TORONTO – As the TV drama “Bomb Girls” is defused, star Meg Tilly says she’s about to ignite a new career as a film director.
The B.C.-bred actress says her period saga concludes this week just as she prepares to return to the big screen alongside singer-songwriter Dave Matthews.
Tilly — who largely retreated from Hollywood following roles in big ’80s features including “The Big Chill,” “Agnes of God” and “Valmont” — says she’s excited to direct and co-star in the indie Canadian co-production “Angels,” which she also wrote.
“It was something that Dave (Matthews) and his partner Johnathan Dorfman brought to me and then they had me do a script,” says Tilly, noting she and Matthews connected through a mutual friend.
“It’s a kind of a feel-good movie, a true story.”
Plans for the $7.9-million project, slated to shoot next winter in Louisville, Ky., and the Toronto area, actually date back to the beginning of “Bomb Girls” but Tilly says production was repeatedly postponed as the Global TV show took off with viewers.
The period saga was initially ordered as a short-run miniseries, detailing the tumultuous lives of a group of women working at a Canadian munitions factory during the Second World War.
But the sudsy serial was an immediate hit for Global, often topping a million viewers a week while spawning an enthusiastic following and a second-season order.
However, its sophomore run failed to sustain expected ratings.
The show was cancelled last spring, and Tilly says it was a blow to cast and crew who had bonded as a family.
She blames the ratings dip on a lengthy hiatus partway through the season, but nevertheless suspects viewership was stronger than it appeared.
“A lot of people would tape the show and watch it later — so many people have gotten it on Netflix or things like that,” says Tilly, noting those fans would not have been caught by TV people meters.
“A lot of people would be like, ‘We have “Bomb Girl” parties,’ which is wonderful, but that’s one TV…. But then of course that’s one of the things I love about the show so I wouldn’t want people to have a reason not to get together with their family for their night to watch it.”
Not that fervent fans didn’t try to save the show, a distinctly female-driven saga that tackled weighty topics including class issues, abortion, sexual harassment, and homosexuality.
Tilly says devotees mounted a “Bomb Girls” battle to keep the series on the air. Some made homemade versions of the drama’s distinctive props — such as the I.D. tags the characters use and bandannas the assembly workers wrap around their hair while in the factory — to show how much they loved the series.
“Boy, the fans have been amazing. They just kept pushing,” says Tilly, who played world-weary shift boss Lorna.
Tilly offers credit to Global for wrapping up lingering storylines with a TV movie called “Bomb Girls — Facing the Enemy,” although she notes the two-hour format means the finale will unfold in a film-like fashion and take shape as more of a “driving thriller.”
“You’re going to see all the beloved characters — there’s going to be Vera and Gladys and Kate and Betty and, of course, Lorna. But they had to choose one mainline story so this show really is going to be dominated by (actress) Jodi Balfour who does a wonderful job playing Gladys and it’s following her storyline.”
Reuniting for the film allowed cast members to say goodbye to their characters and share final moments together as a group, adds Tilly, describing her final day as containing “a lot of hugs.”
“It was a gradual process of letting go, letting go, letting go,” she notes. “I think … my last day (was) in (the fictional music club) the Jewel Box, and that was kind of a very beautiful and emotional time for everybody, I think. We were all together, all in one room and it’s for the end of the movie and it’s quite beautiful.”
Before leaving the set, Tilly took a souvenir — a cookie jar from Lorna’s home that was used to store keys and money. The prop is now in Tilly’s kitchen window.
The actress says she still feels connected to Lorna, and suspects she always will.
“I don’t think of Lorna as being gone, just as I don’t think of Agnes as being gone or Chloe,” she says, referring to roles she’s played in “Agnes of God” and “The Big Chill.”
“They’re all part of me and I always am expecting somehow to bump into them on the street, or something will happen and it’ll make me smile and I’ll think of Lorna.”
When looking ahead, she can’t help but be excited by new challenges.
Declining to say much about her upcoming film, Tilly says only that it’s a Louisville-set story about “how a community comes together” and saves a little girl’s life.
“It’s about faith and it’s about family and it’s about loss of faith and it’s about what that means and how it manifests itself,” says Tilly, who is also preparing to release her sixth book “Behind the Scenes” on May 20. It’s a followup to her young adult novel “A Taste of Heaven.”
Tilly says she at first resisted pressure to try her hand at directing, believing it too difficult to both act and call the shots. But producers wore her down, and she admits to having fantasized about taking the reins on a feature film.
“Everybody had always told me all the years that I was acting that I should be a director. I don’t know why but people said: ‘You are a director, you think like a director’ — cinematographers, directors, people have told me — but I stopped acting and just kind of thought, ‘Well, maybe someday (I’ll direct),'” says Tilly, who has taught acting classes and makes a habit of memorizing the entire script when preparing for a role.
As for sharing the screen with a Grammy Award-winning artist, Tilly says she didn’t actually know who Matthews was when they were first introduced. But she was impressed with his vision for the film.
“I think he’s capable of a lot, I think he’s going to be a really good actor and he’s taking this very seriously,” says Tilly, who has since seen the “Crash Into Me” guitarist perform in Toronto.
“He’s brought a bike with him on tour because he wants to lean down a bit because the character needs to be hungry emotionally and physically.”
As for her own leap into directing, Tilly says she plans to do her best and just hope she doesn’t let anyone down.
After a lot of ups-and-downs in show business, she says she’s learned to see each chapter’s end as a new beginning for something else.
“If a door opens I always figure: Walk through. You might just be in a closet … but it might also end up being an amazing new direction.”
“Bomb Girls — Facing the Enemy” airs Thursday on Global.