Lily Tomlin on ‘Moving On’ and Anti-LGBTQ Attacks: ‘It Will Get Better’

The "Grace & Frankie" star says she doesn't understand intolerance, but tells IndieWire she has faith positive representation in film can make a difference for trans rights.
Lily Tomlin in Paul Weitz's "Moving On"
Lily Tomlin in Paul Weitz's "Moving On"
Photo: Glen Wilson

Watch enough Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda interviews, and you’ll pick up on a charming contradiction. The longtime friends and Hollywood legends have a specific onscreen dynamic, one they’ve perfected since debuting opposite each other and country music legend Dolly Parton in Colin Higgins’ beloved “9 to 5.” 

Tomlin’s brilliant and brash wildcard characters — personified middle fingers in heels (or clogs, if you’re going by the “Grace & Frankie” era) — typically win over and radicalize Fonda’s sexed-up but straight-laced conservatives with a slow drip of warm frankness and Tomlin’s innate best friend energy. In the 1980 feminist workplace comedy, it’s Tomlin’s veteran supervisor character who ropes Fonda’s naive office newcomer and Parton’s sexually harassed secretary into a revenge plot that nearly kills their terrible boss, Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman).

On the pair’s popular Netflix sitcom, a stroke of genius by “Friends” co-creator Marta Kauffman, it’s Tomlin’s freedom-fighting Frankie who routinely drags Fonda’s Grace into over-the-top adventures and/or frenzied trips to Del Taco. A similar dynamic plays out in Paul Weitz’s new “Moving On”: a darkly hilarious rape revenge fantasy that sees Fonda’s reluctantly vengeful Claire recruiting the help of Tomlin’s unafraid Evelyn to murder a cruel widower (Malcom McDowell) who attacked her years before but who she cannot bring herself to face alone.

The result is another crackling outing with the highly celebrated odd couple: two halves of the same burning bra and a feminist institution in its own right.

But in real life, the relationship between Tomlin and Fonda is reversed. It’s Fonda who most often drives the duo’s professional and political agenda in interviews: underlining their accomplishments with pride, precision, and the perpetual possibility of arrest. (Around nine minutes into this recent CBS Mornings interview, Fonda doesn’t miss a beat breaking down a historic ocean treaty she advocated for at the United Nations earlier this year, calling in the “biggest conservation win in history.”)

Tomlin is nothing if not wholly and excitedly down for the cause, of course. But when Fonda had to cancel a conversation with IndieWire at the last minute due to a minor accident, her other half took point promoting “Moving On” and made time to share what the cultural messaging of her work — particularly as it relates to trans and LGBTQ rights — truly means to her. The 83-year-old actress, who came out as a lesbian 2015, believes positive representation in film can still change the world even as attacks on queer culture continue to mount from the political right. 

“It certainly makes a difference to the people struggling through it at the time,” Tomlin said of the film’s loving portrayal of children’s gender exploration: a subplot captured in the equally charming duo of Tomlin and child actor Marcel Nahapetian. 

“And it might tip people over into a more receptive frame of mind, just because it does,” Tomlin continued. “Because it has feeling, and it’s part of the fabric of the whole movie. I think anything where you tell a story that has a part of it that means something to people — no matter how few — eventually it’s bound to have a reverberation aspect to it in some kind of way.” 

“Moving On” is the third collaboration between Tomlin and Weitz, who previously worked together on the 2015 Sundance abortion dramedy “Grandma,” before Tomlin personally asked Weitz to write a movie for her and Fonda (who, yes, she really calls “Fonda.”) The longtime activist and boundary-pushing comedienne is reportedly still interested in reviving “9 to 5” and has expressed interest in Weitz taking on the project. In an email to IndieWire, Weitz responded: “I’d like to write a movie called ‘5 to 9’ where they are all vampires.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: Jane was supposed to be with us today, but had to cancel at the last minute. How does it feel to do press without her?

Lily Tomlin: Lonely.

[Laughs.] Lonely?

Especially talking about this movie, which we did together. But if she could be here, she would be, believe me. I feel like she’s sitting right there, in a few minutes I’ll forget and make a big crack about her.

