There is a decent chance that we will get into a Megyn Kelly-type dust-up, where I wade into some topic she doesn’t want to discuss. But I am ready to take the risk.
I want Fonda, a glam Forrest Gump who has popped up on the front lines of culture, fitness, politics and Hollywood for more than half a century, to give me the lowdown on everything:
From Black Panthers to the Green New Deal, from a legendary sex life to no sex life, from plastic surgery to plastic prison handcuffs, from Barbarella to Quentin Tarantino, from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, from Marilyn Monroe to TikTok, from bad vibes over “Hanoi Jane” to good vibrators.
And here she is on Zoom, looking fetching with her new grey pixie cut, speaking from her chic townhouse in Los Angeles.
“I went grey at just the right moment,” she says. “I didn’t know Covid was coming along. I got tired of the chemicals and the time and the money to keep myself this particular colour of blonde, you know — enough already! And so I talked to the producers of Grace and Frankie” — her Netflix series — “and I said, ‘I want to go grey, but that would mean that Grace is going to have to go grey,’ and they were all for it.”
At 82, she still has the same intensity that made her a two-time Oscar winner, an anti-war activist and an intergalactic sexpot. And a repeater.
“Do you know what a repeater is,” she says, her Pacific blue eyes trained on me. “Repeaters are the antennae that you see on top of mountains.”
She continues: “They don’t originate the signals, but the bottom-of-the-valley signals get picked up and then the repeaters take them from the valley and spread them to a much wider audience. That’s what celebrities are.”
Fonda considered herself an environmentalist before this year, “but I hadn’t really put my body on the line for it,” she says. She has “fished the high seas with every important man in my life, starting with my father”.
She knew about sea turtles strangling and polar bears starving. She used windmills and solar, bought an electric BMW, recycled, cut back on red meat and plastic. (But she still sneaks in the occasional order of spareribs.) She co-produced and starred in The China Syndrome in 1979, about the dangers of nuclear power.
But then, last Labour Day weekend, driving up to Big Sur to hike with her pals Rosanna Arquette and Catherine Keener, she began keening about doing more.
“I was quivering all over,” she writes in her new book, What Can I Do?
Inspired by Greta Thunberg and by Naomi Klein’s book about the Green New Deal, she decided to dig out her sleeping bag, move to Washington for a year and camp out in front of the White House to protest climate change. (Her father, Henry Fonda, directed 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath about the Depression-era drought and the Dust Bowl.)
“Where will I poop and pee?” she wondered. “I’m way older now and have to get up during the night more often.”
She didn’t want to be dismissed as “an ageing star bopping in from Hollywood”. But then, as she says, she “got off my duff”, bought a chic red coat from Neiman’s and moved to Washington.
She felt she understood Trump because she recognised what she thought could be a similar dynamic in the upbringing of her third husband, Ted Turner.
“I thought, he’s been traumatised as a child, kind of like Ted as a child, so there are certain things that I understand about this kind of man,” she says. “So I thought, OK, I will find four of the most beautiful, sexy, smart, climate-interested women I can, and we’ll go in, and we’ll kneel and we’ll plead and beg.”
She called Pamela Anderson, “and she was up for it,” she says. Fonda was still thinking about who else — “maybe Sharon Stone.”
“We’ll tell him what needs to be done and what a serious crisis this is and we’ll tell him that he will be the world’s greatest hero, that kind of thing,” she says. “I actually called Jared, or whatever his name is, and I told him my idea and he said, ‘Well, Ivanka is the environmentalist in the family’. Yeah, sure. So she called me and I told her my idea and she laughed and I never heard from her again.”
Fonda got backup from Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, who said that camping out was a bad idea — “‘There are going to be rats,’” Leonard told her — but that there were other ways to practice civil disobedience.
Fonda had a famous mug shot from a 1970 arrest on charges trumped up by the Nixon White House. The president was angry about the actress’ protests against the Vietnam War and growled on tape, “What in the world is the matter with Jane Fonda?” And: “She looks pretty but, boy, she’s often on the wrong track.”
As Troy Garity, her son with Tom Hayden, joked at Fonda’s American Film Institute tribute in 2014: “My mother never hired a nanny to watch after me. That’s what the FBI was for.”
