For a moment, forget that Meg Tilly is an Oscar-nominated actress; that she won a Golden Globe. Put it out of your mind that, as a 23-year-old, she captivated an entire generation with her supporting role in 1983’s The Big Chill. Don’t think about her romance with British actor Colin Firth, the intensity of it, how they lived on Vancouver Island, had a child, and then separated because he wanted to pursue his acting career, a decision which left her heartbroken. Stop thinking of her as someone who threw it all away, when she dropped out of the Hollywood scene in the mid-’90s.
The assumptions we make about people who are famous – or were – are often wrong, but we don’t always get the opportunity to hear why. It is often said that Tilly is “eccentric,” simply because she didn’t follow the script we’re accustomed to reading. But the actress, now 53, who recently won a Canadian Screen Award for Best Actress for her role in Global’s war-time series Bomb Girls, is sitting in a booth at a cafe in downtown Toronto, drinking herbal tea and talking about her life – her childhood, marriages, children, career – in exactly the way you might with the perspective of age and hard-won wisdom.
“I didn’t know how to say no,” she explains about her first marriage, to film producer Tim Zinneman in 1983. “If someone wanted me, and they pushed and they pushed, I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. I didn’t know I was allowed to have my own desires. My first marriage, I didn’t know how to get out of it. He was so in love with me, and I felt sorry for him,” she says, cringing.
“That’s a horrible thing,” she says. “But that’s the way it was. So in trying to spare his feelings, I did him a great disservice, because I married him and had two kids with him, which made it harder when I finally got to 28 and grew up and had the courage to leave. I felt a lot of guilt about that.”
She had emerged from a difficult childhood. She grew up on Texada Island in British Columbia, one of five kids to parents who divorced when she was young. Her stepfather sexually molested her, and the man who followed him was even worse. “He would chase you around with an axe, and he tried to burn the house down.” She delivers the description dispassionately, as if it were an explanation about how to boil an egg. And that’s because efforts to resolve the “damage,” as she puts it, came years ago, in the form of a novel, Singing Songs, published in 1994, which she later confessed was based on her youth. (Her latest of five novels, A Taste of Heaven, was published last month. For young adults, it looks at the obsession with fame and the reality of those who live the so-called charmed life.)
She started as a dancer, then made her film debut in Fame in 1980 after a back injury ended her dance career. Creativity has been her salvation: “What draws a lot of people to the arts – to art, music, acting, writing – is trying to sort out stuff and trying to find out who they are in a safe environment.”
Hardship has strengthened her. “It is what got me here,” Tilly says. “And in a way, it was a gift. I know that sounds weird, but I think I am a more compassionate person because of it.”
Even her five-year love affair with Firth and the aftermath is calmly laid out, like a story from someone else’s life. “Colin was my first big love,” she says. They met on the set of Valmont in 1989. “It was the first time I actually fell in love with someone, and then when that didn’t work out, I still had so many feelings for him, but we weren’t together. And a lot of guys were falling in love with me. I hadn’t even been intimate with them but they were asking me to marry them. And it was really hard because they were in love with who they thought I was, not actually me.”
In the wake of the break-up with Firth, she married her second husband, John Calley, the former president of Sony Pictures who was 30 years her senior. “The ability for intimacy wasn’t there, which was fine with me because I was still in love [with Firth] … I thought you fall in love, and that’s it. That’s why I agreed to a friendship marriage for my second marriage.”
Seven years later, it ended when she fell in love again, unexpectedly, with Don Calame, an author she met on a writing seminar in Big Sur, California. “I was writing about things that I was most ashamed of and most heart-breaking, and so was he. And he fell in love with me, and the cool thing is I had nowhere to go but up!” she jokes. They didn’t get together until she and Calley separated in 2002. “I didn’t want people to say he was cuckolded,” she says, adding that they remained friends and she looked after him at the end in the hospital (he died in 2011). Sex with a new love was frightening, she offers easily. “I hadn’t even looked at myself in the mirror in that way for seven and a half years, I didn’t know if anything worked.”
In her jeans and a casual top, her hair loose, her face free of makeup, she speaks without the usual celebrity filter, as though fame was an affliction she is now over.
She left her acting career behind in the ’90s, with the exception of doing movies of the week when she needed money, because she wanted to concentrate on raising her three children. She had trust issues with leaving them in someone else’s care, and she didn’t want to live with regrets. “There are going to be challenges, and times you question everything, but at least you know you did your best. At least you’re not saying, ‘If only I had been home’ … Yes, ideally it would have been better to have one father figure in their lives, but I kept them safe, and they’re grown now.” She decided to return to acting several years ago when her domestic responsibilities shifted, and she had more time.
First came roles in small theatre productions in Victoria, B.C. and then in Toronto, where she and Calame moved in 2011 to take advantage of more opportunities. She figured she would have to start at the bottom again, she says. And then the lead role in Bomb Girls was offered.
The return of her public visibility has come with a new shading. “When I was younger, I got a lot of attention for people’s idea or fantasy of me. But at a certain age, you become a little bit invisible. I like that because if someone takes the time to look at me, and to get to know me, then those are the worthwhile people. The people who are attracted to the glitter, those are the waste-of-your-time people.”