The Weekly interview: Lily Tomlin

Lily Tomlin performs at the Smith Center on Saturday afternoon.
Photo: Greg Gorman

Whether you realize it or not, you probably grew up with Lily Tomlin. From the network classic Laugh-In to the hit Netflix show Grace and Frankie, the comedian and actress has spent the past five decades on Broadway, on television and in films, acting in notable movies like 9 to 5, I Heart Huckabees and Grandma—she was even the voice of Ms. Frizzle on the ’90s children’s show The Magic School Bus. The Weekly caught up with the six-time Emmy-award-winning actress ahead of her Smith Center show to talk Season 4 of Grace and Frankie, the importance of female friendships and the strangeness of Las Vegas.

Hi Lily, how are you? What are you up to today? Everything’s fine, I’m good. I just took a shower, my hair is wet. Other than that, everything’s just dandy.

Are you shooting anything today or are you on a break? We finished season four [of Grace and Frankie] on July 17. I’m not shooting, but I’m not entirely on a break. It seems like every day there’s something to do. I don’t know what it feels like to have nothing to do—I think I’m too far into it for too many years. I would be constantly thinking I must’ve forgotten something.

You’ve always played strong, independent women. Which of your characters have you related to the most? Gosh. You know, I feel like somehow they’re all some part of me. I don’t know any other way to play them or to do them or to be them or to think about them. … I’ve been in show business a long time, and they just call upon me to come up with what I’ve experienced or what I know. Or maybe I haven’t experienced it firsthand, but I’ve talked to plenty of people who have. I just am keyed into women’s experiences. After all, I am a woman.

Grace and Frankie has been such an important show, because it captures older women not as these frail beings but as real people with real lives, sexuality and depth. When you look at your work on the show, what are you most proud of? I just like the way Jane [Fonda] and I work together. We’re old, old friends. We really like each other, I have great affection for her, and everybody seems to respond to the chemistry we have. … I’m proudest because I know every crewmember by name. I have great respect and admiration for our crew, especially our camera crew. … It’s a wonderful group that works together on Grace and Frankie. Everybody from the PAs to the people in the office—it really is a family, as many shows get to be over time.

What can you reveal about Season 4? See, if I tell you anything it kind of gives something away. It’s really hard. You know, we have issues … when Marta [Kauffman] pitched the fourth season to us, she said “This is going to be about the problems that aging presents in little, small, incremental ways.” And it is. It’s all kind of small—you’re going to deal with them, but they’re almost more daunting to everybody around you because they think, “Uh oh, here she goes. This is it, she’s gonna have an accident or her knee’s gonna give out on her.” And of course we just feel indomitable. It’s not going to happen to us. We’re going to surpass it in whatever way we have to. So that’s what Season 4 is kind of about, except at the ending we’re hit with a very big sledgehammer.

Your characters have resonated with generations of people. My mom and my aunts grew up on Ernestine and Edith Anne from Laugh-In. One time I was going to do The Tonight Show, and NBC used to have a lot of shows taping and the dressing rooms were kind of in the center. I was walking down the hall, and one of the greatest signers of all time, Ella Fitzgerald, comes out of the dressing room and she sees me and she screams for her cousin and she says, “Get out here! It’s Ernestine!” I was just really fresh to it all, and it just kind of rolled over me. I just couldn’t cope with it. That was such a testament, for Ella Fitzgerald of all people, and to tell her cousin to come out here and see Ernestine, it was just really surreal.

With Grace and Frankie and Grandma and I Heart Huckabees, there’s an entire new generation of women that know you and are familiar with you—what’s it likes to be bridging these gaps? It’s surprising, but I don’t feel the gap. I’m sure other people do, but I’ve been here all the time, so I’m not aware of that gap so much. But I’m always thrilled when 20 year olds and 30 year olds come up to me and say, “Oh, my mother, we watch Grace and Frankie, we love it so much.” When I did Admission with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, all they could talk about was The Incredible Shrinking Woman and 9 to 5 and all they wanted to know was, how did you shoot Shrinking Woman? They wanted to know everything, and I so dumbfounded, because I feel like I’m their contemporary—but I’m not. I’m 30 years older or something. So it’s always a surprise to me.

Grace and Frankie really shows the beauty and strength of female bonds. Why is it important to you that these kinds of friendships are shown on television? First of all, because it’s true and it’s real, and Jane and I have been through it time and again. Whatever goes on in our lives, we can come back and meet at a certain point and it’s like it always was, and we go on from there and it builds on that.

