Lily Tomlin on stand-up, Kristen Wiig and playing Reba McEntire's mother
With a career spanning five decades, Lily Tomlin has entertained generations of families through appearances on shows as diverse as Sesame Street, Laugh-In, Damages and, most recently, Malibu Country. But the Tony, Grammy, Emmy and Peabody award-winning actress, who got her start in standup, says that career didn't come easily: She had to challenge the stereotypes hung on female entertainers.
In advance of her performance this Saturday, April 13, at the Paramount Theatre, Tomlin spoke with Westword about what it was like doing comedy in the '60s and who she admires in the current world of funny women.
Westword: Your latest television role is playing Lillie Mae MacKenzie, Reba McEntire's mother on Malibu Country. Your chemistry with Reba McEntire is so real -- it seems like a real relationship. How did you come to be on that show?
Lily Tomlin: I've known Reba for a long time. My family is Southern -- they're from Kentucky -- and my brother lives in Nashville, so I used to run into Reba a lot in Nashville. I thought she was a great country singer -- she has a great voice, and I admire her on that level. But then I saw her do Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway, and she was so fantastic. She was out of this world.
I've told this story before, but as soon as she hit the stage, about two minutes in, I began to weep. She was so alive and so in the moment as an actor. It was wonderful. During intermission, I couldn't stop crying at the perfection of it -- when you go to the theater and see something absolutely astonishing sometimes, you are moved. It's like an affirmation of your own humanity.
She was so good in it and I became a devoted fan of that artistry. I had never really watched her old TV show (Reba) because I never get to watch that much TV anyway; I'm always traveling and working. But I knew she had a really popular show and a huge popularity herself. People love her. So I had known her, but not well -- I had introduced her on country music awards and things like that.
Then the job just came up, and she would be the main reason I took it, initially. I thought the script was interesting, in terms of the relationship and my role as an older woman who really cuts loose -- or as much as she might in a sitcom. Middle America gets to see a woman who's supposed to be that age and is full of life, who wants to take risks and have fun. I just love doing it and love working with Reba.
This character of Lillie Mae is named after your mother?
They let me name the character after my mother. I had that white wig made, because my mother had white hair. My family gets a kick out of it, too. I wish my mother would have been able to see it -- she would have been delighted.
Do you feel like you channel her at all?
No. My mother was pretty lighthearted. She had a sweet and fun personality. I don't know that she would do everything that Lillie Mae has done. She might not go to the nude beach. I doubt my mother would have gone -- well, she may have gone to watch.
You've worked in so many different arenas -- television, movies, theater, live shows, stand-up -- is there something you like to do more than the others?
I suppose if I had to do one thing, I would just do theater or the stage. It's what I've always done. I've put on shows since I was maybe six or seven years old, putting on shows on the back porch. I'd try to get other people to come and try to get other kids to be in it. It's partly because I used to take ballet and tap and stuff at the department of parks and recreation -- I should tell that to Amy sometime, Amy Poehler. She should let me come on and talk about Parks And Rec. [Laughs.] It was a big part of my life.
We lived in a pretty rough neighborhood, so there were a lot of programs to keep kids off the streets. Like I said, I took ballet and tap because my rec teacher, Mrs. Fitzgerald, was a ballerina. She taught ballet and tap and put on shows, and that's probably where I got the idea. But I made up my own shows -- I loved to imitate people in the building, my parents, my relatives.
I don't remember when we first got TV -- we didn't get our own personal TV (in the house) until I was ten. I lived a lot with radio and I always loved the characters on radio. I've always loved those characters -- people who were surprising and interesting and made you laugh.