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Jane Fonda Opens Up About Her Father, Her Return to Acting and the Lesson She Learned From Warren Beatty

Jane Fonda
© Regan Cameron/Art+Commerce
Jane Fonda

"I'm an actress, it's what I do, but it's not who I am," said the Hollywood icon, who received the 2011 Sherry Lansing Leadership Award at THR's annual Women in Entertainment Breakfast.

Jane Fonda has lived so many lives in Hollywood, even she admits it's hard to keep track. She burst onto the silver screen in 1960 the shy, beautiful daughter of acting royalty Henry Fonda, then transformed over the next decade into a controversial antiwar activist, earning the less-than-desirable moniker "Hanoi Jane." She became an aggressive producer and Oscar-winning actor (Coming Home, Klute) before assuming her throne as a 1980s fitness guru who made it fun to "feel the burn." Here the 74-year-old actress, philanthropist and author reflects on her gradual reentry into acting over the past decade, her philosophy on aging (yes, it includes plastic surgery) and how women in Hollywood harness the most power when they simply accept who they are.

The Hollywood Reporter: Looking back on your 51 years in the business, what is your proudest moment?

Jane Fonda: Certainly producing On Golden Pond and giving the Oscar to my father five months before he died was very special. Also, it took me 12 years to get the script rights for the only television movie I did, and for which I won an Emmy, The Dollmaker. But honestly, the fact that I've even had a career, in spite of the fact I have not lived in such a way that would lend itself to a successful career, is in itself amazing.

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THR: In what way specifically?

Fonda: Well, just as I was becoming an important movie star, I left the United States and lived in an attic in Paris with my French husband for eight years. And then I came back occasionally to make a movie, but … I left the business for almost 16 years when I was in my 50s and early 60s.

THR: Yes, there is a very large gap in your résumé between 1989 and 2005.

Fonda: (Laughs.) Yes, a big gap. My last husband, Ted Turner, once asked me, "Who are you? I don't mean what you do, but who are you?" I said, "I'm an actress, it's what I do, but it's not who I am." I have many other things in my life besides acting. As I've grown older, this has helped me be a better actress because the palette from which I can paint my life, and my understanding of people and the world, is experientially very broad. I've done many, many different things. I left acting for 15 years partly because I was married to Ted -- although I'd decided to do it before I met him -- but it was mostly because I was very unhappy as a person during that time and just couldn't be creative. I've realized now that I've come back and I've started making movies again that it's just so much easier than it used to be.

THR: Do you think being happy is imperative to being a good artist?

Fonda: I don't know -- I thought a lot about that. It's certainly not like people who are good actors are all happy. But all the doors to my creativity, the energy that flows through you that leads to creativity, clang shut when I feel reduced as a woman, as I have been in my life. When I feel good about myself, I can become different people with greater ease.

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THR: What phases from your career have you found are the most resonant with your fans when you meet them?

Fonda: I'm most aware of all the lives I've had when I go on a book tour. One woman will come up to me and say, "My favorite movie of yours was Cat Ballou." The next one will say, "Remember when we marched together in '71 in San Diego?" and another will say, "You saved my life with that exercise tape you did." I just got a letter from a woman who finished reading my new book, and she said that it's completely changed her life. That has nothing to do with politics or movies or anything. You know how happy that makes me? Then another person will say that it changed her life when I marched in Las Vegas in the '70s for welfare rights and she was a maid at the time and that gave her courage. And I've had veterans tell me that their sex life vastly improved after Coming Home came out.

THR: Is there a part you're still dying to play or a project you'd like to tackle at this point in your career?

Fonda: I'd like to do a TV comedy series. I love Nurse Jackie. But that's taken! And I love what Laura Linney does on The Big C. First of all, I like the idea of a regular job and second, I like the idea of comedy about an older woman.

STORY: Jane Fonda to be Honored at THR's Women in Entertainment Breakfast

THR: Well, this is a good opportunity for you to get that message out there.

Fonda: It's out there, it's out there!

THR: What do you like to do when you're not acting?

Fonda: I just finished another fitness book, Prime Time. And my nonprofit work deals with adolescents, boys and girls, adolescents and sexuality and gender identity. So I went to Random House four years ago and I said, "I want to write a book for boys, a book for girls and a book for their parents." And Random House said, "We'll publish that if you first write a book about aging." So I took four years, wrote that one, which just came out, and now I've finished my book on girls, finished my book for boys and I'm working on the one for parents. And then after that, I'm going to do a cookbook for older people. I'm also going to take tap-dancing lessons, and I've started taking tennis lessons. There's a lot I want to do in life.

THR: Speaking of which, you've been a fitness icon for 30 years. How do you take care of yourself at age 74?

Fonda: I work out every day when I'm home. I do 30 to 40 minutes of aerobics and lift weights to maintain muscle mass, keep my bones strong and my joints strong -- more for functional reasons than anything else. I'm very careful about what I eat too. But I think that far more important than any of this is your attitude. If you are happy, feel that your life has meaning and all the people you love are doing OK and you feel good about yourself, I think that shows. That's what makes a difference.

THR: But you've also been open about having plastic surgery. How does that figure into your aging philosophy?

Fonda: Yes, I've talked about having had a little plastic surgery. I know plenty of people who have had a lot of plastic surgery and they have great figures, but they don't look good. It has to do with their attitude about life and about themselves. I would really like to see the media helping older women feel -- not that they're not over the hill, I'm over the hill -- but that there's a whole landscape on the other side of that hill that has more depth and meaning.

THR: Whom do you most admire in Hollywood?

