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Shared inspiration guides 'Admission' star Lily Tomlin, scribe Karen Croner

Published On: Mar 21 2013 04:14:08 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 25 2013 08:40:20 AM CDT
Lily Tomlin in Admission inset Karen Croner

Focus Features

Lily Tomlin in "Admission" (inset: Karen Croner).

If comedy legend Lily Tomlin had a daughter, she said it would be Tina Fey.

"I'm so admiring of Tina -- she's become a real comedy force," Tomlin told me in a recent interview. "Before the film, I never thought our mother-daughter relationship, but now I'd like her to be my daughter. I could have had a brainy good kid like that with some good comedic chops. She's just a good, self-possessed individual."

The funny thing is the mother-daughter dynamic Tomlin and Fey have in the new comedy drama "Admission," is almost hopelessly dysfunctional, as it seems like they'll never meet eye-to-eye.

"My character did that to her -- made her all uptight and insecure, even though she acts like she's not," Tomlin said. "And because of it, she's settled for this boring, prosaic life. I did it to her. I didn't let her be herself."

Directed by Paul Weitz and adapted for the screen by Karen Croner, "Admission" follows the exploits of Portia (Fey), a Princeton University Admissions officer who, for more than a decade and a half, has had the unenviable task of sorting out the applications and weeding out the pleas of thousands of would-be students at the prestigious Ivy League college.

Leading a sort of mundane existence, Portia sees a glimmer of hope when Clarence (Wallace Shawn), the dean of Admissions, announces his retirement -- leaving Portia and Corrine (Gloria Reuben) as the top two contenders for the position.

With the pressure on and Princeton's ranking slipping from No. 1 to No. 2 in U.S. News and World Report, Portia makes a quick decision to shake things up by visiting an alternative school at the urging of John (Paul Rudd), an affable school staff member. It seems John has a prodigy student named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) that he believes has the smarts for a place at Princeton, as well as secret: the teen appears to be the long-lost son Portia gave up for adoption years ago.

Overwhelmed with the revelation and a sudden urge to right the past wrong, Portia desperately begins to bend some rules to craft a way to get Jeremiah admitted to Princeton, even though her under-handed ways could spell disaster for her career.

And then there's strained relationship with her mother, Susannah (Tomlin) …

Without question, "Admission" features one of the most unique storylines to come down the pike in a long time. But for Croner ("One True Thing") -- who adapted the screenplay from Jean Hanff Korelitz' novel of the same name -- the story was very accessible because it's so relatable.

"I had just gone through getting my son in middle school and it was a foreign experience to me," Croner told me in a separate interview. "I live in LA, where it's very competitive, and when somebody gave me the book 'Admission' and told me it was about an admissions officer and it was very sad, I thought, 'That doesn't sound sad. I thought it sounds hilarious. I want to write that character. I want to see her suffer like I just did."

Tomlin said she was sold on Croner's script because the characters were anything but predictable.

"I just thought the people in the story were elusive. The relationships were not pat," Tomlin observed. "It was surprising and unpredictable."

And most of all, Tomlin said she loved how forthright her aging feminist character was with her life, treating a life-altering event like a double mastectomy operation as if it were just another day.

"I felt I understood a lot about my character and I was excited by that," Tomlin said. "Initially, because the character had a double-mastectomy, I wanted to her to be like the feminists I knew who had mastectomies -- particularly in the early days -- who would tattoo their chests and would be very brazen about it. They would be empowered rather than intimated or insecure."

"Susannah is the sort of person who would say, 'I want to have a breast plate made so I can chop wood with my shirt off and have it all tattooed,' as a lot of women did," Tomlin added. "I'm not making this up. I only observed it and admired it, when these women were so bold and accepted this change in their body to a degree that they would literally wear it as some kind of insignia or identity."

Instead going with the breast plate, Tomlin's symbol of identity in the film was a tattoo of feminist icon Bella Abzug on her arm.

"Lily, Tina and I are all pretty serious feminists -- it's been a pretty big part of our lives," Croner said. "At the same time, we have the same sense of humor about things like tattoos, so we were able to explore that, mine it and play with it, and Lily didn't hold back at all -- it was so much fun."

"I loved the Bella tattoo," Tomlin enthused. "Ideas like that turn you on."

Tomlin and Croner said they were thrilled to finally have the opportunity to work with  Fey and Rudd, and neither were disappointed, especially given the fact that the two acclaimed actors got to show more than what they're predominantly known for.

"They're known mostly for their comedy and they get to do that here, certainly, but they also get to go deeper and more emotional, and they both pulled it off so well," Croner said.

"What I loved was their chemistry. They're both these brainy, beautiful and somewhat neurotic people and you wonder what they're going to be like on screen together, and they were spectacular," Croner added. "They make things like even the issues of parenting sexy. That was a real feat to pull off. They were able to explore to explore the shades of their complexities, yet sparkle in their connection to each other."

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