Lily Tomlin was driving down Moorpark Street in the Valley, talking about that time she ended up on the news for cutting down her eucalyptus trees. "They said I had dendrophobia, fear of trees!" Tomlin said with her characteristic cackle of a laugh. "I can't remember why we started talking about this."
The circuitous conversation had begun on the topic of the soft brakes in her '55 Dodge, which nearly rolled over her in her driveway once (We were not in the Dodge, thank God, but in Tomlin's Lexus). The neighbor who had complained about the trees came to Tomlin's aid, validating her world view that most human beings are better and more interesting than we think.
It's a philosophy that has animated Tomlin's work, from the rich and riotous characters she created as a young comic in the 1960s and '70s to the textured and topical ones she's playing today. Tomlin plays an acerbic lesbian widow helping her granddaughter get an abortion in a critically praised film called "Grandma," which opens the Los Angeles Film Festival on Wednesday before its release in theaters in August, and an aging hippie whose husband has left her for his male law partner in a new Netflix series with old friend Jane Fonda, "Grace and Frankie," which just got picked up for a second season.
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At 75, Tomlin is, much to her surprise, happening.
"I've been flung back into hipdom," she says in her Studio City office, a room stuffed with the debris of her extraordinary five-decade career, including Tonys, Emmys, Peabodys, the covers of magazines such as Ms. and Rolling Stone and a comically large key to the city of Provincetown, Mass. "I'm very existential. I don't believe a lot of stuff other humans believe about fame. I can't believe I've been well known for as long as I've been and just keep on doing it. The time has just evaporated."
Self-effacing and warm, Tomlin unspools delightful stream-of-consciousness stories — there's no art to interviewing her, you just hit record and prop your chin in your hand. She talks about the early career days when she used a photograph of herself on a gurney playing 1964 murder victim Kitty Genovese as her head shot ("I didn't get any job offers) and the era in the '80s when she took Fonda's aerobics class (Fonda "was like a 10-year-old who's gonna get the gold star in ballet class").
A discussion about "The Bachelor" — "It's horrible, the girls are so eager" — veers into one about the late congresswoman and rabble-rouser Bella Abzug. "All the young women who deny feminism, it's because they don't understand the women who went before them," Tomlin said. "A lot of things have turned back on females. I always sound real square when I talk about this."
Tomlin's personal life too has had a recent development, at least as far as the outside world is concerned. On Dec. 31, 2013, she married her romantic and writing partner of more than 40 years, Jane Wagner, in a friend's backyard with wedding rings made of denim and beads.
"It was natural, it was great," Tomlin said. "It's hard to make a big deal out of it. For so long we've said, 'We're not gonna get married until the gay community comes up with something more interesting than heterosexual marriage.' It's not more interesting. But it is very sweet."
Since she works closely with two other Janes — Fonda and a Netflix executive — Tomlin refers to Wagner as "my Jane" or "Jane No. 1."
It's telling that, of all the accolades in Tomlin's office, the only one her eyes settled on was a Parade magazine cover story by David Halberstam when the Tony-winning stage show Wagner wrote for Tomlin, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," was a Broadway smash.
"I get credit for everything," Tomlin said. "David totally acknowledged Jane's authorship."
'Funny and edgy'
After directing Tomlin in a small role as Tina Fey's mother in the 2013 film "Admission," director Paul Weitz wrote "Grandma" with her in mind.
"She was so funny and edgy," Weitz said. "Coming out of that there was so much more to explore. The stereotype of older people being less hip than younger people is so inverted at this point. Women her age, their experience is so much more explosive than somebody who is 18 years old. I thought it was interesting having the explosive character be the grandma."
In the film, which Variety called a "gynecological 'Nebraska,'" Tomlin drives her own vintage Dodge around L.A. settling old scores and trying to help her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) scrape up the money to terminate her pregnancy. Even in 2015, it's a pretty incendiary motivator for a plot, but Tomlin has been embedding subversive ideas in her comedy since before Roe v. Wade.
Suzie Sorority, a character she performed onstage in the 1970s, would lament with an equal sense of tragedy that her sorority sisters had allowed a girl to come to a pledge party without stockings on and that they had found an unborn baby in the incinerator.
"People take it out of Suzie's mouth more readily than if it were me campaigning about abortion," Tomlin said. "That was part of the gift of having different culture types speak. That was 40 years ago. I don't think it has changed terribly. Although we have gained about 20 cents on the dollar since '9 to 5' came out. It used to be about 56 cents at the time of that movie."
Tomlin has always been a kind of feminist Trojan horse, making people laugh before they realized she was making them think. "Being so smart, she knows you can't lead with that," said "Grace and Frankie" showrunner Marta Kauffman. "You have to bury it so people don't even realize what they've just been through."
"When I was a kid I would think, 'I want everybody to see how funny so-and-so is,'" Tomlin said. "You kind of fall of love with the species. I had a feeling for humanity. It sounds so silly — I was 8 years old. and I had a feeling for humanity."
"Grace and Frankie" is a kind of liberal baby-boomer version of "The Avengers" — in addition to reuniting Tomlin with her "9 to 5" costar Fonda, it also stars actors that audience has known for decades, Sam Waterston as Tomlin's character's husband and Martin Sheen as Fonda's.
In early meetings as the show was taking shape, Kauffman said she let the women's real-life friendship inform their characters. "Jane [Fonda] was talking about Cialis, penis pumps, something you can inject in the penis," said Kauffman, also a creator of "Friends." "Lily looks at Jane and says, 'You have got to get younger boyfriends.' We said, 'There is our show.'"
Tomlin attributes her career longevity to what others might have considered a limitation.
"I wasn't ingénue enough to be an ingénue, and I wasn't beautiful enough to be a leading lady, so I was either gonna be a character woman or make my own stuff to do, and I found it much faster to make my own way," she said. "I had so much I wanted to share — things I felt were really funny or really sad or really moving I thought were sort of wonderful and I wanted to express that."
There is also the element of energy — after wrapping shooting on "Grandma" at 3 a.m, she went on to perform a stage show that night. In recent weeks, she has been crossing the country promoting "Grace and Frankie" with Fonda, including delivering a TED talk on female friendship that Wagner helped them write.
Tomlin said she's been nudging Wagner to write a sequel to "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." "If she deigns to write a PSA or something I'll say, 'Well, you could have written something for me,'" Tomlin said.