The mere mention of Lily Tomlin’s name brings an ear-to-ear smile to most people. The comedy legend is remembered fondly for her work in such big-screen gems as “Nine to Five,” “All of Me,” “Big Business,” “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” She’s also beloved for her repertoire of hilarious comic characters performed on stage and television: Edith Ann, Ernestine, Susie Sorority and Lucille the Rubber Freak, among others.
In addition to laughter, Tomlin has won widespread critical acclaim, including an Oscar nomination, six Emmys and a Tony Award for 1991’s “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe,” which she wrote with her life partner Jane Wagner.
Tomlin can currently be seen on television in one of her most serious dramatic roles, as widow Marilyn Tobin in the Glenn Close series “Damages.”
Gregg Shapiro: You starred in the Robert Altman films “Nashville,” “Short Cuts” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” What do you have to say about Altman.
Lily Tomlin: First of all, I just liked him immensely. I felt like I was a part of the Altman family, the film family. Altman was the one who gave me the break to be in the movies, to play a straight role. It was in ’74 or ’75 when we did “Nashville.” And I had just come off of “Laugh In,” and people thought of me as the characters I played on that show. It was very hard to cross over to film. That never even entered Altman’s mind. He just went for it as he always did.
It was the most fun to make an Altman movie because you always felt you couldn’t fail; no matter what you do or tried, you never felt his judgment. If an actor would come on the set (laughs) and ask him what he wanted in a scene, he would say, “I don’t know. Why don’t you surprise me?”
He was just kind of a bigger-than-life kind of person, but without asserting it at all (laughs). He just was by being there. I used to call him the benign patriarch. You felt protected, no matter what was going on. You felt like he had the playground under control. There wouldn’t be any drive-bys.
GS: Do you have any interest in writing a memoir?
LT: No (laughs), no plans. I mean, if I did I could never take it seriously. I’d have to write something as if the characters were observing me; some way to make fun of myself. I don’t know, it’s just not in my sensibility to.
GS: Has John Waters, who is pictured with you on your Web site, ever asked you to be in one of his movies?
LT: No, no he hasn’t. But I’m friendly with him.
GS: Would you act in one if he asked you to?
LT: Probably. Well, depending on the script. Yeah, I think it would be fun. I mean he is an unusual filmmaker and I would like to have the experience.
GS: You are ranked third in Out Magazine’s list of “80 American Classics” in the March 2010 issue. What do you think about that?
LT: Really? Who’s number one?
GS: Jasper Johns, isn’t that interesting?
LT: Oh, oh my gosh, and who’s number two?
GS: Tennessee Williams.
LT: (Laughs) That’s just like a starlet (to ask), isn’t it?
GS: It’s quite an honor though, don’t you think?
LT: Ah, yeah, number three, golly. Especially if Jasper Johns is one. Golly, I’m sort of knocked out.
GS: Since the 1990s, you have played recurring characters on television shows such as “Murphy Brown,” “The West Wing” and “Desperate Housewives.” Do you prefer the recurring character gig or would you prefer to be a lead character in a series?
LT: And I’m on “Damages” now. Anyway, I mean I enjoy it, especially if it’s a good show – which I would seek out anyway. I did six pilots, basically what were considered pilots back in the ‘70s and ‘80s for a variety show. But (the) variety show was on its last legs then – even though I tried to reinvent the form.
We are developing an idea with Kathryn Joosten of “Desperate Housewives.” We played sisters on that show for a few weeks and (were) out sleuthing stuff. So, I love television. So, yes I would probably like to be on a show regularly that would please me, that I thought was really fun or interesting or really well-produced. Like being on “Damages.” I was crazy about that show and getting on it this third season was a delight to me.
GS: The character of Marilyn Tobin in “Damages” is a very serious, dramatic role. What is it that appeals to you about it?
LT: What appeals to me is the …the way it’s produced and written and the actors are excellent. And it is just an exciting show, it is a thriller, a legal thriller, and you don’t know from one week to the next what’s going to happen. I love that unpredictability and the challenge of it. People watch it two or three times just to make sure they are getting all the clues. Because you don’t know what will really transpire and the writers might be setting you up for something totally unexpected (laughs). And then I love to do a dramatic part, sure, because I don’t often get the opportunity.
GS: You have a very full performance schedule, including dates at the Overture Center for Performing Arts in Madison, and other Midwestern cities. As a native Midwesterner, do you feel a special connection with Midwestern audiences?
LT: Likely, but my parents are from Kentucky, and I spent all my summers in Kentucky. And I lived in an old apartment house in Detroit, filled with every kind of person you could imagine. And I think I feel a connection with most people.
But, the Midwest, of course, I grew up there. Detroit, Mich., all those places, and that part of the country I understand that probably more in the skin than I realize. When I first moved to New York, I had such a Detroit accent. Completely unconscious, and I would go in and read for like a commercial or something (laughs) and they would just scream laughing and I thought, “God, I must be so funny.” But of course it was my damned accent. (Speaks in a clipped nasal tone) “Hiii. I’m going to go Winsday and get my hair waar-shh-ed” (laughs).” So I was probably talking like that for so long and had no notion of it. I still fall into it, I still lose consciousness and start talking, saying that flat sound.
GS: Edith Ann and Ernestine, to name a couple, have gone on to become legendary characters in your repertoire. Are there any new characters that will be making their debut in your show?
LT: Well, probably not. But (the characters) do new things. Ernestine works for a big healthcare insurance corporation now, denying healthcare to everyone. The characters …whatever you put in their mouth, as long as they stay culturally relevant. I may have tried new characters. I don’t know in this particular show. It really depends on how devoted to me you are (laughs) that you will know everybody.