The movie business is an industry that thrives on conformity, formulas and stereotypes. It’s rare to find a woman actor who is rewarded for doing her own thing. But Lily Tomlin has done just that, not only in movies, but on television, on the stage and on her own albums. By simply being herself, and a bunch of other characters—like Ernestine and Edith Ann—Tomlin has shown us what it means to pave your own way. She currently stars with Jane Fonda in the Netflix original series Grace and Frankie, and she’s also playing a grandmother in the new Paul Weitz film, Grandma.
Below is an edited and condensed version of my recent interview with Tomlin and Weitz. You can find the full interview on iTunes and inflectionpointradio.org
Lauren Schiller: Lily, I read that Paul Weitz wrote the script for Grandma with you in mind. What was your reaction when you first saw it?
Lily Tomlin: I was a bit daunted. I thought, ‘Oh, god, what if I don’t like it? It’d be just so painful because I like him so much.’ It turned out it was a lovely script and it was an important script, and I felt very fortunate.
LS: At the beginning of the film, we learn that Lily’s character is gay and has been in a long-term relationship. While we’re starting to see slightly more gay men portrayed onscreen, this is unique in leading ladies. Paul, why did you make that choice for this movie?
PW: I had just spent time with Lily on Admission, and it was so clear to me that it was such a shame that Lily wasn’t driving a movie that she was in every scene of. She is so smart and so edgy, and she’s the exact thing that one wants in somebody that you admire, which is she’s accurately cynical about human nature, but she also is very kind and caring about people. The character, when it occurred to me, the character happened to be gay. Really, though, the heart and soul of the humor and poignancy in the character is coming from some perception I had of Lily.
LS: Lily, we’re sitting here in San Francisco, practically the birthplace of gay marriage. You recently married your longtime partner and collaborator, Jane Wagner. Why did you decide to tie the knot?
LT: We’d always viewed the concept of marriage fairly cynically. First of all, it was not open to us and we just didn’t want to imitate the heterosexual community. Then we decided, at the last minute, once [the law] was passed. I was asked constantly on the red carpet when I was going to get married, and I’d just say, ‘Oh, we’ll get married sometime, we haven’t decided,’ and all that stuff.
PW: You were still getting to know each other.
LT: Yeah, after 44 years. We just said, ‘Maybe we should get married. It’d be fun, it’d be nice, we have the right to get married, it might mean something to other people who want to get married.’ We went out to Van Nuys and got our license and then we had a girlfriend, who was a lawyer, marry us. It was all very lighthearted and fun.
LS: Betty Friedan of the Feminine Mystique makes a literary appearance in Grandma. It’s become very trendy for women and men to say that they are feminists. What does being a feminist mean to you?
LT: In many ways, I just think it’s being humanist and caring about the species, and that’s it. In fact, in the old days, we used to say, ‘This is about moving the whole species forward, not just half of it.’
LS: What do you say to someone who says they’re not a feminist?
LT: I don’t think I can make them a feminist. They might become a feminist or maybe they have really feminist ideas and they don’t even know it. I always think, ‘Boy, it would be a big help if everybody was more feministly inclined.’
LS: Do you think women who have fame and a megaphone as a result of their success have a responsibility to keep opening doors for other women?
LT: I hesitate to pigeonhole someone in that regard. It would be nice if they did. I don’t want them to feel obligated to do it. If they don’t do it naturally, it’s not going to work very well anyway. Plus, people get very involved in their own careers, and it’s hard to initiate a lot of help. Now, my good friend Jane Fonda has done a fair amount of that. I’ve really been pleased with her, more pleased than with myself.
LS: Paul, do you believe that men in the industry should take a more active role in equalizing the industry?
PW: Yeah, I do. The shameful thing is that there is a disparity between male and female directors which needs to be evened out. I don’t know why that is exactly, if there is still the remnant of some concept of some guy strutting around in jodhpurs and pointing the megaphone.
LT: That’s not what you wear?
PW: Under my jeans, yeah. No. Also, I think that whole thing is a myth because, really, the joy of directing is in collaborating and then giving over control to the actors. I have an 11-year-old daughter, but even without that, I would hope that I would equally want to erase the disparity in the culture.
Photo via Shutterstock
Lauren Schiller is the host of Inflection Point, where she interviews women changing the status quo. Inflection Point is broadcast on KALW, delivered nationally via PRX, and online at inflectionpointradio.org.