‘Chucky’ Creator Don Mancini on Recruiting Gina Gershon, Sutton Stracke (and More!) for a Manically Meta, Jennifer Tilly-Focused Episode

‘Chucky’ Creator Don Mancini on Recruiting Gina Gershon, Sutton Stracke (and More!) for a Manically Meta, Jennifer Tilly-Focused Episode

Spoiler Alert: This story contains spoilers for “Death on Denial,” the fourth episode of Season 2 of “Chucky.”

Even by the wild standards that Syfy/USA Network’s “Chucky” slices and dices on a weekly basis, creator Don Mancini admitted Oct. 26’s star-studded episode was a big experiment for the horror franchise.

In a dramatic detour from the Catholic school carnage of “Chucky’s” second season, the pint-sized serial killer was sidelined in the episode to put the spotlight on his estranged wife, Tiffany — or rather her human host, Jennifer Tilly.

In the mind-bogglingly meta episode, titled “Death on Denial,” Tiffany throws a birthday party for her and Chucky’s nonbinary children, Glen and Glenda (both played by Lachlan Watson), last seen in doll form in 2004’s “Seed of Chucky” as a conflicted teen whose innocuous and murderous halfs were split into twin human bodies.

But when the twins arrive on their mother’s doorstep, they come bearing a surprise of their own. They’ve invited Tilly’s famous friends to join the party, including her “Bound” co-stars Gina Gershon and Joe Pantoliano; her real-life best friend “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Sutton Stracke; and her sister, Meg Tilly.

Tilly has been a part of the franchise since 1998’s “Bride of Chucky,” but the Oscar nominee’s persona has never been used to such grand effect as it is here.

“I’ve always had this thought that if Tiffany has been pretending to be Jennifer Tilly for 20 years, how do all the people in her life react to that?” Mancini told Variety. “I finally got to indulge that fantasy.”

What ensues is a good, old-fashioned murder mystery party and showcase for Tilly’s comedic talents, as Tiffany tries to conceal the fact that she’s taken over Tilly’s life while simultaneously maneuvering the minefield of the actor’s romantic and familial entanglements.

By the end of the episode, Gershon has killed Pantoliano in a jealous rage over her long-simmering love for Tilly, Glenda has murdered the mouthy butler and Glen has freed Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif), the occasional Chucky vessel and hostage of Tiffany. Oh, and Kyle (Christine Elise), one of Chucky’s sworn enemies, was revealed to be alive and ready for revenge.

In the aftermath of the head-spinning hour, Mancini, who also directed the episode, spoke to Variety about how it all came together, what role Tilly played in recruiting her friends, the musical number that got cut because of COVID, and why it was so important to get Glen and Glenda’s big introduction right.

The only place to start is by acknowledging how good Jennifer Tilly is in this episode.

She really is amazing. The main thing we wanted to do with her character this season is unlike Season 1 where Tiffany is very much in control. I wanted to flip it for Season 2, and put Tiffany very much on the defensive, because I knew how much fun it would be to see Jennifer enact Tiffany coming apart at the seams. To see her imposter of Jennifer Tilly, this delicate life she has tried to construct living as someone else for nearly 20 years, start to crumble. I figured that would be worth paying the price of admission, and you don’t even have to pay for it!

Was it you or Jennifer who came up with this idea to cash in on her persona, and a life’s worth of famous friends and family?

It was my idea, and admittedly, there is a lot going on in this episode. There’s the introduction of human Glen and Glenda, which was a big moment for the franchise. I wanted to do something special for that — and also for Nica’s escape, which is another big moment in the series. I wanted to create an interesting context for all of that to happen in. I’ve always had this thought that if Tiffany has been pretending to be Jennifer Tilly for 20 years, how do all the people in her life react to that? I finally got to indulge that fantasy, and we called upon a bunch of Jennifer’s real-life family and friends to come realize this dream.

When you pitched this to Jennifer, what was her reaction?

Jennifer is always really game for all of this insanity. When I pitched this to her, she basically said, “Let’s round em’ up! Let’s see if we can do it.” I had met Meg a few times over the years through Jennifer, and I’ve known Gina for many years through a friend. I had not met Joe before, but I had met Sutton a few times, so there was a slight familiarity all around. It did take a bit of convincing, which I understood especially when they are portraying versions of themselves. I understand they want some control over the content of how they are portrayed. But they also all were in the spirit of making fun of themselves.

