Jane Fonda on Cancer Battle, Privilege and Coming Into Her Own at 85
The unstoppable icon, who has three new movies on the way, opens up about conquering lifelong insecurities, quitting alpha males and why she’s not inclined to retire from acting or activism: “My platform matters.”
In a brief scene in her new movie 80 for Brady, Jane Fonda appears onscreen without her makeup or hair done, a collection of flowing blond wigs hung conspicuously on a rack behind her. It’s a surprisingly vulnerable moment in an otherwise broad studio comedy and a scene that Fonda specifically requested. In most of the rest of the movie, her character, Trish — a former beauty queen who now writes football-inspired erotica — is impeccably coiffed and hyper-feminine.
“It’s an exaggerated form of how I used to be,” Fonda says of Trish. “Please the guys. She’s had face-lifts.” Fonda wanted to reveal another layer to the character. “I wanted the audience to see her not done. What is it she’s covering up? All of us, we go home and we take it all off. And then we’re who we really are.”
It’s early January, and Fonda, now 85, is at home, wearing black joggers and a hoodie in the airy, Spanish revival townhouse in LA where she has lived for the past seven years. Her chef has made scones, and the house smells like cinnamon. “All right,” she says, clicking on her gas fireplace with a remote as she enters the living room for an interview, “Let’s go.” The decor reflects Fonda’s own layered history as an actress-activist. Her two Oscars, for 1971’s Klute and 1978’s Coming Home, sit on a shelf opposite a large, evocative painting by outsider artist Thornton Dial, made out of bedding and tablecloths. The art piece, Fonda explains, reflects Dial’s belief that “in order to survive, women need to disguise their strength, to hide under the covers.”
Fonda threw off those covers decades ago as a public figure, and audiences have long associated her image with strength — for her political outspokenness, her wide-ranging acting roles and her best-selling 1980s workout videos that literally taught a generation of women how to build their biceps. But the most recent years of Fonda’s life have been dedicated to revealing that strong woman underneath to herself. Growing up in a household and an era in which she was taught to feel small has taken more than 50 years of unlearning, starting with her feminist awakening in the 1970s and culminating in female friendships she is proudly bringing to movie screens in 2023. After all of these years, finally, Fonda says, “I’ve grown into myself.”
Last year, Fonda was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer, and she’s now in remission, having finished her last chemotherapy treatment in mid-November. For the lifetime exercise enthusiast who still works out regularly with a trainer, that meant making some adjustments — taking the elevator in her home, for instance, when she has always been a take-the-stairs kind of person. “It really hit me hard,” Fonda says of the chemo. “Sometimes my energy just gave out. Normally, I can hold a push-up for a couple of minutes. When the chemo was in me, after 30 seconds, I’d collapse.”
There is no sign of that fatigue in her professional life, however. In fact, she’s busier than most actors half her age, starring in three movies out in the next four months, an affirmation of her desire to show older women onscreen as more than just a punchline, in roles more interesting than what her Grace and Frankie co-star and frequent collaborator Lily Tomlin calls, “tracksuit offers.” Says Tomlin, “She wants to express women of a certain age in a more human way.” First up is 80 for Brady, a Paramount sports comedy due Feb. 3 in which Fonda and Tomlin star alongside Sally Field and Rita Moreno as octogenarian football fans trying to get to the Super Bowl. Next comes the indie dramedy Moving On (Roadside Attractions, March 17), in which she and Tomlin reteam in a vengeance plot against the widower of their recently deceased friend, and then there’s Book Club: The Next Chapter (Focus Features, May 12), a sequel to the 2018 white-wine-soaked comedy she made with Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen. “Even at the height of my career — whenever that was, I guess in the ’70s — I never had three movies in one year,” Fonda says. “So I feel pretty lucky.”
