Follow us wherever you get your podcasts:
The “Envelope” podcast is back for Emmys season, and we’re kicking things off with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, who recently wrapped up their much-beloved Netflix series, “Grace and Frankie.” In this episode, the duo laugh and cry with us while reflecting on their decades long friendship, their mutual admiration for their “9 to 5” co-star Dolly Parton, who reunited with them for the final episode, and the lies people tell about aging and death.
Yvonne Villarreal: Mark, I’ve missed you! It’s nice to be back together again!
Mark Olsen: I always look forward to this time when we can actually talk instead of just messaging on our work Slack. And we both, separately, took actual vacations, which is such a rarity for each of us. So I at least am feeling rested and ready.
Villarreal: Well, good, because we have a lot of work ahead of us. In this new season of “The Envelope,” we’re wading through the deep waters of Emmys season. I don’t know if you’ve noticed … but there’s a lot of TV.
Olsen: Some would say too much TV? I think I have said it here before but I don’t know how you all on the TV side make it work. Like, I watch a lot of movies, but they are a couple hours; you all have to watch endless new series that have endless new episodes.
Villarreal: That’s why it takes me so long to respond to your Slacks, Mark. But it’s a nice problem to have when there are good performances to watch — which leads me to our guests. We’re kicking things off in a big way with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Have you interviewed them before, Mark?
Olsen: I have spoken to Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin separately but never together. It must have been such a treat, but a challenge to not just let them chat with each other and not do a proper interview.
Villarreal: Oh, definitely. I felt like a third wheel, but in the best way. There was much to talk about. Their show, “Grace and Frankie,” recently came to an end. It was a comedy about the realities of aging and the depth of friendship and became Netflix’s longest-running series.
For seven seasons, Jane and Lily delivered a master class in comedic banter, and it was the only buddy comedy I needed or wanted in life.
“Grace and Frankie” was their first collaboration since “9 to 5,” their groundbreaking 1980 film. And the finale was extra special because — spoiler alert — their very famous “9 to 5’’ co-star makes a surprise appearance when “Grace and Frankie” make a quick trip to heaven.
[Clip from “Grace and Frankie”: AGNES: Well, hi girls]
Villarreal: Yup, it’s the legendary Dolly Parton.
[Clip from “Grace and Frankie”: FRANKIE: Oh God, you look exactly how I knew you would. AGNES: No no, I’m not the almighty. I’m Agnes, just a working-class angel. Of course I haven’t had a promotion in 250 years, but the benefits are heaven.]
Villarreal: Ladies, welcome to “The Envelope”!
Lily Tomlin: Thank you.
Jane Fonda: Nice to be here.
Villareal: There is so much to talk to you about, but I want to start with Dolly! It’s been a long time since “9 to 5” and here you are together again. What was it like to film together? Like, did it feel like riding a bike?
Tomlin: Well, yeah, because we have a very, you know, deep, resonant friendship that’s lasted because it was a Hallmark film for all of us. We’re really old pals. We’re showbiz pals. And we all have the same kinds of lives every day and schedules. And we truly love each other.
Fonda: I’m not sure anybody has a life that compares to Dolly’s.
Tomlin: I personally don’t have an amusement park, but I have an interest in the merry-go-round at Griffith Park.
Fonda: And we didn’t rebuild people’s homes that had burned down around Dollywood.
Tomlin: And I didn’t give $1 million to Moderna.
Tomlin: I actually in fact, I’m going back and starting over again. I’m going to devote my life to widening my horizons and ...
Fonda: You’re going to devote your life to being like Dolly.
Tomlin: Yeah, well, I can’t be like Dolly, but I can. I can try to emulate her more fully. And I try to emulate you. I mean, my God, I’m working with two of the most powerful, giving, fabulous women in the world.
Fonda: Well, that’s very generous of you. I feel the same about you. Boy, I was so proud and moved, it moves me even to think about it.
Tomlin: No, sweetheart, don’t! Don’t.
Fonda: Her hand and foot ceremony the other day when she became cemented in Hollywood history. It was fabulous. It really was.
