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Funny That Way: Lily Tomlin’s on a Roll

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A Netflix series renewal, an Emmy nomination, and a new film opening in Houston this month.
By Blase DiStefano

LOL: Frankie (Lily Tomlin) and Grace (Jane Fonda) share a moment of humor on the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. • Photo by Melissa Moseley/Netflix.
LOL: Frankie (Lily Tomlin) and Grace (Jane Fonda) share a moment of humor on the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. • Photo by Melissa Moseley/Netflix.

Lily Tomlin topped off 2014 as one of five prestigious Kennedy Center honorees, the first out lesbian so recognized. The 2015 Emmys brought Tomlin another first: the oldest woman to be nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, for Netflix’s Grace and Frankie. Tomlin and co-star Jane Fonda are presently filming the sitcom’s second season. But apparently that’s not enough for the 75-year-old Tomlin: she has the lead role in the much-lauded new film Grandma, playing a lesbian trying to help her granddaughter secure $600 before sundown. Grandma screened at Sundance, opened the Los Angeles Film Festival, and recently premiered nationwide.

Tomlin is no stranger to OutSmart readers—we’ve kept up with her progress through the years with numerous articles and Q&As. In this month’s interview, she turns a few questions back on me—possibly a recognition of our years of conversations, and her own Lily way of not playing the glam star, showing that she’s one of us.

Blase DiStefano: Hi, Lily. Is this a good time for you?

Lily Tomlin: Hi, Blase. Yeah, it is. I’m driving along in the car.

The first thing I want to talk about is your Emmy nomination.

That’s great—just to get nominated.

The only thing better would have been if both you and Jane [Fonda] had been nominated.

Yes! That’s what I felt badly about. I’m sure we split the vote. She was great about it. She’s always gracious and fun.

I don’t know how you feel about the age thing, but a person your age has never been nominated…

Oh, I’m the oldest one ever nominated for [lead actress in a comedy series]—is that it? [Laughs] That’s a good first.

In the Right Direction: Lily Tomlin poses with writer/director Paul Weitz on the set of Grandma. • Photo by Glen Wilson/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
In the Right Direction: Lily Tomlin poses with writer/director Paul Weitz on the set of Grandma. • Photo by Glen Wilson/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

On to Grandma. I think you said in our last conversation that it took 90 days to make?

No, we shot it in 19 days.

19?!

[Laughs]

Was the script sent to you? How did Grandma come about?

After working with me on Admission, Paul Weitz thought I would be good for an idea that he had been fooling around with. So he wrote the script, and I read it. We talked about it for a while, and he worked on it a bit, and I loved it. I wanted to do it, but we had certain problems we had to work out, like why was Elle so broke—that it didn’t make sense that she didn’t have $600. Well, she paid off her lover’s hospital bills. It was small things like that.

There were so many stars in the film.

Everybody that came on board was first-rate. We had Marcia Gay [Harden] and Sam Elliot and Judy Greer. They were just all really good.

And Laverne Cox.

[Excitedly] When Laverne came on board…the whole thing was just pre-ordained.

Mother and Daughter: Elle (Lily Tomlin, l) discusses money matters with her daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), in the film Grandma. • Photo by Glen Wilson/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
Mother and Daughter: Elle (Lily Tomlin, l) discusses money matters with her daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), in the film Grandma. • Photo by Glen Wilson/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

Her role was great. How long did it take to film her part?

Her part was like a day. Julia [Garner, who plays Tomlin’s granddaughter] was with me almost the whole time. She was darling—I loved her.

Weren’t you offered the role of Edna in The Incredibles?

I wouldn’t say I was offered the role, although it was as if they wanted me to do it. Brad Bird was the guy who directed it—he had done temporaries on Edna, and he had such a fix on it. I said, “Brad, you should do this part. I don’t think anybody can imitate Edna the way you see her.” It was kind of like a Japanese Zsa Zsa Gabor.

[Laughs]

My Jane is forever saying to me, “You should have taken that part.”

We’ll never know how Edna would have turned out if you had played the part, but she was my favorite. Edna was just…

To die for, I know. It was full-blown in the temporary track. He had her nailed. He knew who she was and what he wanted. I just thought he was great.

I don’t know that we’ve ever discussed this, but when did you know you were gay?

Oh, gosh. I think in junior high school, you start to think about it. But I was pretty conditioned to be a conventional girl in all senses of the word. [Pauses] I would say…let me think. I couldn’t pinpoint the time. What about you?

I never knew anything else. I just didn’t know what it was called. It’s not like we grew up knowing what it was.

