Lily Tomlin Fights to Save “The Last Great Majestic Animal”

The comedy icon talks about the new HBO documentary "An Apology to Elephants"—and why she’s so passionate about this cause

by Susan Toepfer • MORE Features/Entertainment Editor
lily tomlin and elephant image
Photograph: Lisa Jeffries/Courtesy HBO

More: Those training scenes were hard to watch. I had no idea. I also thought the ivory trade was a thing of the past.
L.T.:
It did stop for a while. But the demand for ivory is so great in China that you see whole fields of these huge dead beasts who are so smart and so sweet with such familial ties. It’s illegal to sell ivory to China, but legal to receive it there, so other countries are complicit. It’s a big market. Rhinos too are not in good shape. Advocates for elephants want a moratorium on ivory. We want to create a metaphor—if you turn a blind eye to this, what’s to stop us from ignoring all the suffering in the world? It’s profound suffering, pathetic and profound.

More: Maybe this documentary could make us look at elephants in captivity the way we look at dog fighting.
L.T.:
It would be lovely to have that impact. The idea that it’s educational to see an elephant at a zoo is B.S. when you could make an IMAX elephant stampede.

More: What can people do to help?
L.T.:
Don’t go to circuses and don’t go to zoos. That’s a good start. If you want to send money, the sanctuary, PAWS, is a good place.

More: Let’s talk a bit about what else you have going.  I just saw Admission, where you play Tina Fey’s wacky feminist mother. She has a Bella Abzug tattoo on her bicep, which cracked me up—though I did wonder how many people in the audience would get it.
L.T.:
Those of us who know, know! Others might ask a question.

More: Was it in the script, or was it your idea?
L.T.:
My idea. My character has just had a double mastectomy, and I’ve known so many women who have had mastectomies and just tattooed their chests like brazen Amazons. I wanted to do that, but this character’s surgery is so recent she couldn’t have done it on her chest.

More: How did you like working with Tina Fey?
L.T.:
Of course I know her and I’ve admired her for such a long time. She’s so singular and she navigated SNL, which couldn’t have been easy, and became head writer and everything else—the movies, 30 Rock. So she’s a real force and her own person.

More: It’s amazing how much you’ve got going. All these TV roles!
L.T.:
Well, I never stopped doing standup. But I have been doing a lot of TV.

More: You play Reba McEntire’s mother, Lillie Mae, on Malibu Country. What drew you to that series?
L.T.:
Reba. I’m mad about her.  I saw her in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway and two minutes into it I began to weep. Such an affirmation of humanity—I just fell in love with her. My family is Southern—I was raised in Detroit, but my mom and dad came from Kentucky and they are buried in Nashville. So I’d run into Reba in Nashville, and when I got the series bid I was just fascinated with working with her.

More: Any new projects?
L.T.:
No, I’m just hoping Malibu Country gets picked up. It’s a really fun group. It takes a while to get traction in a sitcom. Now our neighbor is going to have a baby and you know Lillie Mae is going to want to get ahold of that baby.

More: You have been with Jane Wagner for over 40 years. How does it feel for you today to see the change in acceptance of gay couples and the movement toward marriage equality?
L.T.:
It makes me feel very good and very proud because of the consciousness that has come out of this generation. They just refuse to be invisible. They have a different awareness of other humans. It’s pretty astounding that that much progress has been made. Just like an African American in the White House. It’s parallel with gay rights and it’s pretty amazing.

Next: Funniest Women On Screen

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