When considering her nearly 50-year career, it feels trite but accurate to say Lily Tomlin has done it all. Since first emerging in the New York comedy scene of the late ’60s and becoming a star on the revolutionary Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In from 1970-73, the trailblazing comic performer has become one of our most cherished presences on stage and screen, remaining equally active across film, TV, and theater throughout the ensuing decades. A Tony, Grammy, and Emmy winner, Tomlin has conspired with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in Nine to Five, been a mixed-up twin with Bette Midler in Big Business, and worked with the legendary Robert Altman on no fewer than four films—including her movie debut, Nashville (1975), for which she received an Oscar nomination. After inadvertently starring in one of the very first viral videos of the YouTube age (the notorious leaked footage of her and director David O. Russell arguing ferociously on the set of I Heart Huckabees), the 75-year-old continues to be at the forefront of streaming video, starring in the Netflix original Grace and Frankie (for which she received her 22nd Emmy nomination) and Lisa Kudrow’s online series Web Therapy, which was picked up by Showtime for a four-season run.
But one thing Tomlin has surprisingly never done before is play a non-shared leading role in a movie—until now. Enter Grandma, a funny and gorgeously resonant little gem made with empathy and restraint by writer-director Paul Weitz (About a Boy). Tomlin gives one of the rawest, most heartfelt performances of her career as Elle Reid, a widowed poet and academic who’s retreated into guarded misanthropy following the death of her longtime partner, Vi, a year and a half ago. Her self-imposed isolation is shaken up when her teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner of The Americans), shows up at her door asking for money to pay for an abortion scheduled later that day. Elle doesn’t have it, and they’re both too terrified of Sage’s mother and Elle’s daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), to solicit her. So, Elle and Sage set off on a day-long quest across Los Angeles to find the money, with prospective donors including Sage’s hapless boyfriend (Nat Wolff), a comely tattoo artist indebted to Elle (Laverne Cox), and Elle’s one-time husband whom she hasn’t seen in decades (Sam Elliott)—all while Elle tries to avoid Olivia (Judy Greer), the girlfriend she dumped that same morning.
Although Grandma is first and foremost a character study and by no means an “issue” movie, Weitz has set his story against a rich backdrop of intergenerational feminism. As a modern teenager, Sage has no perspective on her role in the bigger picture of women’s rights in America, nor any clue how different Elle’s experiences were as a young woman. By taking this journey with her grandmother, Sage’s eyes are opened to the sacred connectedness of women and the cruciality of supporting one another. It may come as a surprise to learn that this unapologetically feminist film comes from the same man who co-directed the teen sex romp American Pie (1999), but as Weitz points out, even that film attempted to flip the script and place its female characters in positions of agency and power over their horny suitors. After Weitz directed Tomlin in her acclaimed supporting role as Tina Fey’s mother in Admission (2013), he realized “there was work yet to be done” between them, which gradually became his screenplay for Grandma—and now, 40 years after her last Oscar nomination, Tomlin once again finds herself making awards season shortlists. Below, I sit down for a small roundtable with Tomlin and Weitz to discuss the messages of their film, Tomlin’s thoughts on Donald Trump, and her hopes for the just-canceled Web Therapy.
Despite the fact that abortion has been settled law in this country for 40 years, movies like Grandma—movies that deal with abortion frankly and realistically—are almost nonexistent. What do you think happened to make it this way?
Paul Weitz: What happened is that things aren’t linear and progress has ebbs and flows. There’s a tendency to dehumanize people in the midst of political issues, often because people are taking advantage for their own political gain, but also because of deeply held feelings. The movie’s about a lot of things, whether it be abortion or having a gay character or having a 70-something character in the lead who still has a love life. But it doesn’t linger on them. It’s about people trying to get on with their lives and learn from each other. In this case, Lily’s character Elle has been around long enough to remember when abortion was illegal and to know that making abortion illegal doesn’t mean people won’t have abortions, just that they’ll get really unsafe medical care. Part of what this movie’s about is the idea that over the last 20 years there’s been an erasure or amnesia about women’s rights and women’s history. Elle’s granddaughter in the film, Sage, is a product of that; she and her pals will casually call each other “slut” or something, and it takes Elle to say to her, “I don’t want to hear you use that word.” Sage is in a situation where she really needs these tools that Elle, and probably to a degree Judy, Marcia Gay’s character, fought for.
You mentioned the gendered slur issue, and it really struck me while watching the movie that none of the female characters ever call each other “bitch.” They call each other “asshole” incessantly, but only the film’s most odious male character says “bitch.” Was that intentional, that these women refuse to denigrate each other with that kind of oppressive language no matter how much conflict they might have?
Weitz: Yes. [Laughs.] It’s funny because Lily, I don’t think you particularly like the word “asshole.”
Lily Tomlin: Oh, I don’t like it. I don’t like to curse with body parts. I was okay with it for the movie; it just seemed to suit Elle and she needed to say it. The line coalesced in the right way. But I normally don’t like to use body parts as a pejorative.
The coffee shop fight scene between you, Judy Greer, and Elizabeth Peña must have been a challenge to shoot, because that word really shoots back and forth between the three of you.
