J. Avella Talks to
Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin
Prairie Home Companion Roundtable
Hotel - New York
Frank J. Avella
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
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.
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 rapport...bond.
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:
Streep: We don’t remember it --
No we don’t. We were kinda comatose. We were
just praying that we wouldn’t be humiliated...
Streep: And then we were, and everybody liked
(they crack up)
It was a relief...when it was over!
On their perfect harmonizing
in Prairie Home Companion
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
Streep: She did...
Silly question is asked about
today’s pop stars (Lindsay Lohan) also being
Who else is, like, a good singer and actress?
Journalist who asked silly question:
Second journalist: Mandy Moore.
Streep: (firmly) I said who is AN ACTRESS?
(laughter followed by long pause)
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.
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--
(overlap) You’re a character. You create a
singing persona, you could obviously sing in almost
Streep: I couldn’t. The other day I
had to do Garrison’s show...
Streep: ...sing as myself. And I just didn’t
even know how to do it.
I was so nervous.
Streep: It’s not like I was Yolanda.
I was Meryl Streep...ewww. You were supposed to
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.
Streep: I’ll tell you something, it
was not like the movie...
I would be scared, too...
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
I know! It’s huge.
Streep: Nobody told me THAT when I said,
oh sure I’ll come and do the Prairie Home
Companion. How hard could it be?
Did they have the big screen TV?
Streep: Oh, yeah. It’s terrifying.
And he’s (Garrison) really something...
Streep: Really, really something...to bring
14,000 people into this proximity and tell them
that Wobegon story. That’s the only thing
I wish was in our movie...
But, y’know they hope to make Lake
Wobegon (the film version) I hope they do...
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.
No, you tell it.
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.
You just don’t feel like you’ve
failed in any way at all...
Streep: You’re not judged...
...There’s no judgment...right...
You don’t get a feeling...like if a director
feels like you’ve let a scene down they send
you a vibe...
...Like you’ve ruined my picture...
(they crack up)
On Nashville being a parallel
experience to Prairie:
That was my very first movie, so --
Streep: It was?
Yeah, only Altman would give me a part in a movie
in those days.
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?
Streep: (fascinated) Really?
Barbara. And the last day...we’d only been
on the set two weeks roughly...so every day we weren’t
on the set we were supposed to get five dollars
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)
That was the last day of shooting and it was just
Streep: Oh, my...
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:
Streep: Yes, you can. I think you can.
Lily Tomlin: Can you?
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...
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
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.
Streep: (without missing a beat, grabs shoe
off foot and holds up) These are from The Manchurian
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 worn...in
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)
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.
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)