When Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin walk into a room, you know it. It’s not just that the duo headlining Netflix’s latest original series, “Grace and Frankie,” are radiant. They are — Fonda walked into the suite at the The London West Hollywood wearing a black pant suit, carrying her white, adorable Coton de Tulear dog, and Tomlin was sporting a leopard-print top that matched the wild glint in her eyes (and her pants). But the two also prove striking in their casual, matter-of-fact engagement with the world around them.
As a two-time Oscar winner and a five-time Emmy winner (respectively), Fonda and Tomlin are Hollywood royalty. It would make sense for them to be as guarded as the event being held for them — an invite-only press day with as little as 10-minute windows to speak with the featured talent. After all, as stars of every stage and screen imaginable, the two have attracted fans of every ilk. High art has been made involving Fonda and displayed in prominent museums. Tomlin is the kind of actress who elevates everything she’s in, good or bad, great or not so great.
But after engaging in 20 minutes of questioning with a group of reporters from around the globe (Germany and Australia were the furthest destinations), all you want to do is schedule a weekly brunch with the two friends, chatting over mimosas and an endless buffet of frittatas, turkey bacon and exotic fruits. Though it’s an experience difficult to replicate, below are the highlights of the intimate press conference. So grab a cocktail as Fonda and Tomlin discuss the difficulty of finding deep female roles, what makes “Grace and Frankie” so special, why they really do love each other and, of course, the best way to take peyote.
Had you been actively looking for something to do together again since “9 to 5,” way before “Grace and Frankie” came along?
Tomlin: Way before it happened. I’d always tell my agent, or my partner, and I might be trying to develop something that has to do with older people. So when my agent called me and said, “Are you really trying to do something with Jane?” And I said, “Yeah, sure! I’d really like to.” And he turned and brought Marta [Kauffman] to us and gave us the notion of her idea. After that, we jumped in with both feet.
[Note: Co-creator Marta Kauffman has a different take on how the series came together.]
Was it like no time had past?
Fonda: Oh, we’ve seen each other! We’re friends.
Tomlin: I even scrounged her into one of my TV specials. [laughs]
Fonda: With Dolly [Parton, co-star of “9 to 5”].
Tomlin: Yeah, with Dolly.
Fonda: We played bag ladies.
Tomlin: We just finished “9 to 5,” so we were really a hot commodity. [laughs]
How fun is working together in this show?
Fonda: It’s a lot of fun. We get along very well, and we have “chemistry,” as they say.
There’s a sense, because of “9 to 5,” that people will approach the show as a comedy. Can you talk a bit about the part of the show that’s not funny? The melancholy, the loss, some of the quite powerful grief that we see in those first few episodes.
Tomlin: I think that’s always been a hallmark of the kind of comedy I’ve done. Although you could seize out an individual element like Ernestine, the phone operator, and you would think, “Oh, well everything she does is bigger than life and fast jokes.” But overall, no. I think Jane is the same way. She’s a real actor — she acts out of reality. That’s the best comedy anyway, for me, because everything is not all funny and everything is not all sad, although there are shows trying to create that.
Fonda: It’s the most fun for actors.
Tomlin: It’s the most fun. It’s exciting to switch emotions. And I’ve always thought it was just different spots on the continuum anyway.
Fonda: But one of the things that we keep hearing from people who have seen a number of these episodes is how surprised they are with how real it is and how poignant it is sometimes.
That scene in the pilot episode, which I’m sure everybody is raising with you, which is, “Were you ever happy with you? I was happy enough.” It seemed to be the kind of line that strikes a cord with the world because I think those are questions that we ask ourselves every day in a variety of ways.
Fonda: We go through life and we think, “Well, we’re happy enough. We’re kind of like most people. I could keep going like this.” But in fact, in the best of both worlds, something would jolt us out of that. I mean, it’s happened to me in my life so I know how important it is. You think you’re going to die because it’s so painful and sad when a relationship comes to end, but after a while you begin to realize, “Woah. I’m seeing a whole new possibility about who I can be that never would’ve happened if that person hadn’t abandoned me.”
Tomlin: I think it can be so organic that you almost don’t even notice that it’s happened. It’s not like you’re following it along and observing it—
Fonda: That you’re becoming different?
