Actor Lily Tomlin talks ‘Grandma,’ ‘Grace’ and being grateful
Windy City Times: I want to take a moment here at the outset to say “thank you” on behalf of Our People for holding the torch aloft. I just want to rejoice that our own darling Lily Tomlin is playing one of us onscreen so spectacularly.
Lily Tomlin: Well thank you—thank you, thank you!
WCT: I love the irony that Paul Weitz—a man—wrote this beautiful part for you.
LT: I know. It’s so amazing.
WCT: How close is the character of Elle Reid to you? Did he sit with you and observe you?
LT: No, he didn’t. He totally surprised me by springing this script on me. I had no idea. After we finished Admission he called me and asked me to go out to lunch and then he said, “I’ve written a movie with you in mind” and that sort of struck terror in my heart because I liked him so much after we’d done Admission and I loved his About a Boy and so I said, “Oh God, what if I don’t like it? I’ll have to tell him that I don’t like it. So, I was kind of fearful.” Anyway, I loved it; I thought it was a terrific script and he got the most wonderful people to be in it. Every performance is just wonderful. I tell you, I don’t know if it’s because we did it in 19 days or because we had a low budget but it’s just a special movie.
WCT: A real labor of love with you driving your own car…
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We Made Lily Tomlin Cry
You played a lesbian in the film Tea With Mussolini, but in Grandma you’re the central character. Did you feel any responsibility playing a gay character when we don’t see many in major motion pictures?
I always feel responsible for the person I’m going to play on the screen. I felt that this was true and authentic and I was comfortable with that. I didn’t have any real issue. I wouldn’t have been able to start the movie if I had. I felt that Paul understood the character and knew what he was doing.
In 1969 you became an overnight star on Laugh-In the same year as the Stonewall riots and the beginning of the gay liberation movement. You’ve always supported gay projects such as appearing in And the Band Played On and narrating The Celluloid Closet. But what’s it been like to see the changes in LGBT equality and in media depictions of gay characters from then until now?
The last 10 to 15 years it’s been sort of stunning. This generation has been out of this world. I want to say it’s because of everyone who came before them who did whatever they tried to do. They may not realize it, but they’ve been the beneficiaries of that activism, like my friend [activist-writer] Vito Russo and what he endured, and he’s not really here to see it.
And how extraordinary — [she begins to tear up and takes a moment to recover] — I’m sorry … when I think of what my own gay brother went through as a young kid. He’s three years younger than me, and he lives in Nashville now, so he’s not absolutely out of the fire. But it’s just been galvanizing to see the difference.
Why everyone is obsessed with Lily Tomlin again
The film “Grandma” is showcasing Lily Tomlin’s sly wit for a new generation of viewers — who are falling in love with the 75-year-old much the way America did 45 years ago when she was a breakout star on NBC’s “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”
“Grandma” is making Tomlin a hot commodity again after her 60-year career on stage, film and TV — much the same way that “Downton Abbey” made Maggie Smith “hot” again, at roughly the same age (Smith was 75 when the show premiered in 2010). Tomlin’s even been mentioned as an early Oscar contender.
For those who don’t know about Tomlin’s heralded early career, we have put together an introduction, with clips and highlights. For one thing, she was always the smartest person in the room, a comic who was able to develop her gifts on a variety of platforms: television, recordings, Broadway and film. And this all began in 1970, the year Tina Fey, among the dozens of female comics influenced by Tomlin, was born.
‘Grandma’ Star Lily Tomlin on Feminism, Gay Rights, Stardom at 75 … and Donald Trump
Do you plan to continue working on TV and in films and onstage, all at the same time?
I’d like to have a job, but I’m closer to valuing my personal time now. Maybe I’ve run out of speed, I don’t know. If I get a project, I’m totally there for it.
But I’m aware that it’s taking away from my personal time. You know, I talk about my early life with such detail, and so many lessons embedded in it. And then I think about the time after I got famous, and I’m like, “Remember that hotel we went to where were we playing? And we had, like, a really good hamburger? Do you remember that? You don’t?” You can’t remember anything.
It sounds like I’m getting old when I say I can’t remember anything. And that’s not true. It’s just that when you get consumed by show business, what you remember changes. I remember ratings, I remember if I got a bad review, I remember if I got a good review.
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Dolly Parton Wants ‘9 to 5’ Reunion on ‘Grace and Frankie’
Brace yourself for that to potentially change. While shilling for her NBC telepic Coat of Many Colors at the Television Critics Association summer press tour on Thursday, Parton seemed quite enthusiastic about booking a spot on Grace and Frankie — at least after she figured out what it was.
“Who’s Grace and Frankie?” Parton asked to a roomful of laughter. “Oh, you should of said ‘Jane and Lily.'”
While she’s not seen the series, and wasn’t exactly sure that it was still up and running, she did not mince words about her desire to be reunited with two actresses. “I told them whenever I get a little block of time, I’d love to come be on the show,” she said. “We always talked about a [9 to 5] reunion.”
Lily Tomlin’s ‘Grace and Frankie’ Emmy nod adds to notable year
Kauffman has mentioned that the show developed around you and Fonda. How did you help shape it?
We just told her we were very eager to do something about older women and talk about important things; we wanted it to be somewhat meaningful. I hesitate to say “meaningful” and then present our show as an example [laughs]. And, of course, Jane and I adore working together.
Emmy contender chat: Sarah Paulson of ‘American Horror Story’
You worked with Martin Sheen before, on “West Wing.” Was this a fun reunion?
Yeah, he’s a great guy anyway — he’s fun, very upbeat; he’s always singing some Irish song or something, coming in and giving us his blessings. And, of course, Jane worked with Sam in “Newsroom.” We all have Aaron Sorkin in common.
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Emmy Comedy Lead Actress Showdown
Lily Tomlin (“Grace and Frankie,” Netflix)
A beloved veteran with six Emmys under her belt, this is Tomlin’s first starring role in a scripted comedy series. Hollywood doesn’t offer opportunities like this to actresses in their 70s every day, and some voters may want to show their approval on the ballot.