Arts & Culture

Q&A with Lily Tomlin

We talk to the iconic actress, who is performing in Baltimore on May 7.

You’ll be performing at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s fifth annual Night of the Stars on May 7. What can people expect?
I’ll do like 10 or 12 characters. It’s like my version of standup. I talk to the audience. I talk about the human condition. I use video sort of to satirize myself. But I don’t want to give too much away.

You’ve got a new Netflix show, Grace and Frankie. What is it about?
It’s going to debut May 8. Jane Fonda and I are in it. Sam Waterston plays my husband and Martin Sheen plays her husband. And its about women of our age who’ve been married to the same two men for 40 years—they’re law partners—and we don’t like each other much because we’re so different. She’s very Republican, and I’m sort of bohemian. And our husbands are going to retire, and we’re hoping we’ll have our husbands to ourselves, and we’ll go traveling and all that stuff. They take us out to dinner and they announce to us that, the last 20 years, they’ve been having an affair together, and they’re going to get married and divorce us. So we kind of only have each other.

Is it fun to see you’re old friend Jane Fonda?
Oh yeah, it’s great to work with Jane—and Sam and Martin, too. She’s with Sam from Newsroom and I’m with Martin from The West Wing. What we have in common is Aaron Sorkin. He’s sort of our offspring. He didn’t write this show, but he wrote the other two shows.

You’ve always identified as a feminist. Is this show a way of talking about that?
Yeah. Women’s friendship and everything that goes along with being a woman of our age.

What does it mean to you to be a woman of a certain age, particularly in the entertainment industry?
Well, the entertainment industry is a whole other ball of wax. I don’t relate to my age too specifically. I have a hard time getting that I’m as old as I am. I’m very active. I just keep on working. I think it’s good for people to see someone my age performing—just like seeing Joanie [Rivers], before Joanie died, damn it to hell. In Hollywood, you’re supposed to go somewhere and lie down permanently [after a certain age]. Well not someone like me. My friend Jane Fonda belies all that, too. Progress has been made, but it’s never enough. Just like it’s never enough with anything. It’s two steps forward, one step back.

So then, in that vein, what else are you working on?
I have a movie coming out in August. It’s called Grandma. It was kind of a hit at Sundance and it’s going to be at Tribeca, and Sony Classics bought it. I play grandma and my daughter is Marcia Gay Harden and my ex-husband is Sam Elliot, and my girlfriend is Judy Greer, and my granddaughter is Julia Gardner. It’s really a terrific cast, and its written and directed by Paul Wietz who I did Admission with, where I played Tina Fey’s mother.

Oh, I saw that! I loved that. You know what I saw you in recently was Eastbound and Down.
Oh yes Eastbound and Down! God I loved those. I did three of those.

How’d you get involved?
They just called me, out of the blue. I was sort of dumbfounded. And I didn’t even know the show existed, so I watched the first two seasons, and I just fell in love with Danny McBride. And that whole sensibility is just outrageous. So I went down there to wherever that is on the East Coast.

North Carolina, I think.
Yeah, somewhere in there. It was really great. Something happened—either the weather [was a problem] or they had to go on a trip somewhere—and my hair and makeup people and me ended up staying there about three weeks—and a good time was had by all. [Laughs]

You grew up in Detroit, can you talk a little bit about that.
I grew up in a very mixed neighborhood in an old apartment house. My mother and dad were Southerners whose came up from Kentucky. So there was just a range of human beings that lived in this old apartment house. I went to every apartment. I hung out in every place. I would play the room so that I could just stay there with them. I would do whatever they were doing. If I got my foot in the door, then I would stay. And they would say, ‘Isn’t it time for you to head home?’ and I would say, ‘Oh, I told my mother I was staying out late tonight.’ And I’d be, like, 10 years old. And my mother would be outside, trying to get me to come in for supper, yelling my name. She had the older kids tagging along, out looking for me. Suddenly I’d remember how late it was, and she’d see me coming around the corner, and I’d see her reach up in that tree and get a switch. I’ve heard so many people say that their mothers would make them go get the switch, but she got the switch herself. [Laughs] She could skin those leaves off with one swoop. She was very studied with it.

Sounds like the writing was on the wall in terms of you becoming a performer.
Well I guess it was, but I didn’t know it. I put on shows all the time, and I would imitate the neighbors, and I would dance ballet, and do magic. I pitched on the police athletic league baseball team. I mean, I just did everything, plus hanging out at everyone’s apartment.

