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Jane Fonda on Discovering, Losing and Re-Discovering Love for Acting (Audio)

The 73-year-old star of the new dramedy "Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding" says, "I think I'm better than I ever have been."

Jane Fonda Landscape Cannes - H 2011
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

A strong case could be made that Jane Fonda is -- with the possible exception of Meryl Streep -- America's greatest living film actress.

She has given standout performances in dozens of memorable movies from across the genres over the past half-century, many of which merit a spot in any pantheon of American cinema, including: Edward Dmytryk's Walk on the Wild Side (1962), Elliot Silverstein's Cat Ballou (1965), Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1966), Arthur Penn's The Chase (1966), Gene Saks's Barefoot in the Park (1967), Roger Vadim's Barbarella (1968), Alan J. Pakula's Klute (1971), Fred Zinnemann's Julia (1977), Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978), James Bridges's The China Syndrome (1979), Colin Higgins's Nine to Five (1980), Mark Rydell's On Golden Pond (1981), and Norman Jewison's Agnes of God (1985).

Thanks to her landmark performances in the aforementioned Klute and Coming Home, she is one of only 12 members of the club of two-time best actress Oscar winners. The other 11: Luise Rainer, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Glenda Jackson, Sally Field, Jodie Foster, and Hilary Swank.

TORONTO REVIEW: Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding

And today, at the age of 73 -- and despite taking a 16-year hiatus from the big screen, spanning Martin Ritt's Stanley & Iris (1989) through Robert Luketic's Monster-in-Law (2005) -- she is the only septuagenarian female who can get a movie made simply because she has agreed to appear in it.

Case-in-point: Bruce Beresford's Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, Fonda's fourth post-comeback film, which shot in upstate New York in July 2010, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, and is still seeking U.S. distribution. In it, Fonda plays Grace, a fun-loving, pot-smoking, chicken-raising, pottery-throwing, sexually-active hippie. Oh, and one more thing: the character played by the sex kitten of Barbarella and sexy call girl of Klute is -- get this -- a grey-haired grandmother! One day, her long-estranged daughter (Catherine Keener), a conservative lawyer, shows up at her home with her own two kids in tow (the girl is played by Elizabeth Olsen of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the boy by Nat Wolff of Nickelodeon's The Naked Brothers Band), seeking refuge after separating from her husband (Kyle MacLachlan). Over the course of their time together, Grace teaches all three of them to loosen up, helps each to find a bit of romance (Olsen with Gossip Girl's Chace Crawford) during their stay, and works to earn her daughter's forgiveness. (She also has several lines of dialogue -- one including the phrase "cock-blocking" -- that made this writer literally laugh-out-loud.)

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When you think about it, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding is a lot like another film that is also close to Fonda's heart: On Golden Pond (1981), in which she shared the screen with her legendary father Henry Fonda for the first and only time, and in so doing helped to improve their long-strained relationship. (He won the best actor Oscar for the film and died just months later.) Both films are fundamentally about a parent and child struggling to communicate after many years of distance bet. In the earlier film, Jane played a daughter struggling to communicate with a distant parent; now she's playing a parent struggling to communicate with a distant daughter. And, as I noted in an early post, Henry was only three years older when Pond was released than his daughter is now -- 76 vs. 73. ("When I read your article [pointing out these similarities] it blew me away," Fonda remarked to me, insisting that she hadn't previously noticed them.)

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Fonda was actually scheduled to attend TIFF to promote Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, but she developed stomach pains and was advised against traveling (she's fine now), and therefore had to cancel the handful of interviews that she had agreed to grant in conjunction with it. This disappointed journalist pestered her publicist to reschedule his as a phoner, however, and Fonda graciously agreed. When I first rung her, she asked if I'd mind calling her back in just a few more minutes; interestingly, when I did, she explained to me that she had been "coaching a little girl over the phone because she's about to try out for a Robert Redford movie." (She herself shared the screen with Redford 45 years ago in The Chase, 44 years ago in Barefoot in the Park, and 32 years ago in The Electric Horseman.)

Once our own conversation got underway, Fonda devoted a generous amount of time and a considerable amount of thought to answering my questions about her past, present, and future...

Jane Fonda 'Peace, Love & Misunderstanding' by The Hollywood Reporter

Some highlights...

