“I don’t consider myself a ‘movie star,'” says Lily Tomlin, the legendary comedienne who has appeared in films for the last 40 years — most recently as an unconventional older woman in Paul Weitz‘s indie Grandma, for which she’s been nominated for Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards — as we sit down to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I consider myself a good actor who was in select projects.”
(You can play and read the conversation below or by clicking here you can download it and past episodes on iTunes — recent guests include Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Charlotte Rampling, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Olivia Wilde and Benicio Del Toro.)
Tomlin, 76, has been fascinated by colorful characters since her youth in Detroit, where was raised in an apartment building filled with them. She used to roam the corridors meeting all of them, and drew from those experiences many of the characters that she later brought to life, after relocating to New York, in her stand-up, specials and on the TV program that made her an “overnight sensation” when she joined it in its third season, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In — among them, Ernestine the telephone operator and Edith Ann the deep-voiced child. “That’s what really gets me, is characters,” she says. “It seems to me that there are fewer and fewer characters in the culture. People are more conforming.”
Tomlin’s first foray into film acting came in Robert Altman‘s classic Nashville (1975) — they shared an agent who promoted her to him. For her performance as the mother of deaf children, she spent months studying sign language, and eventually landed a best supporting actress Oscar nom. Two years later she and Altman reteamed on a film he produced, The Late Show (1977). She was a member of the feminist trio at the center of the comedy classic 9 to 5 (1980) — which she calls “a blessing” — alongside Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda, the latter of whom currently is her co-star on Netflix’s Grace & Frankie. And, opposite Steve Martin, she made All of Me (1984), which she calls “one of my favorite movies.”
Tomlin went on to star in two films for David O. Russell, whom she likens to Altman — 1996’s Flirting with Disaster (“a funny script — I laughed so hard every time I read it”) and 2004’s I Heart Huckabees (“It was just so off the wall”) — and jokes about a famous fight they had on the latter. “We had a big viral video out of it,” she says with a laugh. “He’s a wild guy — he’s gonna express himself. Maybe he’s backed off a little bit, but I kind of liked him in his bad-boy suit.”
She had not played a leading role in a film since 1988’s Big Business when Weitz, who directed her in 2013’s Admission, wrote for her the central part of Elle Reid in Grandma, a lesbian feminist who suffers no fools — just like her. (“I’ve been in a relationship for 44 years with Jane Wagner,” she says.) Tomlin felt so at home in the character that she insisted on bringing to the project her own 1955 Dodge and her own clothing. Shot in just 19 days on a budget of less than $600,000, with a first-rate supporting cast including Julia Garner, Sam Elliott, Judy Greer and Marcia Gay Harden, the film — and particularly Tomlin’s performance — was a big hit at Sundance.
The film industry isn’t always kind to women of a certain age. “I don’t feel they’ve been unfair to me personally,” Tomlin says, “but I feel they’re unfair to women in the culture,” adding, “They’re gonna follow the culture — I mean, they should lead it, they could certainly be one of the leaders.” Partly for this reason, and partly because Marta Kaufman wrote her a great part, she recently has devoted much of her time to Netflix’s Grace & Frankie, garnering Emmy and Golden Globe noms in the process. (“We have an idea that we’re gonna pitch to Marta about including Dolly in our third season,” she volunteers.)
Meanwhile, Tomlin keeps chugging along — in films, on TV and through her one-woman show, of which she gives 30 to 40 performances each year (“I need the money,” she says). She’s the lone survivor of the generation of female comics with which she came up — Madeline Kahn, Gilda Radner and Joan Rivers all are gone now. And while that’s sad, on one level, it’s not on another: she has managed to stick around long enough to witness the rise of another generation of female comics that is carrying on their legacy — among them Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Tomlin’s personal favorite, Amy Schumer.
“I see life as sad and hilarious, tragic and comic,” Tomlin says. “I can’t turn away from it, I see it so clearly.”
Grandma was released by Sony Classics on Aug. 21. Awards voters are being asked to consider Tomlin for best actress.