• Golden Globe Awards

Out of the Archives, 2006: Lily Tomlin on Robert Altman

Lily Tomlin, a seven-time Golden Globe nominee, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture for Nashville (1975) directed by Robert Altman.  She spoke to the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press in 2006 during an exclusive interview for A Prairie Home Companion about working with the maverick director.  She starred with Jane Fonda in seven seasons of the comedy series Grace and Frankie.
Tomlin remembered when she was cast by Robert Altman to act in Nashville: “That was the first movie I did, and it was probably because Bob Altman never saw me act on Laugh-In.  In those days, the early ‘70s, it was very hard to cross over from television to film, especially if you did comedy and you created characters that were so visually impactful.  Most people thought I was Ernestine, the telephone operator, so they saw me as an eccentric character, but I would have always done a good movie if someone had offered it to me.”
Subsequently, every time Altman asked her to be in one of his movies, she always agreed, even if it was only a cameo: “If he called me to be in a movie, I would immediately say yes, ‘where do I have to be and when?’ In fact, I did a small bit part in The Player.Tomlin explained how Robert Altman had not changed much through the years, from her first experience on Nashville in 1975 to A Prairie Home Companion 30 years later: “Bob was the same incredible guy, intellectually terribly curious and interested, in control but benign. I used to always call him the benign patriarch because he was like the daddy you wanted to have when you’re going on the playground to have a good time, and if your daddy is there, you feel like nothing’s going to happen, that there won’t be any drug dealers or drive-byes. The only thing that was different about Altman was that he didn’t ride the camera crane anymore.”
The fact that Altman was older when directing A Prairie Home Companion influenced the subject of the movie: “It deals with a theme that’s incredible cosmic and global, which is death and mortality. The radio show is ending, the theatre’s closing, so the angel of death is there. Everything ends at some point and something new is born, let’s hope. So Bob was more involved with mortality, of course, because he’s 80 years old and he’s had plenty of close calls, including a heart transplant, and he’s unabashed about saying that. He very matter-of-factly said that death is just part of the flow of life. As the actors, we were having so much fun acting and being part of an Altman venture that we realized that the best part of being a human is that, even in the face of our mortality, we’re making the best of it or trying to and wanting to,”
Tomlin recalled the time when Robert Altman was shooting California Split and got into a fight with a studio executive: “Yes, he punched him in the nose and they fell in the swimming pool, so that project at Columbia got shelved.  And I am sure a million other things happened. Altman was a pretty rough and tumble guy. He’s a little like Ernest Hemingway and Hunter Thompson rolled into one, so he was ready to take on anybody at those times. He doesn’t suffer fools and he was always a maverick, he really thumbed his nose at the establishment in many ways. I don’t think deliberately, it was just his nature.”
A highlight for the actress was to work with Meryl Streep playing partners in a Midwestern singing duo in A Prairie Home Companion: “We were so lucky, I mean, look at Meryl, she is an extraordinary actress and she’s easy to be with, she’s fun, accessible and totally down to earth, quick-witted and unpretentious. She is not unlike me in terms of being available, and somehow it suited us, we worked well together. I adored Meryl, she was totally wonderful to be with and so that made it doubly pleasurable.”
Always outspoken, Lily Tomlin was asked not to say anything political at the Tony Awards, a recognition that she won twice, in 1977 for Appearing Nighty and 1986 for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by Jane Wagner:  “I don’t want everybody to be polite and do the most timid thing. I mean, you want to be respectful of the situation, but still, why do we all like Bart Simpson?  Because he’s a little id, he acts up, he undercuts the hypocrisy of the culture, and I want to see other people do that. I don’t always do it because I am a nice girl from Detroit and my mother told me to behave, but I like it when somebody acts out and misbehaves.  That’s why I love Meryl, she misbehaves sometimes on a set, and you can’t believe that she would misbehave so much. If I tell her not to do something, that’s exactly what she’ll do.”