Josh Rottenberg
March 22, 2013 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Entertainment Weekly: Having grown up in the ’70s and ’80s and gone into comedy, Tina Fey and costar Paul Rudd must have geeked out on you pretty hard while you were making Admission.

Lily Tomlin: I suppose so. I didn’t expect it. First of all, I forget that I’m older than they are! [Laughs] They sat down at lunch one day and wanted to know all about The Incredible Shrinking Woman and 9 to 5 and I thought, ”Oh my God, they were literally kids when those movies came out!”

This is a more dramatic role than we’ve seen Tina do before, and it’s her first big-screen role after 30 Rock. You’re someone who’s always moved easily between film and TV, drama and comedy, going all the way back to Nashville in 1975. What’s the secret?

Well, only [Nashville director] Bob Altman would have given me that part because everyone thought I was Ernestine [the telephone-operator character from TV’s Laugh-In]. How lucky could I be to get that as my first movie?

And to get an Oscar nomination!

Right — and I haven’t been nominated since, damn it. [Laughs] I don’t know — I just did what appealed to me, and I still do. But Tina doesn’t need my advice. She’s absolutely her own person and self-possessed and centered.

Along with being a pioneer among women in comedy, you were ahead of the curve in that you never formally came out in the media as gay — you just casually acknowledged it, which is much easier for performers to do nowadays than it was back then.

It’s stunning, the progress in the last 15 years. TIME magazine offered me the cover in ’75 if I would come out. I was a bit insulted that they thought I’d trade my personal life for the cover of TIME. It’s probably just as well. Being such a big TV personality at that time, it probably would have been tsunami-like.

Do you keep tabs on what the younger generation of comedians is doing?

Not like I should, no. I’m not as close to all of that as I was. But there’s a lot of people I like. I like all the people who do characters: Kristen Wiig, of course, and Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph. I like Wanda Sykes as a stand-up. And when they offered me the part on Eastbound & Down [as Kenny Powers’ mom], I watched both seasons and just went crazy for Danny McBride.

What do you see as the biggest difference between forging a comedy career today versus when you came up?

Certain barriers have been surpassed, but the field is much more crowded now. The way Ernestine just exploded on Laugh-In — you can’t do that on TV anymore. There were only three networks then. I was lucky. Sometimes you just get lucky.

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