“Oh my, I’m telling you everything.”
Lily Tomlin is minutes deep into another story tangent, this one about a two-week-long drinking bender she went on when a few boozy friends from Texas—“kind of alcoholic, highly functioning”—visited her and her partner Jane two years ago.
It comes as we’re discussing her characters in the indie Grandma, which just screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, and her upcoming Netflix series with Jane Fonda, Grace and Frankie, which will debut this Friday. Tomlin spins several long yarns—going so far as to recall the entire plot of a 1959 film—over the course of our conversation.
“I heard Whoopi say on The View the other day that 74 is the new middle age,” she says at one point. “I do like uppers, though,” she cracks at another.
Lily Tomlin, at age 75, is leading a feature film for the first time and co-starring in a much-buzzed-about Netflix comedy. She’s capitalizing on that personality we’ve come to love—the unpredictable grandma with the wily streak—to achieve what is one of the most unexpectedly fruitful moments in her career.
“It’s been a rich year,” she says.
Then, to my horror, “At the end of my career.” Not the end! “I’m pretty far along, though.”
True, Tomlin’s longevity is to be admired.
It was 1969 when she joined the cast of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, rising the ranks to be a comedy icon. An Oscar nomination came for her role in Robert Altman’s Nashville in 1975, then indelibility for her role in 1980’s Nine to Five, and even viral star status, after a video of a blow-up with director David O. Russell on the set of I Heart Huckabees leaked and became widely circulated on the Internet.
There’s also the matter-of-fact way she’s become a trailblazer in the LGBT movement, spending decades with her now-wife Jane Wagner before marrying in 2013. Last year, she was selected to receive a Kennedy Center Honor.
In Grandma, she plays Elle Reid, a widowed lesbian who spends a day helping her granddaughter secure the funds she needs to have an abortion. In her self-proclaimed “rich year,” it’s a juicy showcase for the full range of Tomlin’s talents—expletive-laden tirades give way to tear-jerking heart-to-hearts with her family. That Elle is so well-suited to Tomlin’s abilities should be no surprise: writer-director Paul Weitz (About a Boy) wrote the film with Tomlin in mind after the two worked together on the Tina Fey comedy Admission. They shot the film in just 19 days, and all the actors worked for the SAG minimum.
At a time—as ever—when Hollywood is hardly hospitable to women of a certain age, the significance is not lost on Tomlin that, in addition to having her first film lead in Grandma, she is co-starring in Grace and Frankie with her 77-year-old friend Jane Fonda. Their characters actually hate each other in the pilot, but after their husbands inform them that they are gay and in love, the shock of it all drives them closer together.
We talked about both projects, aging in Hollywood, Tomlin’s BFF-ship with Fonda, and, naturally, booze benders, getting sucker-punched by children, smoking marijuana, and doing uppers—“but I don’t do that anymore.”
Grandma is not a movie that’s often made.
That’s probably true. Not with someone my age as a lead character.
Not to mention that the character is a lesbian, and the plot deals with getting an abortion. What’s it been like to get to play these so-called Hollywood taboos?
Well, I thought the overall story was important, interesting. I liked the three generations of women, and the problems that people have in the past still happen. How things build up over time and how it separates people. And then making peace in some way and finding each other. I liked that, too. And it had a lot of humor in it.
You get to show off a lot of range in this. You have some very emotional scenes, and then at one point you’re beating up a teenager (Nat Wolff) with a hockey stick.
Paul and I talked about it quite a bit. We both wanted it to be funny so that there was relief about the behavior. The boy [Woolf] was really ferocious with me in some of the shots. He’d get really big above me and everything, so when I’d be defending myself it played strongly. Then the little girl punching me! That had happened to my partner Jane in Vegas one night.
A little girl really punched Jane?
We were doing a special there for television about me going to Vegas for the money. We were up in the casino at about 3 o’clock in the morning and a little girl was wandering around about 3 or 4 years old. Jane, who’s ever concerned about things like that knelt down and said, “Honey, where’s your mommy and daddy?” The little girl just clocked her. I had told that story for Paul so he utilized it.
Elle is not cantankerous and doesn’t suffer injustice and is not tolerant of assholes. There must be a little of you in that.
There is. (Laughs) There is to some degree. Injustice is something that I rail against. Or at least try to.
It must be cathartic, too, for at least 19 days play someone like this.
Oh it is. And I drive my own car, which is great. And I wound up wearing my own clothes. The costumer would bring me something and it was OK, and I just felt that it would make more sense to wear that jacket, those pants, and those sneakers. It just suited me.
You’re the lead in a film at this point in your career.
At the end of my career.
Oh dear, not the end!
I’m pretty far along, though. I’ve been co-starring in some movies over the years. But this is the first movie where I’m the lead. Is my name alone on the screen? I don’t remember. I wasn’t paying attention because I was nervous.
How does it feel to have the lead?
Well, it feels more like an ensemble cast. Everybody is so good in their role. It’s a movie that was made out of just passion and interest. So it doesn’t feel like that. It’s not like, “Oh boy, it’s my movie now.”
Beyond that there seems to be a Lily Tomlin Moment.