“There was no freeway,” Fonda says, riding in a car on her way across L.A. to a photo shoot. “That place where the overpass goes over the 405? They sold poinsettias there. There was a nursery and a field.” Because she does still work so much, and because she’s aged so well, it’s easy to forget just how long Jane Fonda has been a cultural fixture. She grew up in L.A. during the Depression and World War II, living at the end of a dirt road in Brentwood. She was a toddler when her father, Henry Fonda, starred as Abe Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln and 4 when he earned an Oscar nomination as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
Jane inherited his talent. In the ’70s, when Field was a TV actor trying to transition to film, Jane Fonda was, she says, “The Actress.” “I still have images of her work that are seared into my head,” Field says, recalling the first time she saw Fonda crying onscreen in Klute. “She’s sitting on the couch,” Field says. “She has her head in her hands. She’s looking down. You can’t see her eyes. She has that great shag haircut. You can see her shoulders move a little bit. You see the snot dripping from her nose. She simply is quietly crying and she does what people do when they cry. They don’t look up — ‘Oh, look, here’s tears rushing down my face.’ When people cry, they try to hide. I saw that scene and I never forgot it.”
It’s perhaps because of the way Americans overlook older women as almost invisible in public that Jane Fonda can — despite being Jane Fonda — walk down Fuller Avenue in West Hollywood in full hair and makeup and remain completely unrecognized. Though she still has the flashing blue eyes and erect posture of a second-generation movie star, no one on the street seems aware that an American icon has stopped to compliment a passing Pomeranian.
Fonda herself is bracingly direct and self-aware, “a spectacularly no-bullshit person,” according to her Moving On director, Paul Weitz. About 75 years before the popularization of the phrase “nepo baby” as a class critique, she became conscious of her privilege as Henry Fonda’s daughter. “People give you things when you’re famous,” she says. “I always had a hard time understanding that. I remember when I was 7, we were given a Studebaker and a TV set. And I thought, ‘Why? We could buy them.’ “
When she became an activist in her 30s, she began to understand her advantages on a deeper level. The first time she was arrested, in 1970, it was for climbing over the wall of an Army Reserve post in Seattle that Indigenous protesters wanted to reclaim for use as a Native American cultural center. The other 84 people arrested that day were Native American. “They were beaten,” Fonda says. “I wasn’t.” Other women who protested with her had their children with them. “I had my child [at home] with a governess,” she says. (By the way, Fonda notes, that protest succeeded: What was Fort Lawton is now the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.)
It was spending time with these female activists in the ’70s that reshaped Fonda’s sense of her own possibilities as a woman. Fonda, whose mother died by suicide when Jane was 12, grew up identifying closely with her father, and she says she didn’t have any women as friends until she was in her 30s. “I saw women as weak,” Fonda says. “From a very early age, I always thought, ‘I’ve got to hitch my wagon to a man.’ ” When she became an anti-Vietnam War activist, the female organizers Fonda met were starkly different from the types of women she had met growing up attending tony girls schools. “By opening myself to feminism and to women’s friendships, I’ve become a much healthier person,” Fonda says. “It’s taught me to not be afraid of vulnerability, not be afraid to ask for help, even though it’s really hard for me to do that.”
So it’s no coincidence that now, all three of Fonda’s new movies are odes to female friendship. “There’s not a lot of representation for older female friends that felt authentic to Jane’s experience,” says her 80 for Brady director, Kyle Marvin. “It’s something she clearly thinks about and values. What we talked about was the idea of exploring female friendship of that age in a nuanced way.” Fonda’s friendship with Tomlin, 83, whom she first met in 1977 backstage at Tomlin’s one-woman show, is now virtually its own cinematic universe, built upon their odd-couple chemistry. They first teamed onscreen in 1980 as pink-collar co-conspirators in 9 to 5 but really hit their stride in their 70s with seven seasons as unlikely divorced besties in the Netflix sitcom Grace and Frankie. In 80 for Brady, their comfort is palpable, as in a moment when the four women are sharing a hotel room at the Super Bowl and Fonda rolls over and spoons Tomlin. Offscreen, Tomlin is full of twinkly eyed mischievousness and Fonda is endearingly earnest. “She’s just sort of dear and like a young girl with such ideas and ambitions, for the planet, for life,” Tomlin says. “And that always made me smile.” For Fonda, the appeal of the friendship is just how different the two women are, with Tomlin’s working-class background and quick wit a contrast to Fonda’s childhood of affluence and often sadness. “She’s got this funny bone that’s just innate, and I’m in awe of it because it’s the opposite of me,” Fonda says. “I come from a long line of depressives.”
