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Interview with Lily Tomlin

When I was a kid, we lived in a house that also housed my father's aluminum siding company. I was a lisping, fat, artistic, gay kid and every morning I would come downstairs to breakfast in a room full of siding applicators, roofers and construction men. It may have fueled a fantasy or two, but we never sat down to a cup of espresso and witty conversation about the plays of Noel Coward. I felt very alone sometimes.

One of the things that kept me company was the television. I would beg my parents to let me stay up late and watch tv. One show I never missed was LAUGH IN. I loved Ruth Buzzi. I adored Joanne Worley. But my favorite was Lily Tomlin because she made me laugh and think.

I remember watching Lily Tomlin and thinking it would be great to talk to her.

Now it is years later. I don't live in Wisconsin and I didn't take over my Dad's siding company. I am a performer doing improvisational sketch comedy at The Comedy Warehouse on Pleasure Island. And because actors like to talk about themselves, we sit around and discuss our artistic philosophies quite a bit. We talk about what inspired us along the way. The name that comes up more than any other is Lily Tomlin.

She has won Emmys for her CBS Television Specials. She has 2 Tonys. She has been nominated for an Oscar. Along with her partner Jane Wagner, they have continued to inspire people with theatrical productions such as THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE.

Tomlin will be performing that piece along with some new material in Orlando and Tampa in October - nearly fifteen years after its original production. Audiences can look forward to meeting a myriad of crisp, wonderful characters, all of whom share a connection and remind us that we are all part of one greater whole. It reminds us that life is a constantly evolving. And that even if you're a homeless bag lady speaking to aliens that may or may not exist, life is an adventure and a surprise.

That is proven by the fact that I finally did get to talk to Lily Tomlin. What was supposed to be a twenty-minute phone interview turned into a ninety-minute conversation. And guess what? That kid back in Wisconsin was right. It was great talking to her.

I've been rereading THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE and it brought back such wonderful memories of all those great characters. Thank you.

My brother passed away right around the time that came out. And its sense of connection between all the characters was such a comfort to me. Yes. The connectivity is an important part of that piece.

What can we expect to see when you come to Florida in October? We put up some material for the students at the University of Southern California and they responded so much to the SEARCH material. The science, the connectivity … it all just seemed so relevant to them. Especially now at the end of the century. So we started projecting the material into the future. Jane and I got very excited to look at it from a new point of view. We never did SEARCH in certain parts of the country anyway and now there is this whole new generation of people. And we have an idea for a show that springs from SEARCH. But, in essence, right now we are doing SEARCH with kind of a projection into the future.

But it is not a whole new show.

But that is the eventual goal? Yes. And you will see some of that in this incarnation.

So this is the beginning of a workshop process? Yes. We will be adding new material and polishing it as we go along.

When you look at these characters fifteen years later, I'm fifteen years older. You're fifteen years older. How does that affect your understanding of all the different characters you play in the show? You bring all that new experience to it. And you have new perspective on your disappointments - for example, Geraldine Ferraro's nomination and the woman's movement. But I cannot even isolate it to any specific moments because THE SEARCH is more about wonder and dreams. It is about the failures and the dreams of this species. At least for me it is. It's about our humanity.

Not to isolate the show to one moment, but to do just that … the Ferraro allusion. I remember hoping that meant things were going change. That never happened. So when you look back at that theatrically, fifteen years later, you have a rather bittersweet moment. It was bittersweet then. It was a rather shallow, middlebrow gesture that didn't fulfill its promise. They were roundly beaten. I'll never forget that night -- the fact that a movement thinks this is some sort of statement, some kind of pinnacle and it can so quickly wash away. And then it leads us to something like Liddy Dole.

That's ironic.

