The heartfelt lesbian family road trip movie.
That should be a new film genre, don’t you think? Grandma does, and it shows us exactly how funny and touching the possibilities of this concept can be.
The movie, which opened on August 21, centers around Lily Tomlin as the titular grandmother, Elle Reid, a retired lesbian poet who takes her granddaughter Sage (played by Julia Garner) on a journey across LA to find $600 to fund her secret abortion. The story evolves far beyond its premise to become an exploration of how the effects of loss take years to process, and how some of us run away from doing so.
FourTwoNine had the pleasure of sitting down with writer and director Paul Weitz (American Pie) and Tomlin herself to talk about the process of making Grandma, and how it’s one of the most important films of their careers.
“I [was]lucky to get this part.” Tomlin said. “It just seemed to come out of nowhere. We shot it last April. I’d done the first season of Grace and Frankie but it hadn’t been released, so you didn’t know if that was going to make it.”
What’s really remarkable is that it’s been quite a while since Tomlin headlined a film. After seeing Grandma, you’ll be left wondering why.
“Lily Tomlin should be carrying a movie. [She] could bring this sort of comedy that one associates with Lily, which is comedy doesn’t insult your intelligence,” Weitz said.
On their journey to fund the abortion, Elle and Sage encounter a wide range of people from Elle’s past—some of which were harder to see than others. Sam Elliot plays an old flame of Elle’s from when she was 21, a relationship she had never opened up to many people about. Elliot has a strong presence in the film that intensely matches Tomlin’s performance.
“Sam’s actually, really a marvellous, generous actor and he’s very comfortable supporting these strong female performances,” Weitz said. “I wasn’t thinking of his westerns, I was thinking of Mask, where he supported Cher. Plus he’s attractive.”
“[Paul’s] casting sense is just so great. He’s just able to get these people with a phone call,” Tomlin added.
Tomlin’s onscreen chemistry with Garner and Marcia Gay Harden (50 Shades of Grey) as her corporate number-crunching daughter is one of the biggest highlights of the movie: they actually feel as if they’re a family when you’re watching them.
When asked what the preparation for that was like, Tomlin said, “We didn’t rehearse anything. It just was magical.”
Weitz added, “As a director where I like to get to is to cast it well enough and do my preparation enough so my actors can completely take it over. I might give them a nudge here and there or a thought, but really they own it. And I’m the first audience watching it. That was very much what this movie was.”
Tomlin said, “The only actor I really saw before the movie started was Julia and that was because she was just visiting in town. I’d seen pictures of her and I’d just love the way she looked. I saw a clip of her and I thought oh she’s kind of ethereal and angelic in some way. I wanted her to be [Sage].”
And 21-year-old Julia Garner (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) was, indeed, a phenomenal casting choice for the role of Sage. She’s basically Lily Tomlin’s sidekick throughout the whole film, and the way she portrays confused teenage purity is the perfect counterpart to Elle’s dusty cynicism.
“[Garner] and Paul came to my office and I said, tell her she’s got the part, that we want her to be the part,” Tomlin said. “Don’t make her think I’m judging her like I sort of like her. I was so afraid she’d judge us and say, well, I don’t know. They’re both kinda old. But she’s very sensitive.”
So, did starring in a movie called Grandma as the grandma make Lily Tomlin feel a little old?
“I thought it was a good point of irony,” Tomlin said, “for the film to be called Grandma and for me to be lucky to portray it.”