'I didn't know Jane was in love with me,' says Robert Redford
Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, reunited as on-screen lovers in a romance film, talk to Lidija Haas about their lifetime of chemistry
Fifty years ago, a 29-year-old Jane Fonda and a 31-year-old Robert Redford starred in the film version of Neil Simon's kooky comedy Barefoot in the Park, in which they played two young, mismatched and utterly gorgeous newly-weds trying to make the best of their dilapidated shoebox apartment in Greenwich Village.
It wasn't the first or the last time these two stars would share a bed: a year before, in 1966 they played an unhappily married couple in Arthur Penn's prison-break movie The Chase, while in 1979 the pair had an on-screen romance as a TV reporter and a former rodeo champion on the run in Sydney Pollack's The Electric Horseman. And now they are at it again, at the ages of 79 and 81 respectively, in the Netflix film drama Our Souls at Night, playing a couple of widowed elderly neighbours whose quietly blossoming friendship leads, eventually, to sex.
But while these great sex symbols of old Hollywood have been pretend lovers, it's a surprise that they have never been the real thing. Fonda, certainly, has been upfront about her love for Redford. "I was always in love with Robert Redford - I made three films with him and nothing happened, because I was married and he was married," she has said.
When I mention this to Redford, however, he turns adorably coy. "I didn't know she was in love with me," he says. Perhaps that lack of awareness stemmed from a certain stand-offishness; while she adored Redford, he was a tricky customer to work with, Fonda says.
"Bob can be moody, and back in the 1960s and 1970s when we worked together, sometimes he wouldn't speak to me all day, except for what was in the script. And I would think, 'Oh my God, I've bothered him, he doesn't like me, I've done something wrong'."
However he, by turn, says that he and Fonda have always been "very close".
He has a producer credit on Our Souls and suggested Fonda for the part of Addie, who begins the film by boldly crossing the road to proposition Redford's lonely, taciturn Louis.
"There was just a chemistry we had as human beings that we could carry on to the screen that required no effort," Redford says. "And it's been that way through all of our films."
That rapport is a crucial element to Our Souls, a gentle movie that bucks expectations. Instead of depending on familiar plot devices, it takes its cues from the little twists and turns of the couple's late-night conversations.
For the first half, at least, there isn't even any sex - just Redford and Fonda getting into bed together over and over again, and talking in the dark.
"Such a bizarre concept," says Redford. "The fact that it's dark makes it a little easier 'cause you're not looking at a face. Then slowly what happens is you get deeper and deeper and deeper, 'cause you feel free. And I was very attracted to that. Because you know, if you turn the lights on and we're looking at each other there's going to be an intimidation where you're gonna pull back."
Fonda felt a little differently. "I used to whisper, 'Cut!'," the director Ritesh Batra tells me laughingly of shooting the film's somewhat truncated sex scene, "and Jane would say, 'Why did you cut so soon?' and then we'd let it go a little bit further the next time..."
Perhaps Fonda simply felt more confident. "Women, we know our bodies better," she laughs. "As you get older, you're not afraid of asking for what you want." She points out she also felt a new, easier dynamic between her and Redford on set. "This time - and this is what's fun about it, that you can compare your experience now with back then - it was like, 'Come on, Bob, lighten up!' Yeah, I could tease him. I didn't feel like it was my fault. And so I thought, 'Oh, you know, I'm growing up'."
Fonda has done a fair deal of that growing up off screen, having dropped out of the movie business for more than a decade: she'd given up on the idea, she says. Yet in 2005 she returned, and has since clocked up roles in the likes of Monster-in-Law, the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie and the forthcoming Book Club, with Diane Keaton, in which she plays "a woman who only has sex in the afternoon and she never will get married and, yeah, it's really fun!" It's a rare triumphant comeback: usually, she notes, "women don't come back".
When I ask if she is tired of dealing with the pressures of ageing in Hollywood, with the constant emphasis on her looks, she says she's not worrying about any of it any more. Dressing up for the red carpet isn't an ordeal, just another performance to relish, she says: only last week, she was the talk of the recent Emmy awards with her striking ensemble of a neon pink dress and sleek pony tail and fringe, topped off with a reported $2.4m worth of jewellery. "I'm playing the game and I'm enjoying it," she says.
Perhaps Fonda has simply got used to the scrutiny. Where Redford has always been accepted as a campaigning environmentalist, Fonda has persistently been criticised for being an outspoken activist. In the 1970s, she received an enormous backlash for visiting North Vietnam during the war - a conflict back in the headlines again thanks to Ken Burns's new 10-part documentary The Vietnam War (on RTE 1 on Mondays at 11.35pm) which includes an episode specifically about her intervention.
Fonda has said many times that she regrets the infamous photograph of her sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun that earned her the nickname Hanoi Jane because of the way it was misinterpreted. Today, she seems less apologetic, however. After all, Fonda's opposition to Vietnam was clearly influential: an aide at the Nixon White House has claimed that in the 1970s they were paying more attention to what Fonda said than to Brezhnev.
"Pretty weird, isn't it!" says Fonda. "It's because I was helping to expose things that he was doing in secret. He denied that he was trying to destroy the dikes [the dikes were part of a flood control system along Vietnam's Red River delta] and yet if you look at the secret White House tapes, he talks about, 'Let's go after the dikes'. And the fact is, I blew the whistle on it and two months after I got back, the bombing of the dikes stopped. So I feel it was justified. I'm still paying the price for it, but it's OK."
These days, she still considers herself an activist - but feels more leeway to be frivolous too. "Everything about me has gotten lighter since I've gotten older."
Surely, though, the differences in treatment of male and female stars must irritate her - the fact no one comments on whether Redford is "dressing his age", for instance. "You see it on the campaign trail, too; the media always talk about women differently. And I don't like it. But I'm not jealous of Bob. I would not want to be anybody but me. Thank God!"
Fonda says it took her "oh, about 65 years" to get to this point. "That's the good news: it's never too late. Even later in life you can become who you were supposed to be."