Q&A: Lily Tomlin discusses feminism, rocking chairs, and sensible shoes

Lily Tomlin is on the move. Between wrapping the Paul Weitz comedy “Grandma” and the Netflix original series “Grace and Frankie,” and receiving a 37th Annual Kennedy Center Honor, it’s no surprise a recent press junket to the East Coast left the 75-year-old comedian/actor/activist feeling under the weather. We caught up with Tomlin on the phone the day after her return to Los Angeles, and discussed feminism, rocking chairs, and the importance of arch support.

City Paper: Things have been really up and down for you, haven’t they! You had the 2014 Kennedy Center Honors and then you dropped your phone in the toilet.

Lily Tomlin: (laughs) That’s the best I’ve heard it put!

CP: What is your advice for young women starting out in comedy?

LT: Well, all I can say is just don’t cave into other people’s estimation of you or how they see the world. You may not see the world in a way that’s gonna win people over but you have to understand that you have to do what you have to do.

CP: How do you feel women are treated in comedy today versus 50 years ago?

LT: I think there’s more room for women. People have opened up the door a bit more. Not that they needed to open it. They were just leaning against it. Women have much more opportunity now, but I don’t know if they have that much more freedom. I frankly don’t even know why I’m successful.

CP: (laughs) Do you consider yourself a feminist?

LT: Oh yeah, definitely.

CP: All right, good. I figured. It’s always interesting, people you think are feminist and then you ask them that and they say “No, No way.”

LT: I don’t understand it either because being a feminist is really being a humanist. The word I lived by in the old days was: This is about moving the whole species forward, not just half of it.

CP: Absolutely. How many rocking chairs have you been through?

LT: I’ve only been through one! It’s been rebuilt. It’s like Lincoln’s log cabin. It had new spindles put in it and things like that. I couldn’t even name the old ones or the new ones. It’s in my living room.

CP: It’s sitting in your living room?!?

LT: Yeah! What would I do, just put it in the trash bin?

CP: No, I just figured you had a rocking chair warehouse or something.

LT: (laughs) No, it’s in my living room. And I have the chair from “The [Incredible] Shrinking Woman,” too, the big wingback chair.

CP: So you have a giant chairs living room?

LT: I have a rocking chair in my living room and I put the chair from “Shrinking Woman” in the entryway.

CP: What did Tom Waits smell like?

LT: He smelled like a smart person.

CP: What is your favorite kind of shoes?

LT: I mostly stick by the old conventional Converse that have laces and rubber on the toes. I have quite a few pair. Mostly black or black and white. I have one pair of brown and white.

CP: Do you have an all-leather pair?

LT: I have an all-leather pair.

CP: Formal wear.

LT: I’ll wear them onstage in Baltimore. I like talking on this level in an interview, it’s really—I tell ya, nobody else has an interview like this.  

CP: That’s right. (Laughs) How did you and your writing partner and wife Jane Wagner meet?

LT: Through a mutual friend. I’d heard about Jane for a long time about how smart she was and how beautiful she was and I said “Well nobody’s like that in the world.” Anyway so we met and I just fell for her in a second. It was pretty divine.

CP: Who was the first character that you came up with?

LT: I was at a college show and it was terrible. I thought, “Well, I do stuff like this, but my stuff is relevant. It speaks to something in the human condition.” The kid who produced the show said, “Oh if we just had another piece of material!” and I said timidly, “I think I might have something!” I took a guy that I was friendly with in the show and said, “Just interview me like I’m your distinguished guest. Ask me about my charity work, my social activities, and my daughter’s debut party.” My mother’s maiden name is Ford and the Ford family lived in Grosse Pointe (a suburb of Detroit). Charlotte Ford was my age and she was making her debut. So I ad-libbed and everything was tasteful, tasteful, tasteful and then I say  “Now I’d like to extend an invitation to your viewers to attend some kind of civic meeting and I think we all know what that entails.” That’d get big laughs because they knew you had to be WASPy. And then I would get up. I would uncross my legs and I had a nice decorous skirt on. I wasn’t flashing anyone but I would suggest pushing myself off on my knees with the heel of my hand, like a woman might have done in those days. It smashed her self-image. And that was just, like, genius. I got all kinds of attention, went on all the local shows, and then I left for New York.

CP: I’m going to sound like a moron, but when you say “push herself off” you mean she’s masturbating, right?  

LT: Oh no, no! She’s doing something very commonly done in society. If a woman didn’t have good core muscles, because—it was common for women who were over 40 to push themselves up off their chair.

CP: Oh my gosh! I thought you were being euphemistic.

LT: It’s a societal thing! You wouldn’t even be aware of it unless you had a hundred-year-old person in your house who still insisted on raising herself from the chair on her own. She’s got a very nice suit on, a hat and a good handbag and fox furs. And she would uncross her legs, put her foot on the floor—she did this in one smooth movement—then she would put her hand on her knee, both hands if she could on either knee, and push herself up. But the fabric would stretch between her knees and it’s just an ungainly, ungraceful kind of thing to do. It’s not that funny!  It was funny, back then, but it’s not that funny in 2015!

CP: I think that speaks to your general tone, which is in these small movements.

LT: When Charlotte Ford was going to make her debut, it was reputed to cost about a half a million dollars. That was a lot of money! I was working class, I was very conscious, well, [if you’re working class] politics are natural to you. My mother would say, “I wish I could drive around the Ford estate and see the canopies and the twinkle lights.” I borrowed an old car and drove my mother around and she enjoyed it. I was just conscious of all that. I was conscious of it because my mother’s maiden name was Ford. I was especially conscious of the Ford family.

CP: You could sort of pretend that you were like the forgotten limb of the family.

LT: Yeah, but I didn’t.

CP: Good.

LT: That’s the difference. I didn’t, and I refused to! By God, I will not give in to this Ford fantasy!

CP: That was a model, wasn’t it? The Ford Fantasy.

LT: You’re just opening me up to all kinds of things, its great.

CP: I want to know whether my heroes are getting sufficient arch support.

LT: Oh, I wear orthotics.

CP: There we go!

LT: I wouldn’t wear Converse—they’re totally flat! I think they’re kind of convex shaped, aren’t they? Or concave? One or the other!

CP: I guess your arches are convex and if you tried to put your feet in, like, a soup bowl, that would be concave. I think.

LT: (Laughs) Ah! (more laughing) The soup bowl is what got me.

Lily Tomlin will be reprising her classic characters and more at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s fifth Annual Night of the Stars, Thursday, May 7. For more information, visit www.bhcong.org. Additionally, Tomlin recommends "people pick up the winner of the 2015 Bancroft prize in history, ["Empire of Cotton: A Global History" by] Sven Beckert."

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