It’s been a rich year. And I got the Kennedy Honor to kick it off. I didn’t even realize I had gotten that! The letter had been sitting on my desk for a week. I was shooting Grace and Frankie and Jane called me and said, “Did you see this letter from George Stevens?” And I said, “Oh yeah, he’s just inviting me to the Kennedy Honors again.” She said, “No! They want to honor you!” I said, “No they don’t.” And she said, “Did you read the letter?” Of course I hadn’t really read it. I just read the first sentence: “We’re having a Kennedy Center Honor again this year blah blah…” and then I just put the letter down. So it was literally a week before I answered. They said, “We were getting kind of nervous.”
So thank god for Jane.
That was a good kick-off, even though it was in 2014. I was already shooting Grace and Frankie. That was a big deal and terrific. It was ideal because it’s about two women of mine and Jane Fonda’s age, and we got two great husbands, Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen. I didn’t start shooting Grace and Frankie until August, and we started shooting Grandma in April. So it’s a jam-packed, fun-filled year.
When Grace and Frankie was announced, “gay Twitter,” as they call it, flipped a shit.
They did? That’s so cool.
There’s so much talk about how hard Hollywood is for actresses after a certain age, and here’s a TV show that’s going to be on Netflix starring you and Jane and people are thrilled about it. There’s a weird contradiction there. Supposedly “we” don’t like to see these kinds of stories, and yet we’re excited about this project.
Yeah. Well I hope we bear it out for you. We’ve gotten a lot of good responses. Women over 40 will like it. And I think the gay community will like it, because they’ve just got good sense.
There’s a romanticizing of your relationship with Jane Fonda as the ultimate best friendship.
There is? Oh yeah, we’re pals.
Have you commiserated with each other about how much of a feat it’s been to have such longevity in this business?
Oh, sure. We’re both aware of it. And we’re both aware that we’re very blessed to have the careers that we’ve had. She’s been a movie star for a long time, but she’s very levelheaded and natural, down to earth. And she’s very productive. I mean she blogs almost every day, which astonishes me. I don’t even watch the dailies. She watches the dailies of Grace and Frankie. She’s just so scheduled, in 15-minute increments. And yet she seems like really free. We went to Sundance together to do a panel, just a small little breakfast panel. I had never been so I said, “Let’s go to Sundance and we’ll have a holiday and see all those movies.” And then I said, “My movie is going to be at Sundance!”
Everyone was posting photos of the two of you on Sundance step and repeats on Twitter.
Really? Well I’ll be darned. I bet she knows all about it.
Has she just been doing the workout videos every day? How does Jane look so good?
Oh she looks just fantastic. She does work out. She does stuff all the time. And I do kinda. (Laughs) So I manage to hold it together. But we think younger. We don’t think like we’re as old as we are. But we understand that we’re as old as we are. We understand that the business hasn’t provided a lot of room for people like us. So that’s something that we’re interested in. We’re interested in opening that up. I’ve heard Jane say many times that women of our age are the fastest growing demographic. And so there’s definitely an audience there to be tapped into.
So then how does the industry change to adapt to that?
Well we have to have some successes. I heard Whoopi say on The View the other day that 74 is now the new middle age.
Yeah. You’ve got a long life ahead of you. (Laughs)
Elle smokes weed in Grandma. There’s a hilarious peyote scene in Grace and Frankie. And a lot of people told me to ask you about marijuana legalization. But I’ve read you’re not actually much of a toker.
No. I’m not.
But there seems to be this presumption that you would be.
I mean I’ve smoked on and off over the years. I like uppers more than something soporific that makes you a little mellow. But I don’t take anything anymore. Recreationally, I mean. I never “took it” or was addicted to and used it every day at all. I do know people who smoked every day and did stuff like that. I’m too wacky and nutty and foggy anyway. I don’t need to get too blissed out. I do like uppers though, but I don’t do that anymore. I never took those regularly, either. I was too interested in working and being. I might do it with friends hanging out. But it has to be a special mood or a special occasion. Oh my, I’m telling you everything.
Please, don’t stop.
I had two friends who came to visit. They were Texans, and I hadn’t seen them in a while. This was two years ago. And they were both around the bend on alcohol. I come down to the kitchen one morning and they’re sitting there drinking beers. I looked at it and said, “Oh wow, they’re drinking beer in the morning.” They were kind of alcoholic, highly functioning. They stayed with us for a couple of weeks and so I started having beer with them in the morning. It was a really great two weeks. (Laughs) But I didn’t repeat. You have to have someone there where it’s a party or something. And I’d take them out and do stuff and we’d go to galleries and places like that and just keep a buzz on. It was fun. I don’t think I’d want to do it all the time. Maybe if I stopped working.
Don’t stop working.
I mean stop working too steadily. And the peyote thing, Frankie is kind of of that mind. She would want to seek stuff and new experience. She kind of ropes Grace into it—into that peyote trip in the opening episode. They’ve had their lives slugged out of them. They have to come terms with so much. Frankie’s hoping that she’ll be renewed and find a level of forgiveness or something that is in tune with her idea of spirituality. And then poor Grace just has to start drinking the tea. If you notice that when Grace takes the tea and starts drinking, and she says, “Oh that’s terrible.” And I’m looking at her taking that tea and drinking, and I’m not too happy about it. Anyway, it’s fun. So much fun. We get so tickled on the set.
Like Lucy and Ethel.
Yeah! In fact we did that pileup in the doorway by the trailer, because we had done it by accident so I said let’s try to utilize walking into each other. We’ve got a few Lucy and Ethel tricks up our sleeves.