Trigger Happy

updated 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

JENNIFER TILLY IS SITTING ON A chair in the kitchen of her airy Bel Air, Calif., bungalow. Dressed in a T-shirt ("It had cat hairs on it till I found a lint roller and took them off"), ripped jeans ("Cindy Crawford did this, so I did it too") and scuffed Doc Martens ("They're like 50 million years old!"), she is jabbering away in her distinctive mile-high voice, part Judy Holliday, part Jean Harlow. Tilly, 36—who played airheads in The Fabulous Baker Boys and Made in America and is the older sister by two years of actress Meg Tilly (The Big Chill, Agnes of God)—is excited about her role in Woody Allen's new comedy, Bullets over Broadway. But before she gets far into that, she interrupts herself and says, "Sometimes I'll hear people say, 'God, Jennifer Tilly seems really stupid.' But people see what they want. I could be talking about Dostoyevsky and Proust, and they'll just be hearing my little voice and staring at my chest."

Not that Tilly has hesitated to display her physique, as anyone who saw her nude scenes in this year's The Getaway will recall. But her shape, she vows, won't shape her destiny. "I want to play women with depth," she says. "I don't want to be Mae West."

It's not Mae, however, but Meg with whom Tilly is usually compared. "They have a fountain of emotion that keeps coming, even after someone yells cut," says actor Lenny Von Dohlen, who worked with Meg in 1992's Leaving Normal and costars with Jennifer in the upcoming Bird of Prey. "But the fountain comes from different bodies of water," he adds. "Meg is an ocean, Jennifer is a rushing river." The sisters think their different styles might work well together onscreen. "Most of the things that come up are the good-sister and evil-sister thing," says Jennifer. "I would play the evil sister."

When Woody called asking her to audition for Bullets, Jennifer didn't feel sinister—just scared. "It was the opportunity of a lifetime," she says. But Tilly breezed through the audition, and although Allen was mired in legal wrangling with Mia Farrow while the movie was shooting, he brought "nothing but peace to the set," she says. Not even an appearance by Allen's 24-year-old love, Soon-Yi Previn, caused much of a stir. "I saw her standing off to the side for 3 minutes," says Tilly. "She's just really quiet."

Tilly's character, the floozy Olive Neal, is anything but quiet. When she is given an expensive set of black pearls by her Mob beau, she makes her disappointment known. "They're probably from defective oysters!" she complains. Thinking back on the character, Tilly smiles. "Neither of us can wait to get discovered," she says. "We kind of go, 'I'm here, I'm here!' " Self-discovery is something she's used to. Tilly was born in Harbor City, Calif.; when she was 6, her "free-spirited" mother, Patricia, a teacher, and her father, Harry, a car salesman, divorced. Patricia moved with her four kids and new husband John Ward ("a hippie," says Tilly), to rural British Columbia. There, with no television and eight full-, half-and step-siblings, says Tilly, "we were like a warped Brady Bunch. My brother would go out into the woods and shoot things, and then we'd eat 'em for dinner." She spent her time composing poetry and playing in the forest. "We'd be wood nymphs," she says. "We had to be creative."

Nothing, though, compelled her to become worldly. When it came time for college, Tilly says, she chose all-women's Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., because "I was such a Goody Two-shoes, I thought, like, coed meant that you lived in the same room as a guy." While other girls were heading off to mixers, she sought an outlet for her energy onstage. "I didn't lose my virginity until my last year in college," she says.

Tilly moved to L.A. after graduating in 1979 and got her first big break four years later with a recurring part on the NBC series Boone. The show lasted only a season, but it led to other parts on TV (Hill Street Blues) and in movies, where she gained a reputation for playing the perfect bubblehead. "She's an original," says Richard Benjamin, who directed her in Made in America. A handful of locals in a remote Bulgarian village where Tilly filmed Bird of Prey earlier this fall would likely agree. "In this little inn Jennifer started dancing Isadora Duncan-style to some country music, and all these tough, wrinkled faces burst into smiles," says Von Dohlen. "And her face had a look that just said, 'C'mon, why not?' She has real sparkle."

Her personal life, however, hasn't always been sparkle and smiles. Her seven-year marriage to producer Sam Simon (The Simpsons) ended in 1991. The next year she started dating Lou Diamond Phillips, whom she'd met on the set of Shadow of the Wolf. Their romance ended last November; all Tilly will say about it is "No comment." Her relationships, she says, "are like my childhood—they were hard, but they got me to where I am today." She is currently dating a "very private" British graphic designer she met last June on a blind date. "I like a good, decent guy with his head screwed on straight," she says, "like Ken Olin's character on thirtysomething."

Midway into her own thirtysomethings, Tilly seems to be in a happy place. Sometimes, she says, lapsing into her pseudoseductive squeal, she almost can't believe what's happening. "I've got the car phone, the bottle of Evian water and the sunglasses!" she says. "I'm Miss Hollywood!"

DAN SANTOW
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

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