It's somehow fitting for comedy legend Lily Tomlin to play Tina Fey's mother in the new dramedy Admission, opening nationwide Friday. Tomlin portrays the Bella Abzug-worshiping Susannah, who conceived her daughter Portia (Tina Fey) with a nameless man on a New Jersey Transit train. Portia, a buttoned up Princeton admissions officer, becomes enmeshed with John Pressman (Paul Rudd), an untethered guidance counselor determined to get one of his students into the college. Rolling Stone spoke with Tomlin about working with stars young enough to be her children, designing her own wigs and her own recollections of radical feminism.
Who do you like better, Tina Fey or Paul Rudd?
They are like apples and oranges. Well, one is my daughter, or one is my daughter's suitor. Let me think, who do I like? How could I say that? I'll just say I like [director] Paul Weitz better. Forget those other two.
You've said you were intimidated by Tina. Why?
I admired her comic force navigating SNL as she did to take the anchor desk, and create movies, and create 30 Rock. She is just totally her own person and self-possessed, and just kind of straight-on. I just liked her because she has an intelligent sensibility, and she doesn't compromise it. At least I've never seen her compromise it. She's exceptional. It's hard for me to get that I'm old enough to be her mother – I just think we are the same age. And then she starts asking me about [The Incredible] Shrinking Woman or something when she was 12 years old, and I think "Oh my God, I am old."
Did either Paul or Tina try to pick your brain on set?
They were just like kids. It was like they were 10 or 12 years old, and they were like, "Tell us about Shrinking Woman or Nine to Five" or one of those films, which were roughly 1980. Thirty-three years ago, so they were pretty young.
You get to fire a gun in this film. Are you comfortable around firearms?
No, not really. I mean, I don't have a firearm, and I don't intend to have one. But I fired a gun once before in Beverly Hillbillies, a shotgun. All you think about is the technique. Can I make it look like I know what I'm doing? Of course. Susannah lived out in the woods by herself, so she might have a gun for that reason. If I lived in the country, sort of isolated, maybe I'd want a gun. But I doubt it. I certainly wouldn't want an assault weapon. I'd drop it and shoot my legs off.
It was your idea for your character to have a Bella Abzug tattoo. What else in the film was your idea?
What you wear, you don't think of it as bits or something, you think of it as part of what you are trying to create for the character. I had that wig built. That specific wig. I wore some items of my own clothes. I wore boots when I was on the couch after I'd slept with the professor.
You also had a wig made for your role on Malibu Country [with Reba McEntire]. Do you often have wigs made for your roles?
Yeah, I have a lot of wigs. I think of the hair first for a character. You can very often kind of pinpoint culture types. Susanna could have had a lot of different hairstyles. I just chose that one. It seemed to be right for her for that moment. I knew that I was going to do both Reba and that movie, and I began working, and I didn't know which wig I would use for which part. And then it becomes very clear I want white hair for Reba's show and I wanted this other, more what I considered hair that might have been kind of her signature at that time. Some white in the front, like a streak, that sometimes people grow naturally.
Almost a little Susan Sontag-ish?
Yeah, exactly. Susan would have come to mind, except her hair was pretty black.
Did you give any notes on the script?
No. Sometimes you talk about certain dialogue. Sometimes you say, "Can I say it this way?" Or can I turn the phrase this way? Maybe because you just feel it fits better in your mouth, and it expresses more of what you know from your own life.
You came up in the era of radical feminism. What did you relate to about the character?
Well, all of it, because you are absolutely right, I lived through that era, and I knew a lot of very well-known feminists who had written notable books. And also just as a human, you know, especially if you have lived any degree of time, you understand about having a philosophy or clinging to a philosophy. So certain core beliefs that you idealize and you don't want to betray them, that's part of what Susanna's dilemma was.
Did you and Tina improv at all, or was it all scripted?
We might have improv'd a little on the emotional scene where I confessed to her that I hadn't planned her birth and that's why I didn't know the name of [her father]. We were doing a more emotional scene, so sometimes you just embellish it or something comes out that is maybe more organic with what you are feeling.
What's up next for you?
I'm waiting to see if we go back to Reba. We'll see in May, although the show has had really good ratings in that time slot – more than ABC has had in many years. You never know until it's really time. But I hope we get picked up because I like doing the show, and I like doing the character. Reba is really special to work with. And my partner Jane [Wagner] and I just did a documentary for HBO about elephants in captivity, called An Apology to Elephants [premiering April 22nd].
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