When I was a little girl, I fell in love with all these great feminist movies, like “Silkwood” and “The Color Purple.” I’m pretty sure I was the only kid who dressed up as Norma Rae for Halloween in 1979! But “Nine to Five” was my absolute favorite, it was just so smart and subversively funny. Do people still come up and thank you for that movie?
Lily Tomlin: Oh, that’s great! Yes, people still love it. I think the moment I realized it was catching on was the day I got a call from my Aunt Ellie May who was married to a pig farmer in Kentucky. She said, “Well, your Uncle Wallace put on a suit and tie and drove all the way to Paducah last Saturday night to see “Nine to Five.” He laughed so much he said he’s going back again next weekend.”
Way to show ‘em! Did you know “Nine to Five” was magic when you were making it?
You always hope you’re making a meaningful movie. But at the time, I remember they kept editing the film down to the last minute. Everybody’s agents and managers were very nervous and kept asking for changes. The first weekend, I think we came in third. Female-driven movies just didn’t go over well back then…they still don’t. But it caught on big and turned out to be one of the highest grosses of the year.
Have female friendships been important to you in your career?
Wow, I’m thinking back 45 or more years now, I’d say my earliest friendship was with Madeline Kahn. She saw me at the Improv one night and helped me get my first high-visibility [gig]. And, of course, I made a major friendship with my partner, Jane Wagner. The first thing we worked on together was my Edith Ann album.
I saw that you two finally got married after 42 years! Any wisdom you can share for making a relationship last that long?
Golly, I can only think that you have to come to terms with not being in a power struggle, as people in many relationships are.
You have a less harmonious relationship with Jane Fonda in your new Netflix series “Grace & Frankie” [set to release on May 8].
Right. In the show, she’s kind of uptight, very Republican and conservatively dressed. I’m a painter and very Bohemian and much more relaxed and easygoing.
I like you better already.
Our characters have been thrown together, because our husbands [played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston] are partners in a law firm, but we’ve never really gotten along. Then one night, the guys take us to dinner and announce that the two of them have secretly been having an affair for 20 years. They’re going to divorce us—and marry each other.
I can’t wait. So is it truth, rumor or fantasy that Dolly Parton might join you two for an episode?
Jane and I would like that. We don’t know whether Dolly should play herself, like she finds us backstage at a concert and we all become friends—or maybe she’ll work at a beauty shop and give us makeovers.
What if she performs the wedding when your ex-husbands get married? [laughs]
Yes, they could be obsessed Dolly Parton fans! Perfect.
I’m familiar with [co-creator] Marta Kauffman’s work from “Friends.” Does this show have a similar tone?
Maybe somewhat similar, but there are episodes that have more drama since we’re in a pretty dramatic situation. Seems like a scenario wrought with humor but also heartache. Yes. In fact, one of the last words I say in the first episode is “heartbroken.”
Being a Netflix show, I’m guessing we can expect some edge, too?
Definitely. It’s so fun for Jane and I to have a new series at this age—and to explore how these women rebuild their lives, find out what’s still viable and embrace what’s in store for them. We really want to honor the situation and keep asking, “Are we getting close enough to the bone?”
Of course, you’ve been doing groundbreaking work since the early days. I’ve read about your 1973 “Lily” special on CBS where you and Richard Pryor performed the “Juke and Opal” skit. Apparently, it blew people’s minds and was never shown on TV again. So what was all the hubbub about a kiss?
At the end of my specials, I used to thank all my guests with a kiss. Well, on the day of the show, the network sent down word for me not to kiss Richard.
[groan] I hate that. But you did it anyway?
I did. Of course! How embarrassing for them, right? I was really mad; it was just insane.
It’s interesting how perceptions of what’s “shocking” change over time. What did it feel like to do something so controversial back then? Lots of your work must have taken courage.
Sure. But in some ways it didn’t even feel like a choice. Certain things just seemed correct, inevitable. I just so believed in my sensibility—the way I saw the world—and my sensibility just happened to be a little ahead [of some other people’s] at the time. I didn’t see any other option but to stay true to myself.
Plus, you kept people laughing the whole time.
Yes, that’s the best part!
See Lily Tomlin at “Night of the Stars” at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on Thursday, May 7, at 8 p.m. Tickets, $65-$200. bhcong.org