Tomlin: Yeah, you turn over.
Fonda: And only looking back on it do you realize you weren’t broken — you were broken open. Although at the time you feel like you’re going to die. [laughs]
Does doing TV now appeal to both of you in a way that it might not have in the past, especially [for Fonda] having just done “The Newsroom”?
Fonda: When I started movies in the late ’50s, early ’60s, you never would do television. People who did television never made movies, and if you possibly could make movies, you didn’t want to do television. It wasn’t until about seven or eight years ago that I started to think I’d really—
Fonda: I did. I won an Emmy for “The Dollmaker.” That was like doing a movie. But a television series? I never thought that I would. I really wanted to do television and I really wanted to give a cultural face to older women, so when this came along it was a dream come true. But you’ve done television more.
Tomlin: Yes, I started out in television.
Talk about that visibility — the notion of the older woman and how, let’s call it “western media,” portrays women and creates expectations around them. How important is this as a project to blow all of this out of the water and say, “This is who we are. This is what we do”?
Tomlin: I think it’s really important. We’re doing it because we’re turned on by the idea. I can remember people in the years I’ve been in television, I’ve never had my show, but I did specials of my own. And by and large, I won several Emmys and stuff like that because it was a departure, but nobody embraced it saying, “I want to put you on the air.” [laughs] They’d say, “Enough of that. Now, let’s move on.”
Fonda: We both get enough scripts to know that when you’re an older woman you tend to be in— how did you put it? You’re the brunt of the joke.
Tomlin: Oh yeah, I always resented that. I didn’t like that, if a woman didn’t have autonomy. If she was somebody’s grandmother and they made her into like a doddering little old lady who just put up with stuff and was vague. That just rubs me the wrong way. Unless a very artful hand was on that depiction, then I might have to look at it in another way.
Have either of you ever taken peyote?
Fonda: Yeah! Among other things. [laughs] It makes me throw up, just like she says it will.
Tomlin: Have you guys taken peyote?
Fonda: No one in this room has taken peyote? […] It’s good to mix it with mushrooms.
Can you talk about that scene? Because it was a physical scene. It was kind of fun.
Fonda: We had a good time.
Tomlin: Yeah, we did. We had fun. We had to kind of project into that experience no matter how much experience we had. It’s not like we really are eating peyote at that moment, so you have to act it a bit. I noticed in the pot scene I was very disgusted with myself because I never got my eyes, like, pathetically closed and, you know, drifting off.
Fonda: They were slits.
Tomlin: Oh, no. June was much more in the scene than I was!
Fonda: Oh, I liked it.
Tomlin: No, I liked it too! I just had to remind myself— maybe I just had bigger capacity than she did.
That scene also gave us a glimpse into Frankie in the sense of her expression of grief, and I think it revealed two things: that the two women had very different marriages, but do you think Frankie is set up for failure in the sense that she’s the woman who’s advanced all these causes, and this world pulled the rug from under her in a very unexpected way?
Tomlin: Yeah, I agree with that. That’s a good way to look at it. I don’t quite know what to say. I feel like I’ve made a big mistake in my life as Frankie. And also because she’s seems so open and available, and Sam seems that way or Sol seems that way, you can understand why she and Robert might not have caught onto it or she hasn’t caught onto Robert. It’s a little harder to imagine Frankie with Sol, but I think on the beach I say it. I made that speech about how I suspected things and I thought something was up, but…
Fonda: When he asked you to use the dildo?
Tomlin: I just ignored it. I felt something, I thought something, but I didn’t really absorb it.
Fonda: It’s called denial.
Is there a way to negotiate freedom versus the honorable thing to do?
Fonda: Well, they lived in a homophobic world, so it would’ve been very, very hard for men of that age to come out when they were younger or to even admit to themselves that they were gay. So it has taken them a long time. Grace is the beneficiary of it, although, in the beginning you don’t see it. If it hadn’t happened and she had remained Robert’s wife, she would’ve spent the rest of her life in this little box of this thin woman who drinks martinis but doesn’t eat very much and doesn’t really do what she wants to do and pretends she likes golf and other things when really doesn’t. And what kind of life is that? So because Robert was brave enough to finally come out, I — who thought of myself as collateral damage in the beginning — end up being liberated with the help of Frankie. [to Tomlin] And how about you? It’s a little more complicated for Frankie, I think.
