Margaret E. “Meg” Tilly is a Canadian-American actress, Broadway Stage Dancer and writer. Meg is the third of four children and was born Margaret E. Chan in Long Beach, California. She is the daughter of Patricia Tilly, an Irish and Native-American schoolteacher and Harry Chan, a Chinese American used car salesman. Following her parents’ divorce when she was three, she was raised by her mother and stepfather, John Ward, on Texada Island in British Columbia, Canada where she resides today. Tilly graduated from Esquimalt High School in Victoria, British, Columbia. Of her three siblings, she has a brother, Steve, and two sisters, Rebecca, and fellow actress Jennifer Tilly.
During her teenage years Meg was involved with the Connecticut Ballet Company, and made her screen debut with Alan Parker’s “FAME” in 1980. Her dance career came to an abrupt end when a dance partner dropped her, causing a serious back injury. She then transitioned to acting. She was best known for her appearance in films such as The Bill Chill and Psycho II before her Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination title role in “Agnes of God”. Tilly followed that Oscar nominated performance with “Valmont” and “Body Snatchers”, in addition to a few other films.
Tilly has written a novel entitled Singing Songs, comprising a series of vignettes about a young girl whose stepfather molests her and her sisters. According to Tilly’s book Singing Songs, she and her sisters grew up surrounded by poverty and abuse. They were sexually molested by their stepfather. The book is written in the first person and the narrator has a very child-like voice. In her website foreword, Tilly states that although the stories are fictional, they are based on her childhood experiences. Her third novel, Porcupine, is a finalist for the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize.
Tilly has three children: Emily and David, by her marriage to film producer Time Zinnemann, and a son, Will, from her five-year relationship with British actor Colin Firth. She is now married to author Don Calame and currently resides in British Columbia. Due to her decision to retire from acting in order to raise her children and write, she has not appeared in a film since 1995! Asiance spoke with Meg about her Irish/Chinese heritage which is very interesting because her father is Chinese and her mother is of part Irish descent! With all of our other interviewees, the case was the opposite! I expressed to her how we all miss her absence from the acting business and hope that she will return soon! I know that I speak for everyone when I say that Meg Tilly is truly an Icon for Asian and Asian American Women of all ages in the acting profession today! She opened the doors for the many actors of Asian descent who are enjoying so much success today!
ASIANCE: Your mother is of Irish descent and your father is Chinese. Were you raised to respect both Chinese and Irish history and tradition?
Meg: My mother was Irish/Finnish. Unfortunately, we were not raised to respect our Chinese history and tradition. My mother and father divorced in 1963, when I was three. My mother was quite bitter.
Meg Tilly tribute
She spoke very angrily about him and everything Chinese. 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.
ASIANCE: What part of your Chinese heritage do you think contributed to your success today?
Meg: I travelled to China in 2009 with my husband and my son, Will, for his graduation present. We were on a boat on the Yangtze River. There were women washing their laundry on the bank, and I got a flash of my Chinese grandmother’s face, as a young woman, and I thought of my grandfather and her finding a way to move to America. Coming all this way, to build a life and a home in San Francisco, so their children could have a chance at a better life.
And I found myself with tears streaming down my face, speaking to them, long dead now, thanking them. Telling them, they made the right choice and how grateful I was. It must have been scary, moving halfway around the world to a foreign country where everyone spoke a different language, away from the comfort of family and friends and everything that they knew.
And I realized in that moment, how much I am like them. I have done brave things, even when I was scared. I, like them, have gone after the dream and held it in my hands.
ASIANCE: What is your favorite Chinese saying, song, and lesson that you learned from your father?
Meg: I don’t remember learning any Chinese sayings or songs or lessons from my father. I was very young when they divorced and only saw him three times in the subsequent growing up years.
ASIANCE: We just finished celebrating The Chinese New Year and now we are about to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day! What year were you born on the Chinese Astrological Chart? Do you believe in Chinese Astrology?
Meg: I was born in 1960, the year of the Rat. I don’t follow Astrological Charts, Chinese or otherwise.
ASIANCE: In honor of the Chinese New Year and The Year of the Rabbit, is this year a good one for you?
Meg: So far, The Year of the Rabbit has been a good one for me. We’ll see how the rest of the year plays out.
ASIANCE: What part of your Irish heritage do you think contributed to your success today?
Meg: My grandfather was orphaned at seven. He and his brothers supported his little sisters by selling newspapers on the street corners. In the frigid Illinois winters they would keep warm by wrapping layers of old newspapers under their clothes. He came from hard circumstances, was a self-made man.
He managed to put himself through high school and university and became a very successful engineer.