Your friendship is so beloved and so successful on screen. I’m surprised to hear you had to ask Paul Weitz to write this movie for you and not the other way around. Why was that?

Oh yeah, how about that? [Laughs.] No I think he was pleased. Maybe he just thought, “Well, gosh, they’re interested? I guess I’ll come up with an idea.” And he came up with a great one. He called us up a couple of months later and he said, “I’ve got an idea. It starts with Claire saying to Malcolm, ‘I’m gonna kill you this weekend.'” And he didn’t tell us anything else.

More than 40 years ago, “9 to 5” brought you, Jane, and Dolly Parton together for one of the most famous revenge movies of all time. What made you want to do another revenge movie with Jane?

Well, first of all, Paul had written it, so it was there! We were happy. We liked it. I don’t even know if we made the connection between “9 to 5” and “Moving On,” because Claire is really intent on murdering her assailant — and we weren’t gonna kill Mr. Hart. We just wanted to put him out of commission for a short time.

Right, right. [Laughs.] You might accidentally poison him, but — 

He may have fallen from that harness right on his poor head, but we weren’t trying to kill him. [Laughs.] So yeah, we were just happy and excited to get the movie.

Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Part in "Nine to Five" with Dabney Coleman
(Left to right): Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dabney Coleman in “9 to 5”©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

This is your third collaboration with Paul. You last worked together on “Grandma” in 2015, which was about abortion rights and accessibility to reproductive healthcare. “Moving On” explores lots of different issues related to gender, including sexual violence and transphobia. Is it important to you that your art has a political message? 

Not so much a definable political issue, although that’s fine too — as long as it’s full of comedic things and true things and moving things. It’s really the quality of the writing, how it depicts something. But I’m interested in any human issue, any human condition, anything about humanity that’s positive or says something meaningful about how we’re living or what we’re doing to each other, any number of things like that. But we like to get the comedy in there. [Laughs.]

One of the more heartwarming and hilarious dynamics you have in “Moving On” is with a young kid named James (Marcel Nahapetian), who your character Evelyn gets to know at her retirement home. What can you tell me about that storyline?

Evelyn lives in an independent living facility, she’s not disabled in any way.

Right, dramatically coming and going in her long coat and glasses. 

Getting up and taking off for a weekend, or disappearing with who knows who. [Laughs.] But James is a little boy, about nine or 10 maybe, who visits his grandfather there and his grandfather figures into the plot later. He comes to my apartment and sees me as somebody who is friendly or accessible. I’ve spoken to him and reached out. We’ve established a kind of relationship, and he comes over to Evelyn’s apartment to have a fashion show or whatever else he wants to do, play checkers or something like that. And I give him a pair of clip-on earrings to take with him — they’re red and shiny and they look very well on him — just to try to create a comfort zone for him, and a loving one. Then, his parents act up. I don’t want to tell too much. I’ve told too much about it already.

Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in "Moving On"
Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in “Moving On”Aaron Epstein

LGBTQ rights and culture, particularly the art of drag, are under especially intense attack from conservatives right now. Do you think movies like “Moving On” and storylines like Evelyn and James’ can make a difference in that conversation? 

Yeah, definitely. It certainly makes a difference to the people struggling through it at the time. And it might tip people over into a more receptive frame of mind, just because it does. Because it has feeling, and it’s part of the fabric of the whole movie. I think anything where you tell a story that has a part of it that means something to people — no matter how few — eventually it’s bound to have a reverberation aspect to it in some kind of way. 

When you think about the Vietnam War, I can remember people out in the streets saying, “I don’t want my kid to go out there!” and really railing against the war [before it ultimately ended]. It’s like the hundredth monkey. When the monkey starts doing a behavior — like washing the food that was full of grit and stuff before, and it was maybe causing the monkey problems with its digestion or maybe even killing the monkey ultimately — as soon as that one monkey starts washing the fruit or food, somehow that change begins to spread all over the place. And the monkeys solve the problem themselves. 

