Jane Fonda could have coasted as a movie star. Instead, she campaigned for everything from feminism to peace in the Middle East. By Helen Barlow.

Irrepressible and outspoken, Jane Fonda keeps moving on

Jane Fonda (right) stars with Tina Fey in This Is Where I Leave You.

Jane Fonda has had such broad life experience she can personalise her interviews according to her interviewer.

“Oh, Australia,” says the 76-year-old, beaming as I enter the room, and she goes on to tell me what she loves about the place. “I love the people, I love the variety of environments. I’ve scuba-dived on the Great Barrier Reef, I’ve stayed at Hayman Island and I’ve toured Cairns and the Daintree Rainforest.” She cites a special fondness for the kookaburra, the first syllable of which she pronounces “kook” as in kooky. “They’re my favourite bird of all, these big fat birds. I just love ’em!”

She also loves Bruce Beresford, her director on 2011’s little-seen Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, where her hippie mama was in full flight. “Bruce reminds me of my dad,” she says, referring to her screen-legend father, Henry Fonda. “He is just a trooper. A real pro.”

As irrepressible as ever, Fonda also notes her considerably different feelings for Russell Crowe, her co-star in her upcoming movie Fathers and Daughters. “I didn’t know what to expect; I blogged about it,” she recalls. “He’s just a peach! He was smart, my God, I didn’t realise how smart he is. I mean, I’m sorry that I’m too old for him to have made a pass at me, I’ll have to confess!”

She goes on to explain that Crowe plays the “intense” role of a writer who has a mental illness. She is his agent. It’s just one of many roles Fonda, who is currently shooting her own Netflix series, Grace and Frankie, has in the works. Yes, she’s making a comeback.

“It’s pretty interesting given how old I am,” she says, lowering her deep voice for effect. “You know, I left the business for 15 years and came back at 65 and I’m going on 77 now. So it’s kind of unusual and wonderful, but I’m so lucky to get this chance.”

Fonda sits very relaxed wearing a black pantsuit and comfortable boots, with her legs stretched across a velvet stool. Today, in Toronto, she’s doing promotional duties for her current film, This Is Where I Leave You. Next she’ll head off to help one of her non-profits in Atlanta at the film’s premiere. With such a busy schedule, Fonda knows the benefits of keeping fit and healthy in body, mind and spirit. She also says maintaining a sense of humour about yourself is as important as anything.

It’s no surprise then that in This Is Where I Leave You she manages to upstage her comedian co-stars and pent-up onscreen offspring, Jason Bateman and Tina Fey. Her comments about her fake boobs in the film circulated the globe and they are the butt of many onscreen jokes.

“I loved it so much that after they painted them and put them on me I had to walk across a street out in Long Island and, as a car went by, I went like this…” At this point she opens her jacket as if to flash. “I was so proud.” Fonda chuckles heartily. “I almost caused an accident!”

Never one to mince words, the famously outspoken breast cancer survivor, activist and fitness guru, whose original 1982 Workout video remains the best-selling home video to date, knows people listen when she speaks. Her books have launched at the top of The New York Times Best Sellers list. Her second memoir, Prime Time (2012), focuses on what she calls her “third act”, so it’s no surprise that today she admits to having her own fake body parts.

“I have a fake knee, I have a fake hip, I have a fake thumb and half my back…” she trails off, as if she’s listed enough. “So when I go through airport security the alarms go off! I can’t ride horses anymore, I can’t ski anymore, I can’t run. But I can walk, I can swim, I can go on a treadmill. I do anything just to keep moving because it just makes all the difference, especially when you’re older.”

For five years Fonda has been partnered with music producer Richard Perry. “Richard’s a good person to have at this stage, he’s very sensual and a number of women have said to me it’s because he’s Jewish. But he’s also kind, and that’s new for me. I mean, it’s not easy to be in a relationship with someone who’s making a TV series. I get up before he’s awake and I come back and have one hour with him before I go to sleep again. It’s hard.”

She was aware that Perry had Parkinson’s disease when they met and now has him doing yoga and other health-promoting practices. “I knew it was a disease with no cure, but he seemed so strong.” This year the couple presented a united front when they spoke about his gradual decline. “It’s better that people know why he sometimes sways or staggers or stutters…” she wrote on her blog.

Childhood heartache

Although we might imagine being raised by wealthy parents was easy for Fonda, it wasn’t. “I grew up in a Protestant family; laughter wasn’t a big part of my life,” she now says.

When Fonda was 12, her socialite mother Frances Seymour Brokaw died, although for many years Jane did not know the cause was suicide. Her father sent her off to boarding school and she developed bulimia, which she overcame only decades later with the help of therapy.

“I had major confidence issues,” she says. “I needed help to grow and learn and gain confidence. I discovered that the lack of love from my parents had nothing to do with me. It was their issue. The needing to be with a man in order to feel validated – it took therapy to get over that.”

Early on, Fonda had the inkling she would live a different life, though her looks probably stood in the way. When she dropped out of university to study painting in Paris, the leggy beauty ended up finding work as a model and ultimately sizzled onto screens as a sex kitten in 1968’s Barbarella directed by Parisian Roger Vadim, her first ex-husband (as she likes to call them). Critical accolades followed with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and she received the first of her seven Oscar nominations. She won for best actress in Klute (1971) and Coming Home (1979), which she also produced.

The edge was taken off her success, however, when, maintaining a pro-communism stance, “Hanoi Jane” was snapped straddling a North Vietnamese missile launcher aimed at American soldiers in 1972. Fonda later conceded she didn’t realise what she was doing and admits the backlash hit her hard. Since then, she has taken on all manner of causes – protesting the Iraq war, promoting feminism and supporting peace negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“Four years ago I went into Ramallah and met with Palestinian women together with Israeli women,” she recalls. “I think the women should get together. If the women were more in charge there would be fewer wars. But you know, it’s more complicated than that. It’s a very depressing world right now.