It was Tomlin who encouraged Weitz, who had directed her in the 2015 feminist indie dramedy Grandma, to write the role for Fonda that became Moving On, in which she plays a woman whose life was derailed decades earlier when she was raped. In writing the character, Weitz rewatched Fonda’s performances in Klute, in which she plays a high-priced call girl helping to solve a missing-persons case, and Coming Home, in which she’s a military wife who falls in love with an injured veteran. They are movies where, Weitz says, Fonda is playing characters who are “trying to get past some damage, navigating their own lives and being brave about it.” It’s a kind of character Fonda seems especially good at accessing. “There’s some core of her that is a human charting her own path and not taking the easy way out,” Weitz says.
The movie itself feels very post-#MeToo, particularly in the contrasting ways that Fonda’s character and her rapist, played by Malcolm McDowell, view the issue of consent. “The things that [McDowell’s character] said are so typical,” Fonda says. ” ‘We were both into it. We’d both been drinking. You know you wanted it. You’re a woman who, blah, blah, blah.’ I mean, it’s so typical of what they all say. I liked that.” As someone who has been talking about feminist causes like unequal pay and sexual harassment since the ’70s, Fonda was disappointed that when #MeToo finally arrived, it was the problems of white actresses that attracted the attention. “What is so unfortunate is that it took movie stars,” Fonda says. “It saddens me, but it didn’t surprise me. Black women came forward long ago, and it didn’t get the attention. But at least now, it’s talked about.” In the five years since Harvey Weinstein’s exposure, “I was hoping that it would matter, and it did,” she says. She’s also got the long view of a woman who has spent decades engaged in social change movements. “A lot of people in the beginning thought [#MeToo] went too far, canceling and all that kind of thing,” Fonda says. “All movements do in the beginning. They all do. They can’t be perfect out of the box. But it has emboldened women to speak. I honestly don’t know if it’s caused men to think twice. I really don’t.”
Fonda is heartened to see the impact #MeToo has had on film crews — “There are women all over the place!” — and wishes intimacy coordinators had been around back when she was shooting sex scenes. “What a difference it would’ve made in terms of my comfort,” she says. “I missed out on that one. It’s hard even to describe the difference when you’re the only [woman] on a set, literally the only.” On the set of 80 for Brady, Fonda and her three co-leads, who combined have more than 250 years in show business, rarely went back to their trailers, according Marvin, choosing instead to sit around and talk, sometimes swapping entertainment industry horror stories. “It brings about a whole different energy,” says Field, 76, of working with a cast of female contemporaries. “It’s that love affair that we all had with each other. Lily and Jane and Rita make me funnier and bigger and braver than I think I am. It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing that never happened before and won’t happen again.”
Fonda married three times, to French director Roger Vadim in 1965, with whom she had a daughter, filmmaker Vanessa Vadim; political activist Tom Hayden in 1973, with whom she had a son, actor Troy Garity, and adopted a 14-year-old daughter, activist Mary Luana Williams; and entrepreneur Ted Turner in 1991, whom she divorced in 2001. Vadim died in 2000 and Hayden in 2016. Fonda says she reads the obituaries regularly — “I have a few boyfriends that I always wonder, ‘Are they still alive?’ ”
When Fonda bought her house in 2015, a real estate agent showcased the his-and-hers bathrooms. “And I said, ‘No, no man will live here,’ ” she says. ” ‘It’s going to be me from now on.’ And I took over both bathrooms.” For the first time in her life, she feels safe living on her own. “If I wasn’t on the arm of an alpha male, I felt very vulnerable,” she says. “I felt, ‘Nobody’s going to be interested. I have to be with a man who’s interesting enough to have people want to come over.’ ” In those seven years, she’s found that, in fact, lots of people want to come over — kids, grandkids, female friends for rollicking dinner parties. And when the house is quiet, she’s content.
When Fonda was in her 50s, she dipped out of Hollywood for roughly a decade to focus on her mental health and marriage to Turner, with whom she’s still friendly. It wasn’t the first time she thought about stepping away. In the ’70s, the tension Fonda felt about her celebrity gnawed at her, and she considered quitting acting before being talked out of it by civil rights activist Ken Cockrel. “He said, ‘Fonda, we have a lot of organizers. We don’t have movie stars in the movement,’ ” she says. ” ‘You not only should not quit, you should pay more attention to your career. Be more intentional about your movies and what you make.’ ” She took Cockrel’s advice, forming her own production company and backing movies like Coming Home, about the impact of Vietnam; 9 to 5, on workplace sexism; and The China Syndrome, about the nuclear power industry.
