For over forty years, Lily Tomlin has delighted audiences on stage and screen. She honed signature characters like telephone operator Ernestine and precocious little girl Edith Ann on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and her own TV specials, then delivered an Oscar-nominated performance in Robert Altman's Nashville. More films followed—The Late Show, Moment by Moment, Nine to Five, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, All of Me, Big Business, Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog, David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster and I Heart Huckabees, Orange County, and The Search for Signs of Inteligent Life in the Universe, based on her signature stage show, written by partner Jane Wagner. Memorable television work includes regular roles on Murphy Brown and The West Wing, as well as guest shots on Homicide: Life on the Street, The X Files, The Simpsons, and Will & Grace. Tomlin reteamed with Altman on The Player, Short Cuts, and A Prairie Home Companion, which pairs Tomlin with Meryl Streep (the duo debuted their Altmanesque chemistry while introducing their director on the occasion of his honorary Oscar this year). I spoke with the effervescent Tomlin at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel on May 5, 2006.
Lily Tomlin: Gol-ly! Hi...
Groucho: Are there plans for a tie-in radio program with the film?
LT: I don't know. I don't think so—you mean like the real show? Like the regular show?
G: Yeah. Appearing on that show.
LT: Oh, you mean—well, I know that some of the people are going to sing on his tour, you know. I think Meryl's going to sing at Tanglewood with him. And I think they're even going to put out a video of "Gold Watch and Chain." And John C. Reilly's going to go to Iceland and play with him. (Laughs.) And I think that they would like me to be on the stage and do something probably. I said, "Could you tell me what you had in mind for me?" (Laughs.) Because I figured I'd be, like, collating the scripts or something. Because I couldn't imagine, if the other singers were there. But I'm not even in L.A. on the second of June when they're playing, so I'm kind of disappointed. Had to play a date up in Northern California...
G: I'm sure they get asked how it was to work with you. So I'm going to ask you: how was it for you to work with Sue Scott and Tim Russell?
LT: Oh, it was good. I mean, they're very funny anyway. And it was pretty great of them, you know. We come into their family, really—somebody that's been working for decades and we kind of are the intruders. And certainly that could be said. And no, they just made such room for us. I mean, here they are—they're not getting to do their regular thing. They play roles on the show. And, of course, Kevin got to play Guy Noir, so there's a lightly fictionalized element to the show and, I mean, in terms of the characters and the family of players. But they made—I mean, it was so easy and we slipped right in, you know, because they're so solid and so organic in their work that it wasn't so bad to take us in...
G: Robert Altman once told you, "Giggle and give in."
LT: "Giggle and give in." Right.
G: Do you remember the context of that advice?
LT: Yeah, well, I was asking him about a movie I was doing, and I was having a little disagreement with the director. Now he didn't say it because of the director. I don't think he did—I think it sort of—he's just about that easy, you know? And he just kind of takes things as they come. He's very, kind of—has no fear of any kind of serendipity. He just embraces it. You know, like something happens—just like last night, I don't know if you went to the Castro but we had a screening and, did you go? And Virginia was saying how she was the angel, and he'd say, "Put her in that—get her in that coat. And bring her out here. Have her stand up in the corner." And then go, "Naw, that doesn't work. Bring her out of there." I mean, I've rarely seen him do that kind of stuff, but I could imagine what that character—'cause even when I read the script I thought, "I wonder how they're going to handle this?", you know? I didn't know how ethereal she would be or if she was going to—I just didn't know how they would make it work. And I thought they made it work very well.
G: One of the great things about the film, I think, is the quality of the behind-the-scenes feel, which I think is pretty realistic. You have a lot of experience on the stage, obviously. Do you have any "actor's nightmare" stories?
LT: Well, real nightmares—you mean nightmares you have when you're sleeping?
G: Literally or figuratively.
LT: Well, figuratively, I had this dream several times once—I haven't had it in two or three years, but...I was playing on the stage, and it was like—there was a medieval audience. And they were on both sides of the stage. I didn't know which was the front or the back of the stage. And they were doing everything—talking, drinking, fornicating, everything—in the audience. And there were only candles on the stage. There were no lights, and I had no amplification. And I could not make them understand what I was saying, or get to them or make them be quiet or anything. And I was just in a turmoil, turning back and forth to each side. Then they started throwing things at me. And, you know, and every nightmare you ever saw about the medieval theatre. So I had that a few times, and it was really kind of startling. And I don't know why, what I was doing at the time, or if it was related to that or not. And rhen other—you know, I feel so basically comfortable on the stage, that if something goes wrong, I have no fear of just acknowledging it.
