Lily Tomlin as Elle Reid and Julia Garner as Sage in “Grandma.”(Aaron Epstein / Sundance Film Festival)
There is no official award for being a national treasure, so recently Lily Tomlin had to settle for a Kennedy Center Honor.
At 75, Tomlin continues to break new ground in her career. When the film “Grandma” premieres Friday, it will mark her first appearance at the Sundance Film Festival and her first leading role in a movie in nearly three decades. “Grandma,” written and directed by Paul Weitz, was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics in the days ahead of its premiere.
FULL COVERAGE: Sundance Film Festival 2015
Known for her coterie of outsized yet insightful characters such as Ernestine the telephone operator or the philosophical 5-and-a-half-year-old Edith Ann, Tomlin is a Grammy, Emmy and Tony winner and received an Academy Award nomination for her first film role in Robert Altman’s 1975 “Nashville.” Recently in the New Yorker, Hilton Als celebrated Tomlin for “making individual audience members feel as though she were playing just to them, humor as a way of making us feel inside rather than outside life.”
Yet for her role in “Grandma,” this queen of transformation wears her own clothes and even drives her own car, a 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer she has owned since 1975.
“I think it’s a lot like me. It’s the least I efforted to do something,” said Tomlin of the role. “Usually people get me because they think I’ll make a character. And I just left it like it was, natural and easy.”
Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a noted feminist poet who is still reeling from the death of her longtime partner Violet and is in the process of breaking up with a recent much younger girlfriend. (“You’re a footnote,” she says by way of acid dismissal.) Her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives at her door early one morning needing money for an abortion. Broke herself, Elle takes the girl on an extended journey around L.A. to try to hustle up some money, in the process revisiting old friends and rattling a few long-dormant skeletons.
Long passages of the film are Tomlin and Garner in the car talking about Elle’s past and Sage’s future. The film has a knockout supporting cast that includes Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, John Cho, Nat Wolff and Elizabeth Peña. As a former flame and last resort, Sam Elliott makes a powerful turn in a single, extended sequence. Throughout, the film swings from light to dark, breezy to serious, with unusual ease.
“For me it’s a drama, driven by a character with a really good sense of humor,” said Weitz. “It’s really Lily’s character that brings the comedy. She’s the kind of person who will confront the guy who knocked up her granddaughter and not have the good sense to let that conversation happen without her.”
The pair showed their easy chemistry while sitting for a recent interview together in Los Angeles just ahead of Sundance. Tomlin and Weitz initially met when she was cast as Tina Fey’s mother in 2013’s “Admission.” Meeting her inspired him to revisit a long-percolating story idea.
“After meeting Lily, the voice and the character really clicked,” said Weitz, of the story he never quite finished before meeting Tomlin. “I had thought about it for years, so I had a lot of it worked out in my head, and then I just went to a coffee shop and wrote it longhand. What I didn’t do was call up Lily and say, ‘I have something I want to write for you.’”
For Tomlin, this is her first leading role in a film since “Big Business,” co-starring Bette Midler, in 1988. Tomlin has appeared steadily in movies and television, appearing most frequently as part of an ensemble, yet she had no reservations in stepping back into a lead role.
“I know I’m putting myself on the line, kind of. But I trusted Paul, and I liked the material,” she said. “First of all, he had written it with me in mind, and he wanted me. Then as we worked through the material, it just seemed like a good thing to do.”
Though Weitz has been involved with bigger budget movies such as “About a Boy” and “Little Fockers,” for “Grandma” he drew inspiration from lower-budget films such as Ira Sachs’ “Leave the Lights On,” Sean Baker’s “Starlet” and Joachim Trier’s “Oslo, August 31.” Working in locations around Los Angeles in the spring of last year, the film was shot in just 19 days.
“Part of the impetus here was to be completely pure,” said Weitz, “just to try to make the version that was really exciting. I didn’t want to make a single decision based upon anything other than what the actors and I wanted. And that’s what I was able to do.”
“Grandma” had screened for press here earlier this week and was warmly received. Calling the film “a nimble balance between the poignant and the ribald,” critic Scott Foundas also compared Tomlin’s role in “Grandma” to that of Michael Keaton in “Birdman” for the way in which Tomlin’s own personality and persona seem to inform the performance.
In the Hollywood Reporter, critic David Rooney noted, “Her entire history as an actor, comedian, a feminist and a pioneering voice for LGBT rights comes into play in this form fitting role.”
Weitz acknowledged the ways in which he tailored the role to Tomlin when he said, “I felt like not only did I want to see more of her, but wanted to also apply some of her intelligence and insight to a character that was really demanding it.
“I think part of what made it work was my eagerness to be informed by what Lily had to say about things, as opposed to, ‘This is the script.’ Clearly there are large swaths of this I know less about than Lily,” Weitz added.
“I’ve always worked that way,” added Tomlin of making suggestions to the script and on set. “I always speak up in any role I’ve had. Not that they necessarily listen to you. So if I had experience with a subject or an issue or a moment, I tried to tell him what happened. And knowing that he might utilize that in what he expected of me.”
Only a few hours after wrapping shooting on “Grandma,” Tomlin was onstage in Northridge with her one-woman show. She’ll be leaving Sundance to go directly to another stage engagement, one of about 30 or 40 she has booked for the year. There’s also an upcoming Netflix series, “Grace and Frankie,” which reteams Tomlin with her “9 to 5" co-star Jane Fonda.
For this master of many characters, stepping out to reveal a little of herself proved less difficult than she might have expected. “I don’t think of myself as Elle. I just felt like Elle was natural for me. I liked it. It was relatively easy to do,” Tomlin said of finally playing a character similar to herself. “It’s about time after all these years.”
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