Jane Fonda on Her Night in Jail: "It Was Just Me and the Cockroaches"

The 81-year-old screen legend talks future climate-protest buddies (Kyra Sedgwick, Mark Ruffalo), why Obama dropped the ball on climate, and the origin of her already iconic arrest outfit as she makes her case to Hollywood to join her in D.C.: "Having celebrities there means a lot."

Hollywood, get off your keisters and join Jane Fonda in Washington.

That's the main message the 81-year-old icon wants to relay as she speaks to The Hollywood Reporter from a train heading from New York City to the nation's capital for a fifth straight week of climate protests and arrests.

Fonda relocated to D.C. in September to begin her campaign, dubbed "Fire Drill Fridays," and hatched with Greenpeace USA president Annie Leonard, environmental activist Bill McKibben and On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal author Naomi Klein. Inspired by similar actions by teen activists, the Grace & Frankie star has since been arrested alongside famous friends like Sam Waterston, Ted Danson, Catherine Keener and Rosanna Arquette. On Friday she'll be back in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, this time with Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, by her side. Last week's action resulted in Fonda spending 20 hours behind bars. She's ready and willing to do more.

First of all, how are you holding up?

I'm good. I'm just on the train headed back to D.C. from New York.

What have been your living arrangements through all of this?

I've gone back and forth to L.A. and New York a few times for speaking engagements. But other than that I've basically moved to D.C. for four months. The climate is an urgent crisis.

Your fifth protest and potential arrest this Friday will be with Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. Why them?

They for decades have been very anti-military. They've focused on cutting Pentagon budgets and ending wars. And so they wanted to come down to speak at the Fire Drill Friday focusing on military, war and climate change.

How do you go about choosing who's going to be by your side at all these events?

I ask my celebrity friends. Like last week, Catherine Keener and Rosanna Arquette were there. Ted Danson has long been an activist and advocate on oceans, and so I specifically invited him to come for oceans. Bobby Kennedy Jr. I was hoping could come for water because he started River Keepers. Next week it's environmental justice and the two actresses who play my daughters on Grace and Frankie [June Diane Raphael and Brooklyn Decker] are coming down as well as our showrunners Marta Kauffman and Howard Morris and the entire writers room. They're all coming down.

My daughters [Vanessa Vadim and Mary Williams] will probably say a few words and introduce other speakers who have expertise in environmental justice. Lily Tomlin will be coming down, but I don't know exactly when. [Civil rights leaders] Rev. William Barber, Dolores Huerta and others are coming down for my birthday on Dec. 20. Diane Lane is coming down for the fresh water one. Taylor Schilling and Kyra Sedgwick are coming down.  I'm still waiting to hear from Don Cheadle and Mark Ruffalo.

Is the new Hollywood trend getting arrested by your side?

I guess it certainly was a trend over Halloween in terms of the costumes — the handcuffs, red coat and black beret. As for celebrities, I've had to send out invitations. And sometimes they respond and sometimes they don't.

When did you first become an activist?

The Vietnam War. This was right after I did Barbarella. I spent time with American soldiers and they told me a lot about the war. They gave me a book to read by Jonathan Schell called The Village of Ben Suc. That's when I knew that I had to change my life. And it was not easy because I was married [to Barbarella director Roger Vadim] and I had just given birth. But a year later, I left my French life and moved back to the United States to join the anti-war movement. That was the beginning of my activism. That's what I got arrested for the first time in 1970 — at the orders of Richard Nixon. 

You were on a presidential watch list?

Pretty much. Yes. The arresting officer in Cleveland told me he was under orders from the White House to arrest me and accused me of drug-smuggling.

What did you learn from all those protests back in the Vietnam era?

Don't let them get to you. The more I was attacked, the more I dug in my heels. I wanted to show them that they couldn't frighten me. It also taught me the importance of not being alone in your activism, to be part of a movement because then no matter what is thrown your way, you have the cushion of your co-activists in the movement around you. You know, when I decided to come to D.C. I met with representatives of all the major climate organizations, especially the students, because I didn't want to be some privileged white movie star bopping into D.C. and doing an action, you know? "Oh everybody, look at me!"

Did you meet with either Al Gore or Greta Thunberg?

I have not met her. I'm receiving an award on her behalf next week in New York. I'm reading a speech from her and I have communicated with her father. I know Al Gore and I write to him through his daughter [Kristin], who's a writer in California. He told me that he really supports what we're doing and he will try to come.

How would you compare the activism of the early 1970s to this generation's activism? 

