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Frank J. Avella Talks to
Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin
Prairie Home Companion Roundtable

Sunday, June 4, 2006
The Regency Hotel - New York


Opposite photo credit:
Frank J. Avella

Click here for Prairie review

Robert Altman’s technique of seemingly-improvisational, overlapping, sentence-finishing dialogue must be infectious as it seems to carry over into the real live banter between two of his most recent screen teams--the legends: Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin.

Altman’s perspicacity knows no bounds pairing these two dynamic and diverse actors resulting in an electrifying chemistry onscreen and off...

Flashback: March 5, 2006. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep are about to present an Honorary Oscar to one of our greatest living filmmakers. In an evening filled with the dull and the pathetic (Crash, best picture?), the one magical moment proves to be a bravura tour de force of crisp and clever verbiage (seemingly-spontaneous, yet actually scripted) as Tomlin and Streep salute a Master. Altman, as outrageous and egregious as it may seem, is accepting his very first Academy Award. The three together cast the bewitching spell of true artistry.

Flashforward: June, 2006. Altman’s Prairie Home Companion features an assortment of the best Hollywood has to offer funneled through Garrison Keillor’s inventive mind--including Meryl & Lily who play singing sisters Yolanda & Rhonda Johnson. While watching the infectious feature, one never doubts that these two are sibs, a tribute to the two actresses and their director.

In person and out of character, Lily and Meryl have a different yet definite They appear comfortable with one another and curious about each other. Both look fantastic. Radiant is a better description.

Meryl Streep and Garrison Keillor in Robert Altman's
Prarie Home Companion
Photo Courtesy of Picturehouse

The following are hilights from a playful and insightful sit down about Prairie Home Companion and working with Altman. Before the interview, as Virginia Madsen and Kevin Kline are leaving the room, Meryl plops herself in Lily’s lap and jokes with Kevin about giving improper answers to interview questions. It’s fascinating and filmicly resonant watching them jest, since Kline made his screen debut opposite Streep in the landmark Alan J. Pakula film, Sophie’s Choice, 24 years ago.

Together, Meryl and Lily are sheer enchantment. And bloody hysterical to boot!

On their Oscar Appearance earlier in the year:

Meryl Streep: We don’t remember it --

Lily Tomlin: No we don’t. We were kinda comatose. We were just praying that we wouldn’t be humiliated...

Meryl Streep: And then we were, and everybody liked that.

Lily Tomlin: Yeah!

(they crack up)

Lily Tomlin: It was a relief...when it was over!

On their perfect harmonizing in Prairie Home Companion

Lily Tomlin: We found that we were related genetically. That we had a biological blend. (Meryl laughs) Wouldn’t that have been great. I was hoping her (Meryl’s) mother had been to Detroit. Or her father. And I was really her half sister. (a moment) I took singing lessons.

Meryl Streep: She did...

Silly question is asked about today’s pop stars (Lindsay Lohan) also being good actresses:

Streep: Who else is, like, a good singer and actress?

Journalist who asked silly question: Jessica Simpson.

Second journalist: Mandy Moore.

Meryl Streep: (firmly) I said who is AN ACTRESS?

(laughter followed by long pause)

Lily Tomlin: I don’t understand the question.

Lily Tomlin in Robert Altman's Prarie Home Companion
Photo Courtesy of Picturehouse

Lily jokes about wishing she had had the brains to sing--if only to collect the royalties.

Meryl Streep: I have a real clear view of my abilities--size and shape and relative depth of my ability to be a singer so I would never even--and I have too much respect for the great singers to imagine that I could be that --but I sure love singing in this. You’re a character--

Lily Tomlin: (overlap) You’re a character. You create a singing persona, you could obviously sing in almost any style.

Meryl Streep: I couldn’t. The other day I had to do Garrison’s show...

Lily Tomlin: Oh yeah?

Meryl Streep: ...sing as myself. And I just didn’t even know how to do it.
I was so nervous.

Lily Tomlin: That’s true...

Meryl Streep: It’s not like I was Yolanda. I was Meryl Streep...ewww. You were supposed to be there.

Lily Tomlin: I had a show in San Jose, I couldn’t do it. I was so upset and unhappy. I would have loved to sing at the (Hollywood) Bowl.

Meryl Streep: I’ll tell you something, it was not like the movie...

Lily Tomlin: I would be scared, too...

Meryl Streep: ...Cause the movie is that little Fitzgerald (theatre) where Prairie Home Companion was born. And that audience of real St. Paul people. This was the Hollywood Bowl. This was 14,000 people...

Lily Tomlin: I know! It’s huge.

