Lily Tomlin discusses playing Tina Fey’s mom in ‘Admission’
“Admission” is a romantic comedy, not an action movie, so it comes as something of a surprise that one of its stars wanted to advertise their physique with a scene in which they chop wood bare-chested in the forest. Even more surprising? That star was comedy legend Lily Tomlin. “I wanted to be in the woods chopping wood with my shirt off,” Tomlin reveals about her character, a septuagenarian feminist whose adult life has been devoted to activism. “The character has a double mastectomy, and I think, I’ll get a breastplate made like I’ve had a double mastectomy and I’ll tattoo it to show another expression of her empowerment and how she’s completely at ease with herself and accepts her female body.”
Unfortunately, the actress landed the role too late to be able to follow through on her plan. But even without the requisite hardware, she wanted to bare her body onscreen. She reached into her own experiences in order to bare her character’s soul. “I am a feminist, and I lived in those days of the movement,” Tomlin explains. “And I know what it is as a human [to believe] in a certain philosophy or some doctrine — and you do not want to betray it.”
As Susannah, Tomlin plays the mother of Tina Fey’s Princeton admissions officer, Portia, who’s fumbling her way through a romance with an alternative high school principal (Paul Rudd) while simultaneously dealing with the revelation that an applicant just might be her long-lost son. The 73-year-old actress says that she loved the parallels she saw between mother and daughter, particularly since like her daughter’s long-concealed pregnancy, Susannah had Portia under dubious circumstances that she has since reimagined as an emblem of her feminist values.
“My character got pregnant from having sex with a guy she’s attracted to on the train, but she doesn’t want to admit that she was so attracted to this guy that she was vulnerable to him,” Tomlin observes. “So she creates that mythology that she chose him and she was empowered enough to decide when she was going to have a child and who she was going to have it with. And then that mythology isolates her from her daughter most of all.”
Tomlin especially liked that the film possessed so many layers while still managing to deliver on a visceral level. “Aside from the feminist aspect, it’s just a human story about people not being their authentic selves,” she says. “Every one of us was living some kind of inauthenticity.”
“The metaphor of admission, in the course of the movie we all have an admission,” she says, punctuating the film’s title. “I love the slug line: ‘Let someone in.’”