TORONTO — Some 15 years after retreating from the spotlight, Meg Tilly returns this week to lead a sprawling ensemble cast in Global’s period drama Bomb Girls, openly gushing about the first role to have her considering an ongoing stint on prime-time TV.
The Agnes of God star, little seen since a string of TV roles in the mid-’90s, says she was lured back by the explosive premise of the miniseries, which examines the lives of Canadian women who worked in a munitions factory during the Second World War.
Her character, Lorna, is the factory’s rough-edged “matron,” who oversees a crew of young women revelling in newfound freedom as they join the workforce for the first time. Lorna is a tough, demanding boss, but with two sons fighting in the war, the stakes for her are especially high.
Tilly describes Lorna as a complex character, and a refreshing change from most other female roles she’s seen.
“A lot of times in TV, or sometimes in feature (films), you’re expected to be the good one, or you’re the sexy one or you’re the vamp or you’re the bad one or you’re the wicked, evil one,” Tilly says in rapid-fire delivery that pervades a recent interview.
“She’s a whole human and I think that’s what I love about her. … It’s not good or bad, it’s just human. We all have our idea of what we want to be and what we want, but sometimes we are bigger, better, more noble than we knew we could be and sometimes we’re less — we fall down, we make choices that when you think about later you get all-over body flush and you feel ashamed.”
The six-part Bomb Girls begins Wednesday on Global.
Jodi Balfour stars as the spunky Gladys Witham, a rich socialite who joins the munitions factory to prove she’s worth more than just her family name; Charlotte Hegele is the sheltered preacher’s daughter Kate, who runs away from her oppressive home to carve out a new life; and Antonio Cupo is the Italian-born factory worker Marco, who is banned from the army and viewed with suspicion because of his heritage.
Tilly, 51, known lately for acclaimed theatre work, says she was performing in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when her agent sent her the project. The California-born, B.C.-based actress says she wasn’t sure if she wanted to do TV but warmed to the idea after reading the script and meeting with series co-creator and executive producer Adrienne Mitchell (Durham County).
She says much of the Toronto-shot series is based on the real experiences of Canadian women who put their lives on the line to make explosives, a job that simultaneously redefined long-held gender roles.
“They busted out of what it was to be a woman and got a paycheque for the first time, travelled all over Canada to which they hadn’t before, left their communities and felt worthwhile, like they were doing important work,” says Tilly, also known for the seminal ’80s movie ensemble The Big Chill.
Even Balfour’s privileged character Gladys faces prejudices from all sides. When she tells her magnate father she’s joining the munitions factory, she’s promptly put in her place: “I wouldn’t get comfortable, sweetheart. You girls are only filler until the boys get home.”
But working at a munitions factory was incredibly dangerous, says Balfour, noting that the slightest misstep could have led to deadly consequences.
“These women in their own way were facing the enemy, too,” says the South African-born Balfour, now based in Vancouver.
“You can only control what’s in front of you and you can be doing the very best job you can do, but … if (another) girl’s not having a good day or didn’t get enough sleep or over-pours something or makes a terrible mistake, explosions (could happen).”
“Everything about the factory was dangerous and it took a lot to come into work every day, you know. I think at the end of every work day when the girls shower and go home there was a sense of relief.
“There must have been a sense of relief, and accomplishment.”