Meryl Streep: Nobody told me THAT when I said, oh sure I’ll come and do the Prairie Home Companion. How hard could it be?

Lily Tomlin: Did they have the big screen TV?

Meryl Streep: Oh, yeah. It’s terrifying. And he’s (Garrison) really something...

Lily Tomlin: Yeah...

Meryl Streep: Really, really bring 14,000 people into this proximity and tell them that Wobegon story. That’s the only thing I wish was in our movie...

Lily Tomlin: But, y’know they hope to make Lake Wobegon (the film version) I hope they do...

Meryl Streep: I hope they do. I’m not a singer. I can sing as the character. Lily said Altman said she was practicing-- You tell your own story.

Lily Tomlin: No, you tell it.

Meryl Streep: She was practicing and taking singing lessons and she called Bob and said “I’m so worried I won’t be good.” And he said “Well, then you’re not that good.” (Lily cracks up) “Then Rhonda just sings like she sings.” It was great permission...whatever we did was fine.

Lily Tomlin: You just don’t feel like you’ve failed in any way at all...

Meryl Streep: You’re not judged...

Lily Tomlin: ...There’s no judgment...right...

Meryl Streep: Yeah...

Lily Tomlin: You don’t get a if a director feels like you’ve let a scene down they send you a vibe...

Meryl Streep: Exactly...

Lily Tomlin: ...Like you’ve ruined my picture...

(they crack up)

On Nashville being a parallel experience to Prairie:

Lily Tomlin: That was my very first movie, so --

Meryl Streep: It was?

Lily Tomlin: Yeah, only Altman would give me a part in a movie in those days.

Meryl Streep: Why?

Lily Tomlin: Cause he’d never laid eyes on Ernestine, I suppose. (laughs) Everybody else thought I WAS Ernestine. It was much more sprawling and we were there for two months. And each of us worked maybe two weeks out of two months. And talk about not being on the set and being on the set, we always gravitated to the set. And the best, I shouldn’t even tell this story...I digress here...the best story is there’s twenty-five people in the movie...about twenty-five...and we all had a common makeup room every day. And Barbara Harris is in the movie. Now of ALL the people in the movie who do you think would know the SAG rules?

Meryl Streep: (fascinated) Really?

Lily Tomlin: Barbara. And the last day...we’d only been on the set two weeks every day we weren’t on the set we were supposed to get five dollars for lunch...

Meryl Streep: Sure...

Lily Tomlin: And the last day, there are these twenty-five actors and here comes Barbara... (pretends to mumble figures)...And the accountant had to come out and peel off four hundred bucks for each actor.

(Meryl howls with laughter)

Lily Tomlin: That was the last day of shooting and it was just hilarious.

Meryl Streep: Oh, my...

Lily Tomlin: I don;t know why I told that story. But Nashville. Yes, I thought of Nashville. Of course. The microcosm was more contained. Music is a big character in each.

On predicting chemistry with someone:

Meryl Streep: Yes, you can. I think you can.

Lily Tomlin: Can you?

Meryl Streep: (singsongy) Yes you ca-an! I think that the bigger the ego, the less chance there is that there’s gonna be that chemistry. The bigger the diva...

Lily Tomlin: That’s true...

Meryl Streep: Women, I’m talking about...the less chance that you’ll have this ease of communication--which is ALL acting is: This two-way street.

Lily Tomlin: Two-way Streep, it’s called.

(Meryl cracks up)

Discussion turns to swiping mementos as Lily has kept quite a bit from shows and films.

Meryl Streep: (without missing a beat, grabs shoe off foot and holds up) These are from The Manchurian Candidate.

Lily Tomlin: Are they?

Meryl Streep: Oh yeah. Would I buy these shoes? No way. (puts shoe back on) Wardrobe. Glenn Close told me (doing a near-perfect Glenn Close impersonation): “I have everything that I’ve ever a warehouse on the property. (Lily cracks up) And it’s temperature controlled.” Why didn’t I do that? I do not think ahead. I do have the boots from Silkwood, A kakoi, which is a wrap, from Out of Africa, probably ONE thing from every film...

(Lily begins to crack up)

Lily Tomlin: Did you see this? (pulls Meryl’s foot up) She shoved the tablecloth in her shoe. (Meryl cracks up completely and uncontrollably, so does Lily) When she took her shoe off she shoved the tablecloth... When she got up she would have pulled everything off the table.

(uncontrollable laughter)

Lily Tomlin: She’ll probably use it in some damn movie before I can. I better work fast or she’ll win another Oscar!

(Meryl laughs hysterically)


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