Jane Fonda - 'I'm 80! I keep pinching myself. I can't believe it'
Jane Fonda is as outspoken, mischievous and political as ever. She talks to Sophie Heawood about racism, cosmetic surgery and the joys of working again with Robert Redford
Jane Fonda has ruined me. I never want to interview anyone under the age of 80 again. Specifically, I never want to interview anyone who isn't 80, and who doesn't phone me for a catch-up call from a limo in Cannes, in which they are being driven to the airport, having gone to a deeply glamorous film festival party the night before and now finding themselves, as Fonda puts it delicately, "slightly hungover". Fonda isn't even hugely interested in Cannes these days, not like back in the day "when people wore their own clothes and went there to talk about movies".
No, she's hungover in the limo, but wants to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement; about what she has recently learned of the mass incarceration of African-Americans in her country and how it isn't enough for white women like her to be empathetic. They have to stand up and make this stop, because America is a country built on slavery and it isn't over yet.
It's a continuation of the conversation that began a few days previously, when I met her backstage at the Ellen DeGeneres chat show in Los Angeles. Fonda was preparing to promote her new film, Book Club, in which she plays one of four women who have reached a certain age, read Fifty Shades of Grey in their book club, and decided to do something about their passions. The link between spicing up your sex life and committing to ending gross inequality might not be an obvious one, but she explains that Book Club is about female solidarity and women having each other's backs, and so is much of her "feminist activism". Even though, when she first got interested in politics, she had just starred in the 1968 erotic sci-fi film Barbarella "and I took a lot of heat on it from feminists. The new women's movement was in its early stages and there was a lot of…" she adopts a comically stern voice: "'How do you feel making a movie that exploits women, like Barbarella?' You'd kind of want to say: 'Well, honey, nobody forced me'. But," she concedes, "it wasn't much fun to make it."
Fonda's small, white, fluffy dog Tulear is perched beside her. She actually wanted to name the dog Barbarella, but her daughter Vanessa, whose father, Roger Vadim, directed the film, wasn't keen.
If Book Club is a sort of geriatric Sex and the City, then Fonda plays the Samantha character, a leopardskin-clad businesswoman who schedules sex and won't commit. "Vivian is sassy, she doesn't want any emotional entanglements, and that was kind of fun." Fonda explains that back in the early 20th Century, "before there were the Nielsen ratings or whatever, the censor, there were actresses such as Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck and Mae West playing dangerous women - the parts they played were like guys. Then puritanism crept in. But I think there are going to be more women-centric movies, like Book Club, now. A lot of these movies are doing well, and I don't think this is a phase - I think this is it."
Jane Fonda was born in 1937, the daughter of the actor Henry Fonda, and while her life was socially privileged, her home life was agony, and her mother, Frances Ford Seymour, killed herself in a psychiatric hospital. (Fonda was 12 and only found out that her mother's death was suicide from a movie magazine - nobody ever spoke to her about it.) Jane herself was also sexually abused and in her memoirs she writes movingly about the concept of disembodiment - how it took her until the age of 62 to fully inhabit her own body.
Her marriage to Ted Turner had just ended, "and I was single again and I realised… I'm not scared", she says of it now. "I was alone in the house, looking out through my own eyes and I could live inside my own skin. It was a revelation. It was something else."
How painful is it that it took so long to get herself back?
"I feel very sad that so many girls are abused all over the world and that men don't understand what it does to them. It's not something that happens lightly, it can alter a person. And then you have to be very intentional about getting back into your own skin, but it can be done. It wasn't so much that I felt sad about all the wasted time, because I wasn't fully authentic, but on the other hand, why not instead just be proud of yourself that you got there and you didn't stop trying?"
She also links plastic surgery to sexual abuse and has said that when she sees the face "of a woman who has made herself into a mask, I always think to myself… I wonder, I wonder". She had her own breast implants taken out and has also had several facelifts of which she says she is not proud.
As for #MeToo, is it also painful to not have had such a movement 50 years ago? Fonda once again takes my negative and turns it into a positive.
"I am very grateful to be alive through this," she says softly. "I did not think I would live to see it. Yes. And I think that it's going to continue, it's not just a moment. I love the Time's Up aspect of it. We're working with women from all different places. I'm going to DC to lobby with domestic workers. The farm workers up in Bakersfield. It's all of us together, having each other's backs."
This is why she made the film 9 to 5 in 1980, which became one of Hollywood's highest grossing comedies, despite its subject matter of the awful way men treated women in the workplace. Fonda wants to produce a new version of the film, with younger actors, who now find their work life even more precarious on zero-hours contracts. We discuss the state of the labour unions in the United States. "So all this is not so new for me. But it is for a lot of other actors, and that's why it's a very valuable thing to hear what other women in other industries have to put up with, women who are much more vulnerable than we are."
I have to say it: Jane Fonda looks stunning, immaculately coiffed and made up, and with the poise and elegance that has always been hers. It's thanks to a lifetime of fitness regimes for which everyone remembers her videos, and also to the facelifts. But they, she says, were more about survival in her industry than about vanity. "They bought me an extra 10 years." Like it or not, it does seem to be true. How many other 80-year-old women currently have a hit comedy series on Netflix (Grace and Frankie), as well as movies coming out, a documentary on their life about to hit HBO, and no signs of stopping any time soon?