“E. O. Wilson, a great biologist who teaches at Harvard, said that God granted the gift of intelligence to the wrong species. It should not have been given to Homo sapiens, it should have been given to maybe dolphins or whales, a species that doesn’t eat meat and has no thumb. We are screwing up and I sometimes think we don’t deserve to survive as a species and my sadness is that in disappearing from the Earth we will take nature with us. And nature doesn’t deserve what we are doing to it.”

Looking back she says she is “grateful” for the activism of her youth. “I learned so much. I think, ‘Oh my God, if I’d just stayed to be a movie star and hadn’t gone to the barricades and spent hours with soldiers and their wives and factory workers and gone to spend time in Detroit with union organisers…’ Agh, you can’t know the places where I’ve been and the people I’ve been with who had nothing to do with glamour or movies. I was down and dirty, that kind of an activist.”

Even if she was perceived as an icon of feminism, Fonda’s husbands helped determine the way she lived. Ex-husband number two, liberal senator Tom Hayden, was also an activist, but she gave up acting to suit her conservative ex-husband number three, media mogul Ted Turner.

“I think two of my marriages suffered because of my [acting] work,” Fonda explains. “I left Hollywood for 15 years, not just because I met Ted Turner – though it never would have worked with Ted as he can’t be alone – I was going to leave anyway. I was ready and I didn’t miss it. I moved back inside myself and I became ready to be able to act again.”

Although she now says Turner is the favourite of her ex-husbands, she does not go into the reason for their split. Her conversion to Christianity was part of it – Turner is an avowed atheist – though she was also yearning for a sense of freedom. Interestingly, she seems to have found it through her return to acting, especially on television.

Having been nominated for an Emmy for HBO’s The Newsroom, where she portrayed a hard-boiled network boss whom she describes as “Rupert Murdoch marinated in Ted Turner –there was just enough good guy in there, the Ted Turner bit”, Fonda is reteaming with her 9 to 5 co-star Lily Tomlin for Grace and Frankie. The half-hour comedy series, written and created by Marta Kauffman (Friends) and directed by Tate Taylor (The Help) follows the women after they find out their husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) want to run off with each other. Fonda is also producing.

“We’re giving a cultural face to older women: it’s funny, vibrant, poignant and sexy. It’s great having my own show. You know, the reason that not many older women have leads anymore in movies, especially studio movies, is because it’s so expensive to make movies now. Even if you make a movie for a small amount then to promote it costs a fortune. Movies like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are rare.”

The designer outfits have gone from movies, too. “For This Is Where I Leave they just bought them off the rack,” she notes drily. Still, her recent role as an 81-year-old Hollywood diva in Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s second English-language film, The Early Years, required something special.

“Paolo’s clothes are constructed the way they used to do in Hollywood,” she says with gratitude. “When I came up it was Edith Head, Orry-Kelly – clothes were constructed for the character. Not anymore.”

Even so, in This Is Where I Leave You her celebrated child psychologist and author, Hilary, is a classy dresser. She’s also a controlling Jewish mother who insists that, following her husband’s death, her four adult offspring should return home for a week of sitting shiva, their father’s final request.

Taking charge

It’s hard not to imagine Fonda taking charge in her own life in the manner she does on screen. Though she insists that she’s not like that with her own children: Vanessa Vadim (named after Vanessa Redgrave), who has given her two grandchildren; Troy Garity, her handsome actor son with Tom Hayden (Garity took his paternal grandmother’s name to separate himself from his famous family, though appeared together with mum and grandfather in On Golden Pond, which Jane helped produce to honour her father, Henry, who earned a best actor Oscar just prior to his death); and her adopted daughter, Mary Williams, the physically abused daughter of Black Panther members who herself wrote a tell-all book, The Lost Daughter, which details Fonda’s misery in her latter stages with Turner, among other things.

Fonda sees a lot of Garity, who also lives in Los Angeles. “Troy will say, ‘Let’s have lunch’, and then we’ll meet and he’ll say to me, ‘Mum, word has gotten back to me that last week you were a little inappropriate. I think maybe you shouldn’t…’ Ha ha! You know it’s so funny, as you get older your children become like your parent – if they love you – and it’s fun to experience that. I’ve become a good child to him and I listen and I say, ‘Thank you, son, I appreciate that and I’ll try to be better.’ ”

Coming from a hippie generation, is she determined not to behave herself? “I’m not determined to not behave myself. It just happens that I’ll, I dunno, it’s just that I’m inappropriate sometimes. What I am determined about is to still keep learning. I think the problem that older people can run up against is that they stop learning, they stop being curious. You know it’s more important to be interested than interesting.”

An avid blogger, Fonda embraces aspects of new technology and uses it to her advantage. Though when she came back to acting she found Hollywood had changed for the worse.

“It’s much harder now, especially for young women, with the emphasis on being thin and pretty. Then with the iPhones you have no privacy. If they had those things when I was coming up, I’d be dead!”

Despite the dramas of her past she refuses to have bodyguards. “Probably more than other celebrities I have threats against my life, but I will not have [a bodyguard] in my life. So I die!” she harrumphs. “I am not scared of dying. What you are looking at, what I’m looking at, we’re just an illusion. We’re made of molecules that come from the stars. When we die we go back to being molecules, so it doesn’t scare me at all.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 1, 2014 as "The fourth act". Subscribe here.

Helen Barlow
is a Paris-based film writer.