Lily Tomlin, Citizen of Austin
For Lily Tomlin, who appears at the Paramount Theatre on Friday, a trip to Austin is practically a homecoming. In the Eighties, she did an extended run of her first stage success and workshopped her second; bonded with Ann Richards and Liz Carpenter, both of whom shared her birthday; and even bought some land on the Pedernales.
So when Tomlin speaks with great affection about the city and the people she's befriended here, it's hardly surprising – especially since she did the same when the Chronicle interviewed her in 1999 during her national tour of The Search, a revised version of Tomlin's 1985 solo show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her longtime partner in art and life, Jane Wagner.
Of course, in the intervening 15 years, much has happened to this EGOT contender, as Tina Fey, Tomlin's co-star in the 2013 comedy Admission, might call her. (See Tracy Jordan, 30 Rock. For her part, Tomlin has the Emmys, Grammy, and Tonys, but still lacks the Oscar, though she deserved one for Nashville.) Tomlin has kept busy in film (A Prairie Home Companion, I Heart Huckabees, Orange County) and television (The West Wing, Desperate Housewives, Damages, Malibu Country), been honored with awards (the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the Women in Film Lucy Award, her fifth Emmy), and, just before New Year's, married Wagner. But her regard for the capital of Texas endures, which is where this interview started.
Lily Tomlin: I have a lot of friends in Austin, and I've always had a good time there.
Austin Chronicle: We spoke about 15 years ago when you were doing the '99 tour of The Search.
LT: Oh my god. Did I play Austin that time?
AC: Yes, you played Bass Concert Hall on the University of Texas campus.
LT: Sure I did. Actually, I was thinking about '83 – I think it was '83 – I played three weeks at UT. [Ed. note: It was actually 1981.]
AC: We talked about that, too. I had seen you when you did Appearing Nitely at UT, and then when you were at the Ritz, [when it was run by] Esther's Follies, developing Search early on, I saw you there.
LT: Oh yeah, I did a fundraiser with Ann Richards there years ago, too, maybe it was the same time. I can't remember. I met Ann when I was at UT.
AC: We miss her, don't we?
LT: Oh boy, I'll say. More than almost anybody. She was so vivid and so smart and so funny and had so much to say. She was never downed by anything. She was unbelievable in terms of issues and politics and working her way – the fact that she got elected to the governorship and then was able to handle that whole scene and society of male Texas politicians is pretty amazing.
AC: You wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't lived it.. That she could come in and take charge –
LT: [Laughs] I still see her doing it somewhere. She's so vivid and alive, it's hard to think she's gone. I met her – Chula Reynolds introduced me to her, and I met her on the roof of, I think it was the old Stephen F. Austin Hotel – whichever one had the little house up there. One of my crew had that room, I think, and you could sit out on the roof, and I sat out there until I met her. We had the same birthday, September 1, and so did Liz Carpenter, bless her heart. One year, when Ann first ran for Treasurer, Liz and Ann and I did a bunch of fundraisers in Austin and Dallas and Houston, and, of course, you know who was the funniest … Liz Carpenter. She was funnier than Ann, because she's shameless. Oh, she was outrageous. She did this whole thing, because we had the same birthday, the conceit was that we were clairvoyants and psychics, and we were dressed up like that and we had crystal balls, and we would predict the future. [Laughs] And here's what Liz did at one point: She said, "I see a big white house (laughs), and I see a little short man come out on the front porch" – this was when Dukakis was running – and she says, "and I see him step out into the heat at twilight, and I hear him say, "Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty!" Which was his poor wife's name, of course. But she would do anything. Oh, she was just so damn funny, I'm telling you. I got such a kick out of both of them. I was really privileged to even have that little moment with them.
AC: Did you get to see Holland Taylor's one-woman show, Ann?
LT: Oh yes, I saw it more than once. I saw it opening night, and then I went back, and I did a Q&A with Holland for a matinee audience. It was super. She was awfully good.
AC: Did you ever have any political aspirations?
LT: No. I've done lots of stuff for people and candidates, but no, I would never run for office. I wouldn't get up in time. They'd want me to get up at six in the morning and put on a dress and some high heels and some pantyhose [laughs], and my hair would be … They'd say, "You can't go out there, Madame Governor." "You can't go out there, Madame Congresswoman, you can't go out there with your hair like that." And I'd say, "Well, who's gonna fix it?" That's what I loved about Ann, you know … Well, you can't say enough, really.
AC: Loved your performance in Admission.
LT: Thank you, thank you.
AC: Talking about Ann made me think of about Bella Abzug and some of the other strong political women of her day and how you channeled so much of that spirit in your character. Was that a special role for you?
LT: Well, it turned out to be. Of course, I was pleased and happy to do a movie with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, but – you'll love this, honest to god, Robert, the guy who directed it, Paul Weitz, his mother is Susan Kohner. Do you know her? Now, you're Southern, I assume.
AC: I grew up in Texas.
LT: Okay, well, my mother and dad are from Kentucky, so my mother and I, back in the Fifties, we go to see Imitation of Life together, and Susan Kohner was the mixed-race girl in that movie. And when my mother sat down, she said, "I know I'm going to enjoy this movie." [Laughs] She opened her purse, and she had three washcloths inside. And she used every one of them. So when I met Paul Weitz and he asked me to be in the movie – and I always ask people, "What does your mom do? What does your dad do? Where are you from?" 'cause it really interests me – and when he said his mother was Susan Kohner, I just about flipped. And I met her – she came to the set a couple of times. She's very pretty. Didn't you think Susan Kohner was about six feet tall? She's very tiny. You know, Lana [Turner] was small, too. This was the remake, you know, not the original with Claudette Colbert. She's very small but very elegant. Anyway, I got to meet her, and I so wish my mother were still alive. And I got to tell Susan that story about the washcloths, which I just adore.
AC: So you've had about a month of married life. How's that going?
LT: We've had almost two months. I've been fond of saying lately that we've been together 43 years and in March we'll have been married three months. So it's been fun. We had fun doing it. I used to always say that I never thought we would get married. Of course, I never thought there would be the opportunity to, so it was easy to shy away from it or make commentary. People would ask, were Jane and I ever going to get married, and I'd say, "Well, I was hoping the gay community could come up with something better than marriage." And I'd say that on the red carpet, and Jane would see it on TV, and I'd come home and she'd say, "You've got to stop being so flippant about marriage, because it means a lot to a lot of people." And I said, "Yeah, you're right." So the next time I went on the carpet, which was like August of last year, and when they asked me, I said, "Well, I think we might get married." Well, it just went viral. "We might get married." So then I was really under pressure. [Laughs] Then they overturned Prop 8 and we could get married, so I said, "Let's get married. It just seems like something we need to do." Even though a lot of hardcore feminists and gay women are against marriage, just on principle, because it symbolizes typical gender-identified roles other than equality. Anyway, we did get married, and we like it. It's sweet.
Plus, what's really remarkable – I'm drinking coffee, forgive me. That's why I couldn't get up and go to the statehouse too early in the morning. Anyway, Jane's from Tennessee. I'm from Detroit, but my family's all from Kentucky, and I've always been close to my relatives, so here I'd be in inner-city Detroit most of the year and then I'd pend all my summers in rural Kentucky, and this goes back to the late Forties,Fifties. So I was steeped in very diverse cultures, and now it's so amazing at this time in our lives, we got congratulations from so many relatives. Another generation or 20 years ago, it would have been absolutely not possible. We just got a lot of congratulations – a lot of emails from people you would never expect – so it was sorta sweet.
AC: Have you been surprised by the sea change in the public's response to this subject?
LT: I've been somewhat dumbfounded. With this next generation, … I just don't know how it evolved so quickly. In 20 years, it's like a hundred years have passed. I think it's remarkable.
AC: So you're coming to town to do a show, and I've seen you talk about the kind of performing you did as a kid in your neighborhood, doing impressions, putting on little shows. When you get onstage these days, do you feel like you're getting closer to that childhood self?
LT: Yeah, probably so. In the beginning, when you first start to perform, you're terribly serious and intense. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if I went to see a performer that I admired and I didn't think the audience responded properly – they didn't have the depth or sensitivity or they'd laugh in the wrong place or didn't seem to get the subtle stuff – I would be ready to ostracize them. I thought they should have to pass a test before they went to the show.
I was much too critical of the audience if I thought the audience didn't get me or didn't understand me. And it's really your own insecurity. Even Lucy – Lucille Ball – early in the Seventies, People Magazine was asking her about all the up-and-coming comedians, and when they got to me, she said, "I just don't get her." And they told me that on a TV show, and my eyes just sprang to tears. I was just so hurt.
And years later, I got to meet Lucy – and at that time, I was doing Appearing Nitely, which had that long piece with Lucy and Desi recurring in it, and I was doing specials at CBS then, and they owned Lucy, of course, and they let me use clips on my album, and then – oh, Robert, the greatest thing that happened in the '77 show, Appearing Nitely: The show was built so that out of the Sixties I swept into a disco bar, and barely two weeks before we opened on Broadway, the "Disco Lucy" theme came out. I'm telling you, it was providential. It was like I looked up and Jesus put His hand on my shoulder and said, "I've got a little disco number for you that might be helpful." [Laughs] It's just so divine, when you're making something and those happy, serendipitous things come along.
You know, as my mother would say, "She's like a phonograph. You just stick a needle in her." I just free-associate, and I can't remember what you were asking, so you have to keep me on track a bit.
AC: I enjoy following you wherever you go. We were talking about audiences, and I'm wondering if you feel any more freedom with audiences now than you have at other points in your career.
LT: Absolutely. On many levels. First of all, I've been around so long, I'm just comfortable onstage. I'm okay with any audience. I never had a fear of the audience. Like I've been with other performers at benefits on a big stage at a big venue, and somebody starts to come on the stage, and they run. they think somebody's going to do something to us. And I've never had that fear – although I don't want to talk too soon here; I am going to Texas.
AC: Yes, but you'll be in Austin.
LT: Oh, I know. Austin's the best. You know, I probably told you this if I talked to you in the last 20 years, but I bought some lots on the Pedernales.
AC: Yes, you did tell me about those.
LT: Yeah, but I sold them. And I'm so sorry I sold them. We had lost a lot of money with a very bad stockbroker, so I said, "Well, we better divest ourselves of all extraneous things," and so we did. And I wish I hadn't done that.
AC: Well, as far as I'm concerned, you're still an honorary citizen of Austin.
LT: And I ought to be. [Laughs]
AC: You should. I think Ann and Liz would want it that way.
LT: Oh god, yes. Mm. Death is just – I'm sick of that. That's another one you should get a test for, and if you pass it, you don't have to die. [Laughs] Ann Richards would have been right up there.
AC: Well, you're welcome here whenever you can swing by, and I know you'll be thinking of us as Wendy Davis tries to follow in Ann's footsteps.
LT: Oh yes, indeed. I'm hoping to do something for her. Jane, my partner, when Wendy did the filibuster, she coined the phrase "the Wendy beneath our wings." [Laughs]
AC: I'm sorry that I won't be able to see you this time, but I wish you the best for this tour and the performance and your marriage with Jane.
LT: Thank you. I won't get to see you, but surely I'll run into you some time. Maybe we can go to the movies sometime, and I'll have three washcloths in my purse.
Lily Tomlin performs Friday, Feb. 28, 8pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, call 512/474-1221 or visit www.austintheatre.org.