Sundance Interview: Lily Tomlin
“I don’t have an anger problem,” Elle Reed, played by Lily Tomlin, assures her granddaughter after berating an uppity barista in Grandma. “I have a problem with assholes.” Infusing a naturalistic performance with impeccable comic timing, the actress who got her screen break on Laugh-In and created indelible lived-in characters in Nashville (75) and Nine to Five (80), among other films, is in top form here as a cantankerous lesbian poetess suddenly called upon for help.
If last year’s Obvious Child was tagged as an abortion comedy, Grandma might be simplistically summarized as an abortion road movie. Pregnant and too afraid to go to her own mother, Sage (Julia Garner) shows up on her grandmother’s doorstep in Los Angeles needing $600 for the procedure she’s already scheduled. But Elle is flat broke: she’s drained her savings paying off hospital bills (her partner of 38 years has recently passed away due to illness) and chopped up her credit cards to make the decorative mobile that hangs on her front porch. With nothing but a half-baked idea as to how to come up with the dough, the two women take to the road in Elle’s beat-up Dodge Ford.
The familiar setup of an odd-couple family journey might suggest a broader characterization than the emotional nuance Tomlin and director Paul Weitz manage to achieve. Though Elle can certainly dish out the caustic insults (and assaults) when need be, this is not just some Bad Grandma. Each pit stop along the way peels back another layer of her hard-edged exterior, and the film traces the challenges of moving forward amidst the omnipresence of the past with sensitivity. Tomlin’s Elle has the vulnerability of Linnea in Nashville (75), the kooky matter-of-factness of Vivian, the existential detective of I Heart Huckabees (04), and the feminist prerogative that Violet was just beginning to claim in Nine to Five (80).
At Sundance, where Grandma had its world premiere, FILM COMMENT chatted briefly with Tomlin, who had that ever-present mischievous twinkle in her eye. (“You don’t know when you’ve messed with a young person’s psyche!” she laughed when quoted back a line from Huckabees.) Smile wide and Midwestern lilt still intact, she discussed the new film and how she got her start in showbiz.
This role seems tailor-made for you. Did you have a hand in creating the character at the script level?
I’d done Admission  with Paul Weitz, where I played Tina Fey’s mother, and that was a feminist character. He got the idea to write Grandma when we were working together, but I didn’t know at the time. About a month after the premiere, he and I were having a cup of coffee and he told me about it. We read and talked—and talked and talked—and tried to solve issues that might come up, like the cost of an abortion and that kind of thing, but it’s his script.
Grandma has almost an entirely female cast, and is arguably the most female-centered film you’ve done since Nine to Five , but it couldn’t be more different. Both are speaking to such different times.
Everyone that came on board came because of Paul. He’s made a lot of movies and he’s a very sweet guy and has all these relationships [with actors]. He’d come tell me, “I think Marcia Gay Harden is going to do it,” and I’d think, wow, are you serious? And John Cho and Nat Wolff are so good, Sam Elliott is just great.
I appreciated how this film addresses motherhood so honestly. It’s not just an “instinct,” it’s a hard job. I love the line where your character tells Sage she’s been afraid of her own daughter since she was 5 years old.
[Laughs] Well, that’s Paul. I think motherhood is daunting. That’s why so many of us are screwed up. The script is very rich in a small, subtle, incremental way.
Tea with Mussolini
This is the first time you’ve played a gay character on screen in a number of years.
I played Georgie in Tea with Mussolini —she was gay, an archaeologist. I’ve done it on the stage. But it’s not so different. I could be talking about the man in my life instead of the woman. I guess it is informed by my life somewhat—but it depends what kind of lesbian it is. To me, people are so much more alike than they are different; it’s all kind of just how it goes through the system.
Originally, you started in stand-up, and you’ve had such an immense and varied career, from movies to TV to voicing cartoons.
Oh, my cartoon! My Edith Ann cartoon! We won a Peabody for one of our shows. I never was a traditional stand-up comedian, it was more sketch. When I first got famous enough to get jobs headlining at small clubs because I was on Laugh-In, I played to silence. I’d do a little Ernestine and then maybe two minutes of Edith Ann, and then I’d do things they’d never seen that they weren’t used to, and they’d just stare at me in silence.
That sounds absolutely terrifying.