[Clip from Lily’s Hand and Footprint Ceremony: Jane Fonda: Comedy is really hard. … It’s hard to make people laugh. And about 99% of comedians make people laugh at the expense of somebody. … Never does Lily Tomlin make a joke at someone’s expense. … And she is always fighting against any words or statements that would hurt someone’s feelings.]
Tomlin: She spoke so beautifully about me. And I was so moved and amazed at the level she reached. She moved the whole audience just in a human way. A deeply human way. So it was really glorious.
Fonda: Well, what I said was she’s been pushing me around for years. If I keep pushing her again she’ll get stuck in the cement.
Tomlin: I don’t remember that. Golly, that just flew by.
Villarreal: How has your relationship evolved through the years? I mean, to go from something like “9 to 5” to this show, “Grace and Frankie,” and the two films you have coming up, like, how have you deepened that friendship?
Fonda: It just deepens on its own, just automatically deepens, especially because of the TV series. You know, you spend seven years, you know, starting at 5 in the morning with only a thin wall separating the two of you while you’re getting your hair and makeup done. And I can hear everything she says. And God, even at 5, she’s not only funny, but has her hair and makeup people in stitches. You know, I mean, you get to know each other pretty darn well because, you know, in a movie, it’s a relatively short period of time. And you can fake it, you know, be a good person. But over seven years, if you’re not really a good person, it shows. And guess what? She’s a good person.
Tomlin: [Laughs] I’m going to enlist her in my PR firm. You are so wonderful, Jane.
Villarreal: And there are plenty of shows that capture the nature of friendship in your teens, in your 20s and 30s. But there is something so tender and loving about seeing the emotional power in force of late in life. Friendship like that kind of sisterhood. What did offering that depiction in “Grace and Frankie” mean for you?
Tomlin: You see, you just move me to tears. … I would try to be funny here just to wipe away. And I’d say something stupid like, you know, of course you look at each other every day and wonder which of you is going to die first? But I’m not going to say that.
Fonda: I think when you are our age, you’ve had many friends who’ve passed. And so, those who are still with you become even more precious. And women, on average, tend to live longer than men. And female friendship is very different than male friendship, you know, women look at each other eye to eye, heart to heart. We ask for help when we need it. We put our arms around each other and say, “I’m hurting. I need help. Help me.” You know, there was a medical study done at Harvard that showed that lack of women friendship was as bad for their health as smoking. So, you know, I think I’m going to live a long time because I have Lily as a friend.
Villarreal: “Grace and Frankie” delved into matters about growing older, you know, such as this feeling of being cast aside by society or the reality that funerals are now a more frequent part of a person’s calendar. And, you know, female sexuality, these things we don’t often see.
[CLIP from “Grace and Frankie”: GRACE: This is our business plan, very comprehensive, thoroughly proofread. LOAN OFFICER: Vybrant. FRANKIE: Spelled with a y for extra fun. GRACE: We make vibrators specifically designed for older women that take into account all their issues. poor eyesight and arthritis. FRANKIE: Tender vaginal tissue..]
Villarreal: What are the lies that people tell about growing older?
Fonda: You’re over the hill. What they don’t know is you go over the hill and then there’s another hill.
Fonda: Pasture and then another hill.
Tomlin: Well, the first time I’m over the hill, I have a lovely, beautiful glen. I just, like, cavort. With meaning. Purposefulness.
Villarreal: I like that. I like that. When did you start confronting your age and what were your anxieties about it?
Fonda: I’ve always been conscious of my age. You know, like when I turned 60, I was aware that it was the beginning of the third act and that that would be my last act. I can’t change the width of the river that is my life. But I can change the depths and that I have to do that in this third act. And another thing that made me really conscious of my age is that after 60, I started noticing that I was so much happier, that I felt so much better. And I thought, God, am I a freak, am I a unicorn? And then I started researching it and I wrote a book about it and the scientists don’t totally understand some of that, maybe changes in the brain, but less hostile, less anxiety-ridden, more apt to be willing to listen to other people’s views, more open to differences, less judgmental. When you’re older, you don’t make mountains out of molehills. You know, if you know, you’ve been there, you’ve done that, you’ve survived it. I can go through it again. People don’t understand how hard it is to be young. And it’s important to let young people know that so they won’t just feel they’re the only ones. Because when you’re young, it’s all about what it’s like. What am I supposed to do? Who am I? You know, who do I have to know? And now it’s like, you are who you are.