Right, and I think I’m much older than you. There were no visible role models.

Not for me either. You’re 75, right?

Yeah. And you?

I’m 68.

Yeah, okay. I grew up in an apartment house, and I remember there was a couple that lived in our building and one of the women wore men’s shoes. I was just a kid—6, 7, 8 years old—and that stood out in my mind. I never forgot about her wearing men’s shoes. In fact, for a while I kinda fancied getting kinda like Buster Browns—you know those little brown Oxfords with pinholes in them?

[Laughs] I remember them.

I told my mother, “These are the shoes that I want.” I didn’t know that I might have wanted them for that reason.

How old is your brother?

He’s three years younger than I am.

Did y’all know each other was gay when y’all were kids?

I think I knew he was gay. He was sorta out there. In those days we thought these kids were “artistic”—imaginative. What about you?

When I told my sister, she said she knew. It’s like, hell, not only was I artistic, I did my mother’s hair!

[Laughs] My brother decorated the house. He sawed our mother’s couch into three pieces, so we would have sectional furniture. That’s one of my oldest lines, [but it’s] the gospel truth.

That’s f–king hilarious. We were lucky that we actually had sectional furniture, so I didn’t have to do that.

[Laughs]

I don’t know if you had any kind of negative feelings about being gay, so I wondered if you found it reassuring that he was gay. But if you didn’t think it was negative, then that wouldn’t matter.

Well, there were enough people around us to tell us that it was negative…. Where are you from?

Alexandria, Louisiana.

Oh, well, God help you. We were from Detroit, but we had Southern parents and Southern relatives. But being in Detroit was a leavening agent—coming from a diverse big city. The Deep South is just horrendous. What was your neighborhood like?

It was all white and very religious, so it was pretty serious. Was your family religious?

We went to Sunday school, then to church afterward. When we were teenagers, we stopped going.

I assumed I was going to hell because I was gay.

I thought I was going to go to hell because I couldn’t go forward and be saved. My church was Baptist—people go forward at the end of the sermon. The preacher calls people forward, and all these adults would go down to the front, and they are wailing and crying. I’d think, “Oh God, this is so embarrassing. I can’t go forward.” Every Sunday I’d try to go forward.

My father didn’t go to church, and I’d say, “What about my dad—what if I want my dad in heaven?” My Sunday School teacher told me, “Everything you need for heaven to make you happy will be there.” I’d say, “What about my dad? How’s he gonna go to heaven?” They’d always say something like, “The Lord will take care of it.”

I stopped trying to go forward when I was barely 11 or 12. I don’t even know if I kept going to church till I was 14. I was too hoody.

[Laughs]

I was smoking cigarettes and hitchhiking to Chicago. Did you smoke?

I started smoking at 15, but otherwise, I was just the opposite of you. I was an altar boy…

Oh my God—you poor baby!

Yes. Thank you.

Oh God, I hate that. Were you in Alexandria a long time?

I got away from there the first chance I had. I went to college at LSU in Baton Rouge, and the campus was great…. So how’s your Jane?

My Jane’s great. She’s doing fine.

Is she going with you to the Emmys?

I hope, but she might not. I never hold her to anything.

That’s What Friends Are For: Lily Tomlin (r) was joined by Jane Fonda at the world preimere of Grace and Frankie. • Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Netflix/AP Images.
That’s What Friends Are For: Lily Tomlin (r) was joined by Jane Fonda at the world preimere of Grace and Frankie. • Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Netflix/AP Images.

You told me once that she doesn’t really like to go out.

Yeah, she doesn’t like to go out to those events. I don’t like to go out either. [Changes her voice as if interviewing celebrities on the red carpet:] “Who are you wearing?” I’ll say you’re the designer: “I’m wearing a beautiful garment designed specifically for me by Blase DiStefano.” [Both laugh] That’s what you feel like saying when you have to [answer those questions]. I guess they don’t ask who designed your dress anymore.

But it can be fun to go. I had fun going with Jane Fonda for Grace and Frankie, because with her it seems less serious. If I can talk Jane Fonda into going, maybe Jane’ll go too.

That would be cool. Thank you, Lily.

Alright—bye, Blase.

The first season of Grace and Frankie is presently streaming on Netflix. At press time, Grandma was scheduled to open at Houston’s River Oaks Theatre in September. See Tomlin on the Emmys on Sunday, September 20, at 7 p.m. on FOX.

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Blase DiStefano

Blase DiStefano is the Creative Director/Entertainment Editor for OutSmart Magazine.

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