At 82, Jane Fonda still wants to save the world

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Now into her eighth decade, Hollywood star Jane Fonda spent the night before her most recent birthday in surprising surroundings.

“I wanted to turn 82 in jail because I thought it would get media attention,” she says.

Fonda was locked in a cell in Washington DC after protesting alongside about 180 other people, many of whom were arrested for engaging in civil disobedience in order to raise awareness about climate change.

She didn’t quite make it to her birthday (she was released at 10:45pm) but she did bring attention to the cause.

For months, Fonda and some of her famous friends had been getting themselves arrested and taking part in Fire Drill Fridays, an environmental activist movement the actor spearheaded with Greenpeace.

“That was the whole point of this,” Fonda explains.

“First of all, for people to learn about the climate crisis, but also to raise awareness of the urgency. And so I thought it would be a good way to get people to talk about [and ask] ‘What’s that old broad doing?'”

“But I would say, on average, the women were over 50 and they outnumbered the men two-to-one or more.”

The battle against climate breakdown is the latest in a big life spent protesting and working for causes the actor finds important.

It has inspired her not just to get arrested and become involved in direct action, but also write a book about what others can do too.

In her guise as a celebrity activist, she sees herself as something like a “repeater”: an electronic device that amplifies the signals around it.

“These antennas pick up the weaker signals and make sure that they’re heard in a much more broad geographic area,” she says.

“And I think that’s what celebrities do.

A life in three acts

Fittingly for someone whose whole life has intersected with Hollywood, Fonda describes her life as being split into acts.

Activist and politician Tom Hayden and actor Jane Fonda
Activist and politician Tom Hayden and actor Jane Fonda set up the Campaign for Economic Democracy in the 1970s.(AP)

In many ways, these acts mirror the changes that have taken place in the feminist movement, and American society, over the last fifty years.

From anti-Vietnam War activist in the 1960s, to celebrity fitness guru in the neoliberal 1980s, to rejuvenated climate activist in the new millennium.

“When I turned 60, I realised that I was entering my third act. And third acts are important. They can make sense of the two acts that preceded them,” Fonda says.

There is plenty of ground to cover even in just the first two acts — Fonda speaks, strangely, of having to “research herself” when writing her own memoirs.

Fonda grew up in Hollywood aristocracy. Her father, Henry Fonda, was famous for playing Abraham Lincoln and Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

She first studied acting with Lee Strasberg and Marilyn Monroe was a classmate. She then went to Paris, where she fell in love with the director, Roger Vadim. He made her a star with the movie Barbarella, a camp sci-fi romp that catapulted her to fame and success.

But beneath that public adoration, Fonda was battling some personal demons.

In her 30s, she began reassessing her life and work. She became a leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and after controversially visiting North Vietnam, she earned the nickname Hanoi Jane from the American press, some of whom called for her to be charged with treason as the Vietnam War came to an end.

Some years later, she began filming the Jane Fonda’s Workout exercise video franchise, which remains one of the best-selling workout videos of all time.

Even here, there was an activist bent — Fonda says she filmed and marketed the series in order to fund the Campaign for Economic Democracy, a political action organisation she set up in the 1970s with her then-husband, the politician and activist Tom Hayden.

Jane Fonda in the 1980s holding her leg in the air while wearing fitness attire and leg warmers.
Jane Fonda’s fitness videos became a cultural phenomenon in the 1980s, helping to make exercise more accessible for women.(Getty: Paul Popper)

“They could do this at home and it didn’t matter what they looked like or who was watching. So it really made a huge difference for women.

“Up until then, women weren’t supposed to have muscles. I mean, it was a joke what a workout for women looked like back then.

“But they started doing my workout and people began to develop muscles. Women did, and they never looked back.”

Marrying Ted Turner

It was near the end of her second act that Fonda stepped back from public life somewhat during her ten-year marriage to billionaire media mogul Ted Turner, the founder of US news network CNN.

Fonda says she loved Turner’s sense of adventure and his passion for the great outdoors. To Fonda, he was a man who always wanted to “keep moving.”

“I learned to fly fish, which I love. And you know, I was with him when he started his family foundation. So I had some influence there,” she says.

“And we were very, very compatible.”

But it was Turner’s relentlessness, and Fonda’s desire for something deeper, that ultimately drove a wedge between them.

“By that time, he had two million acres of incredibly pristine land. I wanted to be able to spend time on these places and get to know the rocks and the rivers and the trees on a first name basis. And I felt like I was evolving, I was growing, and he didn’t.

“So it was hard on him, and he couldn’t slow down. So I left. And we’re very close friends [today.]”

For an anti-war activist who at various stages of her life has advocated for rent controls, labour rights, women’s rights and renewable energy, being married to a billionaire invites questions of hypocrisy or contradiction.

But Fonda says she didn’t notice the material changes when she eventually left the marriage

“I’ve had a sumptuous lifestyle previous to him,” she says.

“I have also lived with no washing machine, no dishwasher in a house that cost $US40,000.

“I’ve known both extremes. When I left I moved into my daughter’s very humble house in Atlanta, and into her guest room with no closet. And I was very happy.”

Living authentically

And that brings us back to Fonda’s third act.

She has a comedy show Grace and Frankie, in which she stars alongside her friend Lily Tomlin. She has a new book. And a new sense of purpose.

Hollywood celebrity Jane Fonda in handcuffs protesting while wearing a red jacket.
Fonda was arrested along with others taking part in a Fire Drill Fridays rally in the US to protest for climate action.(Getty: John Lamparski)

In Fonda’s telling, she had her climate epiphany while hiking in California’s Big Sur with actor Rosanna Arquette and other famous friends, reading Canadian author Naomi Klein’s book on the issue.

“If I weren’t doing what I’m doing, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror. I’m a celebrity. I have a platform that can be used. How am I going to use it? It’s the title of the book: What can I do?

Some of this comes back to the ideal of being authentic, what Fonda calls “being whole.”

“[When you’re] not afraid of your own shadow, not so afraid of pleasing people, but you are being an authentic person and owning that — to me, that’s what being whole is,” she says.

“I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m scared to death of getting to the end of my life with a lot of regrets when it’s too late to do anything about it.

“And the regrets are always things you didn’t do.”

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