Julia Garner sat in a 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer alongside screen legend Lily Tomlin for much of the 19-day shoot of the new indie film "Grandma." The script had Garner seated in the passenger seat. Good thing -- the Bronx native doesn't drive.
But Garner, 21, who made her debut in the 2011 indie hit "Martha Marcy May Marlene," is kicking into high gear. In "Grandma," an unlikely buddy picture written and directed by Paul Weitz ("About a Boy"), Garner plays Sage, a pregnant teen looking for an abortion. She turns to her not-so-typical granny, Elle (Tomlin), an irascible and cash-strapped poet -- the two hit the road in search of funds, uncovering secrets along the way. It opens on Long Island on Sept. 11.
Earlier this year, Garner earned praise (and social-media buzz) for her recurring role on FX's "The Americans" as a CIA agent's teen daughter seduced by a Soviet spy. Next up -- and the reason she dyed her platinum ringlets bright red -- she plays the title role in "Tomato Red," an adaptation of the Ozarks drama by "Winter's Bone" novelist Daniel Woodrell. She recently chatted with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
This is a meaty role. Did you audition for it?
Originally I auditioned for "Mozart in the Jungle" [the Amazon TV series directed by Weitz]. The character was supposed to be like . . . 28, and I turned to my agent and said, "Why are you making me audition for this when I'm too young?" And they're, like, "No, no, no, I think he has another project. We want him to see you." So I was like, OK, fine. Nothing came of "Mozart," but then he called about "Grandma." We just clicked from the moment we met.
You have a lot of scenes in that cool old Dodge . . .
That's Lily's actual car, by the way.
Really? Was it always on the back of a flatbed truck, the way car scenes are often shot . . . or did you two ever drive around?
Sometimes it was on that truck. For close-ups, you need that. But a lot of times we drove . . . just Lily and me . . . the camera . . . and maybe Paul sitting in back . . . but you wouldn't see Paul. Yeah . . . Lily and I spent a lot of time in that car.
I suppose on some level it could feel claustrophobic but . . .
Oh, I'm from New York. [She laughs.] There's no such thing as claustrophobia.
Were you intimidated working with Lily Tomlin?
When I first got the part, I was, like oh, wow -- I mean, she's a legend. Flying to L.A., I started to get nervous. But it was a good nervous. If an actor doesn't feel those butterflies, then it's not a good sign. It means they're not excited about the job. . . . But I was thinking, "What if she doesn't like me? You know, she's Lily Tomlin. We have to have amazing chemistry for this movie." But then I met her and she put me at ease.
The film deals with some major issues for women -- abortion, obviously, and . . .
Yeah, and mother-daughter relationships. Interesting that it was written by a man.
Yeah. It's funny, I didn't think about that when I read the script. Only when I saw the movie. When you read a script, you notice other things.
Like the characters, dialogue, the relationships. That sorta thing.
You started acting professionally at 16. How'd you balance acting and schoolwork?
I went to a regular high school. But it got to be too much. Like, the teachers didn't understand that I had to miss school all the time. I'd have to wake up early, take the train downtown to school, then right after school I'd have auditions and meetings, and . . . then I'd have to come right home and do homework. It was crazy. I just wanted to be out. So for my last year, I was, like, I'm just gonna do home-schooling. And it worked out for the best.
Seems that way. Your recurring role on "The Americans" got people talking. Are you coming back next season?
I hope so. They didn't end my story.
Would you be any good at being a spy?
Ummm . . . no. I'd be the worst spy ever. [She laughs.] The worst. Or maybe I'd be the best because no one would think I could do it.
Why? Can't keep a secret?
No, I can keep a secret. If you tell me something, I won't tell anybody. I can't lie. I'm the worst liar on the planet. And I'm not quick with computers and finding out information.
OK, so you won't be a high-tech spy.
No, but I feel, like, if you're gonna be a spy, you should have some high-tech qualities. [She laughs.] I think that's why I'm an actress -- I just recite other people's words.