Tomlin: Yeah, a little more. That’s why it’s harder for Sol and me to break that bond. I’d go over and I’d watch the dictionary show with him. I try to reconnect over old rituals that we had, and he does too in some ways. He comes and visits me, brings me something that we’ve used in the past for a certain kind of dinner.
Fonda: Takes care of you when the earthquake happens.
Tomlin: Takes care of me with the earthquake, that’s true. [laughs]
Did you watch “Friends”? Can you see some of that humor here?
Fonda: I think it’s a totally different kind of show. The style is so different. It’s just a very, very different style.
So when you were approached for this, when you were developing the characters, how much input did you guys give to it?
Tomlin: The types are very well drawn. We know that Grace is one type of person, and I was another. It’s pretty easy to flesh out Grace on a superficial level because her clothes are well chosen, they’re tailored, they’re coordinated, her hairdo and everything. For me, luckily we found a clothing store called Layers that makes all these cheaply made clothes, so Grace at some point says I look like a bag lady. I don’t agree with her. We had those kinds of clothes and I wore my hair in that way.
Fonda: But it was kind of written.
Tomlin: My hair was written?
Fonda: No, but—
Tomlin: Well yeah, the type of person I was. So the costume designer looks around, tries to find something that’s available that will set her apart from Grace’s dressing, and yet not look like a cliched hippie that wears caftans, although I wore two of them.
Fonda: Episodic television was so new to me that I couldn’t have made much contribution. It’s tricky to write it, and especially when there’s this much reality in a comedy. So I kind of kept my mouth shut and went with the flow. Now that we’ve done a season, I have many more thoughts and ideas and things to contribute, and I hope I will be listened to. And if I won’t, I’ll raise a stink. [laughs]
Will you agree that one of Grace’s weaknesses is her ego? Is the scene in the supermarket where she’s running away from the other women calling her out do you think?
Tomlin: I was just talking about that scene with Grace.
Fonda: Yeah, you were. I mean, it’s happened to me. I remember when my heart was broken in that kind of way, a friend of mine offered to give me a massage. She hired a massage person to give me a massage, and the minute the person began to touch me I burst into tears and had to get off the table. I felt I wasn’t worthy of being touched and given pleasure.
Tomlin: But that was from the time you were a child, in some ways. That’s me projecting.
Fonda: We don’t have to go that deep. [laughs]
Aside from the chemistry that you guys obviously had, why do think your friendship has endured?
Fonda: Because we don’t see each other that often. [laughs]
Tomlin: No, the more I see you, the more I care about you.
Fonda: Well, I love you, too, the more I know you! I really miss you. It’s like my dog. [everyone laughs] No, it is! My dog is with me all the time, so when I travel I have this physical missing of her. I mean, we were together 15 hours a day for almost five months, so when it ended I felt this yearning for you. “What is Lily doing?” But I never could get you to call me back.
What aspects of your characters do you each appreciate the most?
Fonda: I like the fact that I identify with it — that she’s a woman who’s been in a little, restrictive box. I play cards with my friends, I play golf, I’m married to this guy, I always put makeup on, I care about how I look, I have to be thin and all that shit. And then when it’s all taken away from me, I fall apart because I don’t know who I am. And little by little, I begin to discover with Frankie’s bizarre help that it’s really about a whole lot of other things that I never really thought about before. I like that part of Grace, and I identify with it.
Tomlin: I guess I like Frankie’s interest in a lot of things. That she makes yam vaginal lubricant and—
Fonda: That I’d been putting on my toast because I thought it was jam. [laughs]
Tomlin: And that she paints! Even though she doesn’t appear to be much of a painter, she just won’t give it up. I like all that. I like that she’s forgiving of Sol, that she tries to defend him and preserve his dignity. She understands that he just couldn’t broach that chasm between them. It finally came to a place where he just had to.
Fonda: She’s generous.
Tomlin: I like to think of myself as a generous, compassionate person. I’m kidding.