Lily Tomlin on David O. Russell: "I Was Stoic in My Suffering"

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Lily Tomlin

As her latest movie, 'Grandma,' opens the Los Angeles Film Festival, the 75-year-old actress confesses, "I have no realization that I am as old as I am."

A version of this story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

It has been 45 years since Lily Tomlin introduced signature characters like Ernestine on TV's Laugh-In, but she's hardly begun to slow down. Grace and Frankie, her new Netflix series in which she and Jane Fonda co-star as two very different 70-something women forced together by circumstance, recently has been renewed for a second season. Paul Weitz's Grandma, in which she plays an acerbic poet on a road trip with her granddaughter, is opening the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 10. That same day, the festival will present Tomlin, 75 — who made her film debut in Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), winning an Oscar nomination for playing Linnea, the gospel-singing mother of two deaf children — with its Spirit of Independence Award.

Julia Garner (left) and Tomlin hit the road in 'Grandma.'

Were you flattered that Paul Weitz wrote Grandma specifically for you?

I was delighted he'd written it with me in mind — although you always worry, "What if I don't like it?"— because I like him so much, he's such a good writer.

You reportedly brought a lot of yourself to the role, including your own wardrobe and a '55 Dodge Royal Lancer you own.

I did, but that just seemed easy and so right. The costume woman was good, but I said, "Maybe, I just just wear what I wear every day." And I had an old '55 Dodge — I bought it in '75 when it was 20 years old — and it has a kind of snazzy look.

What has the response to Grace and Frankie been like for you?

We've had so much response from people about the smaller moments. I take those for granted because I feel there were bound to be a lot of moments, unless we had been playing it really way out there, real broadly. Jane and I had some input into it — some of it was taken, some of it wasn't. We were both interested in doing older women with some truth, some reality to it, and having Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen rounded out the cast in a lovely way. There were things that I did that I would have done differently. But there were a lot of things that I did that I think were on the mark. All the dramatic stuff is really much easier to navigate. Some of the comedic stuff, you feel like you overdo it.

Tomlin (left) and Fonda in 'Grace and Frankie.'

How did Robert Altman cast you in Nashville? The part was so different from what you'd done on Laugh-In.

That was a breakthrough for me. Bob and I had the same agent, Sam Cohn, who put us together for another project. But then, unbeknown to me, Louise Fletcher, who was going to do my part, had a falling out with Bob, and he pulled me right in. I didn't learn — until she won the Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and signed to her parents — that Linnea's deaf children had been a contribution from her. She and I exchanged letters about that.

Did working with Altman spoil you for working with other directors?

You could say that. It was just special to be part of Bob's film family; he was so great to work with. He was certainly important to my career, and he was easy to work with. You never felt like you failed Bob. Someone would say to him, "What should I do in the scene?" and he would say, "I don't know, surprise me." I used to say, when people asked me what it was like to work with Bob, it was like recess. You just go to the playground.

You've also done a couple of movies with David O. Russell, with whom you had that famous blowup on the set of I Heart Huckabees.

I used to compare David to Bob. In a kind of opposite way, he was like Altman. They have a similarity — maybe it's just originality. Bob would never flip out. [But David and I] made up in just a few hours, and then we had a second fracas. By then, I was like stoic in my suffering. But we've overcome it. It dissipates and it's gone. I was doing The Search [for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe] downtown every day when we were shooting. So I'd have to leave at five and head downtown. So I was probably overextended. But it wasn't any big deal.

So what's next after Grace and Frankie?

I think a lapse of memory. I have no realization that I'm as old as I am. And who better to have this lapse of memory with than Fonda — because she has a pretty big lapse herself.

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