The 43-year-old beauty told United Press International that she finally got the call to appear in a Bogdanovich film about two years ago, while she was in Dublin shooting the TV movie, "The Magnificent Ambersons."
"I'd been there for a really long time and I was very homesick and I wanted to go home and see my cat and my boyfriend, in that order. No, not in that order, and I got a phone call and my manager called up, and he said Peter Bogdanovich is making this movie in Berlin, and it starts in four days and he wants you to play a part. And I thought, 'Oh, I want to go home so bad!' But you don't turn down Mr. Bogdanovich and in my supreme ego ... he said, 'It's about a William Hearst scandal,' and I thought, 'What's he want me to play? Marion Davies?' And he called back and he said, 'I don't know. I'll find out.' He calls back and says, 'The name of the character you are going to play is Louella Parsons.' I was like, 'Oh, my God!' I've always wanted to be a character actress, but not that soon," recalled the star of "Bullets Over Broadway" and "The Fabulous Baker Boys."
Fortunately, Tilly's character in 'Ambersons' was an aging spinster, so she didn't have to do much to prepare for playing Parsons in "The Cat's Meow," Bogdanavich's tale of suspense set in the glittering world of Hollywood celebrities.
"They have really good cheese and chocolate in Dublin and I'd been eating a lot of them and my first thought when my manager called was, 'How am I going to get into one of those little, skinny flapper dresses?' And then, fortunately, I didn't have to. I was like, 'Well, I better keep eating' because, you know, Louella was quite rotund," Tilly explained.
"The Cat's Meow" is the allegedly true account of an ill-fated birthday cruise thrown by publishing titan William Randolph Hearst (played by Edward Hermann) and his actress/mistress Marion Davies (played by Kirsten Dunst) for a producer friend (Cary Elwes) in 1924. British comedian Eddie Izzard portrays Charlie Chaplin, who is infatuated with the vivacious Davies, and Tilly is Hearst's gossip goddess, Louella Parsons.
In his film, Bogdanovich ("The Last Picture Show," "Paper Moon") paints a lovely portrait of Hollywood in its heyday, then shakes the audience, as well as the people on the party boat, out of its reverie, showing Hearst, enraged with Chaplin's flirtation with Davies, shooting a fellow he mistakes for the amorous actor. Although the unfortunate guest dies of his injuries, no charges were ever brought against anyone on the cruise. The incident has rarely been spoken about above a whisper in the 80 years since it supposedly took place, but many Hollywood insiders insist it actually did take place.
Bogdanovich, who is regarded as an expert in Hollywood history and lore, has repeatedly been touched by scandal in his own life. His first marriage ended because of his affair with Cybill Shepherd, his young leading lady in "The Last Picture Show."
When Bogdanovich and Shepherd called it quits eight years later, the director began seeing married Playboy Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten. That courtship ended when Stratten's estranged husband killed her in a jealous rage. Later, Bogdanovich married Stratten's sister, Louise. His troubled personal life, along with his desire to act and write, have kept Bogdanovich from directing many feature films in recent years. "The Cat's Meow" is his first theatrical release in almost a decade.
Asked if she thinks gossip is worse now than it was in the 1920s, Tilly replied, "I think that gossip, perhaps, back then had more power."
"Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper ruled Hollywood," she elaborated. "Back then, they had a lot of power because there were two major gossip columnists, which was Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. ... Okay, but here's my theory: I think the fact of the matter is back then, everybody was expected to be very virginal and straight and a good wife and mother and doing some thing like Ingrid Bergman running off with Roberto Rossellini could ruin your career. ... And now it kind of helps your career. ... In a way, I think people like when people are more human and so, I don't think it has as much power as it used to because I think back then they expected stars to live in such straight-laced, artificial little world. ... And I think, in a way, they rebelled a lot, like there was a lot of drugs and alcohol and orgies and all those sort of things."
As the target of a couple of rare, unfavorable news stories, Tilly recognizes the irony of playing a gossip columnist in this film.
"The best gossip item that I ever read about myself that actually was not true was in 'The National Enquirer,' it said 'Jennifer Tilly was so attached to the pasties she wore in one movie, she had the cast and crew sign them and she now has them hanging on wall.' First of all, how big do you think my nipples are that the entire cast and crew could sign my pasties? And number two, anybody who saw the movie, it's very obvious that I'm not wearing any pasties at all," the bright, effervescent Tilly noted.
"The Cat's Meow" actress also had hisses, not kisses, for a certain New York Times reporter she felt wrote an unfair story about her in one of the paper's recent style sections.
"Apparently, the story was supposed to be that I was this insider socialite," she explained, "but what happened is he had me going to so many parties that night and he was the one who had the schedule, so we showed up late for all of them. Like, they were all over by the time we got there. So, anyway, then in the article, we didn't meet any celebrities because everyone was gone by the time and I even said to him, 'It's really ungroovy to close out a party and we closed out three of them.' You know, you really do have to leave before they're over, but I was on his schedule.
"So, anyway, he ended up writing this story. ... He made me a big loser. ... He made me look like a big boob. So, okay, in the article, I look like this desperate wannabe and he would say things like 'Jennifer makes a spectacular entrance -- late,' like I didn't know when the party started, so it was stuff like that and a lot of people thought it was really cute, but I have to say I was reading it and my cheeks were burning, plus there was a really unflattering picture."
"Then there was a picture of me on the third page where I'm like 'Aaaahh!' Just like something out of 'Jurassic Park' and underneath there is a picture of Darryl Hannah looking, a friend of mine, looking really groovy and cool. ... And the thing in the story was like, it's not cool to be excited about going to parties and friendly like Jennifer Tilly. In fact, I think he said that 'She greets people with a glee that's usually a one-way ticket to the bottom,'" she continued.
Tilly said the reporter's demeanor when she first met him probably should have tipped her off that their relationship would not end well.
"He said to me when I met him: 'You're so friendly. Usually celebrities won't talk to me.' And now I'm like, 'I wonder why,'" she declared, adding: "Honestly, it was a funny story. If it hadn't been about me, I would have laughed and laughed, but it kind of ... it made me feel really bad because sometimes, it's hard to read about yourself in a way that you don't see yourself. So, that made me feel bad."
The good-natured actress went on to say that if she saw the reporter at a party, she wouldn't throw a drink his face "or anything," but she would tell him exactly how he made her feel.
Tilly added she understands very well that publicity can be a double-edged sword.
"You know, I used to write a newspaper column in high school. I used to be a really good writer," she said, laughing, "like my 8th grade newspaper column was stellar. It was called 'Through the School Grapevine' and I have to say that every single week -- that's the problem with the profession -- people would come up to me and they'd be upset, they'd be like, 'I didn't say that,' when I know they did and they'd be like, 'Why did you put me in your column?' and I'm like 'You wanted to be in the column.'"
Tilly has amassed 65 TV and film credits since 1983. She earned 19 of those between 2000 and 2002 and can next be seen in "Child's Play 5," "Lil' Pimp," "A Piece of My Heart," and "Sex & Violence," all due out this year.