But what does it mean? What do you learn? I guess it's the idea that movements are always naïve. It's the idealism that is bittersweet. The goal is coming to terms with your own humanity and your frailties. No matter what our feelings, our beliefs, our desires … we are just this one species and that we are pretty endangered. This biologist that I was talking to last night, an old friend, she's trying to save the Black Rhino and things like that. She said the Panda is basically lost. There's not enough bio-diversity for it to survive. There's no habitat. The habitats are getting smaller and smaller. And that is a reflection of us really - unless we do something about it.

So we have talked about the women's movement. We have talked about extinction and protecting a species. We have talked about evolution. Where do you the gay and lesbian community headed? I am not sure I can say where anything has led. Look at the women's movement. In some ways things are worse than ever … in terms of exploitation … in terms of permissiveness. And yet in some ways things have changed radically. Women have more opportunities and do more things. Young women see themselves in a larger context. And they don't even question that.

But with most movements, or groups, an activist movement, it's the same with all of them - feminist, black, anything. There's something righteousness about it, a naivete, a limitation. And that is necessary. Without that kind of activism nothing would change.

To me it's not about where the gay community is going to go. It's about where the species is going to go.

Which brings us back to connection.

I depend on movements and other people working to change the world and make it a little bit better. But, I don't see the division. It's not about one cause vs. another. It's about the whole wave of movement. It's about evolution.

Evolution. So do you think we are less isolated from each other than we used to be? There's a lot more acceptance amongst a lot more people. But there are still those people who are just not tolerant. And, as far as I can tell, most of that is based in religion. There is always going to be a small group of people who have to deal with the fact that gay people are fighting for their rights. And being out and being open just calcifies the religious right even more. They can't handle it. They can't deal.

I was talking to my biologist friend last night. And she was just offered a teaching position in a Christian School. They wanted her to teach Creationism!

And you and I keep talking about evolution. I'm sure that school couldn't imagine how those two theories could work together. To them there is only one right way. Only One anything. That they would think they are SO RIGHT. That they think any idea is so right that it can work for all people. But that is true of anyone that limits their vision. It isn't just about religion.

And that is different from your childhood? I used to say in an old monologue about the people that lived in our old apartment building "And then there was Mimi and Betty who lived together and Betty wore men's shoes." I knew that there was something different about Betty and Mimi. They were very ostracized in the building. They had to isolate themselves to a certain degree. But, even as a child, I was terribly aware of them as a couple. I just didn't quite know what it was.

I loved that old era where people were really butch or femme. It was sort of great. I miss it.

I think it boils down to individuals being able to change quicker than a group can. A Christian or conservative person can think there is nothing wrong with being gay but they are still identified by the power of this collective group trying to control other people's lives. That is true in any group. Look at the gay community. As individuals, they are one thing, but when they are in a group, they change. Very often I am appalled at our Gay Pride Parades. What we choose to exhibit or make prominent … I disagree with it. It's so immature and overly sexualized. Everyone is pushing the sexuality in front of everyone when actually we should be pushing our humanity.

I always go to those things and wonder when the float that I would be on is finally going to show up. And?

It never does. But that does bring us back to connection. Exactly. And what is painful about that, is the direction that the culture has taken, the narcissism, the superficiality, the lack of connectivity, the "getting it for yourself" mentality.

I agree. Trudy says in the beginning of the show, "You think evolution would have evolved into something better than survival of the fittest." We should all be more aware and see past small self-interest.

If you weren't a performer, I get the impression you would be a sociologist. Do you ever think about what you would be if you had never discovered performing? I do. And I always think, "Oh God help me!" In college I was Pre-Medicine but believe me I wouldn't have been a good doctor. I did have a certain inclination toward science. But I wasn't what anyone would call a really good student. I developed narcolepsy when I started college. Whenever I would crack a book I would immediately fall asleep.