Villarreal: Mmm hmm. Lily, like for you. When was it that you started thinking about it? Were you ever someone that obsessed about it?
Tomlin: No? No, I don’t think so. I think in terms of being an actress, you are aware of your age, your how, your height. I mean, I think as a child, I was terribly aware of death. But not in a negative way. I remember when I was a small child, I need a tissue so bad, Jane. My nose is running. Paul! Could you bring me a tissue? We’re in here crying. Anyway. So, I mean, when I was a little child, maybe 3 or 4 or something, all our relatives still lived in the country. They milked and they were farmers. And people would lay people out at home, dead people would be laid out in their living room, and all the neighbors would come and see them. And a little girl had died. And she looked like one of those fluffy dolls in a box, and I thought she looked so beautiful. So when I realized that my mother had also been a baby and a little girl, I began to realize that all the adults around me, my teachers, my parents, neighbors, they all had been babies, little babies. And so I knew they didn’t know anything. They didn’t really know anything beyond what any human can know in a fundamental way. And it just sort of leveled the playing field.
Villarreal: Even when it comes to narratives that feature people of a certain age, those stories often end with death. What I so appreciated about this final stretch of episodes is, yes, Frankie is sort of preparing for her death. After, you know, this psychic predicted it was imminent.
[Clip from “Grace and Frankie”: BUD: Hey girl. You stoned? FRANKIE: No, I’m just staring into the abyss that was my life. This is my last painting.]
Villarreal: There’s a moment in the finale where Frankie struggles to paint and, you know, it’s this lifelong hobby of hers and the thought of losing her mental or physical capabilities is hard for her to face. How has giving space to those fears on a platform like this helped your outlook on it? Like, helped you work through your own fears?
Tomlin: Well, I don’t know if it has helped me work through them. It just, you know, makes me aware of them. I’m very teary. I’m very easily moved to crying. And if something moves me, it starts immediately. But so that just shows that we did deal with incredibly important fundamental things. And they will reach most humans that way. And then there’s very little we can do about it, except to live a good, productive life and do what we can for each other.
Villarreal: I’m sorry to make you emotional, Lily.
Tomlin: It’s all right. I’m not … I’m not sad. I’m just moved.
Villarreal: Like Jane, I even remember when the show was first starting. You talked about how you had a little bit of a panic attack or a little bit of a breakdown, because then the story about Grace.
Fonda: The first season I had I think it was a mild nervous breakdown. Oh, I just hated it. I had dreaded going to work. It was really, really, really difficult. And at the end of the first season, I thought, well, either I’m going to quit again because I’d already left the business for 15 years, only I was younger. Now if I quit, there’s no way back, or I see a shrink and figure out what it was, and I figured out what it was. It was because at the very beginning of that season, our husbands of 40 years tell us that they’ve fallen in love with each other and intend to get married and they’re going to leave us. And abandonment is a big issue for me. And, you know, a lot of that first season had to do with dealing with that abandonment. And that was at the root of it. After that first season, everything was great.
Villarreal: The character of Grace is someone who has lived most of her time sort of catering to the men in her life. And that is something that you’ve reflected on in your memoir, as well as the recent documentary about your life. How did playing Grace help you sort of reconcile that in your own life? How has she been a mirror to you?
Fonda: I didn’t need Grace to reconcile the man problem that I have had all my life. I had done that already. One way I’ve done it is to remain single. Just avoid it. Right. But it helps me play Grace because I totally understood it and all that need to be approved and loved by a man and you know the feeling that you won’t be loved unless you do what he wants and become who he wants you to be. I mean, I did that for most of my adult life. I understand it very well and I sympathize with it. And then I got over it. I think.