G: And most of the time, you never leave the stage, so you don't have to worry about any shenanigans backstage.
LT: No, no. Right. Yeah. Although one time I had a lot of—there was a big group of blind people came to the show and they all had dogs with them. But I didn't know they were there at the time, and the dogs started howling—you know, like, really big. How-woooooooo! Huge howling. And I was in the middle of a scene, and at first, because I was so in the scene, I thought it was my dog backstage—she was a tiny dog then. And then I realized—it was so great because then I said to them, when I realized what it was—'cause I just stop and I say, "Did anybody hear dogs barking? And then they sort of—everybody tells me that there's a bunch of seeing-eye dogs here. Or they're in the back, or they're on the side or whatever. And then I say, "Ah, well great. Well, bring the dogs back and they can meet my dog after the show"...
G: Your closest work in the film is with Meryl Streep, the two of you as sisters and performers together. How did you bond with Meryl to prepare for that, and what were the rehearsals like?
LT: Well, you don't have to—it's not hard to bond with her. She's just like—when she goes into a project, I think she's so open, and she's open as a person anyway. And candid. She's very candid in stuff she says. You'd be kind of surprised sometimes. You know, to think someone of her stature would be so ready to—just forthright, about somebody else maybe, you know, or just surprising. And then she's clownish. She likes to clown around. She wants to be—she's never had an opportunity to be—she's never had a great, great comedic vehicle. She's been in some that are out-and-out comedies, but she never gets—you know, and she was wonderful in them. The worse the material was, the more she seems able to take a risk. I think she's really gifted as a comic actress. And so she wants to do that. She talks about being—one of my favorite stories about her was telling about when she was, like, eight or nine years old and she was—you've seen her face, her kid face—and she wore kind of thickish glasses. Not real thick. But, you know, substantial glasses. And then she'd like to go to church, and she had kid brothers, and she'd want to make everybody in the church laugh—in her row, laugh—and she'd mock all the singing. And she'd do it for the—but it's like the essence of what she wants to do. She wants to horse around and kid around a lot. And she laughs real—I love that great laugh she gave herself in the movie. That kind of a cackle that Yolanda did. Did you—remember, early in the dressing room scene? So we got together mostly just to kick our accent around and try to make sure it was—they were close together. And then I studied—I told you I practiced singing. And her mother-in-law lives in Wisconsin, so she recorded her mother-in-law on the phone. But she already had that accent, like, knocked. I had to work at it a little bit.
G: Did you have any input on the musical choices, or—?
LT: No. No, all that was—Rich Dworsky was the bandleader, and he—I'm sure Garrison did—chose it, but Rich dictated—. He'd work with my teacher, you know, where to place, where to harmonize me. And the teacher would probably tell him, "She can probably handle this range" or "that range" or something, and it would still blend with Meryl. So it was very easy and fun and Meryl—anything I would do to try to surprise Meryl or make her laugh or—. We were telling stories all the time between takes and everything, and that's where I would do things like put that thing—that exerciser—in my mouth, you know, cause she wouldn't even notice I was doing it because she'd be over here talking, talking—and then she'd see it—she'd catch a glimpse of it in the mirror, see? And all I ever wanted to do was make her just—we'd be in the moment then. We'd be kind of tickled with each other, or whatever. She—it's not on the screen either, but her...backstory we gave...In the original script, her husband ran off with a yodeler and left her and Lola, see? Yeah, they left out such great stuff, but you know, the movie would be five hours. So [Meryl] named him Yowmer Gasmé, Yowmer Gesmé. 'Cause I think like Gesmé is one of her husband's family names. And Yowmer Gesmé—
G: It's almost a homonym.
LT: Yeah. So we just had so much fun with Yowmer Gesmé. And I'd also embellish my story about—I had all these pictures of stagehands stuck on my mirror because Rhonda's a little more—a little more available. And also I don't like Garrison['s character] because he did [Meryl's character] wrong, you know? He dumped her. And that's why I'm always kind of on the muscle for him...Thank you—it's really great to meet you.
G: Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of A Prairie Home Companion, click here.]