They struck a blow for oppressed secretaries everywhere with their smash hit 9 to 5. Now, 35 years later, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are doing the same for newly single women in their seventies. In the 13-episode Netflix comedy series Grace and Frankie—created by Marta Kauffman (Friends) and Howard J. Morris (Home Improvement)—Fonda stars as brittle, uptight Grace and Tomlin as free-spirited Frankie, barely civil adversaries hit by the same emotional two-by-four when Grace's husband, Robert (Martin Sheen), and Frankie's husband, Sol (Sam Waterston), fall in love with each other and want to get married. Where's the AARP handbook for that? We sat down with Fonda, 77, and Tomlin, 75, to talk about aging, loneliness, and other unmentionables.
How does it feel to reunite on screen after all these years and still be liberating women?
Tomlin: It's so nifty being back together as old broads, even though it seems like only two months ago that we made 9 to 5. It's so right it seems preordained. But I don't think we could have done this show even five years ago.
Fonda: It's too dangerous! I've wanted to do a series about older women for some time. We're the fastest-growing demographic in the world, yet we're pretty much ignored in the media and in culture.
Tomlin: Grace and Frankie aren't just dealing with being left behind by their men—they're dealing with not being seen or heard in a world that's all about youth.
Fonda: I'm so glad I'm doing this with Lily. I trust her with my life. I can ask for her opinion on anything, including my acting, and she will always tell me the truth, though I don't always like it. And that's the way Frankie is with Grace—agonizingly honest.
Tomlin: They start out really disliking each other and end up being each other's life preserver. We're having such a grand time with these characters that I'll have to sign on for a second season just to see what happens to them!
Netflix is all about bingeing. Do you two binge-watch?
Tomlin: Sure. [Laughs] When I can stay awake. My partner, Jane [Wagner], and I are always, like, "Can we make it through another episode? Should we do one more?" If we don't start early enough in the evening, we're hopeless.
Fonda: You're lucky you have a partner who likes to watch. My partner [Richard Perry] is not interested in it. But he does love Empire.
Tomlin: We all love Empire! And House of Cards.
Tomlin: Yes, Homeland! I binged The Affair...up to a certain point. Oh, and Orange Is the New Black.
Fonda: And now people are gonna binge us! There's something kind of cool about that. Now, if only the old people can find Netflix. This is all so new.
There's much heartbreak in Grace and Frankie. What's the trick to keeping it funny?
Fonda: You have to keep it real and relatable. We all have a choice: We can look at the ups and downs of being older as something painful or painfully hilarious.
Tomlin: And for the men [on the show], it's the ups and downs of being older, plus being gay. Now, two men can marry, but before, they might have stayed covert, and wives like Grace and Frankie could have gone to their graves…
Fonda: …not knowing…
Tomlin: …and not terribly fulfilled.
Fonda: [Laughs] Ya think? Generations of women were raised to not expect fulfillment. Many just settled for companionship.
Tomlin: They hadn't yet invented the idea of reinventing themselves!
Fonda: Fear can stop you in your tracks. I didn't act for 15 years and that was totally fear-based, which is why I relate to Grace's inability to move forward. I don't think she'd be able to survive this split if it wasn't for Frankie.
How would this story be different if Grace and Frankie lost their husbands to other women?
Fonda: It would still be devastating but in a different—and maybe easier—way. There's a long tradition of men leaving their wives for other women. As a woman, that's sort of always in your thinking. Will it happen to me? But being dumped for a man? Whoa.
Tomlin: Older women need to see that they can weather the end of a marriage and come out whole, renewed, restarted.
Fonda: When a relationship collapses, you think you're going to die. That would often happen to me, and six months later, I'd be like, "Thank God that happened!" You think you've been broken when, in fact, you're broken open.
Tomlin: We're so blessed with these men we're working with. We really lucked out. Martin and I worked together on The West Wing, and Jane did The Newsroom with Sam, so this whole show feels like a reunion.
Fonda: The guys are so wonderfully out there. Sam is never without this big, thick book by the ancient philosopher Montaigne, which he's been reading for 30 years. And Martin bursts into the makeup trailer every morning with a hymn or a prayer or a "God bless you one and all, including the sinners among you. And you know who you are!" And they're all so funny and so comfortable with comedy. I'm still struggling.
But one of your earliest hits back in the '60s was Barefoot in the Park, a massively successful comedy. How can you still be struggling?
Fonda: I have to keep reminding myself that I've done comedy and some of them have been successful…when they were written by Neil Simon. Oh, and 9 to 5, of course. I just find comedy much, much harder than drama, especially when I'm working with Lily, who is such a pro and such a genius. We'll be doing a scene and, out of nowhere, Lily will start fanning herself with a plant. I don't have that funny bone.
Tomlin: But you do! And I'm not saying that because it's what I think you want to hear. I mean it! [Rolls her eyes] Don't listen to her.
Bette Davis famously said, "Old age ain't no place for sissies." How are you two handling it?
Tomlin: I'm doing my best to skip into my golden years. Of course, in your private moments, you try to come to terms with the physical stuff. Look at what's happening to me! [Holds up a bent index finger] It's some weird age thing. I see this and I'm aghast, but then I think, "Well, at least I still have my finger." Again, there's that choice thing.
Fonda: I try to focus on the best part of getting older—those battles you no longer feel you need to fight, the molehills you no longer turn into mountains. Grace is defined by external things—how she looks, dresses, whom she plays golf with-—and I've been there in my life. I know what that can do to you.
Mood enhancers, plastic surgery, flabby underarms, you tackle it all in this series. Is any topic off-limits?
Fonda: I hope not! We even discuss dry vaginas. Seventy-year-old women talking about this on television? That's unheard of. Because after a certain age, we're not supposed to have vaginas.
Tomlin: Much less dry ones. [Laughs] Oh, the horror!
Grace and Frankie premieres Friday, May 8 on Netflix.