But that is just one way of learning. I would imagine in many other ways your were a very keen student. Well I don't know what draws or leads us to what we do. I always put shows on when I was a kid. But when you say sociologist, you are right in a sense. I grew up in Detroit in a very working class neighborhood. Of course when you're a kid you think your place is the center of the Universe. Of course my family, we were poor southerners who came and fit right into our apartment building. As a result I would go into these old apartments and I would thrive in each one of these little hives of activity and social custom. Some were really educated. Some weren't. Some were politically radical. Some were very conservative. I was enthralled. I literally just played the room. Whatever they wanted, that's what I gave them. I just soaked them up.

I used to go and sit with this old couple, I was seven or eight years old, and they would literally have to think up ways to get rid of me. And I would just come back and knock on their door again so I could sit around and listen to them. That is the kind of kid I was. I was on fire.

Well we are talking about looking at the show years later. What is like when you go back to that neighborhood? That whole neighborhood is pretty decimated. It was destroyed after the '67 riots and even now some of it is still boarded up. My old apartment house got burned and gutted in the riots. It's demolished now.

How does that feel?

Disorienting. We went back in the 70's. And we had lived in a basement apartment. And someone had kicked the cardboard in. I went back in. When I was a kid we had a 9x12 rug and it was like having wall to wall carpeting. The reality of how small it really was. And the fact that my Mom, Dad, brother and I had lived there for a long time. We lived there until I was fourteen.

What happened to your brother? He makes furniture. But, Greg, he just started SINGING! Oh, he is so darling!. He is like a crooner. We went to one of those old piano bars where the regulars are singing and no one pays attention to them. There was this woman there singing, kicking up her legs and wearing a feather boa, right? The place is in chaos. And my brother gets up there, and the place got totally quiet because he is just so simple. He has such a simplicity about him. And it just made me weak, because it gives him such joy. That's what happens when someone loves something. I used to do the same thing when I was working on a character. I would be on the road driving from town to town working on something and I would record myself doing these characters. I just found a big box of tapes of me doing these characters. I'm just driving along with a tape recorder doing hours and hours of Edith Ann. That is what passion is.

The first time I ever saw you it was on my 11th birthday in Madison, WI. My sister gave me front row tickets to your show. You sucked on helium balloons and during intermission I stole them from the apron of the stage. I kept them in a scrapbook. That reminds me of TEA WITH MUSSOLINI. I did that film with Maggie Smith. The first three times we had dinner I stole her cigarette butts.

That's big news for the paper. Maggie Smith smokes! So does Joan Plowright. Judi Densch doesn't smoke as much as they do. Joan and Judi smoke between bites.

What was it like working with Zeferelli? It was fun. Crazy. Frightening. He's 76 but he is like a 10 year old boy. Of course, he loved Cher's part so he would act it out for her. When I first read it the part was really nothing. When I first saw the script it was two lines … this Lesbian woman he remembered from his childhood. It reminded me of one of my favorite sayings. Ruth Gordon said, "If they can tell the story without your character, don't take the part." Franco just said, "Come to Italy. We will make the part bigger!" And so I did…

What was it like working with Robert Altman? He's amazing. He cast the first two kids at the audition for NASHVILLE. Whatever is handed to him, he takes.

He's an improviser. Yes. In NASHVILLE when you see Julie Christie or anyone else who showed up, he's just put them in the movie. He'll be at a party and just invite someone to stop by and shoot a scene. He said something brilliant to me once. "Just giggle and give in!"

The freedom to fail is so important. Yes. It is. I used to have this little storefront in Los Angeles - I put a little theatre in there. It had 25 seats. I would send around leaflets, and they would say "LILY WORKING ON NEW MATERIAL!" You had to pass a little fan quiz to find out the address. Sure enough word got around and I got an audience. People would give feedback and it would be like, "Oh my God! Get rid of Agnes!" But I believed in something very important. The words. I believed in Jane's writing. I could never tell you what it is going to end up being, but I know I am committed to it. It's like when we were working on SEARCH. I would come home from the theatre and Jane would ask if I did the Carnegie Hall joke. I would always say NO. I just didn't get that old joke. But we kept working on it. And then it turned into such a wonderful moment. We just kept at it 'til we got it right.


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