When Lily Tomlin starts talking of “living in the moment” over dinner at the Maritime Hotel, chattering on about how “there’s this range of possibilities, and you have to leave them all open,” you’d just assume she’s indulging in those more-or-less meaningless generalities that grease the cogs of polite interaction today. But actually what she’s talking about is the oddity of acting on Damages—FX’s bitch-versus-bitch pressure-cooker plot-twister of a legal drama. Tomlin, 70, became such an obsessive fan in its first season that she accosted one of the producers at an art opening to pump him on where the story line was going. This resulted in her getting cast this season as Marilyn Tobin, the shrewd, desperate wife-then-widow based unmistakably on Ruth Madoff. The show is always done on the fly. “We don’t even know what’s going to happen week to week,” she says the night before she filmed the show’s season finale, which airs April 19 (the same night she is hosting a gala at the St. Regis benefiting the National Corporate Theatre Fund). “It makes the character more layered—you can’t foreshadow anything.”
She likes the role though, the latest of an impressively varied career, from Nashville to 9 to 5, Laugh-In to I ❤ Huckabees. “I didn’t even want to play Miss Hathaway,” said Tomlin, referring to the 1993 film of The Beverly Hillbillies. “I thought I don’t want to play another uptight spinster person—is that all I give off? I think I could play a villainess very easily. I just don’t want to kill anyone onscreen.” She chalks up her longevity in the business to “never peaking.” “You know, I was up for The Flying Nun, and that could have really defined me. The closest I came to being really mainstream was probably with Laugh-In, because that show was huge. The phone company called me and wanted me to do Ernestine for commercials, and I wouldn’t think of doing it.” Pigeonhole escaped. In 1967, when William Dozier, the mad genius behind the campy hit series Batman and The Green Hornet, was developing Wonder Woman, “I was supposed to do that role!” she says. “But that was back right when the war in Vietnam was heating up, and Diana Prince worked in the Pentagon, so they shelved it.”
Later, in the mid-seventies, when Tomlin was well-known in Hollywood circles to be a lesbian, she turned down the cover of Time magazine—which they offered her if she would come out. “I was on the cover two years later for my first Broadway show,” she says.
All of which is kind of refreshing. While the dominant advice the world seems to give you today is about how to brand yourself and create an identity, Tomlin makes a pretty good argument for leaving the branding to Apple and Gucci and trusting your life and career to your gut.
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