Villarreal: The way you guys talk about “Grace and Frankie” and the emotions that it sort of elicits from you, like was that last day on set emotional? I mean, it ends pretty quietly with you guys walking on the beach. But was that a hard sort of scene to do? Or because it’s you guys, it was manageable?
Fonda: Well, the last scene that we shot because, you know, when you’re making a movie on television that you don’t necessarily shoot in order. The last scene we actually filmed was the scene in Frankie’s art studio, where she fears that she’s lost.
[Clip from “Grace and Frankie”: GRACE: What are you doing? FRANKIE: Facing the hard part. My painting days are over. GRACE: Not if I have anything to say about it.]
Fonda: It was very emotional when the final “Cut,” you know, and it was over. There was a lot of tears. I was very moved by something that happened. Lily, especially toward the end of the filming, she would be involved in stuff she wasn’t. She was signing books or something like that. And she kept us all waiting and we were waiting and it was already late. And it was the last night and I was screaming for her and she was screaming back at me and I kept screaming at her and I said to the crew, I can scream at her because I love her. Someone can only yell at her like that if they love her. And suddenly the entire crew was screaming at her. In other words, we love her too. I found that so moving. That they did that spontaneously.
Villarreal: You’ve both been in the business for some time. With this show now wrapped, you know, you guys have other projects coming up. What strikes you about the roles available to women now compared to when you started your careers?
Fonda: I think there’s more opportunities for older women now than there were. I think it’s opened up a lot. I think they’re smart because, you know, older women is the largest growing demographic in the world. And so it makes sense to, you know, make things that are going to speak to us. What was the biggest surprise for us is the cross-generational appeal of “Grace and Frankie” — we didn’t expect that. But young kids, college kids love the series too.
Villareal: I watch it with my mom on the weekends. That’s what we would do when the new season came out. That’s our show.
Villarreal: “Grace and Frankie” was the second time that you’ve collaborated, but you’re working on two films together: “Moving On,” about two friends getting revenge on a widower who wronged them, and “80 for Brady,” about a group of friends who travel to the 2017 Super Bowl to see quarterback Tom Brady. What can you tell us about these films and what keeps you coming back together?
Tomlin: Well, opportunity. People are tapping us together. And anyway, so then that developed and ah Rita and Sally Field came on board and we’re all in our 80s except Sally’s really 75 and Rita’s really 90. But collectively we have an age of 332. Which is quite a lot.
Villarreal: Were either of you Tom Brady fans before this?
Fonda: Well, I’m a baseball girl. I’m not a football gal, but I also, I like good-looking men.
Tomlin: So he is.
Fonda: But I had to admire this. I mean, there’s no question, he’s a genius. And so I admire his talent, but it’s more how adorable he is.
Tomlin: Yeah, he’s very big. He’s 6 foot 4. You can’t believe it. And he’s so sweet. And we had fun.
Fonda: And he can act.
Tomlin: Yeah, I had a couple of scenes with them. He was very good. Very good.
Villarreal: How do you view this chapter of your career? Like, what do you want out of it at this stage?
Tomlin: Just to go on.
Villarreal: To go on.
Fonda: I don’t even think in those terms. I don’t know. I have a lot of other things going on in my life. You know, what I want out of it is to end the climate crisis. And so, you know, I’ve started the Jane Fonda Climate Pact. And I think it’s the most important thing I’ll ever do in my life. We want to elect climate champions and get rid of the people who are elected to office, who take money from the fossil fuel industry and block important legislation that would help avert the catastrophe. And you can go to JanePPAC.com to help us out.
Villarreal: So to build on that, I mean, you’ve been an environmental activist since the ’70s, but in recent years, you really have upped the ante with your activism. You moved temporarily to Washington, D.C., to organize a series of weekly protests, which is, as you said, called Fire Drill Fridays to urge Congress to pass meaningful climate legislation.