I think it’s important for other women to see how important female relationships are to them. It’s been studied that women without good female relationships, it’s as bad for their health as smoking. I think it was the Harvard Medical School, [they] did a study on female relationships and how in the old days women sort of gravitated to it; they didn’t have any other outlet in society and the women were always sequestered together and the women were able to share stories and build long, evolving relationships with the women in their community. We don’t have so much of that anymore, and because the world is more open to women in many ways—not entirely but in many ways—women have to value those female friendships.

You’ve been with your partner Jane Wagner for a very long time. How do you both keep that working and personal relationship fresh after so many years? Oh God, it just is. And as far as we’re concerned it was meant to be, and I guess it always will be. She makes me laugh, she’s brilliant, she’s funny, she’s wonderful, she’s kind. We both have a Southern background—she was born in the south, but my parents were from Kentucky, so we shared that from the beginning, that touchstone of our old Southern relatives and all that they embody and how they can be kind of infuriating and wonderful at the same time. They have wholly different politics, but we have great empathy, and Jane is a total empath. She just totally understands other people and empathizes with them, and that speaks to me in everything that I do. And she’s a wonderful writer. She’s written wonderful stuff for me in all the years we’ve been together.

When you come to Vegas, will you be performing material that she’s written, material that you’ve written or both? Some stuff she’s written, some stuff I’ve written. It’s material that’s evolved over many, many years. If I bring up a character from the past, it might be something that I worked on or something that she worked on. It could be anything. It’s really hard to know.

What else can we expect to hear? It’s a little stand-up, it’s a little storytelling. I like to think of it as a rollercoaster ride—you don’t know when the next drop is coming. I like to be able to switch and go anywhere, like film cuts, even though it’s on the stage … That’s always attracted me to that kind of live performance. You can take the audience anywhere if you can fulfill it and make them believe it.

And I would imagine you’ll be diving into some political issues as well. Oh, yes (laughs). It’s a little hard not to.

Did you ever think we’d be dealing with issues like what happened in Charlottesville, in 2017? No, I thought things would be sailing along here fairly progressively, little increments at a time, but not this big wipeout. When [Trump] first … I remember the first executive order that came down the first day, [when] he was rescinding any polluting of our waterways—that people could throw industrial waste into our lakes and rivers and streams. That was just such an insult and so horrific, and I said, “Well, we’ve got to do something about this guy being in office, or the country will be completely turned over.” They’ll do it slowly.

But don’t be daunted by it. You have to fight back. You have to try to get the right people in office and argue against any kind of policy. You must give them a hard time. He can’t just sail through.

As an out actress and comedian, do you have any advice for LGBT youth looking to make it in the film industry? Well, you know, it’s a very different time now. There’s more acceptance, not entirely by any means, especially if people want to be romantic leads. That’s a problem, because producers, they have an old fashioned idea that people aren’t going to relate to them as a love interest if they’re in a heterosexual part.

We have the biggest gay center here in LA, and Jane and I have been involved with it for years, and all I can tell you is you need community. You’ve got to have community, you’ve got to have support and if you want to be an actor, you just have to go after it ... There’s more and more outlets for gay people. People doing comedy, I think you can tough your way through it and just make a name for yourself.

When I started out, I didn’t care that I got famous. I just wanted to make a living. I wanted to be able to do the work, and if I’d have had a little coffeehouse when I started out in the ’60s I would have been supremely happy.

I read that one time when you were in Las Vegas, Jane got punched by a little girl. Oh, she did! In fact, I told that to Paul Weitz, who directed Grandma, and he put it into Grandma.

Yes, I saw that! What other kinds of crazy things have happened to you here, and what are your thoughts on Vegas? Well, I played there for a few weeks at the MGM, and it was a bit daunting, but I managed to get through it. It’s daunting because it’s not like a typical audience that I would have. Of course there are fans there and they show up, but there’s a lot of other kinds of people, and you want to win them over. You want to entertain them. And whether I accomplished that every night I’m not sure, but I certainly tried. If friends come down and you go out with them at night, it’s hard to find a quiet place, especially after the show. People are just too jacked up.

I’ve had friends who lived in Vegas. It’s a strange place. I don’t like to say that in print though, people might be offended, but it is sort of strange to me. I’m thinking about the huge venues they have and the shopping and everything. And Jane’s sister, who just died, unfortunately—she loved Las Vegas. We used to go to Las Vegas to meet her there, and I would stand at the slots and play with her. I would never sit down, because I didn’t want to take the money if I won. I wanted her to get the money. And I always hit a machine. I won $5,000 one time. I won $2,500 another time. I would just jump out of the way and let her take the [machine]. But there’d always be somebody there, and they’d be all excited to see me, and then they’d start losing respect for me.

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