Some people may see this and change their way of thinking. They’ll embrace another so-called “species” of human: somebody who has a different point of view, a different life that they’re pursuing or has come to them intuitively and naturally to them. And it will get better. 

That messaging sort of gets throughout a community and people change their perspective. 

Right. But also look at what happened to abortion: they cancel a right we’ve had for 50-some years. I don’t know. I don’t know why they’re so intolerant, why they can’t live with other people that are different than they. 

That’s a big theme of your movie, with Evelyn and Claire going up against this man who has represented so much that is negative and hateful toward them. You play a lesbian character with a sort of unrequited love, who is getting a reverse-engineered kind of justice. Did you ever in your life imagine being able to play a role like that? And have you ever wanted to play an on-screen romance opposite another woman? 

To the first part of that, no. When I was on “Laugh In,” I had no idea what I’d be doing. I was in love with different characters and I wanted to portray all these different culture types and just do that — create that sort of form. But I didn’t doubt for a second that I would be doing many other things, even if no one else thought that. And I would like any material that’s just really rich and true and not dishonest and somehow its intention is communicating something better to humanity. 

You have teased that you would like Paul to write a revival of “9 to 5”: a script that is up to your standards. I know you’ve seen a few versions of it already attempted. Do you, Dolly, and Jane talk about the possibility of that project much? 

We haven’t talked about Paul, although I mentioned it to Jane. It was just like an intuitive thing. I don’t know if Paul would even entertain such an idea because he mostly is gonna do what he wants to do as an artist. 

You did kind of spring it on Jane on “The View” the other day. 

It was totally unexpected! I didn’t even think about doing that. 

Has Dolly seen “Moving On” yet? Have you texted about it or anything? 

I don’t know if she has. And not so far, but I’m sure she will as soon as she does. [Laughs.] She’s probably getting ready to go out to the theater, maybe she’s going up to Sevierville and she’s going to catch the movie up there.

Dolly had parts in both the “Grace and Frankie” finale and “80 for Brady,” alongside you and Jane. What role would you say she plays in your continued partnership? 

We’re such a good trio, so you always want to exploit that thing that’s entertained and that you’ve done in the past. She’s wonderful anyway. People respond to Dolly so beautifully, so you want that to happen again. In a way, it’s like an old relationship, like, “Oh, we can’t let that go! We gotta keep that in our bubble.”

What kind of hope do you have for a “9 to 5” revival? 

I have a big hope! More than Jane. Jane’s gone on to climate change, and she’s very involved in it and rightly so. [Laughs.]

We all should be! 

We all should be is right. [Laughs]. Well, you’d want Dolly to be in a new “9 to 5,” for sure no question. I mean, who’s gonna write the theme song? I remember she came onto the set of the original, and played the theme song on her fingernails. And Jane and I looked at each other and it was just like — it was such a great song. It was just so right for the movie. And I said, “Well, the song will be a hit if the movie isn’t a huge hit.”

Lily Tomlin in "Moving On"
Lily Tomlin in “Moving On”Glen Wilson

I heard you practiced cello for “Moving On”? Tell me about that. 

I did! I had a young woman, who is a very accomplished musician. She’d worked with Paul on “Mozart in the Jungle” and stuff like that. And, she came over to the house, a couple times a week for many weeks. Just me trying to get the bow in my hand the right way was a terrible chore. You really have to practice. Those musicians are so exercised to such an extent. I know that they have lifelong chronic neck and shoulder problems. They have to have them, just from what’s required of them to hold the bow and play that music. 

Do you think you would’ve been a good extra in Cate Blanchett’s “TÁR”?

No! I wouldn’t have been a good extra. Maybe I could’ve swept up. I could’ve been sweeping up or something. [Laughs.] But I don’t think I would’ve been. My musicianship would’ve been a failure.

Evelyn has a line that I love. “People think I’m being funny, but I’m just talking.” Do you relate to that? 

Yeah, sometimes I do. Because I think, “OK, what am I gonna say?” And then luckily, I say something sort of funny — once in a while.

A Roadside Attractions release, “Moving On” is now in theaters.

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