What a Character

She's had her brush with online infamy. Now Lily Tomlin is ready to make you laugh again

Late last month the sister blogs of celebrity snark, Gawker and Defamer, posted guerrilla outtakes from the set of I Heart Huckabees, the 2004 film, in which Tomlin clashes with director David O. Russell. "Leave me the fuck alone!" she shouts. "Do you know what the fuck is going on, period? Fuck you! I've had it up to here. Who's reacting to what, for god sakes? Fuck you, motherfucker! Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! Get the thing together! Fuck you!"

New Times spoke to her the day after the clips appeared online for the first time. "Oh my God, the one in the car is on there too?" Tomlin asked. "Oh my God, help me."

Calling from her home in Sherman Oaks, California to promote her performance at the Carnival Center tonight, Tomlin laughed in a gracious and slightly embarrassed way about her on-set outburst. "I can't believe the damn car is in there. I've never seen it. Is that when I'm sitting in the seat and really going nuts? Oh my God, I'm gonna die when I see that," she said.

Even sailors fear a tongue-lashing from Lily Tomlin
Even sailors fear a tongue-lashing from Lily Tomlin

"I love David," she told New Times. "There was a lot of pressure in making the movie, even the way the movie came out you could see it was a very kind of free-associative, crazy movie, and David was under a tremendous amount of pressure. He's a very kind of freeform guy, anyway. I never hold a grudge; I never feel bad about anything."

In the second video, shot on the set of the office of Tomlin's detective character, Russell turns the freakout around on Tomlin: "Fuck you! I'm just trying to fucking help you, you understand me? Okay bitch? I'm not here to be fucking yelled at!" He sweeps his arm across the desk at which Tomlin sits, scattering its contents. "I've been working on this thing for three fucking years, not to have some fucking cunt yell at me in front of the fucking crew while I'm trying to fucking help you, bitch! Figure it out yourself!"

"Well, I have been —"

"Yeah? Fuck yourself!"

"Why don't you fuck your whole movie, 'cause that's what you're doing —"

"Why don't you shove it up your ass and go do your own one-woman show again?!" Throughout the tirade Russell walks on and off the set, jabbing his finger at Tomlin and knocking over various props.

In the interview with New Times, Tomlin laughed it off. "After poor Britney Spears, with her poor little legs wide open I'm not the least bit upset about it," she said. "That's part of the upside and the downside of the Internet." Even the irascibly chatty telephone operator Ernestine has a Webcast now.

Ernestine, one of a dozen or so characters Tomlin will bring to life at tonight's show, was born on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, as was Edith Ann, the mischievous, squinty-eyed little girl in the big chair. Tomlin started in 1965 in standup comedy, but even then she was doing characters. She was inspired in childhood, she says, by one of her teachers. "She used to read old dialect poems at the end of the school day on Fridays before we'd go home, and I'd just be mesmerized. I thought it was so wonderful that she could just sit there at the desk and read from a book and create something that was funny and had a story and some kind of an emotional arc. It was so engaging." Tomlin was always seeking out interesting people to observe, including at the Detroit apartment house where she lived. "There were all kinds of people there, so I hung out with them, and was mad for them."

Tomlin squeezes in 40 or 50 shows a year between acting gigs. "It's more personal, and you're more autonomous. You're the one picking the material, and choosing the point of view, and so on. But I'm certainly happy when I get to work with really great people and get to be part of their vision."

She nearly struck gold in her film debut, scoring an Academy Award nomination in 1975 for her role as Linnea Reese in Robert Altman's Nashville. "I understood that [role]. My mother and father were from Kentucky; I understood that Southern culture. And I had a lot going for me: Here I am, a woman married to this good old boy lawyer [played by Ned Beatty]. I had two deaf children — I had a tremendous amount going for me, you know — I was singing gospel in a black choir."

Yet it was the relatively lightweight 9 to 5, two films later, that rattled her. "I just begged them to fire me the first week. I thought, 'Oh, I'm just awful.' The only way I could finally do it was that I pretended we were real secretaries hired to make an educational film for other secretaries. It was so weird."

That sort of meta perception probably comes naturally to Tomlin, who before a performance of a one-woman show in New York City in the Seventies appeared on a Broadway sidewalk dressed as a Red Cross nurse, handing out coffee to audience members waiting in line. Later, in a one-woman show in Las Vegas, she was her own opening act: Tommy Velour, a smug lounge singer.

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