Lady Lily unveils the deeper truths about life—and working with Robert Altman
Let’s get one thing straight: Lily Tomlin loved morphing into the characters of Edith Ann and Ernestine on stage and in the hit ’70s show Laugh-In, but she also relished working with a phenom like Robert Altman (Short Cuts, Gosford Park). The revered director did, after all, cast Tomlin in her big screen, Oscar-nominated debut in 1975’s Nashville, a film that launched a bevy of careers, Cybil Shepherd and Jeff Bridges among them. Altman is also at the helm of this June’s A Prairie Home Companion, a vibrant ensemble piece in which Tomlin co-stars alongside Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen, Woody Harleson and the avuncular Garrison Keillor—it’s based on Keillor’s long-running radio show of the same name; Tomlin plays the second half a singing sister act. Here, the Emmy-winning actress and theatrical muse (“The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe”) opens up on her life, and what it was like working with a titan like Altman.
Q: THIS ISN’T THE FIRST TIME YOU’VE WORKED WITH ALTMAN. HE CAST YOU IN ‘NASHVILLE’ AND LATER, ‘SHORT CUTS.’
A: Well, most actors are crazy about him, because you get to play. And you get to play with other actors that want to play. And everybody is very elagilatrian; everbody always gets paid the same—nobody has a trailer.
I mean, Virginia Madsen was saying it was like Actors Camp and it was.
Q: SO, WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT WORKING WITH ALTMAN?
A: Well, that there is never any tension on the set. You’re never treated as if you are missing your mark; never feel that he is judging you for anything. So, your fearless. You’re OK. You always want to make him laugh—that’s what we [Tomlin and Meryl Streep] did at the Oscars. We wanted to honor him, and he’s very irreverent—the last thing he’d want us to be was sanctimonious about him. And thank God that it turned out. We were pretty much on edge just stepping out there.
Q: WHAT DO YOU LOVE MORE—PERFORMING ON STAGE OR THE SCREEN?
A: [Smiles] I like the stagemost of all because I know
more what to do—I can do that by myself. And, probably because it’s more
Q: A GREAT DEAL OF YOUR WORK HAS DEPTH—THE SEARCH FOR INTELLIGENT LIFE … I HEART HUCKABEES … EVEN THIS NEW ROLE. WHY ARE YOU DRAWN TO DEEPER MATERIAL?
A: Well, of course Jane wrote ‘The Search …’ and she is smart, very bright but our sensibilities were always the same. That’s partly what drew us together in the first place. About the deep material …I don’t know. It’s richer. I like it more. It has layers. But I also love doing the the superficial, farcical things as long as it’s done wonderfully.
Q: WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN?
A: Hmm. There’s two or three actually. And some probaly aren’t even true, I don¹t know, but they sort of informed me in some way. Like Altman always said … well, I’d be stressing over some artistic confliction with somebody else and he’d say, ‘Oh, giggle and give in.’
Q: LOVE THAT.
A: Yeah, it’s good. And then when I was younger, somebody had told me that the human mind can’t hold two opposing thoughts at the same moment—that you can’t hold a negative thought and a positive thought at exactly the same moment. So, I thought at the time, ‘That¹s profound. I like that.’ And then, when I was a little tiny girl, Mrs. Rupert, who was a botanist and teaching me, or preparing me to rise above my station in life [laughs]—she thought that I had the most potential—on her desk, she had a big old paperweight that read: ‘Don¹t go away mad. Just go away.’ At the time, I was about 8, I thought, ‘That is so great, that is so deep.’ [Laughs].
Q: WHAT’S THE MOST INTERESTING THING YOU’VE BEEN LEARNING ABOUT YOURSELF LATELY?
A: Oh God … probably that … I shouldn’t have been so intense during my early career. I would just beat myself up terribly over what I construed as failures. Like when I did my second television special, ‘Lily Tomlin’ … I just came off of ‘Laugh-In’ so when I did a special, I had a huge rating—this was March of ’73—and the special wasn’t that great but I had gotten a 45 share, so for the second one they put me up against a Carson roast on NBC and I only got a 29 share. I was just devastated. I thought, ‘I’ll never get another job; never have another special’ I would not talk to anybody on the phone. I was weeping day and night. Life was finished. I thought I had failed terribly and then the show won two Emmys. [Laughs] Anyway, it all turned out fine and … what did you ask me now, dammit …
Q: WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN LEARNING LATELY …
A: Yes, that’s right. Well, I’ve been thinking … [Smiles] … that it would have been much easier to just … giggle and give in—and just be freer.