The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Grandma.
Mr. Weitz, did you write this role for Ms. Tomlin knowing she’d play the part?
Paul Weitz: Yes, I— well, no, I didn’t know she’d play the part! Because I purposely didn’t tell her I was doing it until I was done. Because it’d be a natural thing, I think, when presented with something that someone tells you has “been written for you,” even if you’re intrigued… there must be a part of you that’s a little… it’s something that’s coming your way that you didn’t order from the menu!
What draws you to a part, when you’re reading a script?
Julia Garner: For me, it’s a really good story. When I watch a film, I want to watch a really good story. When I read the script for Grandma, that was my first thought: this is a story I want to see on the screen.
“you’re prepared to do it; that’s why you’re cast in it.”
Mr. Elliott, the scene you share with Ms. Tomlin is incredible in its complexity. We learn so much about them both, after it starts very quietly. How did you approach that scene?
Sam Elliot: It all starts out on paper, for me. And Paul wrote what I think is just a masterful script. It’s just a great piece of material for all of us. And I felt very fortunate to be there. When you get on a set, and you have that kind of material, and you get to work with someone like Ms. Tomlin… and you’ve got Paul standing off to the side to keep it all moving along in the right direction… it just can’t help but be good. It was an opportunity for me to do something I hadn’t done before, on some level, with eleven rich pages of character and dialog. Beyond that I don’t know what to say about it.
Laverne Cox: I’m, like, obsessed with what happens between you two in that scene. I’ve watched the scene several times… and just the way the story unfolds, the wonderful writing… it’s riveting. There’s something about the way the both of them, in the relationship, that’s so… I mean it’s obviously on the page, but you create something on screen that’s just indescribable. Magical. For me as an actress, I need to ask: How did you do it? Was it in the moment that that chemistry and connection took place? Or did you know it was going to go that way?
Elliott: I think a lot of it is in the moment. Again, it just goes back to the opportunity of what we were working with. I mean, I didn’t know Lily before we shot this movie. I met her in passing at an awards ceremony; I’d been a fan of hers forever. And I think we connected… like, right off the top. And I don’t think that it hurt, the fact that in the story these characters haven’t seen each other in fourteen years, and I don’t think he ever got over being in love with her… and the fact that he has her photograph in the box of money that he had stashed away tells you a lot.
Weitz: For me, it was all in the moment. The reason I like to direct my own writing is that I can be… I mean, it was played with the dialogue, but I don’t think it would have had to have been. I could see it happening on screen. And at that point, the job is just sort of making sure it’s happening in shots that are going to be used. But I really like the idea that, thematically, that time isn’t linear; it loops back on itself. That Lily’s character is brought to a point in her own youth by protecting Julia’s character— I mean, she’s teaching her all these things, but also there’s splinters inside her that are getting unearthed during the course of this, and early on she says, “I was stupid too at your age,” and that’s really what’s coming up her in the scene with Sam. This is a fight that they haven’t had for fifty years. And it’s raw. It’s as raw as it would have been if they had had it at that age, except now they’re able to articulate and really go at it.
Ms. Cox, can you talk about your collaboration with Ms. Tomlin, and what you think that relationship means to the two of them?
Cox: What’s interesting to me is that Deathy is the only person from Elle’s past whom she doesn’t have a contentious relationship with! It’s more loving. And I spent a lot of time thinking about tattoo artists, and the series of choices that bring you to that career in life. What would make someone do that? Maybe she was an artist beforehand, or a student of Elle’s. Choosing to do that, the sort of ritualistic part… The pain and the process is almost a ritual; they offer an intimate relationship between you and the person giving you the tattoo. So I was thinking about that, and so it’s very fitting that when the reconnect they’re still very friendly, and that she can offer this intimate action of giving a tattoo in lieu of cash. There’s something about that action and ritual that bonds them.
Ms. Tomlin, there is a scene towards the end of the film where your car breaks down. And you cover the car with a cloth, and give it a pat, as if to say, “everything will be ok.” Can you talk about that scene and what’s going on there?
Lily Tomlin: It was hard to leave that car on the side of the road, because it was Violet’s car, and the cover is a bit torn… and she just has this relationship to the car that makes it hard to leave behind. I had suggested to Paul that we cover the car— even though the cover we had was so torn, and I suggested that maybe we should get a new one, but we didn’t… it was ratty and falling apart.
Weitz: I didn’t see that coming, how you expressed emotion through that car. If I would have guessed where the character would be getting emotional and crying, it would have been at different spots in the movie. And I really like that when you’re in the cab alone at the end and you’re sort of saying goodbye to Violet, you’re actually laughing, and you’re thinking about stuff she did to crack you up.
Tomlin: I didn’t think about it— you know, if you get a great idea like that then you’re happy about it, you utilize it in some way, but mostly you’re just doing it as you do it. It’s coming to you in the moment. I mean you’re prepared to do it, that’s why you’re cast in it. I always thought a good book would be a biography of an actor’s sense-memory. Like, what was Meryl thinking when she had to choose between her two children, and couldn’t choose. What did she use to bring herself to that moment? Because she never had to do that in real life, as far as I’m aware of. So she had to put herself in a place that would bring up that kind of emotion. So I’ve always thought that might be interesting… pick certain scenes and get an actor to tell you what the sense-memory was. It might have been something totally unexpected. Maybe they remembered how they ate a bad big mac, or something, to put them there… and not something very meaningful, as you might assume.