“Starting over” tends to be a term reserved for younger generations—it can mean moving to a new place, starting a new job, breaking up with someone. But for Grace and Frankie’s title characters, it means much more: It means facing the fact that your husbands have fallen in love with each other, leaving you without partners for the first time in years.
Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, who previously starred together in 1980’s 9 to 5, play Grace and Frankie on the new Netflix comedy, which was co-created by Friends mastermind Marta Kauffman. Kauffman called up EW to talk about why it’s important to portray aging on TV, the “f–k-you fifties,” and how peyote became Frankie’s drug of choice.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How’d the premise come about?
MARTA KAUFFMAN: Once we knew that Jane and Lily were interested in doing something, I was sitting in the car with my creative executive, her name is Hannah K-S, and she’s the one who said, “What if their husbands fall in love?” Now, full disclosure: Hannah K-S is my daughter and she is also my creative exec, and she’s really awesome because she came up with the idea.
You’ve made it as mother if your child wants to work with you.
Exactly! I’m so grateful.
So you tackle some not-often-discussed problems in this show. A lot of people have been talking about the vaginal dryness.
[Laughs] And they should be.
Where are these ideas coming from? What’s the writers’ room like?
The writer’s room is amazing. We have a wide, wide variety of people. We’ve got gay people, straight people. The age range goes from about 60 to late 20s, so I feel like we have all the generations covered. Besides just what I personally go through in my post-menopause world, there’s so much out there about aging. There are amazing websites where people talk about stuff, and it’s an incredibly marginalized part of society so the idea of being able to give voice to that is incredibly exciting.
And we also have Jane and Lily themselves. They have ideas and they have thoughts about what it is to be their age and what it means. Jane talks about the “f–k-you fifties;” I so understand that. You get to a certain point where you just don’t care anymore what people say or what they think because you’re at a certain age. But what you do care about is being ignored, and being marginalized, and not being considered an important member of society.
The “f–k-you fifties” makes me think of when Frankie takes peyote in the first episode. Out of all the drugs, why peyote?
We did a bunch of research on peyote and all this other stuff ,and that just seemed like it gave us the opportunity for some of the funniest moments. And my understanding is that it’s for purposes of a vision quest, it’s the best way to go.
You were talking about giving a voice to these marginalized part of society. How important do you think bringing real-life, sometimes overlooked problems into fictional TV shows is?
I think it’s crucial. I think it’s why we watch TV. We watch TV to see the drama and comedy of others and then to relate to those things—at least, that’s the TV I like to watch. The bottom line is, [Grace and Frankie is] not only about aging. It’s about starting your life over at any age. And aging definitely comes into that, and there are issues of aging. But we all go through it. You go through it when you pass your thirties, you start going through it. And then you hit 50. My hope is that it’s universal, but I also think that we set out to do a real comedy dealing with real situations. And you can only do that if you take it from real life.
Between Broad City and Parks and Rec and many others, more and more shows have been focusing on friendships between two women. Do you have a favorite on-screen female friendship?
Grace and Frankie? [Laughs] It was more looking at these two women. I’m a feminist, I love my woman friends, they are what keep me going. I really believe in the advantage of having woman friends and the intimacy that one can have with a female friend. And I’m not talking sexually. That kind of relationship you can have has always been extremely important to me, personally. So the fact that there is an element of female friendship in this doesn’t surprise me, because it’s something I care about. But you also have two women, and it has to be about the balance between the two. The difference is that in television, you’re looking for the conflict. You need the conflict to keep the humor going. It’s not always about how well they’re doing. If anything, it’s about how difficult the friendship can be.
You’ve said before that you don’t really watch comedies. What drama has had the biggest influence on your work recently?
I have always been a big, big, big drama watcher. That’s just my favorite. My daughter and I watch The Returned together. I had seen the French one, and I really love it. It’s very slow. And a lot of dramas unfold fairly slowly. We can’t afford to do that. In terms of how it influences me, I sort of look at the rhythm of it and say, well, that I can’t do. I only have a half hour to tell my story. I have 13 episodes, and I’ve got to fill it with stuff. So if anything, learning the lessons of what I can and cannot do.
If this show could have one impact on its viewers, what would you want that impact to be?
Only one, huh? [Laughs] There are two. One is, if you’re walking down the street and you see someone over a certain age, see them. And the other one that I would love to have happen is that people look at the relationship between Martin Sheen’s character and Sam Waterston’s character and see it as love. Not as a gay relationship, but as love. And that maybe by embracing them as characters, we can have some sort of impact on people who have yet to be able to open their hearts to all kinds of love. I know, kind of goopy, but it’s real.
Are you more of a Grace or a Frankie?
I’m more of a Frankie. It’s funny—there’s a line in the second episode where someone says that Frankie, she’s a strong woman under all that soft fabric. Many mornings, I look at myself in the soft fabric and go, “All right, you’re a strong woman now.” I’m more Frankie in that way, but there’s a lot of Grace in me in terms of my defenses. I need to be strong, I need to be perfect, I can’t make any mistakes kind of thing. So it’s a little bit of both, I guess.
The entire first season of Grace and Frankie is now streaming on Netflix.