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Arts & Performance

Unlike Movie 'Dumplin', Story of Asheville Comic Hilliary Begley Doesn't Wrap in a Tidy Bow

Matt Peiken | BPR News

It’s about quarter past nine on a Sunday night at the Fairview Tavern in Oakley. Most of the 15 or so people here are local comics who know each other, looking for some time at the open mic that’s just about to start.

But there’s an unusual charge in the air. Hilliary Begley, the comic who launched Hallelujah Hilliary's Comedy Revival at the Tavern nearly two years ago, is back from Hollywood to host the show.

Begley plays Aunt Lucy in the trending Netflix movie “Dumplin’.” She doesn’t have many lines, but her character and, by extension, Begley, are outsized presences throughout the movie. Earlier this month, Begley paid her own way to stand at the premiere alongside Jennifer Aniston, who stars in and bankrolled the movie, and Dolly Parton, whose music is the movie’s soundtrack.

“We went three levels up to the top floor of the Chinese Theater, and I’m looking around and I’m like hold up, where is the red carpet?” Begley recounted about the premiere. “We’re in the bathroom and I’m about to lose it. I’m about to cry. I was like, I spent all this money trying to get here to be a part of this, and I’m not going to walk the red carpet? Nuh-uh, not happening.”

For much of her life, Begley appeared headed anywhere but the red carpet. Now 32 years old, she fights back tears when talking about her fractured family life. As Begley tells it, her mother has rejected her throughout her life and essentially tricked Begley into legally surrendering custody of her daughter, who was then a toddler. The girl is now 11.

“I talk to my mom very rarely. She and I have a very strained relationship,” Begley said. “I haven’t seen her in eight years.”

From Begley’s telling, about a decade ago, her mother offered to care for her daughter for a year so Begley could join a friend in Los Angeles and try becoming a screen actress. As Begley struggled in California, her mother abruptly cut off all contact. Even after returning to Asheville, Begley said her mother prevented her from seeing or speaking with her daughter.

“My mom told me that in order for my daughter to be on her insurance, she needed to have custody of her,” Begley explained. “I had already signed the papers because I was young and ignorant and I didn’t know what I was signing. So I have no legal rights to anything. (My daughter) doesn’t know I exist as a person on the planet.”

About five years ago, at the urging of a friend, Begley attended the open mic night at the former Bar of Soap in Asheville, now Del Vecchio’s. More open mic appearances led to her first paid gig as a comic and, about two years ago, the Fairview Tavern asked Begley to start an open mic night there.

“Ninety percent of my comedy is just my personality. Any misfortune that ever came my way, I would talk about that,” Begley said. “I had to be completely wasted to be on stage, so I don’t know what-all I said for those many years.”

Hilliary Begley as Aunt Lucy in the Netflix movie "Dumplin'."

Out of nowhere, about two years ago, a few breaks turned her way. Begley landed a featured spot opening for comedian Jon Reep at the Orange Peel. Around the same time, a tape of her comedy found its way to a casting agent who was working with Jennifer Aniston. She reached out to Begley through social media and, within days, Begley was in Atlanta, auditioning for a role in “Dumplin’.”

“After reading the first couple lines for my character, I was like ‘I am this woman!’” Begley said. “The script they sent told about how my niece got made fun of for being fat, and my character told her ‘Pay them no mind, Willowdean. The world is filled with people who are going to try to tell you who you are, but only you can figure that out for yourself.’ And I’m like ‘Oh my god, this is what I’ve been trying to tell myself for so long.’”

Begley only took home about $2,000 for her role, and she still pulls down four serving shifts every week at the Fairview Tavern. But her social media following has doubled since the premiere of “Dumplin,’ and Begley now has an agent, with another screen appearance is on the near horizon. ”When We Last Spoke,” starring Cloris Leachman and Corbin Bernsen, is out in February on the Hallmark Network.

Begley said her recent success has helped smooth relationships with most of her extended family and, for the first time, she has a dependable boyfriend. Her mother and adolescent daughter, though, remain elusive and unresolved questions.

“Right now is the most stable I’ve ever been as an adult in my whole life,” she said. “At 32 years old, I signed my very first lease, for renting a home. I was writing my name on the paper, signing my signature, and I just cried the whole way through. The landlady is like, ‘Are you alright?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’”

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