Lily Tomlin and writer/director Paul Weitz on the set of Grandma (Glen Wilson/Sony Pictures Classics)
Paul Weitz wrote the title role in Grandma for Lily Tomlin, one of the few roles in which the veteran actress has played a character much like herself, but still questions what Weitz saw in her for the role.
“Is it because I’m irascible?” she asks at the press conference for the independent comedy.
Playing the role of a lesbian woman felt freeing for Tomlin, who appreciated that her character Elle was “not stunted in any way, and I drove my own car and wore my own clothes, so it was a bit close to me. I guess it’s about time that I get to play myself.”
Tomlin may question whether the irascibility that she has so often used to great comedic effect was what made the screenwriter/director create the role for her, but Weitz and co-star Sam Elliott lavish praise on their star. Elliott had never worked with Tomlin before, but he reminisces how “I had a brief encounter with Lily one time socially, and have loved her forever. When we got together on the set, we just connected.”
Grandma stars Tomlin as a lesbian woman mourning her longterm partner who has to take her 18-year-old granddaughter to get an abortion. For Weitz, it was important to shatter the traditional conception of a grandmother, which an actress like Tomlin can easily do.
“Grandma comes with various associations of a sweet but ineffectual person,” Weitz notes, “but that’s hogwash now.”
Still, Tomlin inhabited the role so fully that she describes Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Tomlin’s onscreen daughter, as peachy, “just like grandma would.”
More importantly to Weitz, this film presents a woman in her 70s as the lead but does not make the story into a swan song.
“I was most interested in this idea of these generations of women, and how much has been forgotten by these women,” he says and notes that the “hardcore” characters played by Tomlin and Elliott are “still learning stuff and are very vital.”
Weitz remains keenly aware that this is one of the few modern American films that deals with abortion in a matter-of-fact way that still gives the issue the gravity it deserves. Although best known as one of the minds behind American Pie, Weitz is a fan of social-issue films such as Kramer vs. Kramer, and was conscious that Grandma not be a single-issue film at all. He warns that “it’s very easy to lose track of the human beings in stories that bear upon social issues. This was not to be a polemic or an issue film, but not to be a sellout either.”
Grandma features one of the last roles performed by Elizabeth Peña, who died suddenly last year. Weitz had no inkling that Peña was so ill, calling the La Bamba actress “a hell of a lot of fun” and telling that it was such a shock to hear of her death from alcohol-related illness.
Tomlin’s character has a brief relationship in Grandma with a young woman (Judy Greer) who is an admirer of Tomlin’s well-established poet. While Tomlin has spent decades with her spouse and producing partner, Jane Wagner, she recounts how celebrities should never get involved with their adoring fans. One of Tomlin’s friends, whom she does not name, began a relationship with one because, as Tomlin says, “she wouldn’t leave me alone, what could I do?” According to Tomlin, these relationship dynamics never end well, because “it’s not a relationship of equals, and it will probably end badly.”
While Tomlin was delighted to hear that a film about a lesbian woman was the type of film that a person could in fact take your grandmother to see, Weitz stresses how Grandma upends the traditional view of the grandmother as a little old lady.
After all, he says, “She walks off like a gunslinger in the end.”
Grandma releases in theaters Aug. 21.