For four months, she played her role as a repeater, becoming the star of Fire Drill Fridays, a climate protest in front of the Capitol. She got arrested five times, and checked to see whether the black plastic handcuffs used by the police were recyclable.
The need for civil disobedience
Back in Los Angeles, Fonda moved the action online, where she has been surprised by the reaction. “We keep growing,” she says of the number of viewers of the Fire Drill Fridays video series with Greenpeace. “It was 100,000, it was 300,000, 400,000, now 600,000.”
She has guests, including Mary Trump, who offered insights into the president’s climate denialism. And she has the new book, offering lots of helpful tips to the ecologically challenged. “Eat less fish!”
Her time in the slammer caught the attention of Trump, who told a rally in Louisiana: “They arrested Jane Fonda; nothing changes.”
“She’s always got the handcuffs on, oh, man,” he said. “She’s waving to everybody with the handcuffs. I can’t believe it.” He added: “Every 25 years they arrest her.”
She laughs when I brought it up.
“I am of the belief that evil deeds, which Trump is committing, is the language of the traumatised,” she says. “And you can hate the deeds. Don’t hate the person because he wins if we hate him. Don’t even give him that much energy.
“So, actually, I have empathy for him. I look at this person and I see a frightened child who is very, very dangerous because he’s got his hands on all the buttons.”
How does Trump compare to Nixon?
“Oh, it’s far more dangerous,” she says. “I can’t even believe I’m saying this. In the Seventies, I didn’t even think about the positive things about Nixon. But there was the Clean Air Act, and he did great things for the tribal nations. I mean, he actually did some pretty good stuff and he was kind of smart and he knew foreign policy. So it wasn’t so dangerous as somebody who has absolutely no limits to what he is prepared to do to take the country down.”
While she declared herself “an Elizabeth Warren girl”, she’s happy with Kamala Harris and had a virtual fundraiser with Lily Tomlin for Joe Biden.
“My attitude is, Look, I’d rather push a moderate than fight a fascist,” she says. “You can push him,” she adds, referring to Biden. “He’s already moved very far on climate.”
She continues: “We have to cut fossil-fuel emissions in half by 2030 and that’s going to be hard for him and we have to make them do it but we can. This is where civil disobedience comes in. And I will be one of the people in the streets as soon as Grace and Frankie is over.”
When she was living with her father and hanging out with the Black Panthers, Henry Fonda told her: “If I ever find out you’re a communist, I’ll be the first to turn you in.” In the early Eighties, she unofficially adopted Mary Williams, the daughter of two Black Panthers who could no longer take care of her.
She notes that there was “a feeling of love” about Black Lives Matter protests “that was missing with the Panthers back in the Seventies. I think one reason is because women are in the leadership”. She says that around the time of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, “one day I got in the mail some fliers about self-care from Black Lives Matter. And it was like, this is a movement that’s talking to activists about self-care? That’s new”.
In this moment when we’re having a cultural reexamination of some classic works of art, I was curious to hear what she made about the conversation around Gone With the Wind, the movie so cherished by her ex, Turner.
“Ted bought MGM so he could own Gone With the Wind,” Fonda says. “I mean, Gone With the Wind, he lives by that. ‘The land is the only thing that matters, Scarlett. The land is the only thing that lasts!’ That’s why he owns two million acres, because of Scarlett O’Hara.
“He recited lines from Gone With the Wind a lot. He was obsessed with Scarlett O’Hara. You know the painting from the movie, the great big painting with Scarlett? He owned it.”
Was it the actual one or a replica?
“Well, Rhett threw a drink at one and shattered it,” she says. “So it was the one that wasn’t shattered. It was preshattered.”
She says the movie should not be cancelled, but “the context has to be given”.
Also up for debate is the reputation of John Wayne, a good friend of her father’s, because of a horrifying history of remarks on race.
“I personally don’t think we should cancel John Wayne,” she says. “But way more important is, what are we going to do about the banking system, the redlining, the mortgages, the policing, all of those things that make it impossible for black people to lift themselves up?”