Fonda is now more than a decade into a late-career renaissance built primarily around comedic work — though she says she never even realized she was funny until midlife. She doesn’t produce any more, considering it a long game not worth playing at 85. “I never could get anything made quickly,” she says. “The fastest was Coming Home, which I think was five and a half years. I don’t have that kind of time now.”
Sony is remaking one of her signature films, Barbarella, with Sydney Sweeney set to star. The 1968 sci-fi movie, directed by Vadim, cemented Fonda’s status as a sex symbol, and it has endured as a camp classic. Fonda is not involved with the remake and when asked what she thinks about it, she says, “I try not to. Because I worry about what it’s going to be. I had an idea of how to do it that [original producer] Dino De Laurentiis, when he was still alive, wouldn’t listen to. But it could have been a truly feminist movie.”
Acting, now, is largely a vehicle to help Fonda attract attention to causes she cares about. “One feeds the other,” she says. “I recently thought, ‘Maybe I do want to quit acting.’ I mean, I’m 85. But then I realized, my platform matters. It brings people in that might not come in normally.” Fonda spent her 82nd birthday in jail after getting arrested for a fifth time in Washington, D.C., in 2019, in a sustained climate change protest she called Fire Drill Fridays. “I was happy to turn 82 in jail,” she says. “Because I knew it would get a lot of attention.”
At one point, she asked Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos to let her out of her Grace and Frankie contract so she could move to Washington full time. “I wanted to go for a year, and he listened to me patiently,” Fonda says. “He was very friendly, and he said he admired the purpose. But he said, ‘I’ve signed all the contracts. I can’t.’ So I had four months to decamp to D.C. for protests.”
Fonda has recruited famous friends like Tomlin, Field, Joaquin Phoenix and Rosanna Arquette to participate in the protests and get arrested, too. “People started coming from all over the country,” she says. “People who had never been to a rally before, much less engaged in civil disobedience. And they told me that it changed them. That’s what we were trying to do, to turn concerned people into activists. And I think that we succeeded.”
Fonda’s calendar is dizzying. She fundraises and campaigns for political candidates through the Jane Fonda Climate PAC she launched in 2022. During the last election, she traveled to New Mexico and Michigan, backing candidates on down-ballot races. This spring, she’ll head to Louisiana and Texas to interview people whose lives are being affected by the fossil fuel industry. And in May, she’ll attend a gathering of Bear Clan women, part of the Mohawk tribe, who helped suffragists win women the vote. She continues to abide by an environmental pledge she made in 2019 not to buy new clothes, and tries to avoid buying much of anything. The sofa on which this interview is conducted was inherited from one of her marriages, though the piece has been reupholstered.
Fonda is the kind of person who takes all her commitments seriously, including her Academy membership, averaging six movies screened in a weekend. “I’m a Girl Scout when it comes to the Oscars,” she says. “I watch everything.”
She also reads three newspapers a day and lots of books — a recent favorite was Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, Demon Copperhead, a retelling of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield set in Southern Appalachia. “It takes you into a world of white Appalachian poor with such heart, and empathy and detail,” Fonda says. “I love that about movies and books. And my life. I go places that I’m not supposed to be in, and I learn so much.”
Though she’s focused like a laser beam on the existential threats to the planet, Fonda admits she doesn’t think much about her own legacy. “I’m not scared of dying. I think I’m telling the truth when I say that,” Fonda says. “But I am really scared of getting to the end with a lot of regrets when it’s too late to do anything. And when you figure that out, it instructs the way you live between now and the end.” The regrets, Fonda says, “all have to do with children,” though she declines to get into the specifics. “I didn’t know how to be a parent,” she says. “But it’s never too late. You can show up.”
Fonda’s friends say they have noticed a difference in her during the past few years. “I sense in Jane an urgency,” says Field. “She’s always felt most alive as an activist. But I feel it even more lately. She feels an urgency to do all that she can while she’s still here on earth.” Tomlin sees the drive too and draws it back to Fonda’s childhood. “She lost her mother the way she did,” Tomlin says. “Her father was distant. She saw so many things in the world and she said, ‘I can make them better.’ That was her mantra. ‘I can make it better.’ When she throws herself into something, you’ve got the whole deal, baby. That’s it. Jane’s not pulling back on anything.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.