If you’re in the camp of people who believe Lily Tomlin can do no wrong, then look no further than Grandma, which capped off the recent Sundance Festival. In writer-director Paul Weitz’s film, Tomlin plays Elle, a broke, washed-up, lesbian poetry professor who embarks on a daylong odyssey trying to raise $600 so her granddaughter (Julia Garner) can get an abortion. Wildly profane, terribly un-p.c., sometimes violent, but always with her heart in the right place, Elle represents the kind of scenery-chewing role that Tomlin rightly deserves — and shines in.
Vulture had a wide-ranging chat with the 75-year-old, one that touched on drug use, the price of abortions, and her new Netflix series Grace and Frankie, co-starring her pal and Sundance partner in crime, Jane Fonda.
I have this vision in my head of you and Jane Fonda running around and having a grand old time at Sundance. Are you just great friends?
Well, for two women who work as much as we do — she just came back from Milan and Rome — yeah, we are good friends. We’ve had fun. We went to Robert Redford’s wife’s big performance-art piece. That was kind of fun and exciting.
Why did you want to do Grandma?
First of all, I did [2013’s] Admission with Paul Weitz, and liked working with him very much. About a month after we premiered Admission, we went out for coffee and he told me that he’d written this script for me. It was going to be very low-budget. It was just a very good fit.
Did you have a good time in the scene where you hit a guy with a hockey stick?
Well, you know, we had a stunt coordinator so I didn’t kill him. But yeah, sure. I like the conceit of it, that [Elle] would do that after he treated her granddaughter like that. Forget it! We did have fun. It was very effortless. That’s my old car I drove, and I wore my own clothes. [Weitz] got all those great people to be in it: Marcia Gay [Harden], and Sam Elliott, and Julia Garner as my granddaughter.
Is it hard for you to find roles this juicy?
I don’t think there are that many, but they don’t come to me automatically by any means. I mean, Jane and I have lamented. She gets more roles than I get, and she said sometimes she takes a role and it costs her money to do it. To travel there, to do what has to be done to keep her own life going.
Was that the case for you with this one?
No, we shot in L.A. and I got scale. Well, it may have cost me a little bit of money because I hired makeup and hair. They paid 'em. Meagerly. I had to augment their salary.
What motivates Elle?
Well, she can’t stand injustice, and she can’t stand to be discriminated against, and she’s been through it all. She’s 70 or 72 or something like that, and she lived the feminist life. She thought that they would make a big difference in the world. You know, it’s about moving the whole species forward, not just half of it. And she’s disillusioned, too. They didn’t make the progress she would like to make. Young women today don’t even know who Bella Abzug is, for instance.
But she also has no propriety. She talks loudly in a coffee shop about how you can’t get a decent-priced abortion these days.
That’s just part of her DNA. She doesn’t like that they made the choice that they’re going to go for it, and now, my God, there’s not even a place to get one for free, like there was in her time.
Do you agree with what Jane said at your Sundance panel, that women need to shame studios for being gender-biased?
You won’t shame them if you’re really bombastic about it. You do it by changing the opinions of the society. It becomes not cool to do it anymore. The good thing about studio executives is they’re in business. They want to make a movie that makes money.
Do you think there’s a bias?
I think there was a time when society believed men were superior in the culture. My own father and mother were working-class, and I saw how my father had more freedom than my mother. My mother was a very good mother and homemaker, and my dad drank and gambled and did whatever he wanted to. And I went to the track with him, the bars, bookie joints. And then I’d go to church with my mother on Sundays. But I saw the dichotomy and it bothered me. The world is so unconscious. I don’t know how long it will take to have women that are in positions of power that are equal to the male population. People like to see themselves reflected in the culture, so maybe you just have women going to women’s things. You have enough of each, that’s a stasis for a while, and then something changes.
I do want talk about your Netflix show, Grace and Frankie, with Jane Fonda, Sam Waterston, and Martin Sheen, about two women who hate each other but have to move in together when their husbands fall in love. What can we expect?
We had fun. We shot the whole thing and it starts airing May 8. So you can watch the whole thing on the weekend. And then you can call us and tell us what you thought. It’s about two women of our age. And our husbands are still in the picture all the time. They live nearby. They take Martin [Sheen]’s house and live in that, and we take the beach house. Our kids are intermingled. I have two sons, she has two daughters. She has grandkids, I don’t have any grandkids yet. It’s just how we adapt to one another, how we get along, what we have to struggle with in our age and having our husbands leave us like that, just high and dry.
And what is that struggle?
I’m less conventional. I’m a painter and bohemian but I’m still in my 70s, so I’ve had a long marriage to my husband. We’re like best friends and seem happy together. She and Martin maybe are more conservative and a little uptight. So it’s just getting along, trying to figure out how we’re going to survive financially. We’re not poor, but we’re not really rich. The husbands were lawyers but they did a lot of pro-bono work. Jane had a cosmetic business but she had already given it over to her daughter. And I am just a painter. So we have to depend on [the husbands] somewhat financially, to give us alimony. But they’re going to embark on their own lives. They don’t want to give us too much.
You and Jane’s characters are nemeses in the beginning, right?
We’ve known each other for 40 years, but we’ve been constantly thrown together, on holidays, vacations, and we’re always harping about each other. We just don’t like each other that much. So how do we reconcile all that and become friends? I like it. We had a lot of fun doing it.
Are there any fun shenanigan stories from the show or the set that you can tell me?
The first episode is maybe slightly more dramatic than the others because we’re faced with a crisis and we have a whole long ending scene on the beach where I make peyote for us. I don’t really make it for us, I made it for myself to go on a peyote trip to accept what’s happening to me and to come back renewed. And so that’s where the bonding starts a little bit. She’s totally ignorant about drugs, doesn’t have any experience. My husband and I have done a lot of drugs. The images are just so great, I can just see us sitting on the beach at night. The hills behind us are lit up in such a great way. And you see how devastated we really are.
Did you and Jane have a sort of kismet?
Well, we say we want to be like Lucy and Ethel some of the time. In the sixth or seventh episode of the series, we have to go to a funeral. She’s fed up with me because I dress so eccentrically — I paint my own shoes and stuff like that. And she’s just band-box perfect. So she gets a little put-out. We’re not really like Ethel and Lucy because we’re not both crazy enough. She’s too straight as a type. But she’s a little bit crazy. It’s comical because we’re trying to get out of the house and we’re trying to decide whether to take our wedding rings off and stuff like that.
Is it fun to spend that much time together?
Oh yeah, totally.
Did you have parties in your trailers?
You smoke weed in Grandma and peyote in Grace and Frankie. Do you ever indulge?
No. I worry about getting too far in, I always say it will just ruin my appearance.
Yeah, anything. Anything, if we take too much of it, will ruin our looks. And we won’t be able to get a job. We’ll have to do something that’s only done maybe once every 50 years. Like Jane has done an Italian film called Youth. Hasn’t been released yet, but she got a view of it and she says, “I really look terrible.” She says the lighting, everything, is just awful. So I’m saying that’s what we would be left to if our looks really did get totally compromised.
Do you think you and Jane are examples of women proving that you can have longevity in this business?
Yeah. We’re few and far between. I’m anxious to see what Meryl’s going to do in another 10 to 15 years.
Is what Russell Crowe said right, that Hollywood isn’t ageist, it’s just that women over 40 still want to play the ingenue?
Oh, I don’t think that’s true. The guys don’t want to be stuck with something that doesn’t pander to their masculinity, their leading-man status. Many times, I’d hear about a script, even when I was 40, and I would say, “Have the director see me for this part,” and they’d say, “Oh, well, Dustin’s playing the lead.” Like he wants a woman younger. Or that would be the implication. They don’t want someone who looks 40 or is 40 and, God forbid, 50. While they’re still sort of leading-man viable, they want someone who’s like 28. They want a young person who flatters them.