[A] TRUE NATIONAL TREASURE, 76-YEAR-old actress/comedienne Lily Tomlin is having a truly prolific time lately. Her 2015 Netflix series Grace and Frankie, in which she and fellow 9 to 5 co-star Jane Fonda play frenemies whose husbands come out as gay and ditch them for one another, was quickly renewed for a second season that will air in 2016. Tomlin also heads up the indie dramedy Grandma, in which she plays a prickly, cash-strapped lesbian who must help her granddaughter cobble together $600 for an abortion by day’s end while grappling with memories of her deceased life partner.
Hailing from Detroit, Michigan, Tomlin first made her name on TV’s Laugh-In during the early 1970s, and one could easily fill several pages with her appearances, accomplishments, and accolades since then. She ranks Nashville (which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), All of Me, Flirting With Disaster, and And The Band Played On among her favorite film roles.
Tomlin’s acclaimed one-woman show and movie, The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, was famously written by her partner of over 43 years, Jane Wagner. They married on New Year’s Eve in 2014, but Tomlin abhors and declines to use the term wife: “That’s just a further endorsement of the conventional quality it embraces, and we don’t,” she explains.
Here, Tomlin joins us in the VIP Lounge to discuss a possible reunion with Dolly Parton, her preferred term for female groupies, and scary airplane meals.
Despite Hollywood’s penchant for young faces, it seems like there has been a surge of great projects for older actors and actresses recently, including Grandma and Grace and Frankie. To what do you attribute this development?
It’s probably because so much of the population is aging. A lot of actors who are still capable are around and more of a population interested in what older characters are doing or up against. Jane and I are doing Grace and Frankie with a deliberate desire on our part to show how discounted and dismissed older women are. It’s just part of the fabric (not a crusading kind of thing), depicting it—what we deal with on a daily basis.
In August, Dolly Parton said that she would love to appear on Grace and Frankie with you and Jane Fonda. What is your reaction to that statement, and might such a reunion happen?
That makes me happy, just because it means she still believes in our friendship and feels comfortable with Jane and me. Right now there’s nothing on the books for it, because we feel like we have to establish the identity of that show first rather than harken back to 9 to 5. If Dolly was there now, it might feel too connect- ed to 9 to 5. So we don’t have any immediate plans, but we’d like to entertain it in the future.
Your credits are truly extensive, and some of them are very surprising! For instance, you played a spirit in a 1998 episode of the X-Files titled “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas.”
I liked that very much. I had approached X-Files creator Chris Carter when the show was first on the air because I wanted to be on it. He said, ‘Lily, we don’t use many people who are identifiable.’ I thought this is the kiss-off. Three years later, I was driving, and my phone rang, and it was Chris and he said: ‘I just thought of a part for you and I’m writing it right now.’ That was it, and then I got on. Three years later! So it always helps to let people know you like their show.
You played Dr. Selma Dritz in HBO’s adaptation of Randy Shilts’ chronicle of the AIDS epidemic’s first wave, And The Band Played On.
Oh yes, I liked that too. I can’t even remember everything I’ve done. It’s so amazing what you get noticed for. Whoopi Goldberg was supposed to do that role. She backed out at the last minute, and they asked me to do it. Selma Dritz was a white woman, so they weren’t casting to type.”
You were close friends with the ground- breaking gay film critic Vito Russo, who authored The Celluloid Closet and was an AIDS activist. What would Vito make of the progress we have made since he succumbed to AIDS in 1990?
We have gay representation all over the media, there are popular out actors and actresses, federal marriage equality, and treatments for HIV that can not only give positive people normal life expectancies, but also suppress the virus to the point they are essentially non-infectious. I think he would feel he had done a big part of that, and that The Celluloid Closet was an important contribution to all our progress.
What would be your dream role now?
Oh god, I don’t know. I always want something to come out and surprise me. I could say I’d like to do something with Martin Scorsese, but I could say anything and it wouldn’t mean a hill of beans.
Have you encountered many female groupies over the years?
Oh yeah. We used to make a joke when we’d refer to somebody and say, ‘she wants to have my baby.’ A company joke. I might turn to a friend and say, ‘oh my gosh, this girl wants to have my baby.’
What is the best or worst thing you’ve eaten on an airplane?
(laughs) Well, I’ve eaten some meat products that were questionable. I just sort of looked at them. I don’t eat a lot on airplanes, and I’m not really a sophisticated eater.
What is your number-one travel tip?
Pack very, very light. Even if you have to go someplace where you have to wear jewelry. Don’t overpack, which I still do. Every time I get someplace I always say, ‘oh god, I should have come with so much less.’