You'd never know it, looking at the way the history is written or the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary or other things like that, but the American anti-war movement, especially the last three years of the war, played a major role in ending the war because we forced Congress to cut off the funding of the Thieu government in South Vietnam that we were propping up. 

But what we're protesting now is a ticking existential time bomb that encircles everything — everyone's life, the economy, health, the military, national security, everything. We are facing a real catastrophe. The science tells us we have 11 years to make systemic changes in order to prevent it from becoming uncontrollable.

I'm hoping celebrities will read this and want to come join me. I mean I've reached out to everybody I've known, but there are a lot of people I don't know how to reach. And we need you here. It's not scary. You don't necessarily have to get arrested, but even if you do, it's a misdemeanor. It's not a felony. You pay 50 bucks and you get out. Having celebrities there means a lot.

Your fourth arrest was the first that resulted in a night in jail. What were the charges that led to that?

I don't remember. Engaging in civil disobedience? Disturbing the peace? Incommoding! I think that's it. "Incommode." After the third arrest, they gave me a court date in November. And because I was arrested again before my court date, that's when they said, "Well, you're going to have to spend the night in jail." I have to be careful not to get to a point where they're going to keep me for 90 days because I have to begin preparing for Grace & Frankie in January. So I'm not going to get arrested every time. They give you three warnings and so I will step away at the third warning.

So how were you treated while spending the night in jail?

Well, you know, I'm a white movie star. What are they gonna do? I wasn't treated very well back in 1970 but I didn't have a hit TV series behind me. But I was treated fine. The conditions are not great, frankly, and you have to sleep on a metal slab. And I'm almost 82 years old and I hurt.

But you know, the most disturbing part of it was seeing the people in jail and realizing that this country doesn't choose to put enough resources into social safety nets and mental health services because so many of the people are there because of poverty and racism and mental health issues. And that made me very sad. And it was also interesting that back in 1970 in Cleveland, all the other prisoners were white. Last Friday they were all black. It's the new Jim Crow.

How closely did you mingle with the general prison population?

I was in for 20 hours and for seven hours I was in a cell. It was a holding pen. All of the cells had multiple people in them except mine. In my cell it was just me and the cockroaches. But after seven hours I was taken to another cell block where there were four other women. And then another one where there were six other women. I talked to them and heard their stories.

What did they tell you?

A lot of it was domestic abuse and poverty and despair. And there were a number of disturbed people in there. It was sad.

I'm sure. On a lighter note, the outfit you have been wearing during all your arrests — red coat, black beret — has become recognizable enough to be a Halloween costume, as you mentioned. What's the origin of that?

The team and I decided at the very beginning that we should all try to wear something red. I racked my brain — I didn't have anything red. I don't usually wear red. So I decided that the last article of clothing that I will ever buy is a red coat. Sure enough, I found one at Neiman Marcus on sales for $500. And that's the coat. I'm speaking out against consumerism and so I have to walk the talk. And so that's the last thing I'll buy.

Who's the designer?

I don't know. It's Greta Thunberg who inspired me. She doesn't buy clothes. In her acceptance speech that I'm reading next week at Glamour's Women of the Year Awards, she talked about how funny it is that a girl who has never worn makeup, never gone to a hairdresser and doesn't but new clothes is being given a "Glamour award." But she thinks it's a good sign. She said it means anything is possible.

You're glamming down. What other changes have you made?

I drive a hybrid electric car. I'm getting rid of all single-use plastic. I eat much less meat, and much less fish because one of the things I learned at the Fire Drill Friday that focused on oceans is we have to eat less fish because the fish stocks are just dropping precipitously. And also swordfish — you know, those big, top-of-the-[food chain] predator fish — are so filled with toxins now that we really have to cut back. It's all fossil fuel related. Obviously I'm trying to recycle, although that's hard to do in Beverly Hills. I take a train instead of flying. Making those individual lifestyle changes is very important, but it's not enough. They can't be scaled fast enough to make a difference. It's only a start, not a stop.

Are any of the democratic candidates for president giving you reason to be hopeful?

The fact that they're all talking about the environment gives me more hope than in 2016. I am assiduously steering clear of endorsing anyone. We've got to hold their feet to the fire. We can't just assume the way we did with Obama that just because they're good people, that they're going to do the right thing. We have to be talking to our elected officials and demanding that they do the right thing vis-a-vis climate or everything is for naught. 

Do you feel Obama dropped the ball on environmental issues?

Yes.

Even though he got the U.S. into the Paris Climate Accord?

I think he did great and I miss him and Michelle, but I don't think he got the seriousness of climate. And he's not alone. And that's why I'm in D.C. This is right now, and we're running out of time.