Weitz: Well, the worst thing Elle gets called in that scene is a silverback male gorilla rather than a bonobo, which is the ultimate insult.
Besides her daughter, Judy, what would you say Elle’s greatest fear is?
Tomlin: I don’t think she’s scared of too many people. I think she can take it as it comes or leave it alone. But Judy is a special circumstance. She’s her daughter. And Judy’s always had a beef with her because she just didn’t live up to Judy’s ideas of what a mother should be. She was too smart for her age, so she looked at Elle squint-eyed and took her to task for being who she was. Apparently she didn’t find the same fault with Vi, Elle’s partner. But a lot of times you’ll have two kids in the same family who’ll just be so different; one will just be crazy about her mother, and the other will just be livid that that’s her mother.
Weitz: I think she’s afraid of moving on from her grief. She’s had this long-term love of 38 years, and I think she’s awfully afraid of what’s going to happen if she allows herself to say goodbye and move on. I think that’s what Elle gets from her granddaughter over the course of the movie. In coming through for Sage, she finally gives herself a pass to move on, to allow herself to be nostalgic in a happy way, and to free herself.
Tomlin: It’s only been a short time, too. A year and a half is not a very long time after losing a relationship of that duration.
In terms of what Sage learns from Elle, the scene where Elle mentions The Feminine Mystique and Sage thinks she’s referring to Mystique from X-Men felt especially pointed. When did it become uncommon for young women to read those books? Was that something you wanted to highlight?
Weitz: It was, and also the idea that the work’s not done. Looking at the example of race in America, I think a lot of people wanted to pat themselves on the back after Obama was elected and say, “Okay, America has moved on!” But all you have to do is look back over the last couple of years to realize that racism is very much something that we still have to contend with.
Tomlin: I think the racial issue is especially notable this week because Donald Trump is on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter, and he had a big rally in Mobile. It’s sort of amazing. I think he could go any way in the world; he could go in some incredibly positive direction, and he would if that were the timbre of the country. But he knows he’s got a soft market with people who have questionable points of view, so he’s pandering to that.
The film touches on all of these hot-button subjects but it keeps them all as subtext, never becoming a “statement movie.” A lesser film would’ve had a grandiose speechifying moment where Elle sits Sage down and says, “Now listen, my generation paved the path for you and you have no clue!” But that never happens. Is there something you think would’ve been lost from the movie you wanted to make if you’d taken that route?
Weitz: Oh yeah. I think the fact that there was nobody looking over our shoulders to make sure that things were “understandable” was great in this case. This is the tenth film that I’ve directed, and what I’ve finally learned is how not to do too much. I learned not to state too much in the script, and not to shoot stuff I don’t need as a director. That made it possible to make the film on this budget and schedule.
We’ve been focusing a lot on the women’s rights addressed in the film, but it’s also remarkable for being such a vibrant movie built around a person of a certain age … despite Lily being somewhat atypical of the so-called “elderly” community.
Weitz: [Laughs.] I don’t in any way think of Lily as elderly. Even the idea of her as an example of an elderly person doesn’t quite compute to me. We finished shooting Grandma at 3 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and that same night I went to see her one-woman show—which is two hours of Lily onstage on her own. She was killing it and I was completely wrecked. She’s got an incredible generator inside of her.
Tomlin: That’s because you could crash then! The movie was done. I had to wait until the show was done to crash.
How do you psych yourself up for a show after you’ve been shooting all day?
Tomlin: You do it because you’re committed to do it! I’m going to have an audience there, I can’t go out and say, “Is it okay if we just kind of talk?” [Laughs.] That won’t work so well. Plus, I’m keyed up to do it. I was shooting a movie a few years ago and was doing my show at the Ahmanson Theater downtown. I’d stop shooting at 5 p.m. and jump in a car to the Ahmanson and do a performance of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. I did that five days a week for a while, and that’s because I was committed to do it.
You’ve been playing a lot of great earthy characters over the last couple of years, from Elle to Frankie on Grace and Frankie, and your character in Admission. But one decidedly non-earthy character I hear we might be saying goodbye to is Putsy Hodge on Web Therapy.
Tomlin: Oh, I love that character!
Have you talked to Lisa Kudrow about taking the show back to the web, now that Showtime has passed on future seasons?
Tomlin: I’m hoping she’s going to take it back to the web, because I sure like doing Putsy. I don’t know what we can do with her! We’ve got to come up with something to take her a little bit further out…
How much further can she go?
Tomlin: I know! I love doing it. I got to do it for four years, although each character is shot for just one day and then split through the episodes. Which Putsy scenes did you like best? Did you like her when she was going to the slammer, or when she was in the asylum?
Yes! She had the teardrop tattoo…
Tomlin: And her puppet had a teardrop tattoo! [Laughs.] We made that show for the freaks.
Well, we found it.
Tomlin: You did! Good. I really like it that you like Putsy. I don’t know if it’ll get me any awards…
There’s no award cool enough for Putsy.
Tomlin: That’s true. That’s definitely true.
Grandma opens in San Francisco today.