- By Chris Hewitt
“There are only so many people in me,” says Lily Tomlin. Which, as anyone who has followed her over five decades of creating distinctive characters can attest, is a bald-faced lie.
Since audiences discovered Tomlin on Laugh In in 1969, playing child philosopher Edith Ann and officious telephone operator Ernestine, the actress has been finding more and more people within herself, whether it’s in the stage shows written by her wife, Jane Wagner (The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe won Tomlin a 1986 Tony Award), or in the dozens of movie roles that began with her Oscar-nominated performance in Nashville in 1975.
Her new intergenerational film opening this week, Grandma, which the smart money says will earn her a second Oscar nomination, demonstrates again that Tomlin, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. The New York Times, for one, just gave it a rave.
Still Going Strong
2015 has been the biggest year of Tomlin’s career, between the raves for Grandma since its debut in January at the Sundance Film Festival and the success of her Netflix sitcom with Jane Fonda, Grace and Frankie, now filming a second season (Tomlin is nominated for an Emmy for the first one).
People can start over at any point in their life. It might be better when you're older. You know more.
— Lily Tomlin
But Tomlin wants more. In fact, she undertook a sort of “greatest hits” tour this summer, performing in theaters across the country in an attempt to goose Wagner into writing her a new stage show (Wagner hasn’t written a play or TV or movie script since an Edith Ann holiday special in 1996).
As she prepares to turn 76 on Sept. 1, Tomlin is determined to lead by example.
“Older women are easy to overlook in this culture. There’s no stigma,” says Tomlin, who is staying visible and making sure her characters do, too. Both Elle, the grouchy and recently-dumped lesbian she plays in Grandma, and Frankie, the spurned wife of a newly out gay man in Grace and Frankie, find themselves at points in their lives when they must reinvent themselves.
And, says Tomlin, why not?
“People can start over at any point in their life,” says Tomlin. “It might be better when you’re older. You know more.”
In fact, Tomlin — who after all, can still believably play the 5-year-old Edith Ann — gets a little impatient when quizzed about what it’s like to be one of the few older performers playing people who are the stars of their own stories, instead of just wise-cracking supporting characters.
Her New Role
As the new film’s title suggests, Tomlin is the protagonist of Grandma, a mini-road movie in which Elle’s granddaughter needs money, so the two of them drive around Los Angeles, Calif., in Elle’s old Dodge, trying to cadge the funds from people of her past.
“Honestly, I don’t think the things older people deal with are so different from younger people,” says Tomlin — who, by the way, supplied the movie car, her own 1955 Royal Lancer. “Elle wants love and some form of comfort, same as anyone.”
The role of Elle was written for Tomlin by Paul Weitz (who directed her memorable performance as Tina Fey’s mother in the comedy, Admission) but the former flower child’s past is not much like Tomlin’s.
“I was never a hippie. I knew hippies and I think I can understand them,” says Tomlin, who theorizes that Elle stopped growing when her beloved partner died, years before Grandma begins. “I think Elle has always been angry. I think she has always raged against inequity and that’s a tough one because there’s always so much of it.”
A Pleasant Surprise
Grandma was filmed so quickly and on such a shoestring budget that Tomlin didn’t have much time to think about how the whole thing was coming together, so she was taken aback watching the movie in public.
“When I saw it with the audience at Sundance, I was surprised that there were big belly laughs,” says Tomlin, who had a “girlfriends weekend” at Sundance with Fonda, cramming in as many movies as they could see (Fonda blogged about it, hilariously).
“It’s much funnier than I thought it was. People were having a really great time. The first time I had seen it was in Paul’s office — he showed it to me on his computer and there wasn’t so much laughing with just the two of us.”
It could be argued it’s also surprising that Tomlin even was able to have a movie career, which has included All of Me, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Short Cuts and the Wagner-written Moment by Moment, a legendary 1978 bomb best remembered for the image of Tomlin and John Travolta as awkward lovers whose only connection is that they have exactly the same feathered hair-do.
“Once you get known for something, it can be hard to break out. When I was on Laugh In, playing these crazy characters, nobody ever thought I could do movies,” says Tomlin. “Robert Altman was the only one. I had the same agent as Bob (who directed Nashville) and someone else was supposed to do my part but she wasn’t doing it anymore and he thought I could do it.”
The original actress, Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), had deaf parents and the role had been conceived so her character had two deaf children, with whom she spoke in sign language. That backstory didn’t apply anymore once Tomlin took over, but Altman liked it, so Tomlin took a crash course in American Sign Language, played the part, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress and kicked off an impressive four-decades-and-counting movie career.
Fighting for What She Deserves
“It’s all been a nice surprise,” says Tomlin, a remark that underplays her own agency in making that long-running career happen and her ability to, like Elle, rage against inequity when it needs to be raged against.
As Grace and Frankie episodes were beginning to appear last May, a random remark revealed to Tomlin that she and Fonda, the stars of the show, were making the same money as their clearly subsidiary, male co-stars, Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen. Tomlin made her displeasure known and the arrangement is different for season two.
True to form, Tomlin acts like it’s no big deal, but there is a glint in her eye when she’s asked what has changed.
“We have a back-end (a percentage of the profits),” says Tomlin, with a deep chuckle. “And the boys don’t.”