It sounds like it was a fun childhood that gave you a lot, but it wasn’t showbiz at all. How’d you get the confidence to try showbiz? It must have seemed so far away.
Yeah, it did. When I went to college, I went into pre-med. I never graduated, and I never would have become a doctor but it was, like, another role I was playing. I wanted to make my own way, have my own career. And I was sort of good in biological sciences. But then I got in a college show in my sophomore year, and I was just a huge hit—huge! They were doing all these parodistic things, like a take off on Gunsmoke. And I had gotten into a play—The Madwoman of Chaillot—and I’d made kind of a hit in that, so when I went over to the variety show, they were ready to give me all the leading women’s parts. And I didn’t know what to do with them. They were just corny. So they took all the roles away from me. I’d come back the next day and somebody else would have the part. So I was ground down to a nub, but the producer kept saying, ‘If we only had one more piece of material,’ and I said, ‘Well, I think I might have something.’ And I told a kid I was friendly with, ‘Just interview me like I’m a distinguished guest, and I’ll be a Gross Pointe matron.’ Grosse Point was a very rich suburb of Detroit, and I talked about my charity works and my social activities. I just adlibbed a bit, and people would just crack up. So I went on all the local shows and did that and people just went nuts. I was also satirizing Grosse Point to expose that it was a covertly segregated community. So that led me to New York. I said, ‘I’m going to try to be in show business,’ because I was so comfortable on the stage.

So when was it you actually went to New York?
I went in ’62 and then I went again in ’65 and then I stayed.

There weren’t many female comediennes at the time.
No! No there weren’t, and I didn’t like any of them anyway. And I didn’t like many of the male comedians. I wasn’t really a stand-up comic anyway, but I did do character stuff. I’d go to the Improv late at night and do 10 minutes and people would say to me, ‘How can you do stand-up? You’re going to lose your femininity?’ It never crossed my mind. Such a strange idea, that you would lose your femininity. I said, ‘Well, I don’t like the way men perform stand-up either. They’re just gauche and sexist.’ It didn’t apply to me. I just didn’t even think of it. I don’t even know if it was confidence. I was single-minded. In fact, I try not to say anything to young people. If I think they have any kind of gift at all, I don’t want to interfere with what they’re doing because I think, ‘Who am I to tell them how to do what they’re doing?’ They’re on to something. They’re going to develop and evolve themselves, and I don’t want to derail them. And I used to just be adamant with people who tried to give me advice. I was cheeky as hell. I would say, ‘Who asked you?’

So your big break was Laugh-In, right?
Yeah, I went on Laugh-In and, literally, overnight, Ernestine was a huge success. To the extent that people didn’t realize it was me. Even after I was well-known, I was doing a Vegas special one year, and I did a male singer, Tommy Velour, and so many people who knew me as Lily and knew all those characters. . . . I went to the cleaners the next night and they said, ‘Your special was really good last night.’ And then, with great trepidation they said, ‘But who was that guy? He wasn’t very talented. He wasn’t a very good singer.’ [Laughs] And I was like, ‘That was me.’ [Laughs]

And I did Tommy Velour for Elizabeth Taylor’s 65th birthday, a television special that someone did. And she was sitting with Michael Jackson as her date—they were good friends—and he didn’t know who I was. I came on and moonwalked and did a bunch of stuff like he does. I did a bunch of screams, and I don’t know if he ever knew who I was. And she [Taylor] got such a kick out of it. And I got up real close to him, too. I was kneeling down at her knee and did a little bit. In the show’s contract they had to refer to Michael Jackson as the King of Pop three times, and so I was chosen to do one of the references. So I said something like, ‘Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it rare? Me on the ground here, the King of Pop there up in my chair.’ He’s kind of smiling, but kind of befuddled. Maybe he thought, ‘What in the hell is she going to pull now?’ I don’t know what he thought, but he didn’t know who I was.

You got the Kennedy Center Honors in 2014. That’s sort of the official stamp saying that you have influenced American culture.
I did get the Kennedy Center Honors . . . and I got the Mark Twain Prize [for American Humor, also awarded by the Kennedy Center] 12 years ago.

Well, that’s true, too.
I thought, ‘Oh I’ll never get the Kennedy Center Honors because they probably want to keep the comedian Mark Twain thing.’ In fact, when I got the letter, I didn’t even respond to it for over a week. I’m on a committee that nominates for the Kennedy Center Honors, and nobody I’ve ever nominated ever got picked. So I got a letter from [Kennedy Center Honors producer] George Stevens telling me that the season was coming up, and I thought he was inviting me to come [as a guest]. I was shooting Grace and Frankie, and I put the letter aside. And [my partner] Jane [Wagner] called me a week later—she was down here looking around on my desk—and she said, ‘Did you see that letter from George Stevens?’ and I said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, he’s just inviting us.’ And she says, ‘They want to honor you.’ And I said, ‘No they don’t!’ [Laughs] I was in the makeup chair at work and she said, ‘Yes they do! You better answer George right away.’ And I said, ‘No they don’t. Go back and read the letter again.’ I just fought with her about it. Then I was like, ‘Oh boy, hey!’ I was all turned out.