I bet I can guess your age based on what you think Lily Tomlin is famous for. She’s been a star for over 50 years and seems to auto-update with every generation, like an iOS with a mullet and a giant smile.
To Boomers, she’s one of the all-time great comedians. In the 1970s, she was hailed as “America’s New Queen of Comedy” by Time. She was a sketch and standup star, a kind of Carol Burnett meets Kristen Wiig.
To Gen-X, she’s a member of the iconic trinity, alongside Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda, in 9 To 5. And she’s a serious dramatic actress, one of the late director Robert Altman’s greatest collaborators.
To millennials, she is President Bartlet’s tough-talking secretary in The West Wing, or the voice of Ms. Frizzle in The Magic Schoolbus. I remember losing my mind watching her in I Heart Huckabees, the 2004 movie that normalized having an existential crisis.
At 81 years old, she doesn’t do much press anymore because she doesn’t need to.
She is giving this interview—promoting a movie she’s not even in—because she cares very deeply about her latest project. Radium Girls, the Joey King drama now streaming on Netflix that Tomlin executive produced with her wife of more than 50 years, writer, producer, and director Jane Wagner, tells the true story of 1920s women factory workers who battled corporate greed for the right to not be poisoned in their own workplaces. The Sierra Club has partnered with the film’s team to launch a campaign to hold the EPA accountable for continuing to allow toxic chemicals to be used in consumer products. (Sign the petition here.) Tomlin thinks the story has bigger implications—for workers rights, for environmental regulations, for the cruel way that our society treats children and animals. If her star power can make people consider these issues, she’s happy to pick up the phone.
And though she refuses to take any credit for the movie, it’s easy to see why Tomlin was drawn to it—the steely women at the heart of the movie resemble her.
Hers is a career that has ignored every limit and expectation of gender, age, and sexuality. Few actresses are offered a starring role in a network sitcom at the age of 76. But Tomlin, along with Fonda, has made Grace and Frankie a critical and commercial success, a rallying call to women that life doesn’t end when men stop objectifying you. She’s an Emmy winner, a Grammy winner, a Tony winner, a Kennedy Center honoree, and an Oscar nominee. Everyone is impressed with Lily Tomlin. Everyone except Lily Tomlin.
How does it feel, having played so many roles that make people feel seen and validated, but not alienated? How does it feel to be beloved?
“Well, however many days it lasts,” Tomlin says, cheerily.
In 1962, Tomlin left college, borrowed $5 from nine friends and flew to New York to try out show business. “I was going to study mime and be a waitress,” she says, with a laugh. “That was a very cool plan at the time.”
She wore a $2 cream-colored trench coat from a thrift shop and pinned her hair on top of her head with a scarf, like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which had come out the year before. A friend let her crash in her railroad apartment over B&H Dairy on 2nd Avenue. The bathroom was down the hall, the walls were covered with curse words, and Tomlin slept on top of a box. “The roaches were un-be-lievable,” she says in her sing-song, very Lily Tomlin way, enunciating every syllable, relishing the filthiness of it all.
When Tomlin first got famous, she would sometimes get mobbed by young people. They would go crazy around her, asking her how she did it, how she made people scream with laughter. “I’d say to them, ‘Look, I don’t know anything you don’t know.’ And I had to walk away,” she says. “I couldn’t foster that feeling of either admiration that they’re feigning or—even if it’s the most sincere thing in the world, it’s not really to be fostered.” Even decades later, she uses that word—feigning—dubious that her talent could inspire so much love.
But in character, she could do anything, connect with anyone. Teenagers would sleep on the streets to be first in line to buy tickets to her shows, and she would come out dressed to the nines, in a wig, and hand out donuts as the box office opened. She toured compulsively. “I’d have to go out and tour and show the hardcore fans what certain characters were up to,” she says, like it’s obvious. Her work, her success, has been a joy. But, “It’s not infinite, it’s not magical, it’s just life.”
Tomlin grew up in Detroit, in a blue-collar, predominantly Black neighborhood. Her apartment building was on the edge of a wealthier district, which meant school was a mix of poor and middle class kids and, just streets over, the Ford family. “I saw through it so much,” she says of the extreme class differences, the racism, the way it was all swept under the rug. In grade school, teachers would make every kid stand up and say what they got for Christmas, and Tomlin would itch with anxiety over those who had nothing to share. “I was so worried about them because they would have to get up and sometimes they would start to lie about it and I knew they were lying,” she says. “I would be identifying with them—there were inequities in the culture that bothered me at that time and continue to bother me.” But it was another time, and she wanted to be a star, so she kept quiet.
Tomlin was a card-carrying, loud-and-proud feminist long before feminism transformed from a dirty word to a must-have celebrity accessory. She was an activist. As a comedy star, she turned down a lucrative offer to play one of her famous characters in an AT&T ad campaign because her art wasn’t for sale. In 1975, Time offered her a cover in exchange for her coming out story. Horrified by the idea of commodifying her love with Wagner, she turned them down. A year later, she was on the cover of the magazine for her hit Broadway show, written by Wagner. She didn’t sell out. Not for anything, or anyone. More than cursing, or comedy, or cutting language, the great theme of Tomlin’s career has been integrity.
In 1985, Tomlin won a Tony for acting in the one-woman show The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, also by Wagner. “All my life, I always wanted to be somebody,” one of her characters in the show laments. “Now I see that I should have been more specific!” I asked Tomlin—when she looks at all her accomplishments, does she feel like a “somebody?”
“No, I really don’t,” she says, suddenly serious. “No matter how celebrated you are, or how famous you are, you just keep working. You do what you do, and then pretty soon you die.”
There’s a pause as we both consider this. Then she laughs a big, strong hoot of laughter. Tomlin sings to herself when she gets depressed. She’s been trying to eat food that’s better for the planet, ordering vegan meal kits. (The problem is, “You don’t really know exactly what you’re eating,” she says. “There’s not like…a descriptive discussion on it on the lid of the dish.”) She and Wagner like watching Turner Classic Movies and are, in Tomlin’s words, “anxiously awaiting the return of Billions.” Theirs is the rare Hollywood relationship that has lasted decades. “I just love her, I respect her, I admire her,” Tomlin says. There’s no secret to their endurance, just commitment. “You don’t want to destroy it. You don’t want to cheapen it, shortchange it, so you just work at it. It’s hard, you have to really put in effort.”
Tomlin is 81. Reporters have been asking her to look back on her career since she was about 40. She’s just kept making people laugh, kept creating, kept using her moment in the spotlight, however long it lasts, to direct rage at injustice. The first episode of Grace and Frankie is called, cheekily, “The End.” Tomlin has proven again and again that she won’t be told when to wrap up, isn’t interested in the dictates of an industry that has never particularly valued women. She won’t be knocked around by a life that ends—like a big joke—in death.
“You do what you do, and then pretty soon you die,” Tomlin says. That’s true for everyone, famous and not. At least, Tomlin demonstrates, you should have a good laugh in between.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
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