When I met comic Lily Tomlin on the telephone, it would be days before bratty Batman star Christian Bale's profanity laded tirade on the latest Terminator movie brought the celebrity meltdown back to prominence.
You'd never know from her talkative, open manner that Tomlin had her own high-profile meltdown on the 2003 set of the quirky film I Heart Huckabees, in which she flips off the camera and calls director David O. Russell some very choice names.
There's no sign of that attitude now. Instead, Tomlin offers a weary wisdom that can only come from 40 years in the snakepit of show business, as she discusses her one-woman, multi-character show coming to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Saturday.
In an hourlong interview — which would have lasted longer if not for a pressing workout appointment — Tomlin dishes on being gay in 1970s Hollywood and why she's still touring concert stages at 69.
Your act is almost entirely rooted in characters; who will we see when you come here?
I do a little bit of Trudy, the bag lady. (Telephone operator) Ernestine now has been working in a big health-care insurance company — you know, denying health care to everyone (laughs). I'll do 10 or 12 characters, talk to the audience and talk about Tampa and talk about we've got a new president and all that stuff.
Why are you still performing onstage?
I think 'cause I don't realize how long I've been doing it. And Jane, my partner, always says, "You like to work live because it's the only two hours of the day that you're in the present.'' So I've never not done it. I've been making an act since I was a kid on my back porch. Sometimes I think I was the first performance artist .
Did AT&T actually offer you a half-million dollars to do an Ernestine commercial?
Yeah, in 1970. But I was I was insulted. I literally burst into tears. Ernestine was so big. Oh, she was a monster. You know, I had to literally kind of not do her, stop doing her, just so I could put her in perspective 'cause if I'd go on an old variety show in the old days, like Glen Campbell or Flip Wilson and we'd have a sketch, they'd write it for Ernestine to do 'cause she was so funny. You know, she could make anything seem funny.
Do you wish you could have done it differently?
Coming up in the '60s, we had a different vision of the world, however naïve it might have been … you only were supposed to do well by doing good, unlike today (laughs). But if it had been just 10 years later, I probably would have done it (laughs).
You and your partner Jane Wagner have worked together a long time. Do you think America is schizophrenic in how it treats gay people?
My family is southern fundamentalist. I grew up in that church. It's not unusual to me, you know. Some of my friends were just absolutely beside themselves about (gay marriage opponent) Rick Warren speaking at the inauguration, and I thought, "It's like my uncle giving the invocation.'' (laughs).
When did you feel comfortable being public about your sexual orientation?
I've been around so long that it was certainly no secret in the industry. Jane and I were very out and doing stuff and we always produced and worked together. I even had one of our writers say to me one day, "You know, I think you and Jane should come to work in different cars.'' (laughs) And I said, "Well, why would we do that — aside from the fact that we don't have two cars?'' She was probably being protective, but also her own prejudices were getting the better of her.