Adams on Reel Women: Lily Tomlin Talks “Admission,” Her Unique Tattoo, and Tina Fey

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

Lily Tomlin has been entertaining mainstream audiences with her off-kilter humor since she broke out as a regular in the frenetic comedy TV classic "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in 1970. She's worked with Robert Altman ("Nashville," "A Prairie Home Companion"), David O. Russell ("Flirting With Disaster," "I Heart Huckabees") -- her on-set battles with Russell are a You Tube must-see -- and starred with Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda in "Nine to Five." Now, in "Admission," she plays Susannah, the mother of Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey). It's a supporting part that begs for its own movie, an old-fashioned radical feminist that never veers into caricature, because even Tomlin's wildest characters always have a heart.

Thelma Adams: How much of Susannah was on the page?

Lily Tomlin: Technically, the only thing I brought was my own tattoo. Naturally, you bring your own sensibility, and I try to marry it to the era and notable feminists. Then there's the human factor; I know what it's like to live wedded to a philosophy and one little hitch -- like Susannah having sex with a guy on a train -- and you weren't as empowered as you tried to make yourself believe. So you create a mythology to support that ideal, that one lie ...

TA: That you slept with a stranger on a train to get pregnant with Portia --

LT: ... is enough to separate you from your daughter. And you impose that same set of values on your daughter. Doing that is not unique to feminism.

TA: The lie humanizes Susannah, but her stubborn adhesion to dogma, and her unwillingness to tell her only daughter that she was the result of a fling, pushes her daughter away. About that eye-catching tattoo: Do you actually have ink of famed feminist Bella Abzug on your upper arm?

LT: Oh, no! I had the tattoo made. I took that silhouetted picture of Bella from the Internet to a tattoo place that makes a stick-on. I also wanted to have a breastplate made, because my character had just had a double mastectomy, but I didn't get the part early enough to make that happen.

TA: Susanna is an old hippie feminist: have mastectomy in morning, plow field in afternoon.

LT: I know feminists that had mastectomies and got tattoos as acts of empowerment. My character wasn't daunted: "Take them both. Why take a chance?"

TA: I recently saw a picture of a vibrant tattoo that resembled a bikini top gorgeous enough for a mermaid -- and it was done after the woman lost both breasts to cancer.

LT: I love the early days of the movement, when women had their chest tattooed when they had a mastectomy. I wanted Susannah to have that, but I finally got off of it, because she was so fresh to the mastectomy she wouldn't have had the tattoo for many months. Now, I want to get a part where I can do that.

TA: Maybe that will be in the sequel. Your co-star Tina Fey has made a huge difference in the way that women are represented on TV and in movies too. You were a comedy TV pioneer, first on "The Garry Moore Show" before you broke out in "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," which my family watched religiously when I was growing up.

LT: I did three episodes of "Garry Moore" in 1963, and they fired me. Carol Burnett was on the first variety series, and she came off and became a big star. Moore's sensibility was very old- fashioned. I did the three shows, and then I thought, "I'm going to go back to Detroit."

TA: Looking back at "Laugh-In," where Kate Hudson's mother, Goldie Hawn, became a regular, you defiantly refused to be that giggly girl playing dumb.

LT: I wanted the comedy to be about something, either satiric or social commentary. I grew up in an old apartment house in Detroit with Southern parents and too many people -- racially mixed, political, not political. I was infatuated with all of them, and out of that came my humor.

TA: How different was it for comediennes when you started out in the early sixties?

LT: When I started out, a woman wasn't supposed to do comedy, unless she played on being unattractive, flat- chested, or old-maidish. In the early sixties, Madeline Kahn, Dixie Carter, and I had an act together at Below the Belt in New York. I was forever doing some old character. It didn't matter to me if the audience cared about how I looked. When I moved forward to do stand-up, people would say, "You'll lose your femininity." On the circuit, the guys were often misogynistic and misanthropic, with those "take my wife, please" or "can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em" routines. In my mind, I always wanted to create a character about the wife. I was more interested in making a person that spoke out of that frame of reference or that identity. Rosanne had a great early joke: "They must think the uterus is a homing device."

TA: How did you harness that in "Laugh-In?"

LT: I brought Ernestine the Telephone Operator to the show. I'd been doing her in my act, and everybody hated the phone company at the time, so she was very popular. The next fall, I brought Edith Ann to the show.

TA: Since the birth of Ernestine and Edith Ann, women in comedy have come a long way, like your co-star Fey.

LT: Tina's brilliant, a brainy girl, so I watched her from afar. She navigated "SNL." I'd worked with Lorne [Michaels]. I knew it was a male-dominated culture. Tina rose above it all. She knew who she was, and she had the brains to carry it out. Then she invented "30 Rock," and I admired her because I was so happy to see that she had created vehicles that could contain a lot of other people ... she's an extraordinary person.

TA: Was it easy to play her mother?
LT: I feel like she is my daughter. Or at least she could have been. As if I could have not only been the physical bearer but could have raised her to be so brainy!