Lily Tomlin on 'Grandma,' 'Grace and Frankie' & Her Eclectic Career (INTERVIEW)

The septuagenarian talks about her life's work on stage, television, film -- and her momentary fantasy of retiring.
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Paulette Cohn
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The septuagenarian talks about her life's work on stage, television, film -- and her momentary fantasy of retiring.
Lily Tomlin Grandma Movie Photo

Julia Garner and Lily Tomlin in 'Grandma.' (Photo: Sony Classics)

Lily Tomlin's career is on fire. She's as hot as she was in the '70s when she was one of the stars of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Back then, America fell in love with her as Ernestine or Edith Ann; today, it's all about her roles in the critically acclaimed film Grandma and her Netflix series Grace and Frankie, which reunited her with her Nine to Five co-star Jane Fonda.

"We do have a special bond and a friendship," Fonda commented about Tomlin at a press junket for Grace and Frankie. "I love being with her for all kinds of reasons, but she has a true funny bone. That's one of the reasons I love going to work every day. I get to spend time with somebody whose take on everything comes from a place of funny, which for me is total catharsis."

Bio, too, got the chance to spend time with Tomlin at a lunch at Bouchon in Beverly Hills to promote the DVD and Blu-ray release of Grandma, and it was every bit as much fun as Fonda claimed, as the 76-year-old actress recalled stories from her career, slipped into a Southern accent to talk about her family, and shared her thoughts on comedy.

Surprisingly, when Tomlin got the script for Grandma, which was written especially for her by Paul Weitz, who also directed the film, she recalls being nervous.

Lily Tomlin Grandma Photo

Tomlin in her '55 Dodge in a scene from 'Grandma.' (Photo: Sony Classics)

"I liked that it was a little edgy, and they wrote it for me so I was a bit dazzled by that," she says. "But I was a little terrified that I wasn't going to like it and I like Paul so much. Then as he was casting it, I was in love with the casting."

Another aspect of the film that spoke to Tomlin was the intergenerational relationship between the three women in the film -- Tomlin as Grandma Elle, Julia Garner as her granddaughter Sage, and Marcia Gay Harden as her daughter Olivia.

"Elle was really supporting her granddaughter," says Tomlin, whose character's journey in the film starts when she tries to raise money for Sage to get an abortion. "I didn't think if Elle was likeable or not. She was dealing with a very tough subject and it is absolutely up to the woman. My character says to her, 'This is something that you are going to think about every day of your life.' But I don't think the issue of the movie is about abortion as much as it is about how the three women are striving to heal themselves and their relationship with each other."

An interesting note that Tomlin told Bio is the car she drives in the film is actually hers. When Weitz was looking for an old car for Elle, Tomlin mentioned she owned a '55 Dodge that was in good running condition.

That said, there was an incident. "I was driving it as a camera car and I peeled the top off of a car that was parked at the curb," Tomlin recalls. "Thank goodness there wasn't anybody in the backseat because there was a car that just backed out of a parking lot and it pulled into the side of the street, where I had just looked, so it wasn't my fault really."

Lily Tomlin Jane Fonda Grace and Frankie Photo

Jane Fonda and Tomlin in 'Grace and Frankie.' (Photo: Netflix/Lionsgate)

Because of the subject matter of the film, Tomlin didn't perceive of Grandma as a comedy, so when Sony Pictures Classics decided to use a smiling photo of her on the poster, she resisted.

"I thought it was a betrayal of the movie," she shares. "I didn't think Grandma was going to be played as a comedy, but when I saw it, it plays funny. Sony must have thought they could get more traction if they played it as a comedy."

The marketing move was understandable, considering Tomlin has mainly been cast in comedies throughout her film career, with the notable exception of Robert Altman's Nashville, which she did early on. But since, her movie roles have been in lighter fare such as Nine to Five, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and Big Business, all of which she enjoyed. However, her favorite just may be All of Me, opposite Steve Martin.

"I adore that movie," she says. "It is sweet and lyrical, which is more the kind of comedy I love. Of course, I love any of Altman's movies, so I loved being in Nashville, but nothing was ever fantastic for me because I never really had a movie career. I was never a movie star in the sense of someone like Matt Damon or Cate Blanchett, who go from movie to movie. I've always had a very eclectic career."

Part of that diverseness is Grace and Frankie, a comedy about two women whose lives are suddenly turned upside down when their husbands reveal they are gay and leave them for each other. And, as you can imagine, it is a really difficult transition for the women to make.

"Grace and Frankie don't overtly dislike each other except a little bit in words," Tomlin says. "We realize all we have is each other for the time being. Here we are in this terrible situation, and she's the only other one I know who is close to me that has shared this experience of her husband leaving her for another man."

Lily Tomlin Grace and Frankie Photo

Tomlin in 'Grace and Frankie.' (Photo: Netflix/Lionsgate)

Grace and Frankie has been so successful for Netflix, it was picked up for its third season before the second season even begins streaming on May 6. Tomlin teases Season 3, which she is about to begin shooting, saying, "Grace and I go into business for ourselves. And a lot of it has to do with the sexuality of older people -- products and all."

As for the future, Tomlin has occasional thoughts about doing another one-woman Broadway show, but she also says she is very tempted by the idea of lying in a hammock by a stream.

"I do dates all the time," she says. "I am always working on a show for the stage because I love that most of all because it's ours, my partner Jane Wagner and mine. Jane is really the writer and when she writes something, it turns out so wonderfully. I can never anticipate it, but she doesn't want to write that often. That's the bad part."

As for future film roles, Tomlin says joking, "Helen Mirren gets a good number of them." But more seriously, she adds, "Somebody has to be really inventive to make a property that allows women of our age to have a success. The audience is getting older, so there may be a little room there. We may have to change the point of view about women."