Two years after appearing briefly as Tina Fey’s mother in Paul Weitz’s comedy “Admission,” comedy legend Lily Tomlin (75) is back, this time playing the titular “Grandma” in the director’s new film, which premieres at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival today. The role is one the juiciest of Tomlin’s career.
In “Grandma,” Tomlin plays Elle, a cantankerous lesbian poet whose longtime partner has recently passed away. When her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up on her doorstep asking for money for an abortion, the two embark on a road trip to find the cash.
Tomlin was in Park City earlier this week to take park in a panel on women in Hollywood, alongside her “9 to 5” co-star (and close friend) Jane Fonda. Indiewire spoke with Tomlin the day after the talk about “Grandma,” reuniting with Fonda for their upcoming Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” and the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
You were awesome in “Grandma.” It’s good to have you back.
Thank you. Good things happen to those who wait.
Speaking of that, it’s been too long since I last saw you in a leading role. Did you see a role this juicy coming your way at this point in your career?
No I didn’t. Paul [Weitz] just gifted me out of the sky. We had done “Admission” and a few months later he brought me a script. It was kind of exciting.
Did you know he was writing this for you?
No. He started writing it after “Admission,” I think. If I hadn’t done “Admission” it wouldn’t have happened. He didn’t tell me. He finished it and brought it to me and then we talked and talked and talked. I was doing something, and we’d meet every short time.
But I drove my own car and wore my own clothes, and I thought she’d wear what I wear around everyday, a jeans jacket and those shoes. It was kind of easy and effortless. We just threw our lot together and went after it.
You drive your own car and wear your own clothes as Elle; how much of this character is you?
A certain amount in that she is a lesbian and she’s a feminist. She’s of a certain age, as am I. She was a poet too. I don’t have a granddaughter and I’m certainly not as misanthropic as she is, though I could be convinced to go that way. I know some people like her in a way, a lot of feminists who are older and have been around for decades, and even those who had some repute as writers and poets, the times change a bit and people fall out of absolute favor in terms of what they put out. And that’s not just lesbian poets — it’s all kinds of people, actors too, even plumbers I suppose get to the point where they can’t turn the tools as good. The real issue was how Paul could do [the film] for the money.
Do you know how much it was made for?
Well under half a million. But we had a great cinematographer. He just lit so that there wasn’t a lot of time to do turnarounds or anything.
Was it thrilling for you to work on a micro-budget project, with such a tight shooting schedule?
Of course it was. We just went along. It seemed to flow. It seemed to go very well. Of course, you never really know, you think you’re doing okay and you think it’s going well but you’re not. I wasn’t nervous about it or anything, but it sort of seems like we’re having fun. No one was looking at it and giving us and Paul a hard time.
The woman over at Vanity Fair said she wanted my character to have a series, which would be good. But me and Jane Fonda just shot a series that will show in May, and I don’t want that to fail. I want it to be picked up.
How many episodes did you shoot for “Grace and Frankie”?
That must have been a riot, to reunite with Fonda.
Oh it was! And Sam Waterston as my husband and Martin Sheen as hers, so it’s good.
About Netflix, I have to know, do you have a Netflix account?
You binge watch?
What do you binge watch?
The obvious stuff, like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black.” I sort of have dipped into the others. I don’t binge them but I watch “Homeland” and “The Affair,” and all that stuff on cable.
How do you classify your new show? Is it a sitcom or a dramedy?
It’s a dramedy…
Are you not allowed to talk about it?
Well, you know the premise. Everyone knows the premise. At first I didn’t want them to share the premise because then the surprise will be gone. But it goes away in the first episode anyway because they sit us down and tell us they’re getting married and goodbye to us.
So many people are dying to see you and Jane back together.
That makes me a little nervous, just because fans who want to see it — they’re excited for it and I worry about expectation.
I’m sure you’ve seen a couple episodes already.
We’ve watched the dailies. It was kind of like living this story, because of the situation. Every week it was like, we don’t like each other, we were thrown together to live with each other, and we’ve never liked each other, so how do we adjust to each other? So it was like living it, it was like our husbands really left us and we had to tough it out. I love Jane and we’re old friends, but we lived it week to week. We had no time off; we shot it straight through. We had a three-to-four day weekend just one time so they could gear up and write more scripts.
Given your friendship with Jane, was it hard to act as adversaries week to week?
It was a little hard. I’m supposed to not like her or what she does, though I’m more understanding than she is because I’m a painter and I’m Bohemian, so I’m a little more artsy and liberal. I teach painting at prisons and have ex-convicts come to my house and stuff like that. Maybe I’ve talked too much…
Does Dolly Parton make an appearance?
We’re hoping she will! She’s got a deal with NBC or somebody to develop stories around her songs, so I hope she’s available.
The show will be watched by a generation who didn’t grow up watching you. Are you excited to have a new fan base going forward, if the show is a hit?
Oh of course, I love that. Why do you think I did Ms. Frizzle? I like to keep my fingers in as many pies as possible. But you are limited; you can only do so much. But I’m on different shows that, because of my own sensibilities, will play mostly to an off-the-wall hip audience, but not real young, like 15-20. How old are you?
You look so young! But I’m excited about it. I don’t want to disappoint them. But I do “Web Therapy” which I love because it’s off the wall. I try to seize stuff that I really like, so I love when those opportunities come to me or when I have to make them for myself.
“Grandma” passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, which sadly isn’t often the case with films.
Even “9 to 5,” back in the day, everybody was just panic-stricken. Everyone with a manager was telling us to fix it and the movie was a huge hit. That’s one of those flukes in terms of the culture. I hope there is a big audience for this in some way.
Things haven’t changed much in the years since. “Bridesmaids” was a hit, but films like that and “Grandma” are a rarity. Has it surprised you that Hollywood hasn’t evolved?
Well, first of all you have to cultivate an audience to think more about women. Too many people think about women as necessary, but not so necessary. They are as necessary as we need them to be. The power structure doesn’t give it up that easy.
Jane and I did a conference [at Sundance] and they were talking about how much progress we made, but even at Sundance only 25% of the films have women behind the camera in some kind of way. It’s slow, because you got to get women who get positions of power to be willing to extend that hand and get funding for women led projects. If this project was by a woman it might not have gotten made.
I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve always had to make my own way. I remember when I was 18, Ray Valente, who was head of casting at Screen Gems, said, “Lily, some day there will be parts for gals like you,” and I said I couldn’t wait that long, so I started making my own parts.
I look more to Jane because she produced female-oriented movies, and she recounted yesterday about making several failed projects, so she suddenly wasn’t the golden girl, but that doesn’t really happen to males in the business. I just look at “Saturday Night Live,” and women like Gilda Radner never got the chance to make movies. Good friends of mine like Madeline Kahn also never got to do major movie roles. Even me, I made six television specials and two Broadway shows. When I was young and producing television, no matter what Jane, my Jane is very thoughtful, but not matter what she brought up, she could get out of a room without anyone noticing. And sure enough, whatever male was there would bring up the same idea ten minutes later and everybody would hear it. It was fascinating. It takes time with women. I hope the world has enough.