Fonda: Interestingly enough, one of the women I've always admired is Sherry Lansing. I got to know her when I was at Columbia Pictures working on a film about nuclear energy that Michael Douglas produced, The China Syndrome. Her grace on the job, her kindness, the generosity of her spirit -- they all really, really struck me, which is one of the reasons that I'm so excited about getting this award. I also very much admire Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave and Meryl Streep, who did her first movie, Julia, with me. I'm probably one of the very first people who ever saw her onscreen. I just am in total awe of her! She's beyond anything one could ever imagine an actor to be. There's so much talent out there -- female talent of all ages, and I just love watching them all work. Whether it's Reese Witherspoon or one of my favorites, Annette Bening.

THR: What great advice were you given about Hollywood that has stuck with you? For example, did your father impart any wisdom to you early on that you continue to draw from?

Fonda: No.

THR: Really?

Fonda: No, he didn't. I wish he had! See, my father was a loner. He was not a Hollywood insider and he never talked about the business with us, so I never learned or understood that this business is built on relationships. I did my first screen test with Warren Beatty, and he knew this from the get-go. Warren had a long list of directors he'd worked with -- I didn't have anything. I was just glad that anyone asked me to work. I didn't know how to say no. Part of me wishes I'd known about all that; that someone had taken me under their wing, even though I was very shy. But part of me is glad I didn't. If I had, I would have stayed here in Hollywood and built relationships and not lived all over the world.

THR: What guidance do you wish someone had given you?

Fonda: I think the best advice a mentor could have given me was, "Jane, you know you can say no if the script isn't good." I was just so surprised anybody ever wanted me in anything! I didn't pay enough attention. I think the only actor who ever taught me much about life, more than acting, was Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond. Even though I did the movie for my dad, I produced it, who I learned from was Hepburn. I was 45 when I made that movie, and it was she who taught me to be self-conscious. I used to think that was a bad thing, but that means being conscious of the self you project to the public; having a persona, a style, a presence. I had none of that. I didn't know how to dress! When I went onstage for my father at the Oscars, because he was too sick, I couldn't believe how I looked and how I was dressed. I never paid attention. Hepburn taught me to pay attention and that style is important.

THR: Your son, Troy Garity, has followed in your footsteps to become an actor and has had many acclaimed roles, including on the new Starz drama Boss. What does it mean to you to see him thrive in the business?

Fonda: Isn't he wonderful? My second husband, Tom Hayden, Troy's father, and I had a children's performing camp up near Santa Barbara. When Troy was 13, he did a play where he played a gay tango dancer. He blew me away! What I saw was so different from me and my father. Troy had so much physical courage, a tremendous Kevin Kline-ish ability for theatrics. My father never encouraged my brother and me to go into the business. And I decided I was going to be different and I went to my little boy and I said, "Troy, let me tell you something. You are talented. You may not want to do this when you grow up, but if you want to be an actor when you grow up, I will support you." That's exactly what happened. All I can say is that it's a terrifying thing to have a child who wants to be an actor. There's so much competition and it's very, very hard, so to have him excel, it just makes me kvell. That's Yiddish for "explode with happiness."

THR: Do you have any regrets, professionally or personally?

Fonda: No. Why waste time? See, when you get older, you want to spend time thinking about what you're going to regret between now and when you die. So when you die, you have a minimum number of regrets.

THR: What does being a powerful woman in Hollywood mean to you now?

Fonda: Well, sadly, with very few exceptions, women are still not very powerful in the movie business. But Meryl Streep, bless her heart, is this huge exception. She's a woman over 60 and she makes movies that make money. That is true power! But for me personally, any power I have isn't as an actor, but as a woman who is authentic and owns her skin. It's taken me a very long time to get here.

FONDA ON FONDA: The Hollywood Icon Reflects on Her Films

Barefoot in the Park (1967) "All I remember is falling in love with Bob Redford. I had a mad crush. I couldn't wait for those cuddling scenes in bed!"

Barbarella (1968) "I enjoy it now, but I didn't enjoy making it. No special effects were available, so everything was done on a spit and a prayer. No one had a clue about the cult film it would become."

Klute (1971) "This was a turning point. I'd left my first husband, moved back to the U.S., was becoming a feminist. Working with [director] Alan Pakula was like dancing a great waltz. And that shag haircut! I went to my husband's barber and said, 'Do something.' It was a hair epiphany that everyone started to copy. "

Fun With Dick and Jane (1977) "This was my comeback film after six years away. People could see I still looked good, and that I could be funny."

Coming Home (1978) "I'd spent three years interviewing Vietnam vets. I wanted to make a film about these men who'd risked their lives and came home in wheelchairs. [Activist] Ron Kovic told me at an antiwar rally, 'I may have lost my body, but I've gained my mind.' I thought, 'That could be  a beautiful movie.' "

The China Syndrome (1979) "Richard Dreyfuss originally had my part, but dropped out. Sherry [Lansing] said, 'Uh, Jane?' I worked with writer-director Jim Bridges on the journalist character so the film wasn't just about nuclear power-plant corruption, but also sexism in newscasting."

9 to 5 (1980) "I wanted to make a movie about secretaries. I fell in love with Lily Tomlin when I saw her one-woman show. Then I heard 'Two Doors Down' on the radio and thought, 'Dolly Parton as a secretary? Perfect!' "

On Golden Pond (1981) "Imagine a woman with a difficult relationship with her father finds a play in which the father and daughter so paralleled real life. And I was able to buy the rights!"

Stanley & Iris (1989) "This was the last movie I made for 15 years. I regret that I was in such a bad place when I worked with Robert De Niro. I didn't think I'd ever come back."

Monster-in-Law (2005) "Critics hated it. 'Why did she choose a popcorn movie for her comeback?' But it was a blast . Young people saw it for Jennifer Lopez  and maybe saw me for the first time."

Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding (2011) "I loved playing a stoned grand-mother. I was their first choice!"