Jane Fonda

James Mottram / 19 January 2016 ( 09 December 2019 )

Jane Fonda, the actress, campaigner and fitness guru, on life, love and wisdom.

Consider the many lives of Jane Fonda: The Oscar-winning actress, a scion of Hollywood royalty. The political activist that protested Vietnam. The aerobics and lifestyle guru, who popularised home workouts. And even the skincare ambassador, for cosmetics giant L'Oréal.

In an industry that prides youth over experience, Fonda is the exception, looking every bit as luminous as her far-younger campaign co-stars.  As Shakespeare so aptly wrote, age cannot wither her.

Right now, she's in a new phase of a remarkable career. On the big screen, she's the sympathetic book editor to Russell Crowe's troubled author in the recent melodrama Fathers and Daughters. On television, she's been a media mogul in Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom and a divorcée whose husband leaves her for another man in Grace and Frankie.

Has all this re-energised her? "There's no ‘re’," she says, perched on a white sofa, pursing her lips. "I’ve always been energised, for one thing or another. I have a lot of energy. I’m lucky.”

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As vibrant as she is elegant, she excitedly tells me that in her native America, the prestigious style magazine W has just made her its oldest cover star.

"They’ve never had anybody anywhere close to my age," she enthuses. "For older women, it’s good.”

Despite wowing the world when she attended the recent Grammy awards in a figure-hugging emerald green Balmain jumpsuit, she laughs at the very idea that she's become a fashion icon. "Thirty years ago, I wasn’t. I didn’t care anything about fashion."

Dressed in a chic white trouser-suit, peep-toe beige heels and a shimmering gold scarf, Fonda looks resplendent today. The blue eyes are bright, the blonde hair healthy and sculpted. And the skin? There are wrinkles, of course, but you wouldn't believe she was three years away from 80 - older than her father, actor Henry Fonda, when he died.

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"What’s important – and you need some maturity to learn this – is figuring out what you need to do for yourself every day to decompress," she says. "I meditate. I also sleep eight hours."

She discovered meditation a few years ago, when she was 70 and went to a Buddhist monastery, where monks were celebrating the annual enlightenment of Buddha - Rōhatsu.

"You don’t speak. You don’t look at anyone in the eye. You meditate all day. Everything is formal; the way you eat with chopsticks. You never speak. You never look at anyone for eight days. I learned to meditate. It’s called 'trial by fire'. No-one thought I would last. It’s very painful. It’s hard. But I’m my father’s daughter. I would rather be quiet than to talk all the time, so that part wasn’t difficult.”

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Fonda has, of course, passed on such wisdom - "how to age successfully", as she puts it - in her 2012 tome Prime Time, a book dedicated to inspiring people as they approach the third act of their lives.

"What I learned was, besides not smoking, the most important thing is to stay physically active," she explains, "just as much for my body as for my mind.”

While her artificial hip and titanium knee means she can no longer "do what I used to do", Fonda has swapped her high-impact workouts for gentler forms of exercise: yoga and pilates.

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As good as she looks, she's had a little assistance - cosmetic enhancements, including a facelift five years ago and surgery to remove the bags under her eyes. But credit her for being brave enough to admit it, again in an industry that trades on the illusion of ever-lasting perfection.

"I didn't do too much," she says. "The danger is, you do plastic surgery and then you say, ‘Oh, this is good. Let me do a little more!’ U-uh.”

It seems apt that we're together to talk about her new film, Youth. Directed by the acclaimed Paolo Sorrentino, it's a stirring meditation on life, love and loss starring Michael Caine as a retired composer living out his days in a Swiss spa resort. Alongside him is a fading film director, played by Harvey Keitel, who is trying to get a script made. Fonda plays his star-of-choice, Brenda Morel, who arrives at the spa to tell him, in no uncertain terms, what she thinks of his project.

While Fonda spits out her lines with venom, she immediately distances herself from Brenda.

"I’m not a diva," she remarks, almost offended at the suggestion she might be. "I’m an actress and I’m playing a diva. I would never say the things that she says!" It's a memorable part in a film that muses on issues of ageing. “It’s all relative," says Fonda. "That’s one of the messages of the film. If you have passion, if you have curiosity about life, then whatever your age doesn’t matter as much."

