Star siblings Meg Tilly and Jennifer Tilly first emerged in the 80s, with both going on to become prominent actresses and Academy Award nominees. The Tilly sisters only enjoyed these great professional successes, however, after surviving a harsh and traumatic childhood.
Meg and Jennifer Tilly shared a childhood filled with abuse, suffering at the hands of their stepfather – a convicted sex offender – and other family members. Whilst Jennifer tends not to discuss these painful events from their past, Meg has spoken openly about what was a horrifying period for the Tilly children.
Beginning of the nightmare
Jennifer and Meg Tilly were born, respectively, on September 16, 1958 and February 14, 1960, to Irish-Finnish actress-turned-teacher mother Patricia Ann Tilly and Chinese-American businessman father Harry Chan. Based in California, the young family – which also included Jennifer and Meg’s siblings Rebecca and Steve – split when the children were small, after Patricia and Harry made the decision to divorce.
(Meg and Jennifer, aged three and five when their parents divorced, wouldn’t adopt their mother’s maiden name of ‘Tilly’ until they were teenagers.)
As they grew older, the children’s Chinese ancestry became a source of anger for their mother, who was “bitter” about her lost relationship with Chan. “She spoke very angrily about him and everything Chinese,” Meg has recalled. “If ever you did anything bad or selfish, it was ‘the Chinese coming out in you’. We were told that we must never tell anyone that we were half Chinese, because if people knew they wouldn’t let their children play with us.”
In the same year as her divorce from Harry, Patricia began dating a man named John Ward, and soon married him, in what became a decade-long relationship. The new family moved to a remote farm on Texada Island, Canada. It was a busy household: “There were six kids plus three stepbrothers and sisters, so nine,” Meg has recalled.
“We had one kind of life before him…and a different one after”
Their ‘hippy household’ (as the sisters have described it) had no television or telephone, and the family lived in extreme poverty, hunting for squirrels (and sometimes even rattlesnakes) to feed themselves. Nevertheless, the siblings got along well and were largely happy as children.
It was once they were on the cusp of adolescence that the children’s lives became blighted by sexual abuse, from a range of men including stepfather Ward, who as it turned out was a former convict.
“There were a lot of pedophiles tromping through our lives when I was little,” Meg has since said. “My stepfather had been incarcerated for sex crimes before he came into my life. He was a beater. We had one kind of life before him – my mom had four kids and she was divorced when I was 3½ – and a different one after. My stepfather started getting funny with me when I was 12 or 13.”
Whenever her stepfather accused her of “bad behavior“, Meg says, was sent to sleep in the kennels as a punishment. He once beat the children for making too much noise on Christmas morning.
The stress of being unable to protect her siblings took its toll on Meg: “there were people in my childhood who I felt were my responsibility to protect… when I was helpless to protect them against the adults.”
Happily for the Tilly children, their mother would divorce Ward by the time Meg was 13 and Jennifer 15. Unfortunately, their mother then started a relationship with a new man named Hazen, who proved to be, like their stepfather, a dangerous and destructive individual.
“Everybody knew what was going on”
Meg describes Hazen as a “monster”, prone to violent outbursts: “He would all of a sudden pull out the butcher knife and decide you were all going to be killed,” she has remembered. Meg has listed other sexual abusers from her childhood as well as her stepfather and Hazen: her step-grandfather and an unnamed family member.
Meg and Jennifer’s sister Rebecca has corroborated Meg’s accounts of abuse, saying: “I share the same memories. Our mother’s boyfriend was fiendish. My stepfather was a horrific individual.”
Jennifer, meanwhile, has never spoken in detail about the abuse she and her siblings suffered. When asked about it by Closer Weekly, Jennifer remarked “Well, we all suffered it. We just put our big-girl pants on and tried to get through. I think [Meg has] sort of worked through her issues.”
“But I’d say [Meg, Becky and I] are really lucky that we had sisters,” Jennifer went on to remark. We support each other, talk about things that happened, and we’re all there for each other. It made us very close.” When pressed to describe the abuse, she declined: “It’s all kind of in the past, but we were all there. Everybody knew what was going on.”
Performance offered both sisters a way out. Jennifer became interested in acting at high school and went on to study theatre at college. Meg, meanwhile, proved a gifted ballet dancer, but after a back injury forced her to give that up she decided to also pursue acting. Meg and Jennifer moved to LA together to try and break into the business, which sometimes proved an alarming experience; the sisters recall they once narrowly avoided a shooting outside a theatre.
Escaping into acting
Jennifer admits that when her younger sister switched from dancer to actress, “I felt a bit superior, like, “I’ve trained all my life!” Then three months later she was starring in [1982’s Tex] with Matt Dillon, and it took me a couple more years to get my feet off the ground. But I feel very fortunate that both of us became successful.”
Meg was indeed hugely successful, gaining attention for her performances in 1983’s Psycho II and acclaimed comedy drama The Big Chill. 1986’s Agnes of God proved a particular career highlight, landing Meg a Best Actress Oscar nomination; nine years later, Jennifer would also be nominated in that same category for 1995’s Bullets Over Broadway. Since then, Jennifer’s most celebrated work has included 1996’s Bound, and her role as Tiffany in comedy-horror franchise Child’s Play.
Both sisters were also married by the mid-80s. Meg married film producer Tim Zinnemann in 1983, with whom she had two children, Emily and David, but ended in divorce 1989. After Zinnemann she began a relationship with actor Colin Firth, with whom she had another child, William. She was later married a second time to another producer, John Calley, from 1995 to 2002; and since 2002 she has been with third husband, novelist Don Calame.
Jennifer, meanwhile, was married to Sam Simon (the late producer of TV’s The Simpsons) from 1984 to 1991. She has never remarried or had children, but since 2004 has been in a relationship with professional poker player Phil Laak. Since the early 2000s, Jennifer has also played poker professionally concurrent with her acting career.
“There was a period, when my kids were small, when I was very angry”
By the late 90s, Meg had left acting behind in order to spend more time with her children, in addition to writing novels full time. Her first book, 1994’s Singing Songs, is a graphic tale of child abuse, based on events from her own life.
The publication of Singing Songs ruffled feathers among Meg’s relatives: she says “Most of my family weren’t talking to me” during that period, whilst her mother dismissed the book as “all fiction.”
Although Meg and her mother have a loving relationship to this day, Meg says her mother has never accepted her children’s version of events and rejects abuse claims. “I have enormous compassion for her,” Meg has noted. “But there was a period of time, when my kids were small, when I was very angry.”
Meg has written several more books in the years since, this time geared towards younger readers. Several of these deal with her childhood traumas: the villain of her second novel, Gemma, was even named Hazen after one of her real-life abusers. Asked whether writing about these experiences was therapeutic, Meg explains, “I write things that I have to write, that I feel compelled to write.”
While writing has remained Meg Tilly’s primary professional focus, she has also taken a few acting roles since 2010, including TV series Caprica and the films Antibirth and War Machine. 2022 also saw her share the screen with Jennifer for the first time, appearing in two episodes of Child’s Play TV spin-off Chucky. Says Jennifer: “I loved working with Meg, I would love to do it again. It was the most amazing, special time and I’m really glad that we had the experience.”
For Meg, however, her writing career still comes first. She visits elementary schools as a guest reader where she speaks to the children about resilience. Meg now says that on becoming a mother, she “grew up a lot… Teaching my children to stand tall, and that they had a right to defend their bodies, and to pick their words, you think, how can I ask this of them if I can’t do it myself?”