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Lily Tomlin Appreciates the Evolution of Life; Prefers Ernestine's Face to Her Own on $20 Bill

Lily Tomlin is preparing to shoot another season of the popular Netflix series, Grace and Frankie, with co-star Jane Fonda.  The show tackles issues around sexual orientation, divorce, dating, and sex -- as experienced by people in their 70s.  And it takes an unvarnished look at what it means to be a “woman of a certain age”.  According to the multiple-award-winning actress and comedian, cultural shame around aging is as preposterous as it is entrenched.    

LT:  It’s just like people who call people “ass****s”.  I always say, ‘You know, after all, they have one themselves.’  And I find it too much to degrade people with body parts. 

RLH:  Let’s talk about women of a certain age for a moment – because you’ve said publicly that’s part of the reason you wanted to do that show [Grace and Frankie].

LT:  Yeah, because I am a woman of a certain age.

RLH:  And what does that mean?  What is a woman of a certain age?

LT:  Well, that means… I say that facetiously, because aging is such a negative in the culture that you don’t say how old she is.  You say she’s “of a certain age”. 

RLH:  What about this part of the population are we not getting?  What do we need to see?

LT:  Well, I think people are getting it more and more.  First of all, it’s the fastest-growing demographic – you know, people “of a certain age” are getting to be a huge political force… if they would exercise it.   

You just want the world to be a better place and a more harmonious place and you want people to appreciate the whole evolution of life and try to preserve it rather than desecrate it.  Who better to do it than people who are of a certain age and who are still very vital and active in all aspects of life?

RLH:  You’ve talked about playing a lot of mothers and how, in preparing for one specific role, you wound up asking yourself, ‘What did I do to this poor kid?  How did I make her life less than it could be?’  Did your own mother champion your creative instincts? 

LT:  I don’t know that I was ever at the complete effect of my mother.  I saw my mother and father.  I saw how their lives were different.  I saw that my father had more freedom than my mother in our society that many years ago.  I had to look out for my parents in a certain way because they were at the effect of the culture.  My dad was a factory worker but he was a big drinker, a big gambler.

I would go to the track with my dad by the time I was 14.  In those days, we looked like we were 30.  So I could pass.  I could go buy his tickets at the window.  And my poor dad would always – he always had a front roll on him, and if he didn’t, he didn’t go to the track.  I mean, he’d have a couple of grand in his pocket.  And so he would peel off a couple of hundred and tell me to go buy tickets on a certain horse to win. 

He always bet to win.  And it was just insanity.  He wasn’t going to win every time.  And so I would hold – I wouldn’t buy the tickets every time.  I would just try to gauge when he was going to lose.  And my heart would just leap out of my chest.  But I never got caught.  I never did it wrongly.  I would do one or maybe two races a night when we would go to the track and I would take the money home and give it to my mother. 

Even as a teenager, you just know -- when you’re working class -- you just know what money means to everybody in the house. 

RLH:  That’s an incredible amount of responsibility – moral responsibility…

LT:  Yeah, that is!  You’re like a psychologist.  I should do sessions with you.  [laughter] That is a lot of responsibility.  You’re so damn right. 

RLH:  Going back to Grace and Frankie, a piece in The New York Times... this critic had to check his enthusiasm about Grace and Frankie because, I think, he was writing about Grandma… He wants – well, he wants to start a campaign to put your face on the $20 bill.  Would you support a campaign to get your face on U.S. currency?

LT:  Well, I might.  Especially if [laughter] – if they put Ernestine’s face on the $20 bill – that would be better…

Lily Tomlin performs An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin at Cape Fear Stage on Thursday, February 4th at 7:30.  For more information, follow this link: 


Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.