Interview: Jane Fonda

BY James Mottram

6th Sep 2022 Celebrities

Interview: Jane Fonda

As Jane Fonda takes on a new voiceover role, the legendary Hollywood actress talks activism, ageing and the vital role that luck has played in her career 

Reader’s Digest has been around longer than I have!” guffaws Jane Fonda when I introduce myself. She’s 84 now, but the iconic actress and activist has clearly not let the passing years dim her self-deprecating sense of humour.

Nor has age withered her. The one-time fitness guru, who almost single-handedly created an empire from her Jane Fonda Workout videos, still looks utterly fabulous.

We’re chatting over a video call, with Fonda seated in an ornate living area next to a tasteful orange-hued floral display. Dressed in a blouse bedecked with bold yellow, pink, and grey stripes, she’s every bit as immaculately groomed as her surroundings.

Jane Fonda films: From Barbarella to Luck

Jane Fonda wears sci-fi mini dress and holds space gun in film BarbarellaOne of Jane Fonda's early big breaks came with the title role in 1960s space age spoof Barbarella 

Ostensibly, we’re here to talk about her new project Luck, an animated film now appearing on Apple TV+, which gave her a rare opportunity to take on a voice-over role (as a pink-suited dragon, no less).

“I was very happy because I want to do more voice over,” she says. “First of all, it interests me. I like animated films.

"Also, I’m old! It’s a great way for an old person to stay involved because it doesn’t matter how you look. It doesn’t matter if you can’t walk. It doesn’t matter if your hair is bad, or whatever! Any of that doesn’t matter. It’s just being able to understand an animated character and figure out how to bring her to life. And I like that challenge.”

It’s interesting to hear Fonda speak so pragmatically about the business, and so enthusiastically about a career that she once left behind.

"It’s a great way for an old person to stay involved because it doesn’t matter how you look"

Put simply, it’s in her bones. Her father was the legendary actor Henry Fonda, famed for such classics as The Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men. Her younger brother was Peter Fonda, who starred in Easy Rider.

Fonda herself starred in a string of classics, from kitsch space romp Barbarella to 1970s dramas Klute and Coming Home, which both won her Best Actress Oscars.

I wonder if Luck, one of her first real forays into animation, was a way of making something that her grandchildren could enjoy.

“Well, I just spent seven years doing Grace and Frankie, and that’s something my grandkids could see,” she says, reminding me of the Netflix show about two ageing women who discover their respective husbands are in love.

Spanning seven seasons, and earning Fonda an Emmy nomination, it paired her up with her old friend Lily Tomlin, co-star of the 1980 workplace comedy 9 to 5.

“Definitely they were on my mind, my grandkids,” she continues. She has three, including Malcolm and Viva, by way of Vanessa, her eldest child, whom she shares with the late French director Roger Vadim (with her second husband, Tom Hayden, she gave birth to Troy Garity, who later became an actor, and adopted another daughter, Mary Williams).

Clearly, she cherishes their opinion. When I ask if her previous animation experience—voicing a character on The Simpsons­—was a career highlight, she pauses, then bluntly says: “No. I mean, it was fun. My grandkids got excited about it!”

Luck, love and life lessons from Fonda

In Luck, which has been produced by former Pixar maestro John Lasseter, a young girl named Sam is whisked to the Land of Luck by a black cat (voiced by Simon Pegg) and into the realm of Fonda’s fire-breather.

One of the more amusing moments sees the characters pass a place where lucky moments are doled out, like “Jam Side Up” for your toast. Luck is random, the film tells us.

So what does Fonda think? “I do think it’s something that comes to some people and not to others,” she muses. “And it’s complicated.”

"Luck is preparation meeting opportunity"

Warming to the theme, it’s one she’s clearly given a lot of thought to. “It’s like love. I know people who are surrounded by love, but they can’t metabolise it, they can’t bring it inside their body, and experience it, because they have issues that they’ve never really explored and dealt with and worked on.

"And in a way, luck is the same. I don’t know who said this, but I believe in this sentence: luck is preparation meeting opportunity.”

The way Fonda sees it, you must be prepared to grasp those precious few opportunities.

“It means working on yourself as an individual,” she adds. “How can I be a more stable individual? How can I be a person capable of forgiveness? How do I forgive? How can I be a person who knows how to relax and not judge? How do I turn myself into somebody who is more curious and more desiring to learn?

"All of these kinds of things you don’t necessarily start off with, but you can develop them as you go through life.”

