Jane Fonda’s life has been lived in the spotlight, and her transitions have been very public. Her mother committed suicide when Jane was just 12, and she went on to model, attend Vassar, and study art in Paris before discovering the stage in the 1950s. Once she started making movies in the 60s, she followed in her father Henry’s footsteps, becoming a cinematic icon and winning two Oscars in the 70s—for Klute and Coming Home. At the same time, she also became an emblem for activism, protesting the Vietnam War in polarizing fashion. In the 1980s, Fonda launched a fitness empire, eventually producing and starring in over 20 exercise videos. In the early 90s, she took a break from acting and settled in Atlanta with her third husband Ted Turner; the marriage ended in 2001.
Throughout the decades, Fonda has become known as a strong and powerful woman, one not afraid to speak her mind. And at 74, Jane Fonda is still white-hot. Her Versace gown at last month’s Cannes Film Festival turned heads, she is a passionate philanthropist and a best-selling author, and she found her way back to the silver screen seven years ago (2005’s Monster-in-Law) after a 16-year sabbatical. Fonda has several high-profile projects on the horizon, including the HBO drama The Newsroom, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in which she will tackle the formidable role of Nancy Reagan. This Friday, she is a hoot as a hippie grandmother—complete with grey curly mane and tie-dye caftan—in Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love and Misunderstanding.
At an all-women breakfast this week, Fonda appeared to be delighted with the multi-generational dramatic comedy, which, it was pointed out, conjures up parallels to On Golden Pond, Mark Rydell’s 1981 Oscar winner that featured Fonda and her father Henry in a can’t-see-eye-to-eye struggle—not unlike their relationship in real life. This time around, however, Fonda is the elder stateswoman to daughter Catherine Keener and grandchildren Elizabeth Olsen and Nat Wolff, and instead of greeting her long-lost kin with WASPy emotional repression, “Grace” is a free spirit who advocates smoking pot, howling at the moon, and loving the one you’re with.
Grace and her conservative, rigid lawyer of a daughter Diane have not been in touch for 20 years, ever since Grace caused quite a ruckus at Diane’s wedding to Mark (Kyle MacLachlan). When Mark asks Diane for a divorce, she packs up her NYC-bred teenagers (who have never met their grandmother) and they head upstate to Woodstock—where Grace is an icon of that town’s freewheeling gestalt—for a summer of self-discovery and acceptance of the things we rebel against.
When asked about what how this role fit into her own personal “third act,” Fonda explained, “I am a grandmother, [and] I’ve had daughter issues—that are resolved—and as I get older, the more and more I realize: Is there anything more important in life than love and forgiveness? I wanted to make a movie… that made you feel good when you left.”
Conversation turned to how comfortable Fonda seems now in her own skin, and how much it shows in her acting. “I’m happier than I’ve even been,” she shared, “and that certainly is not what I’d ever expected.” How does she explain it? “I will have to say that a chunk of it has to do with Ted Turner. You don’t come out of 10 years with Ted Turner the same as you went in. I come from a long line of depressed people—and, actually, so does Ted—but Ted is this rambunctious, over-the-top, funny person who can be very outrageous, but I learned how to laugh with him. And I learned that it’s okay to be out there—so you fall flat on your face, and then you get up. Everything became lighter, and I’m grateful for that.”
She continued: “And some of that has to do with getting older... There’s a sense of, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I survived. I’ve been through heartbreak, and crises, and I came through it, and actually, got a little stronger because of it.’ You tend not to make mountains out of molehills. It’s very hard to be young, because you don’t know what [it is] you need to know. When you get older, you know that ‘I can overlook that, it’s not important,’ and there’s something very liberating about that.”
Speaking of Ted Turner, Fonda has a juicy role as the head of a news network on Aaron Sorkin’s new drama The Newsroom, which premieres on HBO June 24. The scripts were no walk in the park, explains Fonda. “These speeches are like four pages long, and I have to know every period, every comma. And my God, it’s so brilliant!”