The Big Chill trailer (1983)
When hard times would hit, I would tell myself, “I have good blood running through my veins. My grandfather, my grandmother, both rose above their circumstances to prevail. Both of them are hard workers, like me. I take after them. I will work hard and be successful too.”
ASIANCE: What is your favorite Irish saying, song and joke that you learned from your mother?
Meg: Our house was always filled with song. My mother was a singer with an amazing voice and she had a guitar and a banjo and a piano. There was always music of all kinds in the house. I don’t have a favorite. Love all the songs we learned and the memories that go with them.
ASIANCE: Would you say that you have “the luck of the Irish”? (If yes, please give example of why)
Meg: I know I’m lucky. I think I get good luck from both my Irish side and my Chinese side. Double whammy. That’s why I’ve had such good fortune in my life.
ASIANCE: Does your family celebrate both the Chinese New Year and St. Patrick’s Day? If so, do they do anything special for either holiday?
Meg: As a child we only celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. We wore green so we wouldn’t get pinched and the leprechauns would always dye our milk green.
ASIANCE: What was the most enjoyable and the most difficult part of growing up as an Asian American child of Irish heritage?
Meg: The difficult part was growing up, feeling like I had to reject and deny and turn my back on half of what I was. The wonderful part is, that is behind me now. Things are different.
ASIANCE: In my opinion, you are an Icon for Asian American Women in the sense that you really opened the door for Asian American actresses. I remember being so surprised to learn that you were half Chinese. It made you THAT much more beautiful and interesting in my eyes! I stereotyped you as an actress of Irish descent due to your name, “Meg Tilly”. What has the general perception of the audience been and why is your name “Meg Tilly” when your father’s name is Chan? Is “Tilly” your mom’s maiden name or a family name on the Irish side?
Meg: Thank you, for your kind words.
You didn’t know I was Asian, because for many years, I had my mother’s warnings echoing in my ears. I didn’t tell anyone. I was grown, but still, I was scared. Thought it would limit me, the roles I would be offered. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started to tell the people closest to me. When they didn’t run in horror, I got braver and spoke of it more. What a relief it was to finally acknowledge all of me.
Valmont Trailer 1989
Now, I couldn’t imagine not telling anyone if the subject came up. I am so proud of all that I am, and everything that makes up me.
Tilly is my mother’s maiden name. She legally had our names changed when I was 14, before that she had us use our step-father’s name, and before she married him, we used Chan.
ASIANCE: Do you have a specific physical “type” that you go for in a man based on your own background?
Meg: I don’t have a physical type. It’s more the mind that attracts or repels me. Intelligent, honorable, funny, quirky are musts. Can’t take themselves too seriously. Of course, I’ve kissed a few toads along the way. As I’m sure I was a toad for a couple of them as well.
ASIANCE: You left your acting career behind to pursue a very successful writing career. I must admit that we all miss you as an actress and hope that you will return to the industry one day! Tell me do you think that your Irish heritage had any influence at all on your desire to become a writer?
Meg: I don’t know which side of my family the writer comes from. As far as the acting, now that my children are grown, I am dipping my toe back in a bit. Doing a little dab of this, a tiny taste of that. I don’t think I’ll go back to it full-time, because I enjoy having the luxury of my minutes and hours.
ASIANCE: What did you think of the Oscar’s this year and did you see “The King’s Speech”? I loved it and thought that Colin Firth did a brilliant job! You were brilliant in “Agnes of God”! Do you think that you will return to your original craft anytime soon?
Meg: I was so happy that Colin won. He is a wonderful actor. I’ve known it for years, and now, finally, the rest of the world knows it as well.
ASIANCE: Who are your favorite Irish playwrights, authors, and/or screenwriters and which ones would you like to work within the future?
Meg: I’ve never thought of favorite writers, screenwriters, playwrights, actors, directors and so forth, in terms of country or race. I either am moved by their work, or I am not.
ASIANCE: I know that you started out as a Ballet Dancer. Did you ever see the Great China State Circus perform Swan Lake? If not, please check it out. What is your favorite Ballet and Ballet Company?
I did see the Great China State Circus perform Swan Lake. A friend sent me a link to it. Oh my god! Amazing.
Meg: When I was a dancer, my favorite ballet company was ABT. That was back in the 70’s and the dancers of that time…Oh my!
Once I got injured, I stopped going to the ballet. It was too painful to watch. Sort of like being in love and then abandoned.
ASIANCE: Do you have a deep admiration for someone in the public eye who is also of Asian and Irish descent?
Meg: My sister Jennifer Tilly is pretty damn awesome!
ASIANCE: What is the “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow“ for you?
Meg: I am living “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” Feel so lucky, so blessed, and so grateful.