Sundance 2015 Interview: Lily Tomlin, Badass GRANDMA
Paul Weitz: She's so smart and edgy and I was like, I want to do something where this person is in every scene where she is as out of control and funny as I know her to be.
I didn't tell Lily I was writing it. I just took her to lunch, and I was like, 'I wrote something for you'. She was a little freaked out, but then she just read it.
Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a formerly published feminist poet, struggling to recover from the death of her late wife. Grandma co-stars Julia Garner as Tomlin's granddaughter, who one day calls on her Grandma for covert help with her unwanted pregnancy.
Julia Garner: I think she's great in everything she does. I can say this, I'm very lucky that I got to work with her. I really am.
The film features many cameos, like Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, and, most notably, Sam Shepard, whose one scene with Tomlin is one of the film's most powerful. Not only did Lily's involvement attract her co-stars to Paul's film, but her presence visibly inspires stunning performances from all of her scene partners. This is in no short thanks to Weitz's very funny and strong screenplay.
Judy Greer: I would have done anything with her, but it just helps that I thought that the movie and the subject matter were really timely and important, and I loved how Paul has this way of writing these scripts that are so moving and emotional, but they're kind of handled like an old pair of jeans, you know? He doesn't push anything.
Grandma was selected as the 2015 Sundance Film Festival's closing night film for good reason. But I didn't know that yet as I stood on the red carpet, awaiting a chance to exchange a few words with the great Lily Tomlin. When I asked Judy Greer about her favourite Tomlin role, I was skeptical of her answer.
Judy Greer: I think this one...Yeah. I know. It's a weird thing to say, but I think it is...
Paul Weitz: She brings so much. By the nature of it ... it's weird, I don't know where this story particularly came from with me, but this sort of edgy, 74 year-old lesbian feminist who's protecting her granddaughter and has this awesome sense of humor... there's obviously a lot of biography that Lily was going to know more about than I did, so I just listened to her a lot as well.
Judy Greer: She has about 10 times as much energy as I do and she's such a sponge. She never stops asking questions. She never stops wanting to make it better. She always wants to entertain, and she always wants to know, "What are you holding? Where did you get that jacket?" You know what I mean?
After speaking with Weitz about his new film and the experience of directing Tomlin in a starring role, I brought up Robert Altman, wondering if he had a favorite of the four great films in which Lily appears.
Paul Weitz: Oh, man, well, Nashville for sure. I mean the sort of sadness and knowingness of that character juxtaposed to Keith Carradine's character is incredible. That was in my head when I was making this movie 'cause I could go wherever I wanted to go in terms of drama or comedy with her.
Then at last it came time for a brief encounter with one of the great actresses of our time. With a generous smile, Lily Tomlin was good enough to offer some time to ScreenAnarchy for a brief chat:
What do you look for in a role?
Lily Tomlin: I look for it not to debase humanity. That's about it.
What appealed to you about this screenplay?
Well, just the feminist kind of baseline, and the intergenerational baseline, and the fact that it was about something that was relevant and meaningful to me. So many people say feminist. I really say humanist, because the whole feminist movement is really about, we used to say, moving the whole species forward, not just half of it. I totally believe that. I used to say that.
What were your first impressions of Robert Altman?
Well, he was... (Takes a deep breath). I called him the benign patriarch, because he was so much in charge, and yet, he never pretended he was in charge, he just was.
He was playful. He was unflappable. Someone asked me the other day, say one thing about someone who gave you counsel. You know? He'd give you advice. I didn't even identify him, but I said, "giggle and give in". When I was really fussing about some movie I was in or something, and I wanted something to change, he said, "giggle and give in."
Do you have a favorite performance of your Robert Altman films?
Oh, god. Well, I love Nashville, because that was my first movie, and I'm on screen for four minutes.
I loved Short Cuts with Tom Waits, because I'm mad for him. We had a lot going for us, I mean, our backstory. A half of a heart tattooed on each of our thumbs, and we would rub them against each other. Nobody knew what we were doing. He'd say, "Til the wheels come off."
I love a scene in there I have with my daughter, Lili Taylor. I'm in a trailer smoking and all, but watching Phil Donahue, and she comes in and she brings a plastic bag with a goldfish in it, and it was real. It was so essence for me. I love that.
What's your favorite quality in a director?
I think not to be autocratic, to be just menschy, fabulous, just a human. Like Bob, harp back to Bob. He would say things like ... I heard actors say to him, "What do you want in this scene?" He'd say, "I don't know. Why don't you surprise me." I always loved that.
Sometimes I'd say to him, "Let me do one more take." I'd get an idea, and he'd already called to move on, and he'd say, "What do you want to do," and I'd tell him. Sometimes he'd let me do a take. Sometimes he'd say, "no, I think I've got it."