At the age of 75, Lily Tomlin is enjoying the kind of career resurgence that you could describe as surprising – except that Tomlin spent five decades as a distinctive, often groundbreaking comic voice who never seemed dependent on waves of popularity. Even when she was part of hits like the ’60s TV series “Laugh-In,” the smash movie “Nine to Five” or the Tony-winning Broadway hit “Appearing Nitely,” she was an actor and a comedian trying to bring distinctive characters to life, not a star looking for the next big paycheck.
Three years after winning the Mark Twain Award for American Humor and only months after receiving the Kennedy Center Honor, Tomlin is now the star of the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” with Jane Fonda, and the title character in Paul Weitz’s new film “Grandma,” which is her first lead role in 27 years.
As Elle, a feisty, flat-broke poet running across Los Angeles trying to raise $600 so her granddaughter can get an abortion, Tomlin is both enormously funny and truly touching; her character may gleefully bash her granddaughter’s boyfriend with a hockey stick, but she can’t hide the pain she still carries from the death of her longtime partner.
Tomlin spoke to TheWrap about the film, but her wry grin flashed even more often when the conversation veered into topics like feminism, gay rights and a certain oddly-coiffed presidential candidate.
TheWrap: When somebody hands you a script and says, “I wrote this just for you,” which Paul Weitz did with “Grandma,” it must be exciting, but also …
Lily Tomlin: It’s exciting, and it’s a little scary. You try to say, “Oh, great!” But you really don’t know what to say or think until you read it.
So what was your reaction when you read it?
Well, I liked it. I liked the character. We spent a lot of time talking about it – just housekeeping stuff. I’d say, “Well, she’s an academic and she’s a published poet, but we need to lay it out [more clearly] why she’s so broke.” So we put in that she paid her girlfriend’s medical bills off and cut up her credit cards. Those were Paul’s ideas.
Were there key things about the character of Elle that you connected with?
Well, I connected with her being a feminist. I connected with her being a feminist writer, because I had girlfriends who were feminist writers. They would be celebrated in the first wave of the feminist movement, and then as time went on feminism fell out of favor, just like other things do in life. It rolls around, and now we’ll probably have a second wave of feminism … unless Rick Santorum wins.
I don’t think that Donald Trump would usher in a new wave of feminism, either.
I wonder what he would do. You don’t know what he would do. C’mon, he’s liable to do anything, good or bad.
Well, I think he’s capable of anything, if it would work for him or profit him or just be of the moment. It might be good to have a guy like that in the White House. I mean, it couldn’t be any worse than some of the others who wanna get in there.
You had to shoot the entire movie in 19 days, which must have made for some pressure-filled moments.
I don’t remember us working too long.
You never felt rushed?
No, I felt great. I don’t remember ever feeling stressed. But I might forget. I might just push it out of my mind.
It’s like, my father was a big drinker and a gambler and everything. I knew other kids in grade school who wouldn’t even invite you to their house if their father drank. but I totally hung out with my father. I didn’t think anything about it.
I think I block out anything that could be the slightest bit injurious. I just forget about it. “Oh no, we had a great childhood!” (Laughs) I don’t even know why I brought up my father. But it starts to come up and I think, “Should I suppress it? No, I’d better say it.”
There’s a real strain of sadness and disillusionment in Elle, who comes a generation that thought they were going to change the world. Being from that generation, do you identify?
I guess not so you could tell. I am of that time, but I don’t lament it. I’ve lived through it. I guess nothing surprises me.
You begin to see how incrementally things change. I used to think, “Well, eventually the world will turn itself in the right direction.” But I’m not so certain that that will happen, not in my lifetime anyway. I look at little children, and I think, “Oh my God, these kids, they’re going to have to go through who knows what if someone doesn’t change things a bit.” I mean, would it be so terrible if the corporations didn’t turn the profits that they turn?
I did a show for HBO that never got on the air called “Twelve Miles of Bad Road.” It was about Texas billionaires, and Mary Kay Place and I played sisters who married brothers named Shakespeare, and they’d died in a plane crash. We got invited to a party for people who’d given a minimum of $1 million to the development of a new arts center in Dallas. I got seated next to one of the richest men in the world, and right away he said something like, “Oh, you’re from Hollywood, you’re just brainwashed.”
And I said, “Well, golly, educate me. This is your chance to teach me something.” So he kind of warmed up to that. And he started talking about being an architect of the Swift Boat campaign. And I said, “Are you confessing that to me, or bragging about it?”
We talked all night, and I just drew him out on everything. And toward the end of the evening, I said to him, “Don’t you think we should try just a little bit harder to make the world a little bit better for just a few more people?” and he said, “No.” Just “No,” matter-of-fact.
But do you see progress on social issues? You didn’t make a big deal of it when you and Jane Wagner got married in 2013, but the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage must feel significant.
It’s been dumbfounding to me how the gay community has been so successful in progressing. I think it’s a matter of enough kids coming out to their parents and their neighbors and their relatives — and slowly, it burgeoned into a big awareness that my kid is gay, or my grandchild, or the kid around the corner.
It’s made people soften, and then suddenly we’re enveloped and assimilated into the culture. And I thought it was amazing and remarkable.
Going back to your career, it’s also remarkable that at the age of 75 you have your first lead role in a film in 27 years, and you’re one of the stars of a TV series.
Yeah. And I got the Kennedy Center Honor in December!
Is this all part of some grand career plan to put you back on top?
No. I’ve floated in and out. This might be coincidence, or maybe enough time has passed and I’m still ambulatory, so people say, “Oh, let’s get Lily Tomlin. She’d be good in this.”
“How does she look?”
“She looks OK. I saw her the other day, she bent over and picked up a pencil and got right back up.” [Laughs]
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.