grandmaLily Tomlin gives a tour-de-force performance in Paul Weitz’s Grandma as Elle Reid, a woman who has lost her longtime love and is estranged from her daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). Elle has just broken up with her new girlfriend (Judy Greer) when her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up needing $600 that Elle doesn’t have. The two spend the day visiting old friends and acquaintances to try to come up with the cash, and both learn some surprising and important lessons. Grandma also features Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, John Cho, and Nat Wolff.  

I sat down with writer/director Paul Weitz to discuss this heartwarming and funny film. With his brother, Chris, Paul directed the classic American Pie and also wrote and directed About a Boy. Paul’s other films as a director include Being Flynn, American Dreamz, In Good Company, and Admission. He is currently the executive producer of the series Mozart in the Jungle with Gael Garcia Bernal and Bernadette Peters, for which he directed the pilot.

If you’re in Los Angeles, Paul Weitz, Lily Tomlin, and Sam Elliott will be doing a Q&As following the screenings of Grandma at Arclight Hollywood on Saturday, April 29th and at Arclight Sherman Oaks on Sunday, April 30th. Click here for more information. Tomlin and Elliott will also appear on Saturday at the Landmark Theaters in Los Angeles.

Danny Miller: It is such a thrill to see the phenomenally talented Lily Tomlin in a true starring role again.

lily-paulPaul Weitz: Lily is just amazing. I remember when we we wrapped at 3 am, she did her one-woman show later that same day where she’s on stage alone for well over two hours.

I assume you wrote the part of Elle Reid with her in mind.

Yes. I had spent some time with Lily on the set of Admission where she played Tina Fey’s mother. Both as an actress and a human being, there’s just so much there — a nuclear reactor of depth! When I had this idea for a film focusing on three generations of women, I kept hearing Lily’s voice in my head as I wrote it. She was just there doing the role.

Did you tell her about it then?

No, I didn’t. I was having such a good time writing it and if she had said, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to do something like that,” I would have stopped. So I just kept on going in secret.

Do you think you would have made the film if Lily hadn’t wanted to do it?

I really don’t think so, it had to be her. The part of Elle was completely tailored for Lily. At its core, it was based on her kindness. I mean, Lily clearly has a temper, she clearly has a razor-sharp wit, and she is a dissector of our society, but the main thing that strikes me about her is that she’s kind. And she’s been through so much, she’s observed so much.

So how did you first approach her with the idea?

I asked her to lunch one day and I think she thought I was going to talk about how Admission had done or something like that. Instead, I said, “I’ve written something for you, will you read it?” So she did and she was excited about it but also anxious because she was basically in every scene and it was about things that were closest to her heart. I had always admired Lily’s amazing long-term relationship with Jane Wagner and I thought if this character had been in love with someone for that long and then that person had died a few years earlier, how would she deal with that grief? Also, like everybody, I had a perception that Lily was not somebody who would brook fools, and I wanted to explore what that was about and where did it come from in this particular character?

She’s so great the way she shows that acerbic side of her personality in this movie because you can see underneath it. Were you ever worried that the character was too abrasive?

No, and it’s funny because we did that first scene first where she and Judy are breaking up and she’s really awful to her and calls her a “footnote.” Right after shooting it, Lily turned to me and said, “Do you think we’ve made her mean enough?” She really understood where this character was coming from. There’s something so fun about working with characters who say the things we sometimes wish we could say, people who don’t back away from confrontation.

I loved that scene with the granddaughter’s boyfriend so much. I’m surprised Lily’s character didn’t kill him but I guess that would have been a different movie!

That was such a big thing that we wanted to convey — the idea that the granddaughter had no idea how to stand up for herself.


I thought Julia Garner was so good in that part. I don’t think I’ve seen her before.

She’s made a bunch of tiny movies and now has a role in series The Americans. She has a nice throwback-in-time quality to her and Lily liked her from the get-go so that made things so much easier.

Did Lily have a lot of input with the character? Were there times when she’d day, “Oh, Elle wouldn’t say that?”

Yeah, absolutely, and I welcomed that. Lily and I sat down with the script and talked about everything. She’d tell me anecdotes that I’d sometimes write into the script and she really helped me deepen things. At first Lily was wondering about the character’s anger. One day we were talking about it and she laughed and said, “I know you’re thinking about that video of me yelling at David O. Russell but that’s out of context and I’m not really like that!” So we looked at every point when Elle was losing her temper and made sure it made sense

It sounds like this was the best type of collaboration between a writer/director and actor.

For me, I didn’t even think about whether other people would like the film or even if it would get distributed, the main audience for me was Lily Tomlin. She was starring in it but that’s whose opinion I cared about. Of course, things worked out so great in that we were the closing night film at Sundance this year and were picked up by Sony Classics.

With this movie and others such as I’ll See You in My Dreams which Sam Elliott is also in, dare we hope that more movies might be made in the future featuring older actors?

Yeah, I am hopeful about that. And I think the most loyal audiences of people who will still go out and see a movie in the theater are not necessarily the younger crowd.

The last time we talked, we spoke about your fabulous mom, actress Susan Koehner as well as your amazing 105-year-old grandmother, actress Lupita Tovar, who is still with us. Any chance of coaxing them out of retirement for part in one of your films?

I’m not sure about that, but my mom is kind of my ace in the hole. When I told Lily early on that Susan Koehner was my mother that really put me in good with her! She told me that her mother took her to see Imitation of Life when she was a little girl and that she remembers her mother had three handkerchiefs in her purse because it was a three-hankie movie!