Five-time Golden Globe nominee and Oscar nominee Lily Tomlin has received another two Globe nominations this year for her work this year on the hit Netflix series Grace And Frankie and on the powerful indie Grandma, a film about three generations of women navigating life in all its great complexity. Having enjoyed her previous work with director Paul Weitz in Admission, Tomlin found in Grandma’s Elle a role that cuts against type and expectation—a role in which, despite the title, the 76-year-old’s age is secondary in a year full of nuanced, edgy performances by older actors. Tomlin here shares her experience with Grandma and Grace And Frankie, which will have its second season bowing this year.
Do the nominations and accolades still register for you, given all the success you’ve already had?
Yeah, it does have an impact because all the people around you are involved in the same project. They’re invested in the outcome. I think if there’s any reluctance, it’s because you have to have something to wear. (Laughs) You have to figure out what you’re going to wear, and there’s a dozen parties and things you have to go to. And I just think, “Oh my God, what can I come up with? I’m not going to come up with something that’s going to get me by the observing group, without them saying, ‘What in the hell is she thinking of?’”—like we used to do in Detroit.
Speaking to Grandma, you had a pretty unique collaboration with director Paul Weitz—you were apparently his muse for the role of Elle. What was that working relationship like?
It was Paul’s idea, Paul’s story, and he brought it to me saying that he had written it with me in mind and had been motivated to finish it from the work we did on Admission, in which I played Tina Fey’s mother. I’m very, very fond of Paul. The first thing that happened, when he said, “I’ve written this with you in mind,” I thought, “Oh god, I hope I like it,” because when you like somebody and you want to work with them and they say they wrote it with you in mind, it just adds a lot of trepidation to the equation. But I loved it—I thought it was a great idea, I thought the character was somebody I understood; I like that it was 19 days, it was going to be really fast. We hit the ground running and everyone who came on board was just so terrific—my granddaughter (played by) Julia Garner, and of course Sam Elliott was just knockout, and Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, and John Cho. Marcia Gay (Harden) was brilliant. Everybody bought their best game to the table.
Given that it was a 19-day shoot and a low-budget independent, I’d imagine there was a very indie methodology to the whole process.
We did it fairly easily. In retrospect I think about it and Paul knew what he was doing and knew what he wanted. He didn’t overshoot, we didn’t do a lot of takes—things kind of happened. The dialogue just seemed to be completely natural and somehow revealing.
Was that an attractive way to work for you?
Yeah, it’s very attractive. I like working on this kind of a project. The closest I’ve come to doing that kind of a movie was probably Flirting With Disaster, which I did with David O. Russell a few years ago. It was only his second film and he probably had a fairly modest budget—I don’t know what it was, but it was probably more than what Paul had on Grandma. That was similar—that’s all I can ever really connect it to. I like it because if people are called upon to be fast and resourceful and to really deliver, they just seem to. If you give them a lot of space and rubbery room, they’re going to fill that too.
You’ve recently worked with Sam Elliott on both Grace And Frankie and Grandma. The two of you share some very intense, emotional scenes toward the climax of Grandma that are pretty remarkable. What was it like shooting those?
Sam was just wonderful—you didn’t think about it. He’s so “Karl” to me now. We read through it, we didn’t really rehearse it. Then we broke it down into two or three pieces because we had to walk up to the house, then we had to enter the house, be in the house, then we had to propose getting the money…Sam is fond of saying, “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.” Another filmmaker said to me at a party last night, “When I saw it, I thought, ‘Well Lily must have written it, it’s so much in her voice,” and of course I did not write it at all. That’s how I felt about it—I didn’t even consciously say, “This is in my voice”—it was just easy, it was natural. When I first read the script, I might question Paul about dumping coffee on the floor at that coffee shop. All the things that she did were really designed to make her unlikeable, and of course, they kind of make you like her. She was irascible, but she was goodhearted, basically, and she was warm to the people she was involved with. At the end of the movie, when I’m walking down the road—which was a single shot—Paul was on headset and I knew he would be the one to hear it, and I just thanked him for the movie and said, “This movie has been such a gift to me.” And I didn’t even think of the outcome—I just so loved doing it and it seemed so right, and it was so much fun.
Your character in Grandma is a lesbian, though as with her age, this dimension to her is secondary to the larger story. How do you feel about the state of the LGBT narrative in mainstream cinema and television?
