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“I’m still a work in progress”: Jane Fonda on embracing “the whole Jane” without husbands or lovers to please

At 82, the activist and award-winning actor speaks to The Australian Women's Weekly's Juliet Rieden.
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In a fire-engine red wool coat purchased “on sale at Neiman Marcus [department store]” for maximum impact – and warmth – her hands waving aloft and lashed together with sharp, plastic zip-lock cuffs, octogenarian actor Jane Fonda is out of her comfort zone but in her element.

From Capitol Hill she bellows thanks to BAFTA for the Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award for Excellence in Film as police lead her away to the jailhouse.

It’s a scene that lit up news channels around the world last October and featured in the iconic actor’s acceptance video, played with pomp and glory on a big screen at the Beverly Hills BAFTA gala she couldn’t attend.

To the uninitiated it looked like a piece of choreographed theatre, filmed in Washington D.C. perhaps for a new role in a political thriller. But Jane Fonda was – and is – deadly serious; this is a crisis not a drama and Jane’s new life’s work, so buckle up!

She was in the throes of being arrested for civil disobedience, together with her daughter, Vanessa Vadim (from her first marriage to the late French film director, Roger Vadim), and Sam Waterston, her co-star in the TV comedy series Grace and Frankie, part of an impeccably executed series of protests against the government’s inaction on climate change called Fire Drill Fridays.

Together with Greenpeace, Jane Fonda had launched a vital new movement and accepting the award from her activist’