Lily Tomlin on Robert Altman, David O. Russell and a Lifetime of Achievement

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I remember the bit you did with Meryl [Streep] at the Oscars, honoring Altman. It was so refreshing in how fresh it felt.

Well, my partner Jane actually wrote a kind of text for it, but we didn't learn it. Because in the movie, A Prairie Home Companion, we finished each others' sentences in the dressing room because we were sisters for all these years, telling all these family stories, and we were doing long, 20-minute takes or more at a time. If we dropped a piece of dialogue, one of us would pick it up. And we began doing that so naturally. So we wanted to do that same style on the Oscars, but we wanted it to have some content -- and Jane is a wonderfully perceptive writer. She wrote great stuff about Bob and Bob's legacy and Bob's style, and we didn't really learn it at all. We had it on the prompter so it would catch our eye, and we would fill out and pick up. At rehearsal, there was a line about people beginning to think, because of his use of sound in a film, that their popcorn was peyote buttons. [Laughs] That line fell to [Meryl] in the rehearsal and everybody who sits there during rehearsal was laughing. Then that night, just because of the rhythm of the thing, I said it. And that's why I said, "Oh, you're upset I got that laugh!" Because she got such a big laugh in rehearsal. So it was freewheeling anyway, but we wanted it to have some content. We wanted to have perceptive things to say about Bob.

And it's so unusual, for awards-show banter.

Oh, I know. [Award shows are usually] so self-conscious.

Were the producers worried about letting anyone, even you and Meryl, ad-lib during the telecast?

I think they may have been but because it worked so well at rehearsal... At first they wrote a bunch of stuff, which wasn't very good. Stuff that's too arch, you know. Luckily, we didn't have to do it.

You mentioned Jane earlier; one of the interesting lesser known aspects of your career is your life and work with Jane. How much do you feel that your collaboration with her has contributed to the Lily Tomlin legend?

[Laughs] Well, it's added a lot, because The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is one of the best things we've done. That's strictly Jane, that's Jane's total writing. We've done stuff before that's sort of compilations, we've done television specials, and there have been other people involved and so on, but anything really high, really perceptive, Jane has written. I can write and do stuff and physicalize characters, or have great ideas for a character, but she'll take it to another level verbally.

You seem to give her a lot of credit in interviews, but the quotes attributed to you over the years are legendarily Lily Tomlin classics.

But most of them are hers! I get credit for everything. But one line that you can give me credit for, and it may be the only one, is "I worry about being a success in a mediocre world." [Laughs] That's the only really great line I think I came up with. She's infinitely quotable. We're putting out a new Web site soon, and we're going to try and publish a book so she can be credited with all those quotes, because it's impossible. It's all over the Internet and people just repeat it, and everything like that.

At Movieline we like to play a game called My Favorite Scene. Do you have a favorite scene from any movie that you remember as particularly special?

Several come to mind immediately, but the first one was in Short Cuts, Tom Waits and I play a couple and we live in a trailer, and Lili Taylor played my daughter. She comes over and I'm watching Phil Donahue -- that's how long ago the movie was, in '93. And I'm just sitting there smoking in the trailer. My character is Doreen Piggot, and Lili's character brings over a couple of goldfish in a plastic bag from the dime store. I just like that scene, the moment of it. I kind of look at the fish and I say, "I haven't seen those in a long time," or something like that. I liked that scene a lot; any time there's a little instant of absolute reality, or feels like it.

A lot of Bob's movies are improv-ed moments, so you get a lot of juice out of it, that way. Just like with Meryl in Prairie.

A lot was made a few years back when video of your on-set conflict with David O. Russell hit the Internet. Whatever happened after that? Was it strange to see that even surface in public?

Nothing! Well, the thing didn't come out on the Internet for about four years. So of course, David and I were friends and 20 minutes later we were back shooting. You know, we had two big fights. So whoever filmed it and got their hands on that video... I was doing an interview with a Miami paper that morning and they said, "How do you feel about the video on YouTube?" I said, "Well, what is it?" [Laughs] He said, blah, blah, blah, and I said, "Oh... I've never seen it, but I've heard about it." It made the rounds of the agencies in L.A. all through that time, and this was before YouTube got huge. You just didn't think about it because it was nothing anyway, it was just temper. We just both had a bad temper fit. I said, "Well, I haven't seen it. But which one are you talking about, the one in the office or the one in the car?" [Laughs] Because in the office I'm kind of stoic, part of the time. I said, "What can I say? I did it, they're right in black and white if you want to see it." I can't deny it, it's true. It's kind of a relief. You can see it now and they'll just know that I'm not the paragon of virtue.

So there were no hard feelings afterward. I'd imagine that happens a lot more often than people realize, since cameras aren't on everyone all the time and certainly footage doesn't escape to the Internet.

It happens sometimes -- but David is a very mercurial person, and that's part of why he's so brilliant. He almost reflects the movie. I did two movies with him, and I Heart Huckabees was so crazy, so all over the place, I think he kind of embodies intuitively whatever he's trying to make happen. It was just crazy, crazy stuff. We were always doing something, and then we'd get manic and crazy and I just flipped out on him. Then he flipped out on me. And you know, stuff goes on. But it's nothing. It's like family. If you have a big fight in your family, usually it's treated that way on the set. We don't want to misbehave; believe me, it's embarrassing. It's humiliating, you know? Because you just lose it. You act like a crazy person. [Laughs] But I adore David. I adore him as a talent. A lot of my friends said, "Well, you won't work with him again." I said, "Of course I would! I adore him, I love him. He's brilliant."

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