What was it like on set bringing all of these people together for that heightened showcase of Jennifer’s inner circle?

Like Jennifer, they are all into improvisation, so directing this episode was kind of being the ringmaster of what felt like the improv Olympics.

Did you let Jennifer take the lead on pitching this idea to them?

I let Jennifer reach out to them initially and then she set up a series of Zooms for all of us. Then, after having read the scripts, they all had ideas and notes about their characters and these funhouse versions of themselves. There were a lot of great ideas and we incorporated all of them into the script.

Was there anything that didn’t make it into the episode to accommodate everything?

Yes, there was originally going to be a musical number in the episode. We got to the point where we recorded it, and I was rehearsing the choreography with Lachlan Watson. At the party in the episode, Glen and Glenda were going to entertain everyone with a rendition of “We Go Together” from “Grease.” But sadly it was not to be because, after a couple of days of shooting, a couple of our cast members got COVID, so we had to shut down and regroup. The financial picture is always changing in the age of COVID, so financially we just weren’t able to go back and shoot that scene. But Season 3, hopefully!

Jennifer Tilly draws quite the guest list for this party. Is there any chance some of these special guests might stick around for future episodes?

Yes. Wait until next week, but yes, some of these guest stars do stick around.

Why did you deploy this bottle episode at this point in the season? It is completely separate from our central teen characters, and their escalating war with Chucky, who is only seen in bookended scenes.

After spending three straight episodes with the kids, we figured three was probably the minimum before you wanted to deviate from the structure, and the precedent we set up with the opening of the season. Part of it is just giving people fun stuff to react to. It is a bottle episode, and for that reason, I love working in the realm of television, which is very new to me. I want to take advantage of all the fun traditions like the “Very Special Episode.” The thought of doing that with Chucky, where he could bookend the episode like the Crypt Keeper from “Tales of the Crypt,” in a host-like setting, was really fun and provided the opportunity to bring in WWE’s Liv Morgan as well. I just thought that after three episodes, the audience would be well primed for a change. To cleanse the palate with something new and refreshing, and then you’ll be ready to get back to the regularly scheduled programming next week.

Was it fun to sideline Chucky for the week and give Tiffany and Jennifer the spotlight?

It really was, especially because it cleared out space to introduce Glen and Glenda. Reestablishing that relationship was so important, since they have been gone for the past couple of decades and we do a big reset here. We need to understand the relationships that are going on, and what it has meant for Chucky to be an absent father. It made sense to sideline him, even though it’s that thing where people are still talking about him and increasing his mythology even though he’s not on screen.

It would definitely boost his already dangerously large ego to know people are talking about him when he’s not around.

It absolutely would.

You also used those sitcom-y bookends with Chucky to further tease audiences about the Belle doll that’s still silently looming over the season. What can you say about her role moving forward?

I can’t say much more — or rather, any more — than what’s been offered officially on screen. Of course, anyone watching the show and familiar with the mythology is going to be made nervous by that doll, because it was the prototype for the doll that became the bride of Chucky back in the day. The intention was to make the audience nervous in a new way.

What does this episode’s cliffhanger mean for Tiffany? Not only has Nica escaped, but her children had a hand in freeing her.

On a certain level, all of this is about family dysfunction. Season 1 was as well. It is very important that, even as insane as this all gets, we balance that insanity with grounded emotions. Lachlan’s portrayal of Glen and Glenda was our way to ground this episode. We watch this insanity in the house unfold through their eyes.

It is a surprise viewpoint considering the background of these characters. They are a nonbinary entity living in a doll, born of a killer doll in a cemetery in New Jersey, abused by an English ventriloquist until finally becoming human twins by having their souls split into two different bodies. That all sounds quite insane, but what I think viewers may be surprised by — and hopefully gratified by — is that these characters land on the show’s doorstep as very grounded, emotionally resonant characters who are very troubled and have repressed the memories of their origins. It was very important to us to portray and honor the trans experience through our own skewed, crazy horror genre lens.

Will Glen and Glenda’s renewed presence in Chucky and Tiffany’s lives force them to face some of the carnage they’ve left in their wake over the years?

Stay tuned. I hope this episode gave you some theories as to what might happen, and I hope I can fulfill or subvert those expectations.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Top image from left to right: Joe Pantoliano, Gina Gershon, Sutton Stracke, and Meg Tilly.

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