Lily Tomlin is a woman of many faces, from precocious child Edith Ann to persnickety telephone operator Ernestine to brazen bag lady Trudy. She will bring all of her characters when she takes the stage at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury on Sunday.
Newsday spoke with the Emmy-Tony-Grammy-winning comedian about growing up in Detroit, her new Netflix sitcom with Jane Fonda and turning 75.
You once said that, even as a kid, you "always had an act." What did it entail?
From about age 8 or 10, I'd put on an act from my back porch. I think I was the world's first performance artist. I'd dance ballet, throw a tap dance in there, then a magic trick or two. I'd tell husband jokes that I'd seen Jean Carroll do on "The Ed Sullivan Show." I'd even imitate Bea Lillie by throwing pearls around my neck and wearing my mother's slip like an evening dress.
What can people expect from your current live show?
It's still varied and multifaceted. I use video to satirize myself and make commentary providing history on some character. I do 10 to 12 characters. You don't know where I'm going to come up next. I talk to the audience about the human condition.
How have your characters changed and grown through the years?
Ernestine has had lots of jobs. During the Bush administration, she had a reality-based webcast chat show. She even called Saddam Hussein before he was hanged, and Kim Jong Il to broker peace. Now she's working at a big insurance corporation. Edith Ann is a kid who reflects the time, so she knows how to program her mother's iPad.
Do you feel like you absorbed your surroundings as a child and put them in your act?
I definitely did. I grew up in an old apartment house in Detroit. My parents were Southern. They came up from Kentucky so my dad could work. I lived with all kinds of people -- retired, educated folk to poor white Southerners. I was both amused and horrified at the same time.
Where were you when you received the news about being a Kennedy Center honoree?
I got a letter from producer George Stevens Jr. about the event. I read the first sentence or two and put it on the table. My partner Jane [Wagner] called me at work a week later and said, "Did you see this letter?" I thought it was inviting us to the Kennedy Center Honors. She said, "They want to honor you!" I didn't realize for a whole week. The event was both exciting and surreal. You are sort of teleported. You don't feel like you are really there.
When you were on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" and the show was connecting with the country, what was it like to ride that wave?
We were so popular that it was profound. If I went to a restaurant, everyone would be looking in my direction and they felt close to me somehow. One time, a table of middle-aged adults all put their napkins on their heads. As I left, they shouted, "Lily! Lily!" When I turned, they said, " . . . and that's the truth!" It was so great. It was like living in a small town.
What kind of impact did Joan Rivers' passing have on you?
Joan was a good friend of mine. I got such a kick out of her. She loved being on the road, doing her thing. Joan was so funny -- such a mensch!
You recently tackled the role of Elle Reid in the upcoming film "Grandma." Is it true the film has good buzz?
We were a hit at Sundance, and Sony Classics bought it. The film will be released in August. I was surprised and gratified that we got such a good response.
You are only one award away from being an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) person. Will "Grandma" possibly get you an Oscar to complete the cycle?
Well [laughs] . . . who knows? It's a very small movie.
Your new Netflix show, "Grace & Frankie," reunites you with your old "9 to 5" co-star, Jane Fonda. What's the concept of the show?
My character, Frankie, is a very bohemian, unstructured painter. Her character, Grace, is sort-of Republican and conservative. Our husbands, Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen, are law partners. We've both been married 40 years, and our characters don't like each other. We think our husbands are going to retire, and we are going to have our lives to ourselves because we've been thrown together every holiday and every vacation. Our husbands take us to dinner and tell us they've been having an affair with each other. Because they can, they want to get married and divorce us. It starts May 8.
What was it like being adversaries on screen?
We've been friends for so long. It was fun, but it's hard to be mad at Fonda.
Does it amaze you the way the world of entertainment has changed toward homosexuality from when you first started?
It's remarkable the speed with which that movement coalesced. It was the passage of a generation and the young people that came behind them. Enough people came in a critical mass that accepted themselves and demanded to be seen and have a life. It's a totally different game.
Your last birthday was a milestone -- 75. Did it have any impact on you?
I don't really think about it. But I am more aware of time and that I'm closer to the end than I am to the beginning.
Which of your films was the most fun to make?
"All of Me" was pretty easy because the movie was charming. I knew Steve [Martin] sort of well and I felt very maternal toward him. I knew he was a lonely, not a crazy, guy. I sensed a sort of longing in him. But now he has a baby and great wife.
What do you make of the David O. Russell film "I Heart Huckabees" that you were in? Some people love it and others don't.
I don't know -- but I love the movie so much. Every time I see it I love David O. Russell more. When we went to the Toronto Film Festival, a journalist said to me, "What is this meshugganah movie?" He thought it was crazy, but I think it's great.
Did it upset you when your off-camera rant from "I Heart Huckabees" went viral on YouTube?
It bothered me because I had to answer to that. I was talking to a guy in Miami the morning it went on YouTube. He said, "What did you think of the video on YouTube?" I said, "I don't know? What is it?" It came out four years after the fact. What can I say . . . we did it.
WHEN | WHERE 3 p.m. Sunday, NYCB Theatre at Westbury, 960 Brush Hollow Rd.
INFO $49.50-$69.50, 800-745-3000, livenation.com