There’s a saying in poker: If in the first twenty minutes you sit down at a table and you can’t tell who the sucker is, then it’s probably you.” Jennifer Tilly is teaching me about her preferred sport backstage at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Don’t Dress for Dinner, a sixties farce by Boeing- Boeing playwright Marc Camoletti in which Tilly plays a tarty mistress who has to pretend to be a cook when her lover’s wife unexpectedly stays home for the weekend. As I discover over the course of a wine-fueled night that stretches from the Great White Way to a high-stakes “house game” in a 36th-floor Tribeca apartment, there should be another rule: If you sit down at a poker table with Jennifer Tilly and don’t think you’re the sucker, you’re probably wrong.
As Tilly points out many times, she’s “not like those other celebrities who play poker.” She really knows the game. Her father had “a poker problem, I’ll put that in quotes,” she says; he introduced her to a poker video game, starting what would become an abiding obsession. She’s now a World Series of Poker Ladies No-Limit Hold’Em gold-bracelet winner, having defeated a field of 601 in 2005, and the sport’s 26th highest all-time female moneymaker (professional earnings: $700,000; recreational earnings: undisclosed). When the federal government shut down online poker sites on April 15, 2011 (a.k.a. Black Friday), she was playing up to fourteen hours a day at sixteen tables. “All of a sudden, I had all this time on my hands!” she says, laughing. Hence her gradual return to the world of actors and the living.
Hard as it is, Tilly had been abstaining during the grueling rehearsals for the play, in which she does much jumping over couches and slapping of cheeks. “Everyone is sleeping with everyone else. That’s the tagline: Extra-extra-extra-extra-marital affair. It’s like cotton candy. By the time you’ve gone to dinner, you’ve forgotten about it.” This is her first stint on Broadway in more than ten years. She last appeared at this very theater, in this very dressing room (which she shared with Jennifer Coolidge), and on this very stage, in “an infamous nude bathtub scene” in The Women. The room even has the same CD player she and Coolidge left there in 2002. It sits under Tilly’s “evil-eye talisman” to ward off bad energy and next to her “little stash of alcohol,” which she’s been depleting at the rate of a bottle of wine a day.
Tilly had been planning all along to head back down the poker rabbit hole as soon as rehearsals ended, which just happens to be tonight. She wrote of her poker jones in her Playbill bio: “She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway … But people remember her mostly as Bride of Chucky. After tonight’s performance, she’ll probably be playing poker.” Tilly grabs my ankle. “It’s all true. My fantastic career that’s spanned almost 30 years, and those are the things that define you.” Seeing her leave for the game, her British director, John Tillinger, seems perturbed. “You need to concentrate, darling,” he says. “I’m so frightened. When you do the big [bets], doesn’t it freak you out?” No, says Tilly. “I’m only freaked out when I’m losing.”
That Tilly wins more than she loses is a good thing, because losing “really disrupts your life,” she says. “You’re playing, and then you start canceling appointments. You’re like, ‘I have to get unstuck!’ ” Her worst loss occurred shortly before she started Don’t Dress. She sat down at an 8 p.m. game with a half-a-million-dollar buy-in because, she says, “there were a lot of idiots at the table. Well, one of them was me, it turned out.” She went “on tilt”—a losing streak turned total meltdown—and dug a hole so deep she feared she’d have to mortgage her house. She left at noon the next day, grateful she’d lost only the $100,000 she’d won in Vegas two weeks before.
“It’s like drugs,” she says. “You start off playing 25, 50 cents at the kitchen table, and then you play one dollar, two dollars, but you just want more and more thrills. That’s why I think it’s a great thing that I’m taking some time off and doing a play. I love theater, and I love acting. I just kind of forgot about it for, like, eight years. I was just in this crazy sort of vortex where I thought that poker was the most important thing in the world. Any time I would get a part, I would say, ‘Well, would I rather do this or would I rather be playing poker?’ And the answer was, ‘I’d rather be playing poker.’ ”