God. Meg also has a son with heartthrob Colin Firth…
Yet she turned her back on stardom to achieve something more, an emotionally healthy family life. She then needed to let the world know her past through writing books such as Singing Songs and Gemma. Today, she continues to write books, but on a lighter note, for children, with a new release called A Taste Of Heaven, published by Penguin Canada.
Meg finally returned to acting in 2011, to star in the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at a theatre in Victoria, BC. She continues to act in theatre and is, of course, also in the critically acclaimed Canadian TV miniseries Bomb Girls. Meg recently won “Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role” for her portrayal of factory matron, Lorna Corbett at the Canadian Screen Awards. I spoke to her about her healthy lifestyle and her career.
CAROL: You have come a long way, Meg. A back injury cut short your plans for a dance career, and then, after being cast in the biggest role of your career as Mozart’s wife in the feature Amadeus, it was curtailed by breaking a foot during production. Do you feel that your body let you down?
MEG TILLY: When I look back at the hardest things in life, I feel like angels were watching over me. It was difficult then. Dancing was my escape, giving me some control, away from my home life. A lack of healthy structure as a child created intense passion because I was starving for an outlet.
When I was 14, I saw Evelyn Hart dance and was in awe. But when her physically and emotionally challenging career ended, she was discarded by the very thing she gave her soul to, and was left with no financial security, no husband or family. I was saved from that.
And, it was the same for Amadeus. I wasn’t ready for fame in that magnitude. I was 23. If I’d continued, my life would be different, and I wouldn’t have my children. I love acting, but I don’t enjoy fame.
CAROL: Can you explain?
MEG TILLY: In my childhood, the way I stayed safe was to become invisible. When my stepfather came to beat me, I hid — under the sink, behind the fridge, up a tree. If you compare that to stardom, when you can’t hide and everyone thinks they know you personally, it’s challenging.
People got my unlisted phone number and called in the middle of the night, after I hadn’t slept because my child was sick, asking if they could come over. I wondered, do they know where I live?
CAROL: Is this why you stopped acting?
MEG TILLY: Not completely. I had three children, which was not a career builder. But I certainly don’t regret it. On my deathbed, I won’t be saying, “If I hadn’t done this or that with my kids, I could have done 30 movies instead of 16.”
I continued acting for seven years and they traveled with me because I wanted to be there for them, giving them a more stable childhood. But when we got back home after filming Leaving Normal, my daughter’s best friend was best friends with someone else. She was heartbroken and I realized I wasn’t giving them stability.
I worked hard for the next year, saved my money, invested, and was able to quit. I now live with my husband in Victoria, and my three children are 22, 26 and 28.
CAROL: Your youngest, William, is Colin Firth’s son?
MEG TILLY: We met while filming Valmont. We fell pretty hard — there was a lot of love and caring, but despite best intentions, it didn’t work. He was in England pursuing his career, and I was in the Canadian wilderness, trying to hide from mine.
Colin has been very involved in William’s life, often flying to British Columbia on weekends and taking him for long holidays. And then Will moved to Britain to live with Colin. Colin is married with two kids. Everyone says William looks a lot like him – he’s six feet, two inches tall. He is also an actor, and has done a couple of small parts, including one in Spiderman, and is continuing to study acting.
CAROL: Did you enjoy making films?
MEG TILLY: The Big Chill was a good experience; Agnes of God, which was filmed outside Guelph and Toronto, Ontario, was an absolutely great experience with Norman Jewison; and Psycho II was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. Anthony Perkins and director Richard Franklin were very difficult.
CAROL: Your sister, Jennifer Tilly, is also an Academy Award nominated actress. Did your childhood help you both become such exceptional actresses?
MEG TILLY: Definitely! We grew up acting, knowing how to pretend well enough to convince anyone. We learned we had to keep our smiley faces on when social workers came.
CAROL: You’ve written two novels, both about child abuse, one gaining international publicity since was so graphic. Why write it? And weren’t you afraid of being in the limelight again?
MEG TILLY: It was rather terrifying at first, having a feature in People Magazine and doing the Early Morning Show on CBS, but I had to do it. I felt then that if I could shine a light on these types of issues, and help someone else, it was worth it. I was abused by my stepfather for 12 years, then my mother’s boyfriend, who also tried to kill us, and also by my grandfather.
After finishing a short story about it in a writing class, I was shaking, nauseous and couldn’t sleep. And though people have criticized my explicitness, I couldn’t whitewash the experience. I owed it to myself and everyone else who’s been through it.
A world authority on sexual abuse now recommends Gemma because she said it lets the world know what it’s like to be a victim. Statistics show that one in three girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused. The average pedophile abuses 30 to 60 children before they’re caught and most aren’t.
CAROL: You seem very emotionally healthy. Did becoming a mother help you to deal with your past?
MEG TILLY: I’m healthy now, but I wasn’t before. I’m so happy and feel such gratitude. The challenging things that happen in childhood can follow you into adulthood until you learn that you have the right to have boundaries.
In raising my children I re-raised, and mothered, myself. In standing up for them I learned to stand up for myself, giving myself my power back. Being a mother was much work, and much joy — they’re a gift that I’ve grown enormously from.
I was overprotective, but my goal was to get them safely to adulthood. And they are all there now. I made big mistakes in my life, but that’s how I learned, so I don’t wish their learning and growth away from them. I hope I’ve given them tools to make the right decisions, but when they don’t I can love them.
I read a lot of books on good mothering, and think I’ve done well. It meant a hot breakfast every day, cookies out of the oven when they came from school, and lots of hugs.
CAROL: How do you keep physically healthy?
MEG TILLY: We eat almost exclusively organic food. I try to be conscious to not eat anything harmful and leave as small a mark on the earth as I can. But I’m not perfect. I drive a Prius, which is better but not the bus, and I use cloth shopping bags…half the time.
Sugar means comfort to me so I must have candy around, even if I don’t eat it. We workout at the gym, go hiking and for long walks in the woods, and I’ve also taken tai kwon do and belly dancing. For stress, I meditate, and I’ve always sang. It fills the heart. I sometimes sing the chants I learned for Agnes of God – the Latin’s gone but it still gives peace.
CAROL: You look so young.
MEG TILLY: I love getting older, and am curious about what’s coming. After having a friend die, I feel grateful for the wrinkles, the grey, and the aches because she never got to experience them.
Getting older is a process of bringing beauty that was on the outside to the inside, and only people who are worthwhile take the time to see it. It lets go of ego. I used to turn heads, but I don’t get attention like that anymore.
CAROL: That’s because you’re still hiding, Meg. If you coloured your grey, took off your thick glasses, put some makeup on, smiled, and wore something glamorous you’d get just as much attention as you ever did.
MEG TILLY: (laughs) Do you think so? I know that I should be pleased to hear that, but it makes me feel panicky!