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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

‘A Prairie Home Companion’: chatting with Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin

“Bubbly” isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of the regal Meryly Streep. And Lily Tomlin, with all her snarky cynicism, doesn’t particularly strike you as a giggly kind of gal. But then you meet them, and, well, maybe it’s a girl thing, but I wanted to hug them both.

Streep and Tomlin insist they’d never worked together, hadn’t even met until they showed up on the set of A Prairie Home Companion to play singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson. But to see them together now, it’s clear that they developed an instant chummery: the wonderful spontaneity and seeming longtime comeraderie they evince onscreen as Yolanda and Rhonda has carried over to Meryl and Lily. They cavort and snicker like favorite sisters, and finish each other’s sentences in their eagerness to answer journalists’ questions.

“We sort of fell into our parts” as siblings, says Streep, and they did so with such a thrilling frisson of chemistry that they steal the movie with the sisters’ tales of their performing family and outrageous family legends (one involves a stolen donut), related mostly to Yolanda’s daughter, Lola (played by Lindsay Lohan). One amazing scene early in the film they shot, they say, in long extended takes, and its improv feel sprung from the fact that they couldn’t remember their lines over the 20-plus minutes of rolling cameras. “It just felt like playing music,” Streep explains, “lines would change from take to take.” “We’d try to amuse each other and surprise each other,” Tomlin says.

And they’re still doing it:
Tomlin: “I tried to have a nose sculpted like hers. I thought it would be funny.”
Streep: [snorts with laughter]
Tomlin: “I didn’t realize how much she was upstaging me until I watched the movie.”
Streep: [snorts even harder]
Tomlin: “See, that’s how I got that laugh for Ernestine.”

As they tell it, the set of PHC sounds like it was a creative free-for-all. All the singing was live, and “the band was playing all the time,” Streep says. “Kevin [Kline] would sit down at the piano and play something they didn’t even have the rights to” and hence couldn’t be used in the final film. Director Paul Thomas Anderson hung around the set — he was “just sweet, loving, smart,” says Tomlin. “Someday he’ll get us in a film.” Streep snorts: “If this goes out to him, he will.”

More choice words of wisdom:

On the mere 21 days Altman took to shoot the film:
Tomlin: “They could probably make a lot more movies that way.”
Streep: “Yeah, if they realized how good it is when it’s fast.”

Streep on her newly wacky behavior on awards shows: “It ludicrous how many times I’ve been on those things, so what can you do but get beat up by your own good fortune?”

Tomlin on losing the young performer’s fear: “Everything’s scarier earlier. It’s so good to get old and fat and lazy.”

See also:
A Prairie Home Companion (review)
‘A Prairie Home Companion’: chatting with Garrison Keillor
‘A Prairie Home Companion’: chatting with Kevin Kline and Virginia Madsen

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