Meg Tilly thought she would just dip her toe back into acting. Having last appeared onscreen in 1995, the Academy Award-nominated actress (Agnes of God) appeared in three episodes of the Syfy series Caprica, which reunited her with her old friend Eric Stoltz. Then came a stage production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Victoria, British Columbia. Finally, she was invited to hear about a new drama for Canadian television that would tell the little-known story of women who worked in munitions factories during World War II.
Not expecting to say yes, but happy to listen, Tilly found herself won over by creator Adrienne Mitchell and she knew she just had to be part of Bomb Girls. She plays the part of Lorna, the supervisor who keeps the young women who work on the bomb-making line on task. The six-episode series was a hit in Canada, with a 12-episode Season 2 now in production, and is being brought to American audiences starting tonight on ReelzChannel.
Tilly — who spent hear 15-year acting hiatus raising her three now-grown children and becoming a respected author — shared with us what it was like being back on a set (and not always knowing the technical terms everyone was talking about), learning more about history, and whether she’s planning to finally return to acting full time:
Channel Guide Magazine: What was it like being back on set after such a long layoff?
Meg Tilly: It was really interesting. I felt a little shy. The first day I went in for the read-through, I was thinking, ‘Do I remember how to do this?” I forgot what’s protocol. There were so many people. Then you just start shooting and you’re like, “Oh, I know how to do this.” And you just do the work. It’s different, though. I remember one thing when we were in the bomb factory and Adrienne [Mitchell] said, “Now, we’re on a very tight schedule, so we’re going to have to block shoot. I hope everybody’s good with that.” I nodded along with everybody else and then I thought, “OK, this is just ridiculous, because that’s a term I don’t know.” So I said, “Yeah, I’m happy to block shoot, but I don’t know what it is.” Everybody else did. But it’s a good thing I asked, because it’s shooting several scenes in one direction and then turning around and shooting those scenes in the other direction so you don’t always have to be lighting and relighting because you have so much to get done. There were little things like that, or back in the day they used to always have a focus puller, where you would have to hit your mark exactly, and they would have somebody come with a tape measure from the camera to go right to where your eye was, and then if you shift forward or shift back … We were shooting, and I thought, “Oh, we don’t do that anymore.” They have these electronic things where they can gauge by some kind of, I don’t know, fanciness.
CGM: So was that the biggest adjustment, the technical stuff?
MT: I think so. For me. What had changed the most was myself, because I didn’t have children [with me]. So I wasn’t feeling that pull. I have children, but they’re all grown, so I wasn’t having the children in my trailer and feeling like when I was away from home that I was taking time away from anybody because my children aren’t needing me like that. It’s been really, really fun, because I feel like it’s kind of like play with everyone else, but you get paid for it. You get to do make-believe. It’s so much fun. I’ve been writing for so many years and to all of a sudden be creating with other people, I have a totally different perspective. I’m grateful. I didn’t think I’d be doing something like this, for sure.
CGM: So you go from being at home with your children to working with actresses who are around your children’s age.
MT: Yeah, they are. It’s really, really lovely because I feel just like there’s all this young energy around me, but it’s really nice because I’m not their mom. People can love their mom, but it’s a different kind of relationship you have. It’s really been wonderful, all these young women around and chatting. They invite me to do things. It’s very cozy. I just feel really lucky. Sometimes things happen in life and you don’t expect them, you don’t even know enough to wish for them, and then they do and you feel so blessed, because it’s changed the shape of your life. I’m just having such a good time. I love being around them. They’re very sweet. My boy comes from England, he’s studying acting, they invited him out one night to go to a concert. They’re good girls, and they’re really lovely.
CGM: Your character, Lorna, is very strict with them, but you get the sense her heart isn’t in that.
MT: It is really interesting. I’m glad you picked up on that, because she is strict with them. But she’s strict with them because the factory’s safety is in her hands. These girls’ lives are in her hands. They can’t get too loose about what they’re wearing, or metal, they can’t afford not to be right up to snuff in terms of being on the bomb line because girls would lose their fingers, lose their arms, people would die. It’s vital that she’s strict and keeps a tight ship because everybody’s safety is counting on her maintaining that. But she does care for these women, very much. She’s very maternal. She has that kind of magical thinking that if she keeps these girls safe, then that will keep her boys safe. She can’t protect her boys overseas, but she can at least do everything she can for these girls, who are away from their families and homes and have come from all over Canada to support the war effort. It’s her responsibility to keep them in line and as safe as possible. You know, Lorna makes bad decisions sometimes. We all do. I’d read the script and be like, “Oh, no. Lorna, no. That’s just not OK.” But then I’d find the reasons why, the understanding of why she did it, and most of the time it went back to keeping her boys safe.
CGM: She’s also complex in that she’s on the right side of the issue for the women’s plight, but when it comes to the Italian character, she’s deeply prejudiced.
MT: Yeah, she’s prejudiced. She’s also prejudiced against Gladys for having money. We’re seeing a bit of that now as well. But my character, before she worked in the bomb factory, trying to get by on her husband’s pension was very challenging and she supported the family bringing in the extra money because she had three kids. Her husband has enormous challenges, so she would take in washing and clean the houses of people like Gladys’ mother, and had been treated like a servant. She has prejudices, which we all do. We like to pretend that we don’t, but you don’t realize you do. Sometimes you might think, “No. I’m totally not prejudiced,” and then something will happen and you’ll be like, “Oh, my God. Wow.” You know what I mean? But that was a time people were prejudiced against anybody [from a country] who was an ally of Hitler. People behaved badly. People were scared. There’s kind of an interesting parallel between that and after 9/11 happened how people were painting Muslims with the same brush, and you can’t. You just can’t just paint any race or religion with the same brush. There’s going to be good people, there’s going to be bad people. There’s going to be people who are both. There’s a lot of gray in everybody.
