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Interview with Lily Tomlin – Narrator and Executive Producer of An Apology to Elephants

Interview with Lily Tomlin - Narrator and Executive Producer of An Apology to Elephants

Tonight, in honor of Earth Day, HBO will premiere An Apology to Elephants narrated by Lily Tomlin that will put to an end any feeling person’s trips to the circus.  It’s an intense film about the abuses elephants endure to entertain us, but is written in a way (by Jane Wagner) that won’t freak kids out.  The film is directed by Amy Schatz.

The amazing Lily Tomlin (and Jane Wagner) spoke about the film and some other topics in an interview last week.

Women and Hollywood: We are going to talk about An Apology to Elephants which was so disturbing. I am never going to the circus again. The press release for the film says that you inspired the film. Can you talk about that?

Lily Tomlin: I’ve been advocating for elephants and against elephant captivity for 4 or 5 years because of learning what I’ve learned and seeing what I saw through people like Pat Derby. I went to HBO and pitched the idea of doing a movie about elephants in captivity.

WaH: How did this become an issue for you?

LT: Through friends and other activists. We had two elephants in our zoo in LA, Ruby and Billy. The whole idea of being in captivity in such limited space, especially in a zoo, causes elephants to suffer. They develop all kinds of foot diseases. They die. They get cysts. Not only is it painful, it eventually kills them. And they develop mental disorders too because they are not used to being imprisoned in a very tiny space. So, getting them out of the zoo is a big objective for people who are advocates of elephants in captivity like the people at the PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) sanctuary which is one of the best in the country.

How I got involved was that I tried to get Billy transferred to the sanctuary. I was asked to write a letter to the mayor because they knew I had interest. I just wasn’t that educated. So, to be able to write the letter to the mayor and the council people, I had to read and learn about elephants. When I did, just like you said about seeing the film, I saw so much stuff that was disturbing. It was so obvious that it was insane to have animals this large in the zoo. 

The purpose of the film for Jane and me both was just to enlighten. To put something out there because the elephant became a symbol to me–a symbol of the elephant in the room. And, the room was really big. It was the size of the globe. You can’t just turn away from the obvious suffering that these animals endure. Also, they are ripped out of the wild. Babies are ripped from their families. Families are mowed down. For me, the cruelty was emblematic of all of the cruelty in the world for humans and animals.

WaH: So, Jane, while I have you–I felt that this film could speak to young people as well as adults. Was that your intention?

Jane Wagner: Yes, it was. I didn’t know if it was too hard, but I figured you have to seize the opportunity and hopefully break through.  We didn’t want to make it light or too because the cruelty that you saw was breathtaking.

LT: Also, there is so much footage and documentation of the brutality that is visited on the elephants to break them. They have never been on this continent, they weren’t meant to be here.  When Jane and I grew up, you never thought twice about going to the zoo. You never heard any information or anything revealing. It’s only been in recent decades that there has been any movement at all about what goes on in the world.

I was always empathetic with animals. If you have a dog or a cat, you know how developed they can be. How sensitive, how aware. They suffer. We all do.  It’s a terrible and self-involved point of view that we do something because someone else is exploitable. Anyways, that was part of the consciousness, having come to be part of our lives, period. It was a way to demonstrate it. And the elephants are endangered there are only 100,000 left and the  ivory trade is killing them at the rate of 38,000 a year. 

WaH: You’ve been an outspoken feminist throughout your life and career. Do you think your politics has affected your career in any way?

LT: Sure. I think my politics are just inclined to be empathetic and humanistic. I grew up with so many different kinds of people with different politics, different religion, no religion, no politics, education, no education, and I was infatuated with all of them. I saw what was tender and sweet and kind about them, not what was cruel and none of them were that much better than the others. They had a range of human behavior.

WaH: Can you elaborate on why you chose to have a tattoo of Bella Abzug in your latest film Admission?

LT: I just wanted it. My character had just had a double mastectomy so I initially wanted it because my character to have a very heroic Phoenix or some other great image tattooed over the whole chest. Then, in that first scene where Portia (Tina Fey) comes, I run to the outside shirtless chopping wood.  But I couldn’t because in the play, she’s just recently had her mastectomies and I knew it she wouldn’t have been healed enough to get that tattoo. Then I had the inspiration to put a tattoo on my shoulder. I’m just as happy I did that because I adored Bella. 

WaH: What’s the thing that stressed you out about the state of feminism today?

LT: Well, I have a lot of hopes and expectations. I do think the thing that most distresses me is whenever I see things over sexualized, I worry about young girls. Some of the fall out of the feminist movement is that it made younger and younger girls more sexually available. It’s part of the philosophy, be your own person and be free. But, girls are so over sexualized in this culture.

WaH: So, you think that the images that they see now are too sexualized? And then they are saying that is feminism?

LT: I think people think that is one of the tenets of feminism. Of course, sexual freedom and liberation are yes, but it has to be of your own making. I’m stunned when I hear about friends’ children, ten or twelve years old giving blow jobs. I just don’t like the girls being used or exploited in that way. It’s just indiscriminate sexual relating. It’s just the isolated things.

WaH: It feels like it’s getting worse.

LT: Let’s talk about cartoons. In so many cartoons there’s a dumb cute guy in school. There is always the bad girl, the bitchy little girl and the nice girl. The bitchy girl is always trying to get the boy who is not too aware. Even in cartoons sometimes I see it.

WaH: Do you feel that Hollywood has changed at all for women? Are we seeing better images and better opportunities? 

JW: I think there are more roles for women, but the roles are just as stereotyped.

LT: I think there is more awareness, but I don’t think it’s prevalent enough. But, I think there are a lot of exceptions. I think that there are more people who are aware. You try to raise the consciousness level just a little bit at a time. I try to do it incrementally. Create whatever you create. If you have enough activism and you can kind of beat it into studios. At least they show a little chagrin at being caught at something. 

The premiere is tonight at 7pm on HBO and will repeat throughout this week.

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