She says she’s not as much of a “degenerate” as her boyfriend, whom I meet when we reach the game. He runs over to give Tilly a big kiss. He is Phil Laak, 39, a professional poker player known as the “Unabomber” because he tends to wear a hoodie and sunglasses when he plays. (Tilly’s nickname is the “Unabombshell.”) Before I walk into the room, I naïvely think I might try playing a hand for kicks. Then I see Tilly’s buy-in: $10,000. Laak has $35,000 on the table. The rest of the players are a mix of investment-banker types and poker pros. The room often goes silent but for the methodical clinking of chips.
Tilly gets down to business right away: “Alcohol! My favorite time of the evening!” As she plays her hands, she whisper-narrates her thought process to me. Out of the gate, she wins $2,000 one hand, then loses $1,000, then loses $600. She always plays aggressively to start, she says: “If you don’t raise with bad hands and only raise with good ones, you become easy to read.” She raises and lowers her voice strategically. Loud: “I’m going to fold my fabulous pair of twos!” After betting big one time, she whispers, “This is just really stupid. This is a terrible plan. But, you know, sometimes you do stuff like that because it makes you look like a crazy loose player.” She ups the volume so everyone can hear: “Which I am. Crazy loose!”
If she’s playing poker on TV, Tilly says, “the starlet in me dies hard. I always just want to look cute, so I wear a lot of push-up bras and low-cut tops.” Tonight, she’s got on ripped Balenciaga jeans and a too-short T-shirt that keeps lifting up to reveal a sexy little gut with which she seems refreshingly comfortable. “The thing is, if people are really playing poker, they don’t care,” she says. “Nothing looks better to them than a pair of aces. They’re not looking at your pair. They’re looking at their pair.”
When we arrived at the apartment, a spread of Indian food lay ravaged on the kitchen counter, all but the vegetarian items cleaned out. “Poker is the most unhealthy lifestyle,” says Tilly. “You’re in the smoky environment in the casino, and you eat the most horrible crap. You don’t even get up to go to dinner. They bring you food in a tray, and you’re sitting at the table playing with one hand and eating with the other. God forbid you miss a hand! I think I aged ten years since I started playing poker.” Doing the play, she says she’s lost a lot of weight, between the physical stunts and walking 30 minutes a day from her Chelsea apartment to the theater and back. Plus there’s a lot of peer pressure to eat well when surrounded by actors. “When everyone sends out for a salad,” she says, “you feel pretty disgusting to be the only person eating a cheeseburger.” Yet when someone sends out for food at the game around 1 a.m., Tilly asks for a Philly cheesesteak with the works.
Tilly hadn’t been that precious about acting even before she got into poker. In 1998, when her career was going pretty well, she took on the role of Tiffany, the Bride of Chucky, which Chucky creator Don Mancini had written specifically for her because he couldn’t get Tilly’s Minnie Mouse–as–a–chronic–smoker voice out of his head. Tilly didn’t want to do the part at first. She changed her mind, she says, because she heard a friend was going for the role, and “I’m really competitive. My joke was, ‘Chucky killed my career!’ But it didn’t. Everywhere I go, people, like, want to hug me. Anytime I go to Popeyes fried chicken, they always throw in free biscuits because I’m Chucky’s bride.”
Plays and poker make a complementary lifestyle, Tilly says. She tried it out while doing Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors in London in 2009 and playing poker every night. Since her call time for Dinner isn’t until 6 p.m., she can stay up all night and sleep until two in the afternoon. Plus, all actors need to wind down after a performance, and poker isn’t a bad way to do it. Poker also makes up for there being no money in theater. “I mean, the play we’re doing now, it’s costing me more money to live here than I’m getting for doing the play,” she says. “But it’s because I want to live in Chelsea in my fabulous little flat. If I was staying in a place that they put me in, I would be making money, but it’s nothing next to … I mean, in poker you can make $10,000, $20,000 a night, sometimes $30,000. A few weeks ago, I made $100,000.”