Jane Fonda is in Sydney later this month to host An Evening with Jane Fonda at the Opera House. She’ll be talking about the movies, the activism, the workout, the controversies that are part of her life and what it was like growing up in the shadow of a national monument – all things I’ve spoken to her about several times, including this interview.
Have you paid too high a price for being outspoken? I try not to be an extremist but I like to communicate things and I like to give myself wholeheartedly to what I do. I don't think I've paid much of a price. I've been controversial, it's true. But what I've gained far outweighs any price I’ve paid. I mean, some of the people who tried to destroy me back in the '70s didn’t last and I'm still working. I'm thinking of Nixon, for example [smiles]. It’s important to admit your mistakes, and to learn from them. People see me in a certain way, like I'm strong, right? Or I'm smart. I'm also very stupid and quite weak. I'm very confident and very vulnerable. Most of us are many things. It makes me uncomfortable when people idealise someone – me or anyone. You do pay a price in terms of what you do is all public but to complain about that, given what I get back, is just sour grapes. Yeah, people spy on you with long-lens cameras and report who you're going out with, but so what? So you're more careful.
You’ve said you’re aware of pressures on your own children from having a famous parent. You know that first-hand. My brother [actor Peter Fonda] suffered more from being the son of my father [actor Henry Fonda] than I did. My daughter [producer Vanessa Vadim] suffers more from being my daughter than my son [actor Troy Garity Hayden]. It's the one who’s the same sex as the famous parent who has it harder. Every child needs to develop their own identity. I worshipped my father a lot. I really admired him. Whenever I did something it was “What would dad think?” Not unusual for daughters perhaps. It makes it a little more complicated when your father's a national monument. He worked hard, long hours; made a lot of movies, did a lot of plays. Often away from home to do them. And like a certain generation of men, you know, his skill wasn't too much at expressing emotions off screen. It's hard to be a hero and a perfect father and a perfect man. He always let the contradiction between his image and reality show to us as kids, and that helped.
Did you work through these tensions when you made On Golden Pond with him? We’d already worked through those. We were very much alike, and also very different. There's a scene where he and Katharine Hepburn are playing parcheesi and I'm brooding on the couch and I turn to him. As often happens there's a lot of light in your face when you do a closeup and I couldn't see his eyes. I asked the cameraman to shine a light in his eyes so I could see him. And we did it, it came out fine and it was his turn. They lit him and right before we shot I said: “Can you see my eyes, dad?” He said: “I don't need to see your eyes; I'm not that kind of an actor.” I wanted to die! Here I am, I'm successful, I've won two Academy Awards, I was producing the damn movie! And still I felt like a little fat girl.
We often repeat our parents’ mistakes; what are you doing differently with your kids and grandkids? I try to be more demonstrative with my affections. I try to be more accessible. I make sure they know that I don't think I have all the answers, that I’m not perfect, and I show them my fallibility and vulnerability. And they take advantage of it tremendously! [laughs]
Your choice of movies has given you a platform for social change as much as entertainment. Yes. And you have to prepare. For Klute I spent a month in New York with pimps, prostitutes, $1000-a-night call girls, madams – I heard stories, I mean, I wasn't naive but I couldn't believe things I learned.
For ComingHome I’d spent four years working in a civilian support network for Vietnam veterans and I wanted to make a movie to reflect what I'd seen with the wives of the men coming home. Then I wanted to do the Karen Silkwood story and we couldn't get a script. Eventually, of course, Meryl did it but just when we gave up on it Michael Douglas brought me The China Syndrome and Richard Dreyfuss had just turned down the part of the reporter. I thought it was a wonderful story that said just what had to be said about the nuclear threat so we decided to do a sex-change and turn Richard's role into me! After that my best friend started organising office workers and the first organisation was a group in Boston called 9 to 5 and for a year my then-partner and I tried to make a serious movie because I'd heard for so long how women were really screwed over in the big offices, banks and insurance companies. I was listening to Dolly Parton singing on the radio and I thought, God, she'd make a great secretary [slaps thigh]. It's gonna be a comedy! I saw Lily Tomlin in her one-woman show and I thought me, Lily and Dolly – that's the ticket!
You do pay a price in terms of what you do is all public, but to complain about that, given what I get back, is just sour grapes.
Did you feel exploited on Barbarella? No. I didn't enjoy making it! We worked with a lot of dry ice and strange contraptions. I'll never forget being in a tiny space with 300 little birds pecking me and grabbing my face. It's one of the tortures she goes through before a trapdoor opens and she slides down a chute into the den of one of these creatures she has sex with by touching fingertips. It's really a charming movie [rolls eyes]. It was a drag to make but, no, I didn't feel exploited.
A year later I became a feminist and everyone said don't you feel exploited? I kept thinking not really, but I guess I'm s’posed to say so, so I said yes. She was actually a strong woman, in control of her destiny. So many of us women are stronger than we think. Generally, women are more interesting, we're generally stronger, we can survive more, we have unbelievable strengths and gifts. And we don't even know we have them.
- An Evening with Jane Fonda at the Sydney Opera House on August 27 at 8.30pm.