“You’ve got to find a way to speak that reaches people, stops people or slows them down at least,” says the comedy legend as she opens up about pushing boundaries and her early days on ‘Laugh-In’ ahead of her SAG lifetime achievement award Sunday.
Lifetime achievement awards are all the more satisfying when they’re accompanied by an ongoing body of exceptional active work, and Lily Tomlin recently has received a string of career-honoring prizes (including a Kennedy Center Honor and a Tony lifetime achievement award) even as she continues to garner acclaim for her roles in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie and the 2015 feature Grandma. Now the Laugh-In and All of Me star will receive the Screen Actors Guild lifetime achievement award Jan. 29, presented by her 9 to 5 co-stars Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda. She also is nominated for female actor in a comedy series (alongside Grace co-star Fonda). Tomlin recently spoke with THR about her career journey and the importance of being politically vocal.
You’ve had a good run of honors in recent years. Do you enjoy these opportunities to look back?
I got my first lifetime achievement [American] Comedy Award — Bette [Midler] and I got awards the same night — and we were probably about 40, and that was a little premature.
Do these recent awards feel better-timed?
They feel a little more appropriate. I’ve gotten a couple, none as meaningful as the SAG is because God knows who will be in the audience. It’s a bit daunting, and so it’s something you look forward to with some trepidation and fear. And yet you’re sort of elated.
You’ve said that when you were starting out, people wanted to change you, make you more like Lenny Bruce or others. What do you remember about the directions people would push you?
There would be two camps: people horrified if I were totally like Lenny Bruce [in pushing boundaries], contextually in terms of the society at that moment, and people who would’ve been thrilled that I was more like Lenny Bruce, or whatever they thought Lenny Bruce should be. But I couldn’t be something I wasn’t. I had to be what I was. But there were people who said, “How can you do stand-up? You’re going to lose your femininity.” And that was so bogus to me. I would burst out laughing. Here’s what’s so wonderful when you’re young: I put on shows when I was little, never thinking I would be in show business. By the time I was 10, I had a huge repertoire. I was also trying to get other kids to be in the shows, but they didn’t take it seriously. So I had to resort to myself completely. I would do magic tricks, tap-dancing, ballet, comedy. I would do anything. I decided I was the world’s first performance artist.
Do you think there was something special about the Laugh-In environment that made it such a good starting place for you, or would it have been the same if you’d come around a few years later on Saturday Night Live or something else?
I think it would’ve been about the same, provided I could’ve fought my way through. It’s my recollection when I hosted Saturday Night Live a long time ago that it was a little more “clubby.” Some of the writers were actors, and they were all vying for parts. I don’t know if I would’ve done as well [there]. But I certainly did [on Laugh-In]. It was meant to be for me. I came in midseason of the third year. I had [the character] Ernestine and other stuff [director] George Schlatter was more leery about. But he wanted to do the phone operator because I was replacing Judy Carne, who had sat at the switchboard and said, “Beautiful downtown Burbank.” Ernestine was a topical entity in herself. And still to this day, people have stopped me and said, “One ringy-dingy … two ringy-dingy.” She’s still a viable character. I mean, she can work anyplace.
What was the transition like going from Laugh-In to making your film debut in Nashville?
When I got to Nashville, there were like 25 actors in the film, and there were several parts I thought I could’ve played. But as people kept coming in, I thought, “Everybody’s so right for their part. I must be so much more Linnea than I have any idea.” Then I came to realize that was one of [director Robert] Altman’s great gifts — he was a great casting person.
You’ve never been afraid to speak your mind. Do you feel the next four years under President Trump are going to be a more important time than ever for people to voice their opinions?
Yes, I think so. It’s important that we express ourselves to the people who have assumed power and express ourselves in a vehement, loving way, so they know at least people are watching, people are caring about what they do, and they are disapproving, or they’re approving. You’ve got to hold the feet to the fire. You’ve got to do something, but you don’t want to do anything that is too divisive. You’ve got to find a way to speak that reaches people, stops people or slows them down at least.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.