CGM: How gratifying is it that this production, which originated in Canada, will be seen by a wider audience now here in the U.S.?
MT: I’m so happy. I don’t watch the show. I do the show and everybody’s talking about this scene and that one, but I prefer not to watch myself. I wish I could watch it and not watch me, so I could see all the girls and be like, “Oh, you were so good in that scene.” But I don’t want to watch Lorna from the outside in. I want to only see her from the inside out. But I’m really happy for everybody. I’m at the phase of my life where I’m not career building, for sure. If I were career building, I never would have stopped in my early 30s. But I’m happy because everybody’s worked so hard. Adrienne Mitchell and Janis Lundman, Michael MacLennan and Michael Prupas, they’ve all worked ages before we got on, developing this, writing this, getting it picked up. They’ve worked like crazy, so I’m so happy for all of the people who were there from the beginning, and for the first crew we had, because we were with a different union, and then this crew. People’s hard work was recognized and it touched a cord with people, right down to the guy who was pulling the dolly, but it was hard for him to see the lines because he was weeping. Everybody involved in this show put their heart on the line. We work really long hours, but everybody’s doing it because we all feel really passionate about this show, and it’s nice that other people are getting to see it as well. But I guess for me, I’ve done shows, and sometimes you can put your heart into something and nobody sees it, and other times you can do a show and nobody thinks it’s going to be that successful, and it’s hugely successful. We don’t have any control over that. For me, the reward is in the process of the doing and the creating. I’m happy for everybody else that it’s doing really well. When the show is over, if it got Season 2, or Season 3 or Season 4, that’s great, but if it doesn’t I have a really cozy life as well and I’m happy to go continue writing my books and puttering around the kitchen and hopefully one day cuddling the grandchildren. (Laughs) I like to think ahead. Don’t have any yet, but someday.
CGM: How appealing for you was the aspect of Bomb Girls telling a virtually untold story, about the women in the factories?
MT: I’ve just started studying this. I didn’t even know we had bomb factories here in Canada until I was up for this show. Then everybody started saying, “Yeah, my mom worked at one.” Or “My grandmother did,” “My aunt did,” so I’ve learned a lot about this time period in working on this show, and it’s made me see history a lot differently and what happened after this show, subsequently in the ’50s, and that led to the ’60s. I think it’s interesting how after World War I, the Great War, we had the Roaring Twenties, and then we had the stock market crash and then we had the Great Depression — how all of these events lead to the next event. It’s sort of like a string of pearls, each thing is connected to the next, whereas held by itself it’s like, “Oh, this is happening,” but when you see how it had this ripple effect, it’s like dropping a pebble in a pond. I feel really lucky to have been on this show and to have these thoughts about all of this, which I hadn’t ever really thought about before. Not only that, they pay me for it. How lucky is that?
CGM: You’re working on Season 2, which will have 12 episodes, twice as many as Season 1. Since you’re still just kind of getting back into acting, are you worried about the workload?
MT: Twelve feels doable. When I first signed on for this show, I thought, “Well, how often does a thing get picked up? Very, very rarely.” So I thought it was highly unlikely that it would. But if it did, it would be like when Adrienne and Janis did Durham County, it got picked up for six again. I thought, “Well, I could do that. Two and a half months, sure.” I just thought I’m just going to dip into this a little bit, but it’s kind of been a full-body plunge, because at first I did [a stage production of] Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and then a couple days after that I got on this, not planning to do it, but then I loved Adrienne Mitchell so much that I was like, “Oh, my God, this woman is so talented, I have to work with her.” So I said, “OK. Two and a half months, what’s that?” But I’d already signed on to do a play in the spring, so it’s been nonstop work since I put my big toe in and all of a sudden it’s been like this … I was going to say a shark grabbed me and pulled me under but it’s been much more pleasant than that. (Laughs) I don’t know that I could do 18 or 24. For my old bones, that would be too much.
CGM: At this stage of the game, do you consider yourself more a writer who acts, or is there more of a balance now?
MT: I don’t know. It’s so fun, because I don’t know what the future holds. I know for women my age, there’s supposedly not that many opportunities. I just can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to be bombarded with them. But I don’t know. I do have a book that I just finished the edit on. It’s a middle-grade book. I’m going to be getting the copy edit, so I’ll be doing that while I’m doing this. I don’t know if I can put any label like a writer who acts or an actor who writes or a mom who’s come out of retirement. I think it’s like a mishmash of all. It’s like people say, “Oh, what are you?” [ethnically] It’s like, “I’m ghoulash.” I’ve got so many different blood types in me, who knows? It’s the same thing, I guess. I would have said I was a writer a year and a half ago, or I’m a mom and a writer. Now, I’m an adventurer. That’s what I am. And I don’t know what adventure is right around the corner. It could be another book, or the show being picked up yet again, or another show, or learning how to garden because I’m horrible with plants. Or it could be going to a yummy restaurant and having the best meal ever.
Photo: © 2011 Bomb Girls (Ontario) Inc.