Longtime gay icon Lily Tomlin teams with new trans role model Laverne Cox for the dramedy ‘Grandma’
lawrence ferber | Contributing Writer
A pair of LGBT icons from different generations — beloved septuagenarian Lily Tomlin, and more recently minted trailblazer, Laverne Cox — come together in the acclaimed feature dramedy, Grandma. It’s certainly an apropos collaboration, since one of the Sundance Film Festival hit’s themes is how generations collide and, despite some friction, can potentially join forces in the spirit of support for a mutual cause.
Written and directed by Paul Weitz, Grandma stars Lily Tomlin as Elle, a prickly, 70-something lesbian poet-intellectual whose granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up at her doorstep in need of $600 for an abortion. Neither woman wants to approach Sage’s alpha businesswoman mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), so, strapped for cash and having recently cut up her credit cards, Elle revs up her dusty 1950s Dodge — along with its memories of her deceased life partner, Violet — and hits the road with Sage to try and scrape up those funds by any means possible in time for a 5:45 p.m. clinic appointment. Along the way, Elle dishes out hurt and verbal abuse on a barista played by John Cho, a friend portrayed by the late Elizabeth Pena, and the ne’er-do-well young cretin that impregnated Sage. Elle also encounters her own recently dumped younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), an old male flame from several decades back (Sam Elliott), and a tattoo artist who owes Elle money, Deathy (Cox).
“I love that the Deathy character, as opposed to almost every other character in the movie, is not having conflict with Lily’s character,” notes Weitz, best known for co-directing American Pie and About a Boy with sibling Chris. “It shows there are loving friendships and relationships in Elle’s life, and Deathy knows a lot about her past and relationship with Violet.”
Weitz previously worked with Tomlin on his 2013 Tina Fey-Paul Rudd film Admission, and so wrote the part of Elle specifically with her in mind. He knew that Tomlin could pull off the more abrasive aspects of the character, having seen the infamous footage of Tomlin clashing with director David O. Russell on the set of I Heart Huckabees. “When I first sent her the script she said, ‘Gosh, this character has a real temper and I’m not sure I can understand that,’” he recalls. “I gave her a look and she went, ‘I know, I know, you’ve seen that video.’ People get passionate on set sometimes.”
Tomlin admits that, damning Huckabees video aside, in real life she tries to keep ripping people new ones at a minimum. “You learn pretty fast not to do that,” she insists. “You can lose your temper and act up, but you better apologize.” As for the most rebellious thing she has done off-screen in recent years? “I suppose just keep on keeping on,” Tomlin, 76, replies. “That’s rebellious in Hollywood.”
In fact, Tomlin’s presence and success in film and TV seems to fly in the face of Hollywood’s ageism when it comes to actresses (there have been at least a couple of trend pieces on this, citing examples like the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films franchise). Her Netflix series Grace and Frankie, which co-stars 77-year-old Jane Fonda, has been greenlit for a second season, and their 9 to 5 companion, Dolly Parton, 69, has expressed interest in joining the cast. “That makes me happy,” Tomlin says, “because it means she still believes in our friendship and feels comfortable with Jane and me. We would like that.”
Although Elle was written for Tomlin, she brought some new and personal elements to the role once signed on, including her own 1950 Dodge vehicle. “She asked, ‘What kind of car are you looking for?’” Weitz recalls, “because she had one behind her garage and hadn’t driven it a long time. Her partner Jane Wagner told her not to drive it because it was really old and had no anti-lock brakes and was a bit of a battleship.”
Tomlin’s attachment to Grandma is also what secured Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox, whom Weitz approached after seeing her on the Netflix hit series. Weitz says the character of Deathy had always been conceived as transgender, and he never considered casting other than a transgender actress. For those who take issue when queer or transgender roles are bestowed upon heterosexual, cisgender actors, as opposed to drawing from the pool of talented, openly LGBT thespians — a la Dallas Buyers Club, which received heat for casting Jared Leto despite the acclaim — this is a refreshing turn.
That said, the Emmy-nominated Cox (who’s currently working on the other side of the camera as an executive producer of the documentary Free CeCe!, about an incarcerated African American transgender woman jailed for killing a violently bigoted attacker in self-defense) was most drawn to the character’s work as a tattooist.
“I was really intrigued by Deathy’s choice of doing that for a living, and what that means for her,” Cox says. “People I know who have been tattoo artists or have a lot of tattoos, there’s something very ritualistic about getting a new one and there’s always a significance and an intimacy between someone and their tattoo artist.”
Due to time restraints and a busy travel schedule as public speaker, Cox had to garner her knowledge of professional tattooing technique from studying hours and hours worth of YouTube videos during downtime in hotels and airports. She certainly proves a convincing mimic, to both audiences and Tomlin, during a scene shot in a Los Angeles tattoo parlor during which Deathy gives Elle a bit of ink.
Working with Tomlin, meanwhile, proved an even more inspiring study for Cox, who says, “I learned that she’s who I want to be when I grow up! She’s a woman in her 70s at the top of her game, and she just kills it. I want to be as whip-smart and alert and still in love with the work and craft. I can listen to her talk all day about her career, her life. The history she’s walking around with is an amazing treat. She’s a delight and legend and I’m really honored to have worked with her and to know her.”
Perhaps the Netflix gods will smile upon the pair and Tomlin could appear on OITNB as a new prisoner alongside Cox’s Sophia Burset. Tomlin, for one, lights up at the suggestion and says she would love the opportunity. Who else would make for an amazing new OITNB co-star? When asked, Cox reels off Regina King, Charlize Theron, Viola Davis, Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey.
Cox starts laughing. “I’m laughing because I imagine Oprah going, ‘You get soup! You get soup! You get soup!’” she giggles. “I love Oprah. She has been such a gift to the world and so life-changing for me through her work.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 4, 2015.