  • On getting into acting  "The first time I ever acted was when I played a boy in a religious pageant in church... I started studying acting because I got fired as a secretary and I had to move out of my father's house and earn a living... I became a model to pay for acting class, and started studying with Lee Strasberg."
  • On first realizing she was an actor  "It was when Lee Strasberg saw me do my first scene and said to me, 'You know, I see a lot of people coming through here. I just want to tell you something, Jane: you have real talent' -- when he said that to me, I knew what my calling was. I needed someone who was not my parent or an employee to tell me that. And Lee Strasberg did that for me."
  • On her breakthrough role  "I had an unusual career... I started with a starring role... and I didn't enjoy it at all. I did not enjoy movie acting I'd say until Klute. Well, no, that's not true. Barefoot in the Park I had a blast making... I didn't feel like I found my sea-legs until I did Klute."
  • On fame  "It's very different now. There's a cult of celebrity, you know, partly because of the gossip magazines and the paparazzi. Young people coming up now -- everything they do is under scrutiny. I mean, people become celebrities who've never done anything! It's all about celebrity, and that's really bad -- it's a shame. I don't think it represents very good values. These are not good role models for our young people. That was not the way it was when I came up. There were no paparazzi. There were no gossip rags. There were movie magazines, but they contained headshots of the star with a very careful bio [laughs], , and that was about it. I was lucky. I came in before all this stuff happened."
  • On her first realization that she was famous  "I guess I knew I was famous when I was opening in a play on Broadway and had two movies playing at the same time."
  • On her favorite role  "I think the character that I played that I loved the most is a character named Gertie Nevels in The Dollmaker [1984], for which I won an Emmy. It was made for ABC... That's my favorite character that I ever played -- I played a hillbilly -- and I was proud of that. Very proud. But [the part of call girl Bree Daniels in] Klute is right up there alongside that.
  • On the 1960's  "I was never a hippie. I was an activist, but I was never a hippie. I didn't do the tie-die, pot-smoking, psychedelic -- all that stuff. I never did that.
  • On what led to her 16-year hiatus from Hollywood "Towards the end of my forties, which corresponded to the end of the eighties, I was not a happy camper. I felt very bad about myself; I was in a marraige that was failing; I saw no future for myself -- I was miserable, and I found it very, very, very difficult to act under those circumstances. I was shut down, so I said, 'I'm gonna get out of the business. I'm gonna become a full-time environmental activist. I'll leave Hollywood.' I bought a piece of property in New Mexico, and right around that time I met Ted Turner -- so I ended up owning New Mexico! [laughs]... Anyway, I wouldn't have been able to be married to him and work, but I was planning to not work anyway, so it's not like he got me to quit -- but I didn't need to work when I was married to Ted. When he and I divorced, I began writing my memoirs, which took me five years, and that was one of the most important things I have ever done in my life. When I was about a year from finishing them, I realized I'm a very different person now than I was 15 years ago. I could find joy in acting again -- I knew it in my bones. And I had appeared at the Oscars to present an award -- I had my haircut and I looked pretty great -- and CAA took me lunch and said, 'We want to represent you.' And I said, 'Well, I'm not sure I'm gonna work again.' But then the script Monster-in-Law came along, and I realized that this was just perfect."
  • On choosing Monster-in-Law (2005) for her comeback film  "First of all, I'd never played a character like that. Second of all, because I'd spent 10 years with Ted Turner, I knew that I could play her, because I learned from Ted, being up-close and personal, that being over-the-top can be nice and endearing. [laughs]... My book came out the same time the movie came out -- I'm the only person that's ever had a number one book and a number one movie out at the same time. The critics hated it -- "Why would Jane want to come back after 16 years in, kind of, a popcorn movie?" But it was actually a very brilliant move on my part because young people came to see the movie because they wanted to see [Jennifer Lopez], and they discovered me, because I'm the one that had the funnier role. And so, you know, when I walk down the street now, I see young girls coming towards me because they recognize me and they get excited, and I know exactly what they're gonna say. Forget Klute, forget Coming Home, forget Julia -- 'Monster-in-Law! I've seen it 15 times! It's my all-time favorite movie!'... So I think it was a smart move. And what I realized during that movie is that I have found joy in acting again -- I think I'm better than I ever have been -- and I look forward to more."
  • On what she's doing next  "I'm writing three new books and I have two new DVDs coming out!"