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American comic and actor Lily Tomlin got a call from Italian director Franco Zeffirelli – he wanted her to play a lesbian archeologist in 1930s Florence. She would be co-starring with some of the acting aristocracy –Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith and Lady Olivier (Joan Plowright), plus Cher - so she couldn’t say no, she tells ANDREW L. URBAN.

Lily Tomlin is sitting by her lounge room window, watching the sun set on Los Angeles, the street lights coming on, twinkling in the haze like tiny stars, in the flatlands of downtown LA. The 180 degree view takes in the downtown city area on her left, and Century City on her right; one of her two cats is sitting beside her and she sighs in contentment. "When it’s like this, LA looks wonderful." And vastly different to Florence in the 1930s, which is where Tomlin was exactly a year earlier, playing lesbian archeologist Georgina Rockwell (Rock_well – gedit?) in Franco Zeffirelli’s Tea With Mussolini.

"I’ve played a lesbian a couple of times before, but never like this character"

"We spent the whole summer there," she says, not complaining. Except for a short stint in Rome, where the cast duly checked into a fancy hotel. Tomlin recalls checking in with Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith and Lady Olivier. "Then there was me, plain Lily Tomlin. But the hotel sent up flowers with a note that said, To Lady Tomlin!" She grins at the memory.

Tea With Mussolini is Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Franco Zeffirelli’s youth, in the years just before and during the war. After having lost his mother at six, he was brought up with the help of the so called Scorpioni, the expatriate English dames who lived in Florence – which by rights should have been an English town. Anyway, it was theirs wherever it happened to be, its artistic treasures their touchstones in the beautiful part of life.

Tomlin’s Georgina Rockwell is unlike the others in the group, much more contemporary, more politically aware and quite audacious, says Tomlin. "I’ve played a lesbian a couple of times before, but never like this character. It was no big deal in this film, and there was no direct reference to it, nor was she ridiculed or portrayed in a negative way. I just approached it as a woman archeologist, and did some historical research."

"I like to grill the director for his vision of the film and the role I am playing"

When it comes to film, she says "there are so many people involved I like to grill the director for his vision of the film and the role I am playing. I really want to pin down what they see in me for the role. Franco said he wanted somebody who’s funny, although I didn’t think it was a particuarly funny role. And he wanted energy – he’s seen me on stage. . . "

Indeed, so have thousands of others, and on tv, as well as film. Tomlin burst into our loungerooms in 1970 with Laugh In, in her comedic character of the telephone operator, Ernestine, and also as the devilish five and a half year old Edith Ann. She went on to win accolades and awards and/or award nominations for a gamut of roles in a range of projects – from her award winning role in Robert Altman’s Nashville to The Celluloid Closet to Murphy Brown to The Player, and from Short Cuts to Beverley Hillbillies - but throughout the years, Edith Ann remained alive. In 1994, Edith Ann: A Few Pieces of the Puzzle aired on ABC TV in the US; this was an animated special, which may be seen as the precursor to Tomlin’s next project, in which Edith Ann takes to the stage – as a radio controlled puppet, voiced by Tomlin.

"I don’t feel like sitting in a rocking chair pretending to be a five year old"

"I’m of an age now that I don’t feel like sitting in a rocking chair pretending to be a five year old," she says deadpan. "So we’ve just been building the puppet, and now I have to find her a job!"

Published July 29, 1999

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