Fonda: It wasn’t aimed at Congress because we already knew that. They know Congress is stalemated. No, it was aimed at American people. You know, we have to move from being concerned and alarmed to taking action. And I was 82. I turned 82 in jail.
[Clip from “Democracy Now”: AMY GOODMAN: The day before Jane Fonda’s 82nd birthday, the two-time Academy Award-winning actress and longtime political activist was arrested for the fifth time as she has been nearly every Friday in Washington, D.C., since she started Fre Drill Fridays in October. Demonstrators sang to her as she was taken outside. <Demonstrators sing “Happy Birthday”> JANE FONDA: Thank you so much!]
Fonda: We’re still doing Fire Drill Fridays. But people are paying attention right now. Seventy percent of the American public are alarmed by the climate crisis. Lily came and got arrested with me, and the whole writers room, And Marta Kauffman and Howard [J. Morris], everybody came and got arrested. It was very moving. You know, I think a lot of people said, well, if that 82-year-old woman can do that, I can too. And people started coming from all over the country.
[CLIP: Associated Press: COP: You are on (indistinguishable) perimeter. You will be arrested. PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey hey, ho ho, fossil fuels have got to go.]
Villarreal: What inspired you to escalate to that more direct sort of action?
Fonda: Naomi Klein’s book called “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.” It’s always books that change me, that create epiphanies that make me change course. I knew I’d been very, very depressed because I knew I wasn’t doing enough. I knew I had to find a way to use my platform. And that book inspired me to move to D.C.
Tomlin: I remember it and I went. I was at Jane’s house in the afternoon and she announced to me, “I’m going to go and live in D.C. for a while and I’m going to ask Ted Sarandos if he can postpone ‘Grace and Frankie’ for a year” and all. Then it was just out of nowhere. I said, Well, pretty great.
Villarreal: What was your night in jail like with Lily?
Fonda: Well, Lily didn’t go to jail. I went to jail because I’ve been arrested so many times. And it was … I’m white and I’m famous. So, you know, how bad could they treat me? It was very different for some of the other people that were in there,
Villarreal: Both of you have also been active in fighting for LGBTQ rights for a long time, and recent months have really seen a rash of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation. There are the “don’t say gay” laws that forbid teachers from talking about sexual orientation or gender identity. And there are laws that make it a felony to provide certain kinds of healthcare to trans children. You both have spoken out for LGBTQ rights in the past. What would your message be to lawmakers today?
Tomlin: Oh, my goodness. It would be the same. You’ve got to get rid of those lawmakers, all those people that stand in the way of progress and inequality. It’s got to be done and it takes a long time. To even oust one person.
Villarreal: Jane, there was a video that circulated of you recently back from the ’70s talking about this issue.
[Clip from Kinolibrary Archive Film collections: JANE FONDA: Culturally, psychologically.. economically, politically, gays and lesbians are discriminated against. Gays and lesbians are a very powerful movement in San Francisco. They don’t need me… but … they like me! ]
Villarreal: What is it even like seeing that after all these years of fighting, we’re still at this place?
Fonda: This should not surprise us that we are still fighting these fights because it’s about power and it’s about greed. And it’s hard individually to make a real difference. These have to be policies that are put in place. And until we can elect people to office who are more humane, who love democracy and love human beings and love the planet, we’re going to be facing this. But we shouldn’t give up, because the fact is that we can make a difference. But we have to vote and we have to pay attention to make sure that the people we vote for are human and not mean or greedy. But it don’t take money.
Tomlin: People who don’t, they just don’t care except about their own interests or their people. Yeah. Yeah. These are the people, by and large, who succumb to that value.
Fonda: But hope is a moral imperative. We cannot succumb to cynicism. And, well, there’s nothing to be done. So I’m just going to live out my life in the most hedonistic way. No. Because I guarantee you when I think about this a lot, because I think about death, when you get to your deathbed, if you haven’t done the best you can to make things better, you’re going to go out sad. And so we should think about how we want to go out and then live our life accordingly so that when we get to the end, we won’t have regrets and we won’t be sad because of what we didn’t do.