Over the course of a single day, Paul Weitz’s “Grandma” follows mismatched grandmother Elle (Lily Tomlin) and Sage (Julia Garner) as they navigate around the sprawl of Los Angeles in hope of pulling together enough cash to help young Sage get out of a particularly fraught situation. Elle isn’t really the doting grandma type, however, and her own troubles — including a very recent break-up with the spunky Olivia (Judy Greer) — can’t help but inform her decidedly out-there personality and wacky reactions.
As Sage, Garner is tasked with juggling a big personal problem (the kind that makes a girl grow up pretty fast) while also trying to wrangle her wild grandmother. As the pair glides through Los Angeles, they encounter a cadre of friends, family members and total strangers, all of whom contribute to their unexpected journey in unique ways (unfortunately, not always financial). The film even-handedly addresses a wide variety of mostly female-centric topics, and though it was written and directed by a man, both Tomlin and Garner’s characters are impressively well-rounded women.
Garner recently sat down with Indiewire to chat about her indie background, making the jump to the small screen and why she knew that Weitz was the right man to steer such a delicate ship. Read below for Garner’s full interview with Indiewire.
The film takes place over the course of a single day, what was the filming process like?
It was 19 days. It was so, so quick. It was 19 days, and we were shooting all over the place. We were filming everywhere in L.A. But it was very easy, because all of the scenes took place in the day, in one day. I think it was kind of hard, on one hand, but on the other hand, it was easy. I got to wear the same thing every day. I went to bed earlier, because I would get up earlier. It wasn’t super-long hours.
What was the first thing that came to your mind when you were told you’d be starring alongside Lily Tomlin?
I’m just excited. I read the script, and it was great, and I’ve always loved Lily’s work, even before I was in the film industry, and Paul Weitz’s work, too. I was just so excited. Once I flew over there, I was so nervous to shoot, but I was so excited.
And your mother comes from a comedic background.
She acted for a little bit, and she did quite well in Israel, like 30, 40 years ago. She was on the Israeli “Saturday Night Live.” My mother was always very funny and open, so I think that helped. I didn’t grow up really in the film business, even though my parents are both artists. I grew up in New York City. They would never put me into acting, I just kind of wanted it, and I told them that. I said, “Yeah, I wanna be an actress.” “What?” My mom’s like, “No, that’s not a good profession, I left that.”
What did you learn from working with Lily?
I just watched her process. I feel like I didn’t need to ask so many questions, it was like, right there. When you’re working, and you’re so focused and concentrated in your work, you’re not going to ask, “So, like, how did you get into the business? How’d you start?” [Laughs] It’s like, “Okay, we’re going to shoot in five minutes.” Just watching her work, sometimes I would be watching her on her coverage, and watching on the monitor, and seeing how she prepares before. It was just amazing.
I think the thing that I admire about her the most is just how present she is. And I don’t only mean that in her work and her craft, but more her as a person. She’s there, and it comes out in her work. You notice her on-screen because she’s a very present person.
How did you develop your on-screen chemistry, which is so funny but also adds significant veracity to the granddaughter/grandmother relationship?
I think it just came out that way. We had a week of rehearsal before shooting, and just hearing how Lily is going to approach the character and how I approach the character, we kind of just talked about that.
The film is rooted in issues that are more skewed towards women, but it was written and directed by Paul Weitz.
He’s very sensitive, which I think that works, that’s why he pulls it off.
Were you at all concerned about a man handling such delicate subject matter?
I wasn’t [concerned], because Paul is so talented — and, again, it’s the same thing with Lily — even before I started acting, I knew his name and I knew all of his films. Once I got the script, and I saw, “Written By Paul Weitz,” I knew it was going to be good, like good. I trusted him, and then I read it, and it was phenomenal. It wasn’t just good. “About A Boy” is also great, “In Good Company,” all of these movies that he’s done in the past, they’re just great.
I wasn’t really worried, no. But then I saw the movie, and it kind of reminded me, wow, he did a really good job with that. You forget that a man directed it. But you also wouldn’t think that a woman directed it, you just don’t think anything, that’s the best.
You’ve already worked with some incredible directors, including Paul and Rebecca Thomas and Sean Durkin. Do you go looking for projects with directors you’re passionate about or are you more compelled by material?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I think they all are very talented and I really like their atmosphere. I feel like that’s really important, when you see a director’s work, it’s like, do they have atmosphere in their movies?, because that’s something you can’t teach.
There’s a note on your Wikipedia page–
Oh, my Wikipedia page, it’s a mess. My friend was like, “Yeah, they said that you’re this and this and this,” and I was like, “What? let me see.” What did they say?
It’s nothing bad. It says that David Chase specifically wrote your part for you in “Not Fade Away.”
Oh, yeah, he did. That’s true! I auditioned for the daughter originally, and I didn’t get it, but then he wrote that part. I flew in, and actually, I had a horrible eye infection that week and it was my first trip to LA, 16 years old and I had this horrible eye infection. Yeah, he wrote that part for me.
You’ve had a lot of luck with your films hitting the festival circuit. “Grandma” even served as the closing night film at Sundance this year.
It was my third time at Sundance. My first film festival and my first film that I’ve ever been in, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” that was at Sundance. This year I went to Sundance, the year before I didn’t go to Sundance, but the year before that year… Every two years, I go to Sundance. Next year, I probably won’t be at the Sundance, but the year after… [Laughs]
And your breakout role in “Electrick Children” also had a strong showing on the festival circuit. Were you at all prepared for that?
No. But, you know what, you’re never prepared. How I look at things, especially in this business, you hope for the best, expect for the worst kind of thing. You just do your job, you hope for the best, and you do the best job you can do, and then, it’s not in your hands anymore. That’s it. Like this movie that I just did, I did the best job I could, I dyed my hair, and now I’m not going to think about it. Now it’s all the director.
What film did you just dye your hair for?
The movie is called “Tomato Red.” It’s from the guy who wrote “Winter’s Bone,” Daniel Woodrell. He’s a great writer, he wrote this book, “Tomato Red.” It’s very different. We just wrapped two days ago, so that’s why I’m a redhead now. It is about a family in the Ozarks. It’s kind of the same tone and feel of “Winter’s Bone.”
You’ve been branching out into television lately, specifically with “The Americans,” which sort of feels like a TV version of an indie film — it has such grassroots support and word of mouth behind it.
It’s a very smart show. I had heard of it, and I’d seen the posters and stuff, but I didn’t see it. I think Matthew Rhys is great, I think he’s a phenomenal actor. And Keri Russell is so good and she’s so beautiful and she’s just so likable. I didn’t see the show before auditioning for it, so as soon as I started doing the auditioning process for it, I decided I had to see the show and I ended up loving it. It was like, I want this job, I really want it. I felt like it would be helpful [to watch it], and see, what kind of atmosphere, what are they looking for, what kind of actors do they like, that they hire those kind of actors, the kind of acting that’s on the show.
“Grandma” is in theaters on Friday.