Of course this is all down to much more than surgery: it is the third act of a career that began more than half a century ago and has involved two Oscars for Best Actress (and a further five nominations) along the way. Curiously, it is the fitness videos that people in the UK remember her for the most. In the States, there are still people who boycott Jane Fonda's films because of how deeply involved she got in protesting against the Vietnam war. Not that any of that stopped her.
"Oh, I just feel damn lucky," she says of her current renaissance. "I retired for 15 years. I left at 50 and came back at 65. I was married to Ted Turner and Ted didn't really help me with confidence and things like that. [They are great friends now, however, and he recently attended her 80th birthday party.] So after that I wanted to see if I could enjoy it again. But, at 65, I never thought I'd have a career. And a hit TV show! I'm 80! I keep pinching myself! I can't believe it! I didn't think I would live this long!"
In Grace and Frankie, which is now approaching its fifth season, she and Lily Tomlin's character become accidental, grumpy housemates after their husbands fall in love with each other. When I tell people I'm going to interview Jane Fonda, a surprisingly wide range of people tell me how much they love that show. "I know," she says, her voice dropping to an absolute whisper. "We're stunned. We did not expect that. We're trying to figure it out!" she hisses.
She loves working with her old friend Tomlin "because she's a working-class gal who grew up in a fascinating family. People visit the set who were with her in elementary school. She is just so funny - and I've tried to learn that from her. But it just comes naturally to her". Surely you're funny, too, I say. "Oh no," replies Fonda, "I don't have a natural funny bone. I come from a long line of depressed people." She laughs.
Having been married several times and lived with various partners, and recently split up with her last boyfriend, the music producer Richard Perry (she describes him as "a younger man" - she also wrote a blog about him having Parkinson's), Fonda now lives in a gated retirement enclave with her own house, but a shared community centre with a pool and tennis courts "where I always see one or two other residents who seem infinitely older than I am, but they probably aren't. I never thought I would ever live there, but it's great."
She does yoga and Pilates and has even made a whole new series of workout videos, "and their label is Prime Time, as they're for older people. I can't do the original workouts any more, because I'll hurt myself," she gestures to her hips, "as I have joint replacements". In fact, she says her main form of exercise these days involves jumping into things "before I really know what I'm doing. It's called a leap of faith and it's my main form of exercise. It's what keeps me young, too. That's my new workout. When you take a leap of faith you don't always land in the right place, but you sure do learn things. It's good for the heart".
Which is why she recently made a speech at the United State of Women Summit, and asked to bring Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, with her. "What I said was, when Trump was elected and white supremacy was exposed, I realised that, as a white woman, the lens through which I was looking at race was too narrow. I think a lot of Trump's election had to do with white supremacy and anger at a black president. I was stunned at how close to the surface racism in the United States is, and I needed to understand it better, so my intention right now is to try to understand more profoundly what it means to be black in the United States. And so I started studying. And I started reading books and I read Patrisse Cullors' book, and I read Ta-Nehisi Coates. I read The New Jim Crow [by Michelle Alexander]. So I talked about what I've learned, specifically about mass incarceration. I'm a white woman and this is something that we white women have to know: you can't just be empathic, you have to be very intentional. We have to confront racism. We have to stop this. Not buy into the lies that we're told about how the prison system stops crime. No, it creates crime."
At the weekends, she leaves Los Angeles to go knocking on the door of Trump voters. "When you're talking to them you can't criticise Trump. You can't criticise Fox News. All you can do is listen to what they care about and what they're afraid of, and then maybe tell them something that they don't know. Because we're all in our bubbles, including me." Do people recognise her? "I was in Bakersfield last Saturday and knocked on 30 doors. Only one person saw me coming and said: Grace and Frankie! It was a kick! Nobody else knew who I was. I just say: 'I'm Jane.' They don't need to know."
She has also been acting with Robert Redford again. I tell her that I recently watched Barefoot in the Park, the 1967 film where she and Redford are giddy newlyweds in New York, and then went to Netflix and watched Our Souls at Night, in which she and Redford reunited in 2017 to play widowed grandparents who get together to end their loneliness.
I tell her it was a really beautiful night of cinema, to see these two actors come back together with their war wounds, their egos bruised, their hearts more honest in later life. To my surprise, Fonda's eyes start to water. "Ohh," she says softly. "It moves me that you say that."
She has said that she was always in love with him when they worked together, but they were always married to other people. He said recently that he had no idea she loved him. Do they keep in touch? Send texts? "Oh no. He doesn't text, number one; two, he's a loner. So that's that."
She says she won't ever fall in love again. "I love men, I'm not done with men, but I'm done with marriage and dating."
Fonda is unimpressed by the romance in many modern films. "I'm not a big mouth opener on camera. Every time I see a love scene with young ones - they come at each other like this…" she mimes a big wide-open slobbering jaw, "…and I'm thinking, well where does the fun come in? Because the fun is the sensuality of lips. And then slowly moving beyond that. But not trying to swallow each other." She giggles. "I would not want to go right into a tongue kiss, quite frankly."
And then Woody Harrelson walks past the dressing room. Fonda sends somebody to get him back. "I want to hug you!" she says, standing up to greet him. "I saw Three Billboards again last night because I had a house guest who hadn't seen it. You're so good Woody, God!" she says. "You're so good, Jane!" says a glowing, goofy Harrelson. It's like watching a peacock hug a panda.
And then they both have to go off and be on the telly, and I am left with the sense of having just been visited by grace and greatness.
'Book Club' is in cinemas nationwide
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