Almost 76, Lily Tomlin seems to be busting out all over these days. She is the star attraction in Sundance breakout “Grandma,” opening this week, as a spiky lesbian intellectual named Elle (French for “she” or “her”) who shoots from the lip and takes no prisoners during a long day’s journey to help her granddaughter scrounge up the cash for an abortion.
Her character’s motto in her first film lead since 1988’s twins caper “Big Business”? “You need to be able to say ‘screw you’ sometimes.”
Tomlin also just earned her 22nd Primetime Emmy nomination as a septuagenarian neo-hippie opposite “9 to 5” cohort Jane Fonda as her uptight roomie in Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” now shooting its second season.
From the early ‘70s, when she brought to life such comical creations as Ernestine the phone operator and raspberry-blowing moppet Edith Ann on the trend-setting TV show “Laugh-In” to her Tony-winning one-woman shows, Tomlin has proven herself to be an incredibly durable showbiz fixture who defies typecasting. She’s also a cultural icon who is still making headlines, whether as a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor or getting married to business and life partner Jane Wagner in 2013 after 42 years together.
A most-wanted woman these days, Tomlin managed to find some time to answer a few questions about her current hot streak and long career.
Susan Wloszczyna: I am a longtime fan of yours. I remember the first time I saw you perform. I believe it was your TV debut on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1968. I have a fuzzy memory of you doing odd things with your face.
Lily Tomlin: That must have been Madame Lupe, the world’s oldest living beauty expert. Hermione Gingold was on that show, too
Congratulations on your latest Emmy nomination for “Grace and Frankie.” You have seven Emmy trophies already – do you even have room for any more? Where do you keep all your awards?
It’s great. It is good. They are spoiling me. I keep them in my office where no one ever goes.
Do you dust them?
[Laughs] I should take a picture of myself like Lucille Ball did. She had her hair tied up in a babushka and used a feather duster on her Emmy.
“Grandma“ is getting some traction as awards season begins to gear up. People are talking about you getting an Academy Award nomination. Your first was 40 years ago for your film debut as dark horse Linnea Reese as part of the large ensemble in “Nashville.” You could be an EGOT – you already have seven Emmys, a Grammy and two Tonys.
Don’t forget the Peabodys. Yeah, it is very long-awaited. The first time was thrilling. No one thought I would do movies. They only knew I did bizarre characters on “Laugh-In.” But Robert Altman was the one person who thought I could do it.
You and “Grandma” writer-director Paul Weitz first got to know one another when he cast you as Tina Fey’s hardcore feminist mother in “Admission.” What did you think when he handed you a script called “Grandma”? You probably knew it wouldn’t be about an older woman who played canasta and knitted afghans.
Well, I am old enough to be a grandma. A great grandma, actually. But, yeah, I figured that out.
Like Elle, she’s another tart-tongued women’s rights crusader type. He must think of you that way.
I guess he does. I was delighted that he offered it to me. I like Paul so much. And his mother, Susan Kohner? She knocked me out. My mother and I saw “Imitation of Life” [the 1959 Douglas Sirk film]. I told Paul that when my mother sat down in the theater, she opened her purse and there were three washcloths inside. I cracked up. I ended up using one, too. That scene when she runs down street, banging on the door of her mother’s hearse? That did it. I got to meet his mother and all that stuff.
I would guess Elle is more like you than flighty Frankie is, although I can’t imagine you being so grouchy or pouring coffee on the floor in a fit of protest.
I can be hot-tempered, although it is usually short lived.
Those of us who have seen those curse-filled outtakes from “I Heart Huckabees” with director David O Russell and you screaming at each other probably can confirm that.
I flipped out on that one. I have to say I don’t blame David. I blame both of us.
I assume you made up.
We did. Probably 20 minutes later.
Dustin Hoffman being trapped in this storm of invective is rather amusing.
He is probably saying to me, “Use it. Use it.”
What scene are you most fond of in “Grandma”?
The one that comes to mind is when Sam and I see each other after 30 years. I am naturally drawn to little moments. Like in Altman’s “Short Cuts,” when Lili Taylor as my daughter brings me a plastic bag with goldfish and I’m watching Phil Donahue and I say, “Oh, cute. Goldfish. I haven’t seen those in years.” Those little moments.
You’ve been in so many Altman films. You did your first movie with him and also appeared in his swan song, “A Prairie Home Companion,” opposite Meryl Streep as your sister in 2006. You also appeared in a cameo in 1992’s “The Player.” Of course, almost everyone in Hollywood showed up in that. And you almost did 1980’s “Popeye” with him, opposite Dustin Hoffman.
I wouldn’t have been a good Olive. My face is too long. She has a small round head. Shelley Duvall was perfect. And, in retrospect, Robin Williams was the perfect Popeye, too.
I adore “Nashville,” and your performance as Linnea, a mother of two hearing-impaired kids and a gospel singer married to Ned Beatty’s underhanded lawyer. She is about the only one who seems centered and in control of her life. And she is the only one of Keith Carradine’s conquests who doesn’t fool herself about what the fling means.
I liked my performance in that movie. It had some real moments, such as when I am called away to the phone at supper and Keith’s character asks me to meet him and my family is sitting there. I am glad to be part of the Altman family. He produced “The Late Show” (the 1977 neo-noir mystery with Art Carney) and I somehow felt we were connected in some way. We had the same agent, Sam Cohn, which may be why I ended up in “Nashville.”
There is a rather legendary story of how Altman messed up your chance to adapt a novel “Maiden.” Jane Wagner did the screenplay and he was supposed to produce it.
Bob had read the script and he wanted Joan Tewkesbury (who did the scripts for “Nashville” and “Thieves Like Us”) to direct it. But then Columbia wanted to cut seven minutes out of one of his films. And he ended up punching one of the studio executives in the nose when they were in a pool.
Not it all. I thought it was cool.
You are working on the second season of “Grace and Frankie.” How is that going? Will Sam Waterson’s Sol and Martin Sheen’s Robert ever have their wedding?
We just finished the fourth episode. As for them getting married, you will just have to wait and see.
Your 76th birthday is Sept. 1. How do you usually celebrate the day?
Well, I don’t make that big of a fuss about it. I hate to tell you that because you seem to have an investment in me having a good time. We will probably take a short trip. But I can’t be away too long since I have to continue shooting “Grace and Frankie.” But don’t worry. I will have a good time.