Lily Tomlin can't rightfully explain it, but she isn't complaining. After a prosperous and lauded career in TV, film and theater, she's enjoying, at age 76, perhaps the most prolific period of her life. Not only is she starring in the popular Netflix comedy, "Grace and Frankie," which earned her an Emmy nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy, but she is also generating Oscar buzz for her new film, "Grandma."
Opening today in Atlanta, the comedy stars Tomlin as Elle, a lesbian poet who has just broken up with her girlfriend (Judy Greer). When her pregnant granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) pays a surprise visit, the two have to come up with $600 for an abortion over the course of a day. Temporarily broke, Elle is forced to visit various persons from her past to raise the money.
Tomlin worked with "Grandma" director Paul Weitz on the film, "Admission," a few years ago. When shooting on that wrapped, he approached her about a new project he had written with her in mind. "At first I thought, 'Oh God, I hope I like it—and I did," says Tomlin, speaking via phone while eating soup and settling in at home after a long week of filming.
They didn't make the movie right away because of conflicting schedules, but they would occasionally get together and go over the script. "We'd talk about things like why Elle was broke," says the actress.
"Grandma" premiered at Sundance this year, and buzz began immediately for Tomlin's performance. Many people have asked how much of herself is in the often acerbic Elle. She says she's not the character, but admits there may be parallels. "There must be a lot of me in it because it turned out so well," she says. "I really related to it."
One of the aspects she admired was the fact that it was an ensemble piece starring the likes of Sam Elliot, Laverne Cox, and Marcia Gay Harden. "I thought it was terrific that Paul got so many great people in it. Everybody who took a part just delivered."
Tomlin, who is out herself, is no stranger to ensemble work; she got her start on TV's "Laugh-In" and brought to life iconic characters such as telephone operator Ernestine and six-year-old Edith Ann. Working with late director Robert Altman on ensemble films such as "Nashville," "Short Cuts" and "A Prairie Home Companion" were career highlights. One mention of Altman and Tomlin almost purrs in delight. "I love Bob and miss him so much," she says.
"Nashville" was her first film—and it netted the actress an Oscar nomination. She had just come off of "Laugh-In" and wasn't being considered for film. "No one would put me in a movie—they thought I was Ernestine."
Tomlin later teamed with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton for "9 to 5," her most commercial success. Getting to work with Fonda 35 years later on "Grace and Frankie," which stars the actresses as women whose husbands come out as gay and decide to be a couple, has been a kick. "Jane and I just like each other," she says. "We are having a great time. This was a chance to show how older people can be discounted by the culture. It's realistic but not preachy."
She and Fonda are filming the second season now. Neither had any idea it would be such a hit. Tomlin is not allowed to give much away in terms of plot for the upcoming season, but she does say the women continue on their paths. "The guys are together and we are two older women trying to make it, sustain our lives and our abilities to not be discounted," she says. "Grace gets involved with a tough kid she is mentoring and I get involved with a new boyfriend."
That the show has reached a broad audience has made Tomlin happy. She is constantly stopped in public by people who tell her how much they like it.
Her current hot streak is one she never expected. "I just attribute it to the way the vibes go," she says. At this weekend's Emmy Awards, she is not favored to win, but will have a great time regardless. "It's always a little dicey when you are nominated or have to present (an award). You get nervous. It's sort of terrifying. If you don't win you're sitting there on the hot seat."
In 2013, after more than 40 years together, Tomlin and her long-time girlfriend Jane Wagner got married. "We are perfectly content," she says. "We think it's fun—we never planned on getting married. When the opportunity came, I finally said, 'Let's get married.' It's so important to so many people. Maybe it's not as important to us because we've been together so long and it just seems like a foregone deal. We got our license, set it up with a friend and she married us at her house. It was sweet and funny and cute and loving. And we like it!"