She points to another scene – one that’s typical of Sorrentino’s exotic flourishes – in which the camera hones in on one of the spa residents, an obese, tattoo-clad footballer who looks suspiciously like Diego Maradona. Wheezing, he “seems like he’s going to die”, says Fonda, as he is shown keeping his ball in the air. “But he keeps going, because he has passion,” she says. “He’s the metaphor for me, the theme of the film.”

Fonda certainly captivated Sorrentino, whose last film - the Oscar-winning Italian drama The Great Beauty - could so easily have been titled after her. "She's very bright," he says. "She has that prompt intelligence that leads you not to waste your time with useless things. She's very much self-ironic and she's possibly the sexiest woman I've ever met."

Fonda is equally complimentary: "I've made so many movies with some great directors," she says, "and I consider Paolo a great director."

By example, Fonda recalls her confrontation scene with Keitel. “I imagined it would be a small room – an intimate conversation between two friends. No – he shoots it in this empty ballroom; rococo. And then he puts the camera way down at the other end of the room. And then between the camera and us is a ping-pong table! That’s Paolo Sorrentino! He had us do the whole scene from the beginning to the end – I thought that was genius. And we did it.” She smiles. “And we didn’t forget our lines.”

For Fonda, it caps a remarkable period in her varied career - a third act comeback the likes of which has never been seen in Hollywood. After making 1990's Stanley and Iris with Robert De Niro, she bowed out.

"It became so hard that I left the business," she says. Partly she wanted to spend time with media mogul Ted Turner - "my favourite ex-husband," as she affectionately dubs him. They married in 1991, and she credits him for a great deal. "Ted gave me a lot of confidence and he taught me how to laugh."

While they divorced in 2001, Fonda had been revitalised. She wrote her best-selling memoir My Life So Far - "it gave me a perspective on myself that I didn’t have before" - and then got the itch to act again.

"I retired for 15 years. During that time I changed. I was 65 years-old, already old, and I said, ‘Maybe I’d like to try it again.’ And so what I’ve done has never been done, I don’t think." Her first film back was 2005's Monster-in-Law, a comedy co-starring Jennifer Lopez, "which was a big hit in the US", she beams.

She was shocked at how the business had changed: gone were the huge fluorescent lights used to illuminate the sets. "I said to Jennifer Lopez, ‘Where’s the director?’ She said, ‘He’s in the 'video village'!’ I didn’t know what a video village was! In the old days, you shot with film, and the director is right next to the camera, watching. Now, they shoot digitally – and so around the corner there is a monitor, and the director and producers are sitting in front of a monitor, watching what the camera is doing." She shrugs. "You get used to it.”

She's not about to suggest that acting is strenuous. “I’ll tell you what’s more tiring – waitresses in restaurants that live on the tips and are raising two kids at home, by their-selves. Being a movie actor? Tiring? I don’t think so. Not relatively speaking. We’re very privileged."

Coming from most Hollywood icons, raising mention of blue-collar single-motherhood may sound disingenuous. But Fonda has always shown great understanding in her work - from her call-girl in Klute to her Vietnam radical in Coming Home and her secretary in Nine To Five.

Acting helped cultivate her sensitive nature, she estimates, even if it's not the most stable of professions. "If I was a painter, I would be in control: my canvas, my brush. For an actor, someone has to want you to be in their movie. And then the director can determine if you’re good or not. All those things. But it’s good for the heart...in order to be a good actor, you have to be able to have empathy for other people. You have to enter another person’s reality with an open heart. Good for the heart. Very bad for the nerves.”

Born in New York, her journey into acting wasn't an easy one, despite her well-to-do upbringing. She jokes now that she comes from a long line of depressed people, but beneath the humour is pain. In 1950, when Jane was just 12, her mother, Frances Ford Seymour - the second of Henry Fonda's five wives - committed suicide by slitting her own throat in a psychiatric hospital. Shockingly, Jane only discovered this reading about the incident in a magazine while at boarding school.

Fonda’s father was from Omaha, Nebraska - solid Midwestern stock - and made his legend playing in films like The Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men. Not that you'd know it, she says. “My Dad was a big movie star, but every time he would finish a movie, it was always, ‘I’ll never work again, no-one will ever hire me again.’ It was endemic.” He was famously distant to his children - Jane and her younger brother Peter, who would later achieve success on screen in the counterculture classic Easy Rider.

