Answer: a lot. At 82, Jane Fonda is still an activist, this time trying to save the planet. Actress, author, feminist, health advocate, she has lived many lives – and is still a work in progress. The rest of us had better keep up.
Jane Fonda is 82 and still getting arrested, still demanding the world change, me included, as I fumble to set up my camera. “I am just preparing you for the future,” she says, meaning in this case not global warming, which is what we are down to talk about today, but future Zoom interviews.
She is in the living room of her Spanish-inspired villa in the gated community in Los Angeles where she has lived alone since she separated from the record producer Richard Perry three years ago.
The Hollywood star of On Golden Pond and The China Syndrome is a bestselling author. Her books range from cookery, workouts (where she was the undisputed queen in the 1980s), and self-help to a gut-wrenching autobiography.
Given she was called “Hanoi Jane” for her anti-Vietnam War protests and an ill-advised visit to the enemy nearly 40 years ago, it is surprising that her latest is, save for a collection of speeches, her first explicitly political work.
What Can I Do? My Path from Climate Despair to Action arises from what she learned from four months of weekly protest rallies and five arrests for civil disobedience in Washington last year. It is a well-researched riposte to your every global-warming doubt, but its selling point is that it tells you how to save the planet: what to boycott, whom to write to, from which bank to disinvest, the way to organize, and what to eat (clue: fish are not the answer).
“When I went to Washington in September, 2019 to start these weekly rallies — called Fire Drill Fridays — together with Greenpeace, we had no idea if it was going to work,” she says. “You know: here comes some ageing movie star bopping into DC to try to stir things up. But it turns out that it was the right thing at the right time. A lot of people were looking for the next step and in the end hundreds joined me in civil disobedience and were willing to risk arrest.”
Was it really, though, like “stepping into wellness,” which is what she writes?
“Well, there’s so few opportunities these days to put our whole bodies in alignment with our deepest values,” she says. “It’s counterintuitive because actually when you get arrested you’re out of control. You’re totally in the control of the police.
“And I might add that when you’re white and famous they treat you differently than they would if I was black or of colour [she did not share a cell], but in spite of the loss of control there’s a feeling of empowerment. It wasn’t just me. All the people I talked to who joined me in the civil disobedience commented on the same thing. It really was transformative.”
She asks me to encourage readers not to get themselves arrested, but to contact their nearest Greenpeace branch to discover what they can do locally. Consider yourself encouraged.
It really is a fascinating book, but its author is even more fascinating. Even looking at her is fascinating, and the world has looked at her a lot, before it even realized what a fine actress the double-Oscar-winner-to-be actually was.
She has never denied her plastic surgery, reckoning it extended her movie career by 10 years, but genes gave her surgeons a head start. Without their expertise, Fonda would surely not look 80. With them, she doesn’t look 50.
She has gone grey, however, another of the “hair epiphanies that have always accompanied my life transformations. I started to let my hair go grey before I went to DC and it was fortunate. I wore hats a lot to cover it. It was like, four inches, of grey, but now it’s all grey, so I don’t have to wear hats.”
Is it a statement?
“You know, I’m almost 83 years old and what the frigging . . . Why continue to put chemicals on my hair? It kind of goes along with my vow to never buy a new piece of clothing.”
And what does Gucci, which she represents, think about that?
“Oh, if clothing is totally recyclable and all made from sustainable things then I will support it,” she says.
She is wearing a billowy scarf and what looks like a blue cashmere jumper. Are they “green?”
“No,” she says unapologetically.
This interview was always going to be a tussle between the crusader who wants to talk about her crusade and the journalist who needs to talk about the crusader.
Fortunately, What Can I Do? is illuminated by flashes from her personal life, giving me an excuse. Anyway, although she says she likes the book because she is not its centre, in reality her politics have always been personal, and frequently entwined with whichever man was in her life at the time.
In 1968 her first husband, the film director Roger Vadim, had her star in the frankly sexist, and frankly sexy, sci-fi spoof Barbarella. The title sequence required her to float weightless in space entirely naked. She did it drunk, but when the rushes revealed a bat had flown across the set and ruined the take, she had to reshoot the next day.
This time she was both drunk and hungover. She once said it took her until her sixties to really understand feminism. When she did, it became one of her biggest causes.
She married again in 1973. Tom Hayden was a political activist and for a while the pair were the most famous anti-war couple in the world after John and Yoko. It was not always a happy marriage. Hayden was uninterested in her movie career and made her feel “stupid and superficial” in political company.
A childhood eating disorder returned. She felt sexless and responded by having breast implants. They divorced in 1990 when he announced he was in love with someone else. A stipulation in the settlement was that he would not speak at her funeral (in any event, he died four years ago).
What would be have made of her activism today?
“I think he would be proud,” she says. “I often ask myself, would I have done this if he were alive? He might not have approved. I mean, he was brilliant, but he might have told me not to for reasons that would have been incomprehensible to me, but I’m very close to his widow and she’s proud of me.”
Her third husband was Ted Turner, the ranch-dwelling media billionaire and alpha male who “devoured” her with his eyes on his first date. She said on the 2018 HBO documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts that she hid whole parts of herself to please him.
It appeared an unlikely match when they married in 1991, and still does. To celebrate her wedding, she and the guests joined Turner on horseback and went hunting. It did not seem very Jane Fonda. She responds that hunters are ideal environmentalists. “They know sooner than other people about climate change because the ducks aren’t migrating.”