After five or six nights of it, it wears you down a little bit. Jan Sterling came to a club in Denver one night I was playing, Marvelous Marv’s—it was in a big high-rise and the club was on the ground floor. She gave me a big pep talk she said: “Don’t stop doing what you’re doing”—as if I would’ve, I wouldn’t have known what to do otherwise!—“the audience just isn’t with you yet.” They’d never seen sketches like this, and certainly not in a club. So I’d go back all renewed and buoyed, and then I’d play another five or six nights and move onto the next town and think: “Well, the next town will pay off.” It just takes time.
Edith Ann: A Few Pieces of the Puzzle
People are always lamenting the limited availability of smart female roles. Did your collaboration with your partner, Jane Wagner, who’s written for and with you since the very beginning, come from an absence of material?
I always had to pursue my own devices. I came about in the late Fifties, early Sixties, and was just getting my footing. In ’62 I got into a college show. I was sort of in pre-med in college. Not that I ever would have been a doctor—you would have been killed by the medicine I computed for you. I used to fill these little bottles with Xylene, which we used to use to clean oil-immersion slides, which I was just mad for. I’d sprinkle it on my books and just sit there inhaling it.
I was developing a character [the Grosse Pointe Matron] at the time, but I didn’t know it yet. In Detroit where I’m from, Grosse Pointe is a very rich suburb. This was 1962 and they had just blown the lid off the fact that Grosse Pointe was an overtly segregated community. My mother’s maiden name, just by coincidence, is Ford, and the Fords lived in Gross Pointe. Their daughter was my age and was making her debut at 18, and my mother said, “I’d love to go see her coming-out party.” I borrowed a car from a kid at school and went out there—everybody was out there, there was just a collection of cars circling the property.
When I got on the variety show I saw the material and I thought it was lame. It was so collegiate, like parodies of Gunsmoke and the Academy Awards. So I just sprang up full of aggression and said to the producer: “I think I have something you could use, and I did the Grosse Pointe Matron.” I was just ad-libbing it because I knew it so well: charity work, your daughter’s debut party. I was friendly with a guy on the show and I said: “Just interview me like I’m your distinguished guest.” I had on fox furs and a good suit that went just past the knees. She’d be talking and talking like a snake and then invite the audience to come to some function and then she gets up like this [gets up with her knees spread wide]. That got a big laugh in 1962, to break that social taboo. So then I said, I’m going to go to New York and become an actress, because I was such a hit on this show.
This year’s the 40th anniversary for Nashville, which was a big turning point in your career. What was it like working with Robert Altman and how did he cast you in the part?
I’d bought a book that my partner Jane had written the screenplay for, Cynthia Buchanan’s novel Maiden, in the early Seventies. Bob Altman and I had the same agent, and he was looking for something for Joan Tewkesbury, who wrote Nashville, to direct. He was going to produce Maiden and Joan was going to direct it, but it never happened. So he said come down to Nashville and you’ll do this part and we’ll do Maiden in the fall. He was just amazing. And when I got to Nashville I read the script and I thought I could play a dozen of these characters. But then as more and more people came in I thought, he’s so on the money [casting me as Linnea] . . . I’m the right person to play Linnea.
Though your role in Grandma is a dramatic one, there’s so much humor and reliance on comedic timing in the way you deliver the dialogue. Do you approach a role like this differently than you would a purely comedic part?
I don’t really work differently, depending on how broad it is. I’ve done things as broad as Beverly Hillbillies  and I enjoyed that immensely because I got to play that character knowing full well about Nancy Kulp, the actress who plays Miss Hathaway [in the original TV Show]. I didn’t want to tread on her territory because she was so revered by a certain segment of the population—kids who are 40 now, maybe 45, would run home from school everyday to see Beverly Hillbillies. I got to play that character really goofy and that was fun. I would pull my gun up with one hand [demonstrates animatedly]. You just let yourself go and do it, and you can play it a little bigger. But it’s really [about] believing it. If you believe it, you can play it any style that’s suitable for the vehicle. This is more naturalistic.
Between this and your upcoming Netflix original series Grace and Frankie with Jane Fonda, you must feel on top of your game right now.
Well, I probably should be. I’m enjoying it, it’s nice. I want to say things like, “This too will pass,” and it does. But it’s not gone yet.