In her book, she is surprised when she meets a young woman from Hanoi who has never heard of her incarnation as “Hanoi Jane”.
“Oh, I’ve been there a few times,” she told the young woman dryly.
No matter how many times she has apologised for an ill-advised photo op on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, explaining that being anti-war did not mean she was against American soldiers, she knows that some on the right will never let her live it down.
“I think, just as there are some people who actually believe that Trump is doing a good job and has fulfilled all his promises, there are people who think that I was against the troops and that what I did was treasonous, and that probably will not change,” she says. “I never did let it stop me. I apologise. I try to explain the context. And then I move on.”
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She’s on TikTok. Yes.
I wonder what she thinks about #MeToo and Hollywood. What was her experience?
“I was raped once by an actor,” she says, “and I had one director, who is a French director, who said, ‘Your character has to have an orgasm, so I have to see what your orgasms are like.’ And I just pretended I couldn’t understand him. He was talking in French.”
Would Barbarella, directed by her first husband, Roger Vadim, even be made now?
“Oh, Barbarella could be made, but I would be one of the producers, and it would be a feminist movie,” she says. “It was almost a feminist movie. She flew the spacecraft herself, right? She was the one that the president assigned to go to the planet to save the scientist. She was already pretty good, OK?”
If she return to that planet with its molten lake made out of hatred and fear, she says she could come back as the matriarch bringing an army of women to rescue her child, who hatched from an egg she laid after an encounter with a blind angel.
Even though Fonda has a fascinating past, and even though she has done a lot of excavating of her past, she emphatically does not live in the past.
The woman who revolutionised the market for home videos with her fitness tape and leg warmers in the Eighties is lately playing around on TikTok, doing one video that is a homage to her iconic workout for people stuck at home in fattening quarantine.
She has done ads for Uncle Bud’s CBD. “My doctor told me to give up all sleeping pills and to just use CBD,” she says.
She will politely ask a new acquaintance which pronouns she should use. “I’ve been working with really young people,” she says. “When you meet them, they give the pronouns that they go by. I’m going on 83. Do I really have to say what pronouns I go by, you know?”
Although a battalion of grey-haired women showed up to the Fire Drill Fridays, saying they had been “summoned by Jane”, as if they knew her, the actress has friends of all ages.
Unlike most, she is not down on millennials. “I think they are absolutely great and they are making a huge difference, and I feel absolutely hopeful,” she says.
She drolly notes that “one of the good things about being an activist is that you come in contact with woke men”.
Does Fonda, who used to hang around with Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty, think that Netflix has eclipsed the glamour of old Hollywood?
She tells me to snap out of it.
“Oh, I don’t share that feeling about that time,” she says briskly. “I don’t watch old movies, almost never. I was always outside. I didn’t care about movies.” She continues: “I don’t romanticise that time at all, and I find that the actors today are just brilliant.”
In particular, she says, she’s really digging Saoirse Ronan; Michaela Coel and her show on HBO, I May Destroy You; Issa Rae and her HBO show, Insecure; and Ramy Youssef’s show on Hulu called Ramy. She says she loves the Charlize Theron’s Netflix superhero movie, The Old Guard.
She grew up around John Ford, a friend of her father’s, and started her career with Joshua Logan, but the two directors she fantasises about working with now are Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson.
“What I want is for Wes Anderson to come along and cast me in something that I never, ever would have thought of for myself,” she says.
And what would she envision doing for Tarantino?
“Whatever he wanted,” she says.
The coat to end all coats
In her Netflix series, Fonda’s character, Grace, is an uptight Wasp who falls into an odd-couple relationship with the free-spirited Frankie, played by her real-life friend Lily Tomlin, after their husbands declare they are in love with each other.
Tomlin says that Fonda’s mantra, from the time she was a child, had been: “I can make it better.”
“She’s so clearly outspoken and it’s always well-intentioned,” Tomlin says, “but she’ll still say out loud on the set, ‘You need a haircut,’ and then she’ll go around until she finds someone to cut the person’s hair. And then the person will come back and say, ‘Actually, it does look better.’”
