Lily Tomlin: ‘People Would Look at Me … Horror-Stricken’

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The wOw ladies recount their love-hate relationship with acting training

MARY: Did you all go to school to study acting?

MARLO: I studied with everybody. I studied with Sanford Meisner when I was a teenager …

MARY: Oh, dear, I did too.

MARLO: You probably studied with him at the Neighborhood Playhouse.

MARY: That’s right. I did.

MARLO: I was put under contract at 20th Century Fox. They had a great idea, to put some young people under contract, and then he would teach them. I think it was like a year.

MARY: What year was that? How old was he?

MARLO: Jesus, I don’t remember.

MARY: He was brilliant, but he was also one of the meanest characters that ever walked.

MARLO: He wasn’t mean by that time. I think he was older and he wasn’t mean by then. I also studied with Lee Strasberg for three years and I’d heard he was so mean and he was just delightful. I just adored him.

MARY: I think that in classes they were more like cats with mice.

MARLO: I studied at the Strasberg Institute after “That Girl.” I was offered a part to play an alcoholic and it was called “Crackers.” And it was a wonderful part and it was a wonderful film and I thought to myself, “I don’t really know how to do this.”

MARY: A lot of drinking.

MARLO: What I knew how to do was just sort of be funny, and so it drove me to study more. Without that I would not have been able to play the schizophrenic woman that I played in “Nobody’s Child,” and then all the parts that I played after that. It really does help to have, don’t you think, Lily?

LILY: Well, I didn’t — at the end I had begun studying with Peggy Feury who was a studio actress who had come out to the West Coast to found the West Coast chapter of The Studio. She and I were in “All of Me” together, and we just became great friends. And I was sort of possessive of her; I could hire her privately and she would work with me and we became like girlfriends. And then I’d feel so self-conscious and pig-like when I’d see her in class sometimes, because I felt like I was so close to her. And everybody revered her. They adored her.

MARY: She had a terrific reputation.

LILY: And she was just so charming as a person. And when she died and they had her memorial, the tributes to her were just wonderful – warm, sweet, funny, hilarious, heart wrenching.

JOAN: What did it mean to each of you to have had the acting training, in your personal and in your professional life, even dealing with agents and producers?

MARLO: I don’t know about agents and producers, but what it does for you in your life is that you know you get to places in yourself that are marked “Do Not Enter,” that have a skull and crossbones on their doors. And you find a way. Strasberg used to say, “Don’t be afraid, because what you’re going to meet on the other side is yourself.” And it’s true. I think that it enriches everything you do. It enriches your comedy and it enriches the drama, because you find more and more in yourself to use. Most of us run from a lot of those places in ourselves. For actors, you have to get back to the way you were as a child, which is to be open about it all; to let it out; to cry and laugh and be surprised and be open and really listen and do all the things that, as we grow up, we don’t do. You know, I was recently in an Elaine May play [“Roger is Dead,” George street Playhouse, New Brunswick] and at one point in the play the other actress says to me, “Don’t you listen, Doreen?” And my answer is, “No, not really.” And it gets the biggest laugh of the play, because nobody listens to anybody. It’s just amazing how people love that line. “No, not really.” They fall over. And I think that’s probably one of the problems that we face as people, you know? For me, that’s what all the acting lessons were about, having confidence and going places that maybe —

MARY: Confidence is really, I think, a big issue because whether you’re going to go on in the theater, or whatever in the world you’re going to do, it does give you the ability to use all that you’ve got.

MARLO: At your own will.

MARY: At your own will.

MARLO: That’s the biggest thing, is at your will. And I think the actor has a challenge that the other arts don’t have. Writers do not have to do it right now. They can do it when they feel like it. But actors have to do it right now. You hear “Action,” or you hear “Five minutes. Places,” and that’s it. That’s when you start.

MARY: I was always expected to jump out of a cake, with some kind of an extraordinary idea for a client, to get their business, or to keep it. I was the only girl in most of the rooms. And all the men in the room would all turn their heads at some point, turn and look at me and wait for me to jump out of the cake. And if I hadn’t had really, really terrific training, I just couldn’t have jumped. It gives you the ability to use — to get together everything that you’ve got going. Your thinking, your emotions, your feeling, your strategizing. It just pulls it all together. I think that really good teaching really does give you the ability to be instantaneous.

LILY: Well, are you saying that whether you had come up with some inspired idea or not, you could jump so artfully and —

MARY: It could make it seem so easy.

MARLO: I thought you meant you had the confidence to say what you were thinking, because a lot of people don’t.

MARY: There’s a certain amount of make-believe in everybody’s job. And there are times when you have to put on a robe that you are not sure is quite the right robe, but you’ve got to do something. Somebody has to do something.

LILY: I always thought it would be great to have actors do their autobiographies by their sense memories. The stage is probably more so because you have to build a performance from beginning to end and to take you where you need to go. And then you could have a linear thing of building what got you to completion. The thing where you want to be the fullest — and a sense memory wears out after time; you have to give it a rest and then go to another one, to be really moved at some point. The sense memory might have nothing to do with where you’re going, and probably doesn’t 99 percent of the time. You just want to be filled up with a similar emotion that conveys the idea of what’s happening in that play or that film.

MARLO: For people who don’t know what a sense memory is, what one could say is the greatest universal sense memory is Christmas. Every year it’s the same scent. You know, it’s the same lights, it’s the same music. All the senses are being used. So a sense memory is using your senses, or even maybe just one sense – the smell of someone, or the sound of their voice, or the look in somebody’s eye when they either loved you or hated you or hit you or whatever. All those different senses are used to bring forth the feeling that you need for the scene you’re about to do. And the scene could be about you and a bad boss. But you might use a dog that once bit you. You want to use that specific emotion for you.

MARY: I had to climb up the fire stairs for Sandy Meisner; the fire stairs of a building, up to about the 12th floor, and steal something from underneath the hand of a man who was asleep. And if I didn’t wake him up I’d make the grade. Crawling up fire stairs — 12 floors — and crawling into a window, it gives you exactly that. It teaches you what that feeling is, exactly. And you can rely on that sometime later if that’s the way you want to feel.

JOAN: Did this poor guy know that you were coming at him to steal something?

MARY: Yes. Yes, and he’s trained to react. If he hears you he wakes up. And if he doesn’t hear, he doesn’t.

MARLO: Lily, when you do all of those characters, as I’ve seen you do on Broadway so magnificently, that’s a lot of preparation you do.

LILY: I don’t know, you two sound like you’re much more trained than I am.

MARY: But they seem so real.

LILY: Whatever technique I have, I had somehow come to by default.

JOAN: You didn’t train at all before you started?

LILY: No, I tried. I had one class with somebody, and I can’t think of his name right now — I’ve seen him as an actor in different projects. But, I just couldn’t get it. If I tried to do what they were talking about in class, people would just look at me kind of horror-stricken when I’d finish a scene. I must have just been bizarre.

MARY: All those characters – don’t you live with them? It seems like they’re part of your house.

LILY: Well, they are, but because I get to invent them. When I have to do someone else’s stuff, someone else’s character, I’m not entirely sure what it is. Even a comedy like “9 to 5,” when we were doing it, I had to pretend because it — “9 to 5“ was a little bit instructional. I mean, underneath, it was about having day care and getting equal pay. I pretended that we were really Violet and Doralee and Judy, and that we were making an educational film about office workers.

MARLO: That’s a good idea. You know what that’s called? That’s called an “as if.”

JOAN: So, last question to Marlo and Lily: How do you remember the lines?

MARLO: That’s really not hard.

LILY: I’m always amazed at people. After you do something on the stage and people will say, “God, how do you remember the words?” And you think, “Surely that’s not what they’re coming away with — the fact that I knew the lines.”

MARLO: I don’t know why it isn’t hard, but because you rehearse. Lily does so many characters and she doesn’t even have many places to move around on the stage. But when you’re in a play, the lines are connected to the physical movements. So that when I get up from the couch — I mean you’d have to shoot me in the head not to get me to say the line when I stood up.

LILY: Muscle memory, of course. If you’ve done a project – done a play or a piece like that, and you come back to it five years later, you’ll … the muscle memory will be so strong.

MARLO: It’s right there.

MARY: But you don’t do it at home, do you? You don’t get up off the couch and say that line?

MARLO: No, no, no, no, no. But it’s funny. It really is true. We did “Roger is Dead” in San Francisco several months ago and now we’ve done it in New Jersey, and are hoping to bring it to New York. When we did it in San Francisco, she did some rewrites. And Elaine added new lines in the middle of these scenes that we’d already played for, four and four – rehearsed four weeks and played four weeks. And those were the hard lines to remember because your body had moved to a whole other rhythm. And now you were throwing in – just little things. I’d put the tea over there. And it was like, God, you couldn’t even remember that one little line, because your body did remember another way. And that was actually harder than learning the whole play. It’s interesting.

LILY: I was such a fan of Elaine May and Mike Nichols when they first started working [An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May]. And one night, many years later, I did a big benefit at the Hollywood Bowl. They were already famous for many other things by this time. But I’d been so influenced by them and Elaine was there — I’d never met her — but she was in the front row or somewhere near …

MARLO: Oh, God.

LILY: … and I remember I heard her laugh at this one line and — forever that line was like magic to me.

JOAN: What’s the line?

LILY: It was in “Tell Miss Sweeney Goodbye,” this monologue I have where I say, “This year I’ve got to buckle down. The second grade is serious business.”

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