Lily Tomlin never does anything halfway. When she creates a character, she fully commits, as if inhabiting someone else’s bones. SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris sat down with Life Achievement Award honoree Lily Tomlin to discuss Tomlin’s characters, her start in showbiz and her mom.
Gabrielle Carteris: I would like to welcome the fabulous Lily Tomlin.
Lily Tomlin: Thank you.
GC: The characters that you created are iconic, memorable characters. When I was a little girl, and you came to my hometown in Northern California and you did, “My name is Edith Ann. And my mom said …” It was, honest to God, life-changing for me. How did you even create your characters?
LT: If I knew, I would have made 100 more. But I would mostly get an idea for something I wanted to do or a culture type. And with Edith, I just wanted to do a child as a contrast to everything else I did, and I knew that on being on Laugh In, I could say things as Edith that other people couldn’t say.
GC: What was your favorite character?
LT: That’s like asking Mrs. Duggar which of her 19 children she likes the best. I like them all for different reasons.
GC: What did you study in college?
LT: I wasn’t going to be a performer. I was going to be a doctor.
GC: So what happened?
LT: Well, reality came into the picture and I got into a college show. It was a variety show to raise scholarship money, and I would improvise every night and theater students would all run out and see what I was going to do during rehearsal.
GC: Right. Wow.
LT: And Iris Goran, who was a theater major, said to me, “Do you know what kind of concentration you have?” And of course I had no idea what she was talking about, but I just felt so at home on the stage, and I said, “Gosh, I feel so great. I wish I could make a living doing this.”
GC: So, you’ve been a member of our legacy unions and now SAG-AFTRA overall for 50 years. You have been a leader. You have stood in the strike line with members.
LT: It wasn’t like I was politically driven to really make a change. I just wanted us to be what we should be.
GC: You first got your card in AFTRA — is that right — and then you got it in SAG?
LT: I got it in SAG on Nashville. I got my AFTRA card on probably The Garry Moore Show.
GC: Do you remember what it was like when you first got your card?
LT: No, but I changed my name.
GC: Did you really? What was your name?
LT: My name was Mary Jean. My mother’s name is Lily.
GC: Your mother must have loved that you took her name.
LT: Oh, she did. She’d say, “Oh, I don’t have to wait in the beauty parlor anymore.” Listen, at my first Broadway show, my mother comes to the show and she stood in the aisle. And my mother is very unassuming, very sweet, and has a wonderful way about her. Oh, I wish she were here now. But she stood in the aisle, and she shook everybody’s hand, and thanked them for coming. She said, “Oh, thank you for coming to Lily’s show.” And she didn’t identify herself. She didn’t say, “I’m Lily’s mother.”
GC: How fabulous.
LT: She just was so heartfelt about it. And same thing when I played the Kennedy Center. I did a Mother’s Day show with a bunch of other people, and I cried on the show because my mother was so moved. She was the only real mother on the show. The other mothers were kind of like show business mothers. And she said [in an interview], “Oh, she just broke my heart. She moved out of the house when she was 16.” I said, “Momma!” I didn’t know she was going to start sharing all this stuff with the people, and I got tears in my eyes. I said, “Momma, but I came back for supper, didn’t I?”
GC: Wait, did you move out when you were 16? Why?
LT: Because I was independent. I didn’t really move out. I just took a few of my belongings and I got an apartment. I rented a room.
GC: How did you get that at 16?
LT: Well, I always worked. I always had made a little cash. So I lived over the Gaiety Burlesque.
GC: Did you really?
LT: It was $25 a month for one of these rooms. I’d go back home every two or three days and sleep.
GC: Thank you so much for being here. You are an inspiration.
LT: Thank you. Thank you, SAG-AFTRA.