Hollywood royalty Jane Fonda (father Henry Fonda, brother Peter Fonda) starred in her first film in 1960. Since then, she has enjoyed a 58-year career (so far) as an actress, writer and fitness guru. Throughout her career – which has earned her two Academy Awards, two BAFTAs, four Golden Globes, two Tony Awards and an AFI Life Achievement Award – Jane has developed a reputation as an outspoken feminist and political activist (Hanoi Jane, remember?). She is also an advocate for age-positivity, and has written two books about embracing the ageing process.
“In the past, I was really afraid of ageing,” Fonda states. “So, I’ve written two books on the topic because it’s forced me to know thine enemy – look it square in the face and get to know it inside and out. There’s been a huge longitudinal study of hundreds of thousands of people, and it showed that when people turn 50 – this includes men and women whether married, divorced or single – they get less hostile, less anxious, more easy-going and less stressed. Gerontologists and psychologists aren’t entirely clear about why, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that there’s more life behind us. We’ve been there, done that and we don’t make mountains out of molehills. It’s just not as stressful being old is it is when you’re young and you don’t know what you need to know and what you need to do.”
An important part of growing older is learning who you are and what you want out of life. Something that Fonda didn’t realise until she was 70 years old was what she needed out of a relationship. “I didn’t realise how much I needed kindness until I was in my 70s and in a relationship with a man who was kind. Suddenly it was like, ‘oh, why didn’t I ever think that was important before?’ He also cherished me. Men are so scared to be as vulnerable and open as you need to be to cherish someone. So, these qualities are what I look for these days,” says the currently single star.
Fonda is now 80 years old, and she appears as strong, quick-witted and spritely as ever. “I meditate, eat healthily and exercise. I’ve always had a lot of energy. But now that I’m 80, I sleep a lot, and I have good, healthy energy. I live in a place that has a community centre with a gym – It’s not a retirement home [laughs]! I have a trainer that comes in and works out with me when I have time off. I’m making Grace and Frankie at the moment, so I don’t have a whole lot of time.”
Fonda’s latest film is Book Club, which also stars Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen (you can read our interview with Candice and Mary here). The cast play four best friends who have attended their monthly book club since the late 1960s. One of the women suggests that they add 50 Shades of Grey to their reading list, and let’s just say the book, ah, changes the way they view their personal relationships. Fonda herself read the book when it came out, as she wanted to see what all the fuss was about. “I had to read it for myself. I’m so glad this book was written,” Fonda muses. “I think that it excited and titillated and woke up a lot of women in this country.”
Although a book club may sound unassuming, these clubs are places where women have met, connected and bonded over literature (and countless other topics) for hundreds of years. “These clubs are so important for women,” Fonda states. “They helped to give rise to the women’s movement. I have many friends in many parts of the country that are very committed to their book clubs.”
What Fonda loved most about this film was the opportunity to tell a story about four strong older women. “I was so happy to make a movie about these older women who are complicated and robust and living interesting lives when they’re older than 60. These women who are really, really close friends. For profound and evolutionary reasons, female friendship is very different than male friendship, and I think it’s partly why we live longer. Evolutionarily, men were going out individually – you know, this guy goes after that tiger, this guy goes after that antelope – it was individualistic and competitive. While this was going on, women of all ages were sitting around campfires talking, tending to babies, gathering berries – doing things together. And so, I think these days, women still really benefit from friendship. When we get together – even if we haven’t seen each other for a long time – we drill down really fast to a very deep and soulful level. We’re not afraid to cry, we’re not afraid to call up our friend and say, ‘I need help, I don’t know what to do’. Men don’t do that. When women get together, a hormone called oxytocin is released – it’s a feel-good hormone that reduces the stress hormone cortisol – and I think it’s likely that this improves our health and well-being. Harvard did a medical study that showed that not having friends is as bad for your health as smoking. I find it all really interesting, so I just loved being in this movie that shows how much women help each other when we’re willing to be vulnerable.”
This vulnerability is what Fonda believes men lack. “When I finished with my marriages [Fonda has been married 3 times], I studied men and gender and it was fascinating. Men are taught from a young age not to cry, not to be a mamma’s boy, not to be ‘weak’. Whether they are taught this from their fathers, mothers, teachers or coaches – or just implicitly through the zeitgeist – they then struggle to express their emotions. How many presidents have we elected who have no empathy? And they’re very often alpha men. There’s this toxic masculinity, like if they’re not bringing home the bacon, they feel emasculated and that’s when violence happens. It’s very easy to shame men, and when men are ashamed, they become violent. The rise of the women’s movement gave rise to a lot more domestic violence. I’ve read a lot of books to help me understand my father and especially my ex-husband Ted Turner.”
For someone who has campaigned about gender equality and domestic violence for decades, Fonda was very happy to witness the rise of the ‘me too’ movement in Hollywood and throughout the world. “I’m glad I’m still alive to see this happen, because I think it’s really important. I don’t think this is a passing movement, I think it’s going to really make a difference – we need to make sure that it does. We need to take the next step and consider how we can make institutional, permanent structural changes, so that harassment and abuse don’t happen in the workplace anymore.”
Book Club is released in cinemas on August 23, 2018