After 10 years, she left him, presumably tired of being dominated by another opinionated adulterer. I wonder if these husbands simply could not cope with someone stronger than the lot of them.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. Tom Hayden had great, great strengths and weaknesses, and Ted Turner has great strengths and weaknesses and we complemented each other.”
But in the end the relationships were unbalanced and failed. “It had nothing to do with them, poor chaps,” she says. “My dad was married five times. I wasn’t dealt a good hand of cards in terms of relationships. I’m not gifted at relationships.”
Her dad was the movie legend Henry Fonda. When she was 12 her mother, a Canadian-born socialite named Frances Seymour, killed herself in a psychiatric hospital (something she discovered only later).
His response was immediately to pack her off to boarding school. Even now the feelings from those days can overwhelm her. In 2015, during the first season of her Netflix sitcom Grace and Frankie, she suffered a breakdown, went back into therapy and was prescribed Prozac.
“I’ve been able to stop the Prozac now,” she says. “I think some of it had to do with the scene in the very first episode. These two women, me and Lily Tomlin — Grace and Frankie — are told by their two husbands, to whom they have been married for 40 years: ‘We have fallen in love with each other and we plan to get married.’ I mean, talk about abandonment! I think part of my anguish that first season was that it dealt with that crisis of being abandoned.”
By her father sending her away?
“Or maybe much, much, much earlier than that but, you know, I don’t want to get all psychological about it,” she says. “The majority of us come into life and get wounded. Wounds happen because our parents do the best they can, but don’t necessarily know what to do, and then we spend the rest of our lives trying to heal and get over it. Relatively speaking I’ve had it pretty easy.”
Yet she has not had it easy. Fonda has spoken about childhood sex abuse and being raped as an adult. She has wrestled with bulimia, survived cancer and had a double mastectomy. It has not been easy at all.
“The only thing that I think remarkable about me is that I never wanted to settle,” she says. “I never wanted to settle for who I was. I didn’t like myself and I always wanted to get better and I’ve been very intentional about that — and I think I have gotten better.”
When she looks back at her life does she see it, as the documentary does, as being defined by men?
“On one level it is absolutely true,” she says. “I think in terms of, ‘Who was I with then? Oh, yeah!’
“But there was a leitmotif that went through all of them that was the authentic me seeking to find herself. She always existed. I was just always evolving and changing and working hard to do that and become a better person. I would be headed someplace and then I would end up marrying a man who could bring me further down that path.”
Has she finally arrived?
“I’m happy to say I am still a work in progress. I have a feeling that the moment before I die I’m going to say, ‘Oh my God, I get it.’”
That there is no dominant male in her life right now and she is more vocal than ever surely tells its own story. Nevertheless, her struggles have not been easy for those around her.
Suffering from post-natal depression, she never bonded with Vanessa, her daughter by Vadim, who is notably absent from the documentary. Towards its end, Fonda hopes she will one day forgive her. Yet Vanessa, who will be 52 this month, attended several Fire Drill Fridays and was there for Fonda’s release the day after her night in jail.
Has this resulted in a permanent reconciliation? There is a long pause as she collects herself. “Yes, it has.”
The political movement helped it happen.
“It was something that we could share,” she says. “It was something we could do together and she’s very good when we find ourselves in a corner. When I came out of jail I didn’t know she was going to be there and we just looked at each other and burst into tears.”
In her book, Fonda does not quite claim that individual action is irrelevant, just that buying solar panels and recycling conscientiously is insufficient. It is a collective crisis, requiring a collective response to persuade governments to invest in clean, renewable and sustainable energy.
It will not be enough for Biden to be elected. “We would have to fill the streets even more than now and force him to do what is right,” she says.
Did she fear being demonized for getting arrested again — for the first time since 1974, when she was detained at Cleveland airport for smuggling drugs that turned out to be vitamin pills?
“Honey, at my age it doesn’t matter,” she says. “I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve survived. They’re all dead or in jail and I’m still going. You know, I don’t care. There’s nothing they can do to me anymore that they haven’t already tried to do, and I’m at the end of my life . . .”
Don’t say that!
“Yes, I am,” she says. “And I think it’s good to be aware of it because it will inform how I live my life, realizing that I have, at the most, 20 years left.”
Fonda notes that not only were two thirds of the Washington protesters women, but many were older women. Why was that?
“Because, what have we got to lose?” she says. “I think older women tend to get braver. It’s also a matter of hormones. Women’s testosterone level rises in relationship to our estrogen and a man’s testosterone drops in relationship to his estrogen.”
So perhaps there is some biological basis to the stereotype of the “old battleaxe”?
“Well, that’s a man’s version of a woman becoming braver,” she says. “Battleaxe! How about warrior for humanity?”
I try to sum up Jane Fonda at 82: no more hair dye, no more plastic surgery, and no more male lovers?
“And no more new clothes, I would add,” she says, laughing.
When Jane Fonda stops being terrifying, she is really good fun. In truth I’m finding it a little hard not to place her on a pedestal, which, on consideration, would also have been a good place for my tablet.
More Inspiration:Check out our cover story from our first issue with Billy Campbell.
Author: Andrew Billen is a British journalist, children’s author, and staff feature writer on The Times newspaper.