What, if anything, did this teach her about love? "It’s complicated!" she retorts, rolling her eyes. "It’s always been complicated. You don’t realise when you’re young. Never simple. It is simple for some – if a child grows up in a family where the parents look at them in the eye and reflect the child back to itself with love, then love will be easy for that child. If that was not there, when you’re little, love will be very hard.”

She pauses for a second, thinking. "That doesn’t mean that your parents are bad, it’s just they never got it themselves. It’s generational. So what you learn as you get older was to try to break the cycle.”

For all the torment and trials, she was with her father to the end, accepting the Oscar on his behalf when he won for On Golden Pond, the sentimental melodrama (in which she and Katharine Hepburn co-starred) that finally won him Best Actor, just a few months before his death. "Oh Dad," she said in front of millions, "I'm so happy and proud for you."

If her own childhood left her struggling for emotional attention, it fed into typical teenage rebellion, a reaction against her expensive education at Greenwich Academy and Vassar.

Jane Fonda’s multi-faceted career

After a short modelling career, during which she made the cover of Vogue twice, she made her movie debut in 1960's campus comedy Tall Story, opposite Anthony Perkins, but it wasn't until she moved to France that she blossomed. She met director Roger Vadim, marrying him in 1965, giving birth to their daughter Vanessa and starring in his 1968 pop-art sci-fi Barbarella.

Turning down roles in Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary's Baby, Fonda soon followed it with Klute, winning her first Oscar. But rather than lead her into a golden era, she found herself "grey-listed", as she once put it, for her increasingly radicalised and outspoken political views, inspired by her time with French intellectuals. She co-founded the FTA (Free The Army), an anti-war entertainment troupe, becoming an enemy of the Nixon regime; the CIA intercepted her mail, the FBI tapped her phone. "I later discovered there were plans to turn public opinions against me," she says.

Divorcing Vadim, she re-married immediately, in January 1973, wedding her second husband, activist Tom Hayden. That July, she gave birth to their son Troy, but it came at a troubled time. Her 1972 trip to Hanoi, to protest the Vietnam War and convince the US armed forces to withdraw, proved to be a bad PR blunder. Photographed next to a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, it outraged many Americans, earning her the nickname of 'Hanoi Jane'. "I didn't realise what I was doing," she says. But it never shook her beliefs; she won her second Oscar for 1977's Vietnam Veteran drama Coming Home.

Alongside the hit suburban comedy Fun With Dick and Jane, Fonda's (first) comeback was complete, leading to a period of sustained success. Married to Hayden - they didn't divorce until 1990 - Fonda took that personal stability and ran with it.

A string of commercial hits for her own production company followed, notably Nine To Five, alongside her re-invention as America's exercise queen, beginning a series of best-selling fitness videos and books (at one point, the classic Jane Fonda's Workout Book sold over three million copies and was translated into 14 languages).

Over the years, her focus shifted to other matters. This July, she joined a climate change rally in Toronto, while earlier in the year criticised President Obama for allowing drilling for petroleum in the Arctic. But this aside, she's not too down on the current administration. "I happen to think Obama is a feminist," she says. "I think Obama’s consciousness is closer to what I would aspire to than certain women that might be elected president.” Did she ever consider entering politics? “I could never be elected," she grins. "I’m too controversial.”

There have been other campaigns too - from protesting the Iraq War to establishing a centre to help prevent adolescent pregnancy in 2001. "I am still politically active," she nods, "for the rights of women. Very important in the United States. We have no equal rights amendment in the constitution. Women earn less than men doing exactly the same job. Women are discriminated against in movies. Very few movies are directed by women. Most central roles are not [for] women.”

If Sorrentino's Youth examples this, Fonda still pleased by what it can convey to women.  "When you’re young, and you’re looking at age from the outside, it’s so scary," she says. "My message for women is hope – especially in the United States. We’re so focused on youth. We’re so scared of dying."

You can't help but fall for this can-do attitude; regrets, she says, are a waste of time.

"What’s most important is to take responsibility for your mistakes and learn from them." She straightens her posture. "I’m proud of myself because I have done that.”

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