Fonda, whose mother died by suicide while in a psychiatric centre, says, “I didn’t have much parenting, so it’s really been my women friends that have taught me how to be.”
Like Fonda, Grace allows herself to be moulded by the men in her life, until she suddenly declares to one boyfriend that she doesn’t really like golf or hoagies and she’s not going to pretend anymore. Frankie teases Grace about her sparse eating habits, saying she could fit in a glove compartment, and about her plastic surgery.
I ask Fonda why she says she is renouncing plastic surgery. “I’m almost 83 years old,” she says. “I mean, enough already.”
She talks poignantly in the Susan Lacy documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts about her bulimia, saying she started purging at boarding school. She would sometimes try to survive, feeling famished, on a soft-boiled egg and a bit of spinach for the whole day.
She writes in her memoir that her father’s criticisms of her weight when she was a teenager messed her up. I ask her why her father would complain, when she was already so thin. “He had issues,” she says, summing up a world of pain and psychoanalysis in three words.
Yet even when she pulled away from bulimia, she kept a lithe figure.
“There was a time when I was anorexic, but I never got below 112,” she says. “I don’t let it get too far out of hand. I’m not at my fighting weight right now. I’m 127. My fighting weight is about 119. So, you know, when we get three weeks out from shooting Grace and Frankie, I’ll lose 10 pounds.”
She says she ate healthy and worked out with a trainer, wearing masks and gloves. “And I have fillers,” she says. “And I’m an activist, so I feel good, and I think that’s the most important part of it. If I felt grumpy and depressed, I wouldn’t look so good.
“And the other thing is, I have good posture. And, believe it or not, that is critical. I’ve worked hard to have a very strong back.”
In keeping with her focus on the environment, she has sworn off shopping and says that her renowned red coat from Fire Drill Fridays would be the last thing she ever bought.
“Really,” she replies. “Never again. I have two closets full of clothes. I have clothes that I wore 30 years ago. I can still wear them. That’s one thing about not putting on too much weight. And when I can’t wear anything anymore, I just sell it now.”
She says she sold 40 of her 50 pairs of bluejeans two weeks ago.
“Well, let me just explain,” she says. “When I met Ted, he had six properties. When I left, he had 23. And we kept clothes at each place. And so I would have to buy in bulk. I remember very often at Saks Fifth Avenue, the sales girl would say, ‘Are these gifts?’ And I’d say, ‘No, they’re all for me’.”
Although she dates up a storm in Grace and Frankie, and gets involved in selling yam lube cooked up by Tomlin’s character, as well as vibrators for older women, with large-print instructions and a grip that won’t aggravate arthritis, Fonda says two years ago that she had “closed up shop down there”.
After a lifetime of being a chameleon, changing to please her father and three very different husbands, Fonda breezily says now, “I have no interest.”
“I don’t have time,” she says. “I am fully complete with me and my children and my grandchildren and my friends. I don’t want any more romance. I don’t have time for it.”
She recalls that when she was with Turner, in order to find time to write, she would have to abscond with her laptop in the middle of their fishing trips.
“You know, just about every day,” she says, “I’ll be in the middle of something and think, I would never have had time to do this or read this if I was trying to keep a relationship good.”
But she must get hit on. I tell her that my researcher, Shawn McCreesh, had just watched Barbarella for the first time. Also, he saw her in the elevator at The New York Times when she visited our office during Fire Drill Fridays and thought she was a stone-cold fox.
“Is that good or bad?” she wonders.
She says no one propositions her anymore. “Zero,” she says. “No, and I’m not lonely. I’ve never been lonely. I’ve never been bored or lonely in my life.”
So if she has a free Saturday night, what would she do?
“Read,” she says. “And between the fact that I’m alone plus the Covid, I’m discovering so much TV.”
After the Grace and Frankie plotline about her company selling sex toys was introduced, and after she talked on Ellen about one vibrator, which hangs from a silver necklace and looks like jewellery, fans began sending her vibrators.
“I have a drawer full of vibrators,” she says. “It’s amazing.”
I ask if she would be scared to use one that came in the mail from a fan.
“I don’t know,” she says, grinning. “Maybe I’d ask someone else to try it first.”
© The New York Times
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