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In Grandma, teenager Sage (Julia Garner) asks her grandmother Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) for help getting money for an abortion.

One ringy-dingy! When Lily Tomlin calls, you pick up the phone. Especially these days, when there's so much to talk about: Tomlin's new series with Jane Fonda, Grace and Frankie, premiered in the spring on Netflix, and now, 40 years after her only Academy Award nomination (for Nashville), there is talk of an Oscar run for her title role in the indie drama Grandma as Elle Reid, an invigoratingly acerbic poet in the twilight of her career whose teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) asks for help in getting money for an abortion. The Globe and Mail spoke with her by phone (of course).

When Grandma premiered at Sundance, you suggested that Elle was a lot like you. Surely that doesn't include her misanthropy?

Did I say that? That she was very much like me?

I'll pull up the quote if you'd like … so, wait, do you not feel she's like you?

I do, in some ways. She's a feminist. I'm not a poet but I'm an artist of some sort. I'm interested in what I put into the culture and all that. So, I understand her philosophy, I understand her being in [the public's] favour, and that being diminished, and all that stuff. I know what kind of person she is. I'm an entertainer, too, so I live by how the world reacts to me.

You've always been clear about not wanting your work to be didactic. Still, Grandma has its own quiet politics: Elle is gay and was married – though not, of course, legally – for 38 years. And there's a funny moment when Elle realizes her granddaughter, Sage, has never heard of Simone de Beauvoir. When you put things into the culture, is it in hopes of effecting social progress?

Definitely in some ways, but it's not meant as a polemic. I think Grandma has lots of issues running through it that are woven carefully – that are obvious and not obvious. It's mostly about character and about three generations of women and how differently they relate. And about her granddaughter not having a clue about feminism, and Elle wanting to impart her philosophy, her respect for her granddaughter, how she wants Sage to have that same respect for herself.

Do you believe you've helped to change things with your work?

We all have ideals and passions and things that we think are going to absolutely impact in our lifetime, and it doesn't necessarily happen. Or maybe you impact it very minimally.

How so?

I'm aware of my own mortality. I look at young comedians around me: Now there's much more freedom available in the choice and projection of material than there was in my time. I mean, we used to have to fight on our TV specials just to play a parody of a commercial. The network would just have a fit – they said that we would confuse the audience [laughs]. And all of that stuff. And shortly after that, SNL came on the air, and they were able to do it. So every little thing moves something else along. Maybe not for you or in your time, necessarily. Oh, I'm seeing so much stuff on the streets here – I'm driving along New York and I just saw a guy with no legs, in a little wagon, propelling himself.

Hold on, are you calling me from 1974 New York?

Ha ha! Yeah.

Sorry, I shouldn't joke.

People have lost their legs any number of times.

Of course. It's just – the city is not what it was. In both good and bad ways.

That's so true.

You still live out west, don't you?

Yeah, I live in California, I'm here doing press for Grandma.

The film comes across like a deeply felt argument that "older people" are as mistake-prone as younger people. That you never really figure it out.

Ha! No, I don't think that you do!

Do you feel you've become wiser? Do you feel you've figured things out?

I've become more accepting. When I was on Laugh-In, I wouldn't even have my picture taken with John Wayne.

A few months ago, you and Jane Fonda complained in an interview that your male co-stars on Grace and Frankie, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, make the same money as you two even though they're not the leads. Some fans started a petition demanding Netflix pay you more. Then the two of you clarified in a joint statement you were joking.

Yes, it was a big ruckus here.

Has it become harder to make jokes like that, because people are either too quick to jump on a cause, or take things the wrong way? Too ready to be irate?

Well, I did get a lot of pressure to "clarify" that remark. And I didn't take it seriously at all. They do make the same as we do as actors, though we get a small back-end [payment], Jane and I, so that could be construed as upping our ante. And I did cave to clarifying that.

What do you mean you caved? If it were up to you, would you not have wanted to "clarify?"

I wouldn't have even responded. I wouldn't have endorsed the petition, because we do make a little bit more. But maybe I would later? Maybe in the third season, I'll kick up a ruckus.

Oh, it looks as if our time is up.

Oh, God, they're gonna get me again. That's alright.

This interview has been condensed and edited.