Jane Fonda's activism: From "Hanoi Jane" to Fire Drill Fridays

Jane "Hanoi Jane" Fonda speaks to Vietnam soldiers during Vietnam warJane Fonda suffered jibes from the press for her then controversial visit to troops in Hanoi, but that hasn't put her off pursuing a lifetime of activism

Listening to her, you could imagine Fonda making an excellent life coach. She’s been through it all—illness, divorce, grief—and survived.

Born in New York, when she was 12 Fonda’s mother, Canadian-born socialite Frances Ford Seymour, took her own life. She’d suffered from bulimia, a condition that later affected Fonda in her forties (by which point, she was at the peak of her Hollywood career).

Fonda’s own upbringing had seen her father raise her a certain way. “I was taught by my father that how I looked was all that mattered,” she once said.

“I’ve spent so much time in my life trying to be better,” she says now. “Not perfect. I used to want to be perfect, and that’ll kill you. Because we’re not meant to be perfect.

"But it’s not an issue of being perfect. It’s an issue of being everything you can be. Be the fullest you possibly can be. And that’s what I’ve tried to do in life, and it involves paying attention. It involves being intentional. For me it involves meditation. And staying curious.”

"I used to want to be perfect, and that’ll kill you"

As I point out to Fonda, Luck has a strong message about putting good back into the world, something she’s repeatedly tried to do.

Famed in the 1970s for protesting the Vietnam War, when she was dubbed “Hanoi Jane”, she’s supported causes ranging from LGBTQ+ rights to the plight of Native Americans to teen pregnancy prevention (in 2001, she founded the Jane Fonda Centre for Adolescent Reproductive Health).

Recently, she’s ploughed her energy into environmentalism. Inspired by eco-activist Greta Thunberg, in 2019, she founded Fire Drill Fridays, weekly protests in Washington DC. She was arrested three times in consecutive weeks (and even grandchildren Malcom and Viva joined her for a bout of civil disobedience).

A year later she published the book, What Can I Do?: The Truth About Climate Change and How to Fix It, and in March this year, she founded a political action committee designed to pinpoint politicians supporting the fossil fuel industry.

Part of this overwhelming desire to put something good back into the world is, she says, a self-help mechanism. “You’re lucky if at a certain point in your life, you realise that if you do something good, and put it out into the world, that it will come back to you and make you feel better," she says.

"You know, it’s like when I get depressed, I turn to activism. The minute I become an activist again, my depression goes away, because I know that I’m doing everything I possibly can to make things better.”

Jane Fonda comes out of retirement

Jane Fonda's and Jennifer Lopez's mother and daughter-in-law characters face off in film Monster In LawAfter a three decade hiatus, Jane Fonda returned to acting as the difficult mother-in-law in the romantic comedy Monster In Law

No doubt the fact that she pulled herself out of retirement also helped. In 1991, after three decades working in film, Fonda stepped away from Hollywood, just at the point that she married her third husband, media mogul Ted Turner.

While she and Turner divorced a decade later, Fonda turned back to her career with 2005’s rom-com Monster-in-Law, in which she co-starred with Jennifer Lopez. She has since sought out acclaimed directors like Lee Daniels (playing Nancy Reagan in The Butler) and Paolo Sorrentino (whom she worked with in Youth).

Fonda clearly is revelling in this late career bloom. She’s just completed a further two films with Lily Tomlin. Moving On sees her and Tomlin play old friends who reconnect at a funeral and decide to take revenge on the widower (A Clockwork Orange’s Malcolm McDowell) who crossed them in the past.

The second is Eighty for Brady, “with Lily and me and Rita Moreno and Sally Field, about four older women in their eighties who are obsessed with [NFL star] Tom Brady. Very funny.”

Seeing as fortune is the theme of the day, towards the end of our chat, I ask Fonda to pinpoint a lucky moment in her career.

“I have many, many, many, many, many," she says. "Very often they come through books. Chance encounters.

"You know, meeting a person who will give you a bit of wisdom at exactly the moment that you need it. Or meeting someone who gives you a book that’s exactly the book that you need to read right at that time. That has happened to me all my life. And I guess that’s luck, isn’t it?”.

Except that, Fonda now has the wisdom to realise it isn’t really about luck—it’s about being open to new ideas.

“You see, if I wasn’t wanting to get better, and grow, I wouldn’t have read the book. Or I wouldn’t have really listened to what the person said to me,” she says.

“And so I think being lucky requires a little bit of courage, a lot of curiosity, and a lot of humility.” Something Fonda seems to have acquired bags of during her time on this planet.

Banner photo courtesy of Apple

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.