EXCLUSIVE: It’s never too late: In December, Lily Tomlin — show-business shape-shifter, multiple Emmy winner and Oscar nominee — was rewarded for her contribution to American culture as a Kennedy Center Honoree. In May, Tomlin will move into the streaming world with the debut of the Netflix series Grace And Frankie with her 9 To 5 co-star Jane Fonda. And of course there’s her debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with Grandma. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up late Tuesday night for $2 million, and the Paul Weitz-directed pic will formally premiere on January 30.
During the festival I chatted with the comic genius and we covered a lot of territory: Robert Altman, who starred her in Nashville and other films; working with Weitz again; Grace And Frankie; women in Hollywood; diversity at the Oscars; and those iconic ’80s workout videos of Fonda’s.
DEADLINE: With all the work you’ve done on both the small and the big screen since Sundance started in the 1980s, from Robert Altman’s The Player to I Heart Huckabees and onward, it’s remarkable that Grandma is your first film to debut here.
TOMLIN: That’s what I hear. I never paid any attention to the industry, so I wouldn’t know if some film I was in went to Sundance. I can’t imagine Altman’s films never went to Sundance.
DEADLINE: Vincent And Theo played here, and there was a tribute to him back in 1991. Plus Cookie’s Fortune debuted in Park City in 1999. But I mean, weren’t Altman’s films Sundance before Sundance?
TOMLIN: Yeah, I guess so. I wish he could hear that.
DEADLINE: Paul Weitz told me that as he was writing Grandma he knew wanted to work with you again. He also said that you were very dedicated, especially with it being so low budget.
TOMLIN: Well, it was a pretty easy shoot and I trusted Paul. I came to really admire and kind of love him from doing Admission. So he brought the script to me and we just sort of went ahead with it.
DEADLINE: Your character, the acerbic academic of the title, is in virtually every scene. How much did the script change from when Paul first showed it to you?
TOMLIN: We talked about it for a long time and he was finessing it the whole time. For instance, I said there’s got to be a really strong reason why Elle doesn’t have 600 bucks. She’s got to be able to have some ability to come up with that amount of money and he came up with that. The most daunting part of it was we shot it in 19 days and for almost no money. Somehow, Paul pulled it off. He has a lot of friends in the business, Marcia Gay and Sam Elliott and all the people that came on board were all just first rate. I loved Julia Garner and it was fun to do. We shot in sequence pretty much. We used everything we could. We used my old car in the movie — that old Dodge I’ve had since 1975.
“People hire me to create some kind of archetype or some culture type, or something. I guess they accept whatever I come up with.”
DEADLINE: Grandma is not a lot like the grandma you played on Malibu Country or NCIS.
TOMLIN: No. She’s not a lot like those ones. You know, mostly people hire me to kind of create some kind of archetype or some culture type, or something. I guess they accept whatever I come up with. In this movie, I wore almost no makeup. My hair was not dressed. Once you throw in your lot, you throw in your lot. In a case like this, I just think it’s bringing up issues, showing that a contemporary grandmother is anything but a grandmother. She’s a person and her little granddaughter is almost like a throwback to a 50s girl. A lot of the young women are in that place. The Sage character does find her voice a little bit by the end of the film, and Elle as the grandmother changes too.
DEADLINE: It’s the first time the movie has really all been on you.
TOMLIN: Yes, I never thought of myself as any kind of a film star, as many films as I’ve made — and I’ve made some really fun movies with good people. I’ve always been paired with someone because I’m not really box office, in that carrying-a-picture sense. I’ve always been busy, but not in the spotlight.
DEADLINE: It’s been an incredibly busy year for you. Was that intentional?
TOMLIN: No. No. Nothing is terribly intentional except always having my own I’ve often said it in the past, having my own act is what kept me off the Match Game. I’ve continued to do concerts always, 30, 40, 50 a year. I always feel like I’ve been relegated to having to invent it for myself, or I would fall into that slot, like something like Web Therapy with Lisa Kudrow. I don’t think I ever would have gotten a series. It’s like the world has been, no, no, we don’t want you to have a series.
DEADLINE: But now you do have a series.
TOMLIN: I do have a series now, with Grace and Frankie coming up on Netflix with Jane Fonda. Its one season now but we hope it will go on.
DEADLINE: For so many years you have weaved in and out of so many different shows, from West Wing to Desperate Housewives to NCIS. You’re always on somewhere, but, just as with Grandma, this seems like the first time its really your show. Well, your and Jane’s show.
TOMLIN: Yeah, theoretically.
DEADLINE: What made you want to commit to a full series with Marta Kaufman, Howard Morris, Skydance Productions and the gang at Netflix?
TOMLIN: Oh, I wanted to do it because of the people. I wanted to do it because of Jane and we liked Marta so we thought we had a pretty good chance and we liked the theme. The theme is that our husbands are law partners and we think they’re going to retire and we’re going to get rid of each other because we don’t like each other that much. Jane’s character is very conservative and kind of Republican and I’m a painter and bohemian, very different. So in the first scene in the show, they take us out to dinner and tell us that they’ve been having a relationship for 20 years and they’re going to divorce us and get married. So we were like, Where do we go from here?
DEADLINE: There’s been a lot of discussion this year that it’s an all male slate in the Oscars’ directing category. Obviously some think that Ava DuVernay should have been there for Selma. You’ve never hesitated to say what you think, so: What do you think is the state of women in film and television today?
“I don’t think people get together, all these actors that vote, I don’t think they get together and collude to exclude anybody.”
TOMLIN: Well, I think there’s lots more work to be done. There’s been incremental improvements, but not across the board. You know, the movie audience is still largely a young and action-oriented market.
DEADLINE: What’s your take on what happened with what some hashtagged as #OscarsSoWhite?
TOMLIN: I don’t know if it’s deliberate in any way with race or gender. I don’t think people get together, all these actors that vote, I don’t think they get together and collude to exclude anybody. I think that a certain sentiment develops and that’s the direction people go. And there was a lot of good product it seemed this season. Of course, they’re mostly male roles like in The Theory of Everything and Imitation Game. And there’s a sentiment the other way — they might vote against American Sniper because of the values it extols, even though Bradley did a great performance. If I could solve this, I would have done it already.
DEADLINE: I bet. Over all the years, you don’t seem to have ever bought into playing the stereotype.
TOMLIN: I tease Jane Fonda about this, they offered me the part she got in California Suite. And she’s on the beach in a bikini and I didn’t want to go on the beach in a bikini. I didn’t want to play that scene in a bikini. Jane [didn’t know] it had been offered to me. Jane later told me she developed a workout because she had to go on the beach in a bikini.
DEADLINE: Well have you ever asked her for a cut of the profits?
TOMLIN: No, but maybe I should now. She’s just released them again.