When asked if she’s “a good guy boss or a bad guy boss,” she again compliments her ex: “I’m a little bit of both. Think Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner, kind of combined… with Turner being the good guy.”
At this point Catherine Keener joins the conversation, and the two have clearly evolved beyond the co-worker stage of their friendship; theirs is an easy rapport, with each seemingly delighted by the other. Were they friends before they did this movie?
Fonda: “No! That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the movie—I wanted to become a friend of hers. Which takes some work—she’s slippery! She disappears. I have to keep chasing her.”
Keener: “You do not!”
Fonda: “All the people who love her know that. ‘Oh, there she goes again!’”
Keener: [laughs] “Why don’t you just spill everything?”
Fonda: [slyly] “Not everything, no.”
Are roles for older women—or even those over 40—still hard to come by? Fonda is optimistic: “I think it’s just beginning to get better in what could become a substantial way. I mean, it’s a business, it’s a market, and the marketers know that ‘older women’ is the fastest-growing demographic. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has done hugely well, and Meryl Streep’s movies do hugely well financially, and I think that that matters. [Also,] more and more television is making it possible for older women to be full, multi-dimensional people. So I’m always optimistic. I think it’s going to be better.”
Keener counters, “Jane’s optimism actually makes me believe that it’s true. My initial reaction to your question was that yes, I think that it’s still… slim pickings. But I also know that at this point, we aren’t going to take it anymore. That’s the adjustment: we’re not going to take this shit anymore. So that’s the new wave of this for me—no one’s just going to decide that it’s over for me. We’ll start doing our own stuff. Or make some noise about it.”
Despite her activist past, Jane Fonda says she missed the hippie scene in the late 60s/early 70s altogether; she was living in France with her first husband, Roger Vadim. “People think that I’m playing me, the anti-war hippie, the pot and all that. But I never was a hippie. I never even wore tie-dye! I was living in France…
“I didn’t really understand very much about Woodstock, but [in the movie] I had to say things like, ‘My water broke while Jimi Hendrix was playing The Star Spangled Banner.’ Catherine showed me a documentary [about Woodstock], and I was like, ‘Whose water wouldn’t break?’ It was one of the most exciting things I ever saw. She also brought me The Last Waltz.” (Woodstock native Levon Helm’s “The Weight” also has a cameo role in Peace, Love and Misunderstanding.)
Despite Keener’s insistence that she is not down-to-earth enough to be a hippie, Fonda disagrees. “She’s totally with the earth. She just doesn’t know it yet. She has to be in the sun, she has to have open windows, she can’t be in a dark place, she has to have her feet in the soil. She’s the real hippie here! It’s her Indian blood. She’s way more out there than me.”
One area in which Fonda feels more aligned with Grace is in her frankness about sexuality. Fonda is involved with non-profits in Georgia that deal with adolescent reproductive health, so her scenes talking with Grace’s grandson Jake (Nat Wolff) about gonorrhea and condoms were not as left-field as they sound. “I am in the process of writing a book for kids about stuff like that,” Fonda explains. “[When the film plays] in Georgia, I know they are not going to like me smoking a bong with my grandkids, but the lessons about safe sex are really good; I liked that. [laughs] I’m writing a book for high school kids and one for middle school, and the money goes to my non-profits.”
In a video piece on this week’s CBS Sunday Morning, Fonda saw a picture of herself as Barbarella in the 1968 sci-fi classic and revealed that it was—amazingly—all her own hair. She told us this week, “Yeah, it needed its own agent.” Though not quite au naturel, her grey hairpiece in Peace, Love and Misunderstanding is similarly awesome: “I absolutely LOVED wearing that wig. I put it on, and I just became Grace. I just loved it.”
What does Fonda think about her reinvention as a role model for women of a certain age? “I fooled them for another year. [smiles] I’m at this odd old age. I’m actually becoming more glamorous than I ever was when I was supposed to be.”
Watch the trailer: