Having acted in movies, in TV series and on stage since the 1970s, Lily Tomlin has amassed a collection of characters, many of whom she created herself. Two of her most notable alter egos are from the 1973 sketch-comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: Ernestine, a condescending telephone operator, and Edith Ann, a 5-year-old who shared stories about her life from an oversized rocking chair.
Tomlin is also known for her performances in Nashville, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Murphy Brown, The West Wing, I Heart Huckabees, and Damages, among others, winning Emmy, Tony and, for her comedy recordings, Grammy awards.
Tomlin is now on tour with her one-woman variety show, which not only entertains, but conveys a deeper meaning as well:
“We’re all in the same soup together,” she says. “If it’s interesting, funny or crazy to me, it probably is to a bunch of other people. We’re not so different.”
How are we all part of the same family?
Just being humans—damn human, with everything that’s great about us and everything that’s really horrible.
I grew up in inner-city Detroit. … I lived in a predominately black neighborhood. My dad was a factory worker, my mom was a nurse’s aid. I was a totally free-spirited kid. I loved my neighborhood and the old apartment we lived in and all the kinds of people who lived there. Some were better off than others. Some were educated; some had no education at all. … There was every kind of human you can think of.
What kind of lessons did you learn growing up there?
I think it just makes you more accepting of many, many different kinds of people and maybe more sympathetic or empathetic. It also probably makes you a little disappointed in the world but also kind of connected.
You’ve acted in a lot of roles over the years. Do you prefer comedies over dramas or vice versa?
I don’t really see that much difference. When I was doing Damages on FX with Glenn Close, in the third season we did a kind of Bernie Madoff story, and I was playing Marilyn Tobin. It was very suspenseful. What actors love about a show like that is you don’t know how bad your character is. In a movie, you read the whole script, but in a series of 10 or 12 episodes, you don’t read the scripts until just before you do them. [My character] was wicked.
[Comedies and dramas] are just two ends of the spectrum—how far do you lean this way? How far do you lean that way? Is the style broader? Can you step out and have fun?
I played Jane Hathaway in Beverly Hillbillies, and that was done rather broadly. You try to make it internal and part of the character’s life so it’s not like a shtick, but you get to play a broader role. It’s all different elements and stratums of playing a role and what’s on the paper and what the style of the show is.
Tell us about your latest show.
All of my performances are usually based on a variety of characters. I talk about the human condition and what makes us all part of the same family. I use video, largely to make fun of myself and also to interact with characters. I try to make it as varied and interesting as possible—and funny.
Besides acting, what is another one of your passions?
[My wife] Jane [Wagner] and I did a documentary on elephants—Apology to Elephants—on HBO. I won an Emmy for it, in fact. It’s about elephants in captivity and how they’re abused. I’ve been active advocating for elephants in captivity and to get them released and to sanctuaries where they can roam and live more like elephants. I don’t know where we get the hutzpah to dominate everything, including some of those closest to us.
What else would you like to accomplish in your career?
[My brother and I] were talking about stuff we did as kids and all the mischief we got into, the pranks we pulled. I can see a movie about the way we were as adolescents. I could probably make three or four short films out of little incidents we got into. They’re telling. They’re really hilarious but also [show] that sibling bond.
What was one of the pranks you pulled?
[My brother and I] had a friend named Evelyn when we were growing up in Detroit. One day we were going to the movies, but we stopped at the Greek market before we went. Evelyn had a big open tote bag, and we saw a bunch of smoked fish in a barrel, so we took a fish and dropped it in her purse. [laughs] … Of course, she found the fish, and we were laughing hysterically. Then we went to a friend’s house, and we put the fish in the dryer with her laundry.
Can you imagine? You don’t need enemies when you have friends like that.