Adams on Reel Women: Lily Tomlin Talks “Admission,” Her Unique Tattoo, and Tina Fey
(Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
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."