I understand that proportionally, there seems to be a glut of product in television and film at the moment. In some ways, you just hope that’s part of a progression. In my case, Grandma isn’t predicated on her being a gay character—it’s about all the stuff around that. You hope that all those films that get made just roll into other, more accepted portrayals of gay characters—that they become a part of the landscape. I guess to make an impact, you have to have a concentration—a preponderance of the theme. I don’t think they can easily take all that away from us, but I do think you have to be vigilant. God knows where everything’s heading. If you get the right combo of forces in power that support one another, that could come to an appropriate ending. (Laughs)
This was a great year for entertainment, in terms of the proliferation of very smartly written and unexpected roles for older actresses. Speaking to Grandma more specifically, but to Grace And Frankie as well, how do you feel about the current state of the industry, in terms of the availability of roles for older actors?
I think when all that gets out in the zeitgeist and when people see the potential of humans or age groups that they’re not familiar with or they’re used to thinking of in stereotypical terms, then the creative people will make that adjustment upward. I’ve played lots of mothers in the last four years. The young guy on NCIS, I played his grandmother, and she was a very strong, capable, productive person. I just think as women expand beyond those stereotypical roles that they’ve been relegated to, then people will reflect those in the writing.
How do you feel about playing the Grandma character?
I feel great about playing Grandma—I love it because it’s ironic that I’m playing a grandmother who’s whatever I am, which is in my 70s, but I’m assertive and I have my own opinions and all that stuff. I’m not just sitting quietly in a corner as my grandkids throw lighted matches at me, or something. (Laughs)
In Grace And Frankie, the title characters are very clearly defined contrasts. Grace, Jane Fonda’s character, is very type A, whereas your character, Frankie, is the more free-wheeling “hippie dippie” one. How involved were you and Jane in fleshing out those characters?
Jane and I were very excited to get this offer because, first of all, it’s an opportunity to work, and to play someone of our age in a fairly interesting situation. Marta (Kauffman) was able to get older actors playing gay characters and older actors playing lovely women. (Laughs) We wanted to make it human, first of all, and real, and funny. If it’s going to be realistic, it’s going to be moving at the same time. We’ve already finished our second season and we began to take on more issues that would relate to older people and how discounted they might be. We touched on that in the first year, too, but now we’ve completed this second year and we’ve built on that. Now we’ve got the challenge of the third season, which is going to start (filming) in a month or two. We just like being able to show that it’s not impossible to be alive and vital and vigorous and everything else that people don’t expect you to have at that age.
The series manages to find an effective balance between heart-rending emotional content and laugh-out-loud funny moments. Is that a hard combination to execute? And there’s no laugh track—how did that affect the performance?
I prefer it without a laugh track unless you’re doing something flat-out proscenium, up front. Everything calls for something else—another presentation. I find this the easiest. If you’re playing it basically realistically, if you come into a moment that’s moving, you’re going to be moving, unless you’re not an adequate actor. That’s part of why being an actor is so wonderful and exciting to you, is because you know what you want to go for. There are exceptions—people can fake you out—but if you’re doing a scene that has an emotional turn, it’ll come out different every time you do it. That’s what I love about being an actor—it’s kind of like psychotherapy. I get all of my “therapizing” done on the stage.
What’s informing the role of Frankie, on your part?
I think I’m mostly an instinctive actor. I know who I’m supposed to be, and the costumer (Allyson B. Fanger) is somewhat helpful. She created an interesting look for me with clothes that maybe only Frankie would have. But it’s more just transposing my own life experience to the same general area that Frankie would be going through. I find a sense memory that works for me until it gets stale, but it’s the fun of doing it, and the pain of doing it. Jane will know her lines down to the letter and I kind of have a general idea of what my lines are. We don’t change the lines, but it makes them come in the moment to me, so maybe that helps me on some hand. By the time we’ve rehearsed it for the camera a couple of times, I know my lines, but I didn’t come in knowing them hard-core, flat-out, although on the stage, in the theater, I have to know the whole play or else I’m going to go up at some point. As I age, I find that I just trust myself. I feel like I know who Frankie is, or some part of her, and we have good material, and now I’ve been doing it for two seasons so I hope I don’t flash out here in the third.