For once, a convincing lesbian relationship is at the centre of a mainstream
Victoria Stagg Elliott asks Jennifer Tilly about the making of the film noir Bound... and the sex scenes with Gina Gershon
Madonna tried it in Body of Evidence - only to have the film become the answer to the trivia question , "What crappy, hysterical Basic Instinct knock-off starred Madonna in 1992?" Elizabeth Berkeley tried it in Showgirls - and became the punchline to jokes on late night TV. Neither of those films nor the stars had that special combination of sex appeal (to both sexes), sophistication, tight plotting and creepy music. The thriller Bound does.
Bound tells the story of a couple of dykes out to steal millions from the mob. In the US, its stars (Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon) have rightfully become lesbian icons.
Gina, playing the sultry butch, more than makes up for her appearance in Showgirls, and Jennifer Tilly, as the femme, blows out of the water her long history of playing scatterbrained chicks with ear-piercingly high voices - the ultimate dumb brunette. Most of her films (like Moving Violations, a copycat of Police Academy) have mercifully gone direct to video in the UK. She is best known here for her 1994 Oscar-nominated performance as a gangster's moll, with a voice only slightly higher than her skirts, in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway.
In Bound, Jennifer plays Violet, a former stripper turned trophy girlfriend of a mobster. They have a fabulous apartment decorated in post-modernist greys and blacks. He makes deals for millions and comes home splattered in blood from hits. She's a homebody, trying to figure out how to entice handyman Corky (the Gina Gershon character, who lives next door) to check her plumbing. Most of Jennifer's costumes in the film - monochromatic velvet and leather mini-dresses worn with matching high heels and lipstick - were her own.
Today it's chilly, and Jennifer is sitting in her Kensington hotel room wearing a multicoloured minidress that keeps riding up, and a 50s sequined cardigan that doesn't match. Her huge gold and rhinestone ring catches the light as she talks faster and faster. She is giving one of many interviews, running late, and she's dying for lunch.
At all times, she comes off as poised and significantly brainier than the airheads she keeps playing on celluloid. She was born in California, the daughter of a teacher and a car salesman. After her parents divorced when she was six, her family moved around a lot, living in both the US and Canada. "We went to church because our mother was a failed opera singer and she loved the idea of performing. The only reason we were at church was so that we could get up and sing in the choir." Her mother remarried, and her stepfather was a hippy with "very odd ideas about bringing up kids."
She went to the women-only Stephens College in Missouri, but has never had a lesbian experience outside of her acting work which includes playing a butch on the made-for-cable US sitcom Dream On. "A lot of people in the theatre programme [at college] were turning gay to see what it was like, but I was not real adventuresome. I was really into my acting, and I didn't date men or women. I was sort of a late bloomer," she admits. "When I came to Hollywood, I had one
When I got this part, I thought,
cool, now I'll see what it's like
to kiss a woman
boyfriend and then I had another boyfriend and then I got married, so there wasn't a lot of experimentation. I think a lot of women do experiment early on but I just never did. When I got this part, I thought, cool, now l'll see what it's like to kiss a woman."
She doesn't get to kiss just anyone, though. She gets to kiss the stunningly beautiful Gina Gershon. "So it was fun because I could kind of experiment and go, 'Well, I was just acting' and go back to my normal life."
The role of Violet is by far Jennifer's most complex and intense to date. She originally read for the part of Corky, until the writer-director team, brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, insisted she play Violet. "I loved Corky. She lives her life in such an authentic manner, and she doesn't feel the need to put on make-up or any of the other sorts of female accoutrements that Violet is fettered with. What you see is what she is. There's no artifice about her."
Jennifer, however, soon saw the appeal of playing Violet, who is hardly traditional. "She's just more mysterious. I had to go through the entire script to figure out when she was lying and when she was telling the truth and who she really was. I started to realise that the way she presents herself is just a facade. lt's a disguise she puts on so she can move freely through the man's world, but that's not who she really is." Violet is high glam. Corky is low maintenance and initially refuses to believe that beneath the makeup and the velvet there might be a dyke.
"I identified with Violet," says Jennifer. "I feel, to a certain extent, that when you're an actress in Hollywood you have to play the game. When I first started out... the comments I would get from the powers that be! They would say, 'Well, Jennifer's a very good actress but she's not sexy enough."'
At the beginning of her career in the mid-80s, her agent convinced her to wear something "short and tight", a little red leather dress, to a final callback. She got the part - and learned what it takes to make it in Hollywood.
Jennifer and Gina have very strong chemistry and create an amazing sex scene as one of Bound's focal points. "Gina is a great girl, and she made it a lot of fun because she has a great sense of humour," says Jennifer. "When we did the love scenes we were just laughing."
"I was a little nervous before the first one," she adds. "Gina showed up outside my dressing room and she knocked on my door and she goes, 'Jennifer, are you in there?' and I said, 'Yes' because I was. She says, 'l have tequila.' And she flings open the door and she's got this big bottle of tequila. We sat in my dressing room and drank tequila until we had to shoot the first scene where I was kissing her."
It's hard to believe anyone would need tequila to kiss either Gina or Jennifer - maybe to build up the nerve to ask for a dance, but the smooch should be the easy part. And Gina did come with sterling recommendations. "Before, when I was a little nervous," says Jennifer, "she was going, 'Why are you nervous? I'm a good kisser, just ask Elizabeth Berkeley. She says I'm one of the best kissers she's ever had."'
They smoulder with every look, steam with every kiss. "When l'm watching the movie up on screen, the thing that hits me first is: Oh my God, we have this amazing chemistry! Because I would characterise our relationship on the set as more goofy than anything else - we just had the same sort
of juvenile sense of humour - but when you see it on screen there's these two sultry, smouldering women that really seem to be made for each other."
The pair helped each other out as only women can. "A woman totally understands the need for your cellulite not to be showing," says Jennifer. "She'd be propping up my breast so it looked better and I'd be covering up her roll of fat. So we were kind of taking care of each other. We also made the make-up person run all the way around the bed before the cameras could go, to make sure we looked attraktive from every possible angle. But we didn't practise off-screen. We wanted it to be spontaneous. " Whatever they did, it works, and the Wachowski brothers shot the scene in one continuous take so it couldn't be cut. It cannot be censored without cutting out the whole scene, and the film would lose a serious chunk of its appeal.
"Gina and I are both in our 30s. We're not real excited about the idea of taking off our clothes at this particular point in our careers, but we felt that scene was important." It would be easy to accuse Jennifer of jumping on the lesbian and gay character bandwagon which seems to be attracting so many actors these days - either in hope of reviving a career that's past its peak, or to give an extra kick to one that is put-putting along to the top. She is saved only by the fact that she does not spend her entire interview talking about her Essex boyfriend. He only gets one mention, when she's pushed, and then she returns to talking about her career and the film.
"After I got the part," she says, "the Wachowskis said to me, 'you would not believe how many actresses refused to come in and read for this.' I was really surprised at that because actresses in Hollywood are always bitching and moaning about how there are no great parts for females and here's two really good strong female roles. To me it just seemed silly."
To her credit, she is now reading American gay mags Out and The Advocate. "One of my pet peeves about mainstream films where they have a gay relationship is that people think they're being amazingly liberal. They say, well, we'll have these gay characters but they can't touch. They can't show any affection or kiss each other or have any sex scenes, like they would just naturally with a heterosexual relationship. I just feel like that's a cop-out. We felt it was very important not to shy away from it and to be very matter of fact about it. That's what's cool about the film."
She laughs when it is suggested that she has joined the ranks of dyke icons. "I don't know that I am, but I'm really happy that in the States the gay community loved this film," she says. "It is cool, because a lot of people are coming out to me. It's kind of opened doors for me in terms of meeting really interesting people, who I don't think I would otherwise have met. I think some of the characters I played before were maybe offensive to women."
Jennifer, Gina and the Wachowski brothers have done a very good job. This is no coming out story with hearts and flowers and soft focus. At all times, the film is totally enthralling and absolutely sharp. Jennifer Tilly will be returning to her airhead persona for her next film, but with a difference. In the Jim Carey comedy Liar, Liar (due out at the end of March) she plays the ultimate dumb blonde.
Bound opened February 28th in the UK.