From workplace inequality to late-in-life divorce, Lily Tomlin has never shied away from topical, ripped-from-the-headlines subjects concerning women in her big- and small-screen roles.
Her latest performance in the Paul Weitz film “Grandma” — her first starring role in almost 30 years — as a lesbian matriarch who takes her granddaughter to get an abortion is getting festival acclaim. Her Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” which reunites her with “9 to 5” co-star Jane Fonda, follows the fraught friendship of two women whose husbands are in love with each other. It just got picked up for a second season.
But before all that, there was Edith Ann and Ernestine, just two of the beloved characters Tomlin created on “Laugh-In.” She’s bringing some of those greatest hits back to Minneapolis Thursday for “An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin,” a Twin Cities Pride event.
In an interview with the Star Tribune, the droll and deadpan Tomlin, who wed longtime romantic and artistic partner Jane Wagner in 2013, mused on her latest roles, the state of feminism and the impending decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on gay marriage, which could come any day. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: You’ve been doing a ton of work, and “Grandma” has been getting great buzz. What do you look for in a role now?
A: I guess a paycheck.
It’s hard to be completely serious about show business. I look for a project that I can enjoy doing for a length of time. And I want it to reflect me if it can, or some other aspect of humanity that I feel indebted to in some way.
Jane Fonda and I doing “Grace and Frankie,” we wanted to do something about women of our age who are in leading roles and who aren’t the object of the humor, and who make changes and survive and thrive and are just like younger people, except that they’re aging.
Q: Working with Jane Fonda on “9 to 5” and now on “Grace and Frankie,” you’re still addressing issues for women. What’s changed since then?
A: A lot has changed, and not a lot. Especially in the last couple of years, it seems like there have been more and more roles for older women, and also better roles for women in general. But at the same time, there are plenty of roles that aren’t. More women are inching up into decisionmaking roles in the business, but the business is still going to reflect the culture to a large extent.
I’ve been offered lots of [roles as] people’s grandmothers that are just the butt of a joke. Doddering with a track suit on. The object of humor, just as women or gay people were the object of humor through ridicule in earlier movies. That was an accepted target, use of someone of that age or that lifestyle. When you pull examples out and hold them up to the light, everyone begins to see — not all at the same time, but consciousness is slowly raised.
Q: You and Jane Wagner got married after more than 40 years together. How has married life been?
A: About like unmarried life has been. Truly.
Q: If the Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage, how will this change your life?
A: In the large sense, it’ll be stunning if it passes. It’ll be great. If it doesn’t, it’ll be a bit devastating. Not to me in my personal life, although that would be a loss, but in terms of how the country’s turning politically. If they can make an argument to block out this most recent move, it would be a bit shocking.
Q: Is there something unique about being gay that’s lost now that it has become so accepted in the mainstream?
A: Yes, our repression is being lost. Very often, those of us who have been around for a long, long time, we sort of halfheartedly joke about how we miss repression. But it was a bit devastating, too. That was sort of a dark joke. I guess you’d have to be advanced in your years to get it.
I lived when there were raids on bars, and some of the groups ahead of me were older than I was. They would have the blinds drawn; they would meet in secret, just for an organizational meeting. But that goes back a long way.
It’s a long slog. You may think the gay thing has galloped along splendidly, and of course it hasn’t. A lot of people are still paying the price. There’s going to be pockets of tremendous resistance in different parts of the country.
My family is from the South and they moved to Detroit before I was born. And while they might have been softened in their views from having to butt up against a more urban culture, all their brothers and sisters were much longer coming around to accepting their offspring. I have cousins who are gay and they really fought hard; they were just about decimated from the struggle of hiding, trying to come out, trying not to be invisible. If we paved the way for anything, it was kind of like not to be invisible. To try to step out in front as much as we possibly could.
Q: Where does feminism go from here, especially with so many young people not identifying with that word?
A: I’m definitely a feminist, and I expect everyone else to be one. I’m always surprised that young girls don’t identify. Any progress that’s been made has been made because of all these movements, and people just absolutely determined not to be swept under the rug. But all the right-wing people who want to negate any other kind of female role, they’re powerful. They have radio waves. And somehow it just falls out of favor, just like the word “liberal.” People on the left are somewhat more complacent, because they just don’t stick their noses in everybody else’s business. But the right wing does. They want very much to hold the line.
Q: Do you see yourself and your work as your airwaves, your way of making sure that alternate voice stays out there?
A: No, I just have a voice, whatever it is, and I wouldn’t know how to express myself otherwise.
Q: You have been doing your classic characters for years. What are these characters to you now — are they parts of yourself or do you have to go into another place to become them every time you do the show?
A: I don’t have to go into another place. They’re people who reflect the culture in some way, and if they stop reflecting the culture, then I stop doing them.
But if a type is around — and a type has a long life if it’s a bona fide, rich type — certain human traits, like Ernestine’s dominance and her irascibility, those are known to the human animal and they rear their heads almost at any time. To push people around, to lord your power over them. She’s been working for a health care insurance corporation lately, so she can deny health care to everyone for specious reasons. She uses the phone as a form of communication, but she’s had lots of jobs since the divestiture.
Q: You’ve played Minneapolis before.
A: A lot. I think it’s ill-advised that I’m showing up on your doorstep every few years.
Minneapolis used to be a very big feminist community, very strong in the ’70s into the ’80s, so there are lots of feminists in the world. My God, even those who don’t know they are.