The legendary Lily Tomlin has refused to be typecast throughout her career, which spans more than four decades. Her recent Emmy-nomination for Damages was for a very serious role, something much different than some of her most celebrated characters in films like 9 to 5 or The Incredible Shrinking Woman. But the shift back to television has given her an opportunity to explore, which is why Lily is having the time of her life guest starring on NCIS one week while working on the Showtime series Web Therapy the next. This kind of range is one reason her Web Therapy co-stars mention her name in the same breath as another guest star, Meryl Streep, while at the Showtime TCA Day.
“You know what’s so great to see with someone like Meryl Streep or Lily Tomlin,” creator/star Lisa Kudrow told reporters, “that you understand why they’re so great, because they don’t do anything halfway — no matter what. Yes, it’s only a half-day commitment, and it’s something on the — you know, it’s a webisode, but they don’t do anything halfway. There’s full commitment. There’s a whole character fleshed out. There’s so much work being done before they show up, and that’s what really stuck out to me working with Lily and Meryl. “
Lily followed that up with a joke about working with Meryl on Prairie Home Companion a few years ago. “Whenever we’d go out and promote the movie and people would say, ‘Well, what was it like, Lily, to work with Meryl?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, frankly, she wasn’t my first choice.’”
It’s that kind of humor that makes Lily a highly sought-after actress. As she told me in a one-on-one interview later that day, she’s almost wrapped up her NCIS episode, and is currently being courted for a role on the HBO series Eastbound and Down. But she’s just happy to be able to have all of the options, including the more serious roles.
“I’ve had more opportunity. I didn’t get much opportunity,” Lily said. “Of course I was on West Wing, which was somewhat serious and dramatic. Then I did Damages and that was quite dramatic. But yes, the first movie role I got way back in ’75, Nashville the movie, which was a Bob Altman picture, I had just left Laugh-In, which is even before your time, and I was doing characters that people — especially in those days — first of all, you didn’t even cross over from television to movies, it was very rare and if you’re doing comedy, like those kinds of characters that I did on that show, people didn’t even imagine you were anything else. Bob Altman gave me the part in Nashville and I got nominated in that role. It was a straight role — [makes hand quotations to indicate she means dramatic, not comedic] but I’ve never done that many, no. I play a realistic kind of comedy, that’d be the closest to drama; broad comedy. I’m a style freak, whatever comes up, I’m happy; I wanna do it.”
On Web Therapy, Lily plays Lisa’s mother. Both women share similar characteristics, the ultimate being they are completely self-obsessed. Lisa is Fiona Wallace, an entrpreneur attempting to start up 3-minute therapy sessions via web cam. Lily is Putsie, Fiona’s wealthy mother who won’t give her daughter any handouts. Their exchanges are all improvised, with the actors working from a plotline and seated across the room from one another, only able to see each other on monitors.
“Lisa was so damned funny, I laughed until I was sick,” Lily said. “Because when she gets really angry, her character, Fiona, she gets really upset and she gets really put out with me, her mother — I’m so awful. And have no sympathy for anything she wants to do and totally critical and judgemental and discounting. I do everything, I steal every idea she has and turn it to my own use. I criticize for her and then I take it on.”
Web Therapy started as a web series in 2008, and Showtime has picked up a full season, which premiered a few weeks ago. In hopes that it will be renewed, the cast and crew have already been shooting new episodes, which will find their way to either the TV or web sometime in the next year, if all goes as planned. Only one of Lily’s episodes has aired on Showtime, so there are four more left in which she shows up as Fiona’s narcissistic mother.
In the meantime, Lily continues to perform shows and benefits, which she writes with her longtime partner Jane Wagner. When I asked about playing lesbian roles, she told me she’d played a few on Broadway and in Tea with Mussolini, but regrets she turned down a part in The L Word pilot, despite the role sounding quite ridiculous.
“In the pilot they had what was in the script as ‘Old Lesbian,’” Lily said. “I said ‘Well that’s their first mistake.’ So she was supposed to be called The Captain, and she always wore a yachting cap. Remember Alice, the blonde? At one point, you see she had a genealogy chart of relationships. Well it was going to be tattooed on my body; on the Captain’s body. And so every time there’d be musical chairs every time someone changed a partner, you’d see me in a tattoo parlor. It was a hilarious idea. I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t keen on it. That was about 10 years ago. They showed it on a chart, and they never really played it out. It was much funnier for it to be on the captain. Not that I have anything against, you know, the world “old,” but I didn’t like it in this — I thought ‘I don’t know, how do I know what it’s going to be? Maybe it’s going to be ageist, I don’t know!’ I regret it, years later. Tell Ilene, I was a little bit disappointed that I didn’t have enough sense to pick up on that.”
What a different show that would have been. And now Lily is thinking about taking a role on Eastbound and Down, which isn’t ageist as much as misogynistic. She told me it might offend my lesbian sensibility for her to be on that show, and then described what she had a problem with while watching the first few seasons.
“The only thing in all those episodes that really offended me — besides the raunch with women — they had cockfighting in it. A couple of cockfighting episodes,” Lily said. “That’s the only thing that I found troublesome. There is no cockfighting in my episode, but nonetheless. I don’t mind about men’s inhumanity to women, which is rampant, but inhumanity to animals is hard.”
For someone who is as open as Lily Tomlin, I asked if we could ever expect a salacious tell-all memoir in the future. “Not salacious enough,” she said. “I’d be talking about creating characters and they’d be like ‘Who wants to read this? We want to read something juicy!’ We’d be too boring, too pleasant, too homebody.”
We, of course, means Lily and Jane. As to if they’ll ever make it official and get hitched, Lily isn’t quite sure. “I don’t think so. Probably not. I mean, we should get married but we probably won’t,” Lily said. “First of all, Jane would never get there on time. I don’t know what we would wear. I don’t even want to contemplate it. We might. Sometimes we talk about it but I don’t know. I don’t like to imitate heterosexuals. No, I think it’s great — I totally support gay marriage and certainly have done stuff for it politically but I don’t know. I don’t know why we don’t get married. I guess we should. It’d be a good symbol.”
At this point, she’s probably a little too busy anyway. But nevertheless, Lily Tomlin will always be a good symbol of an out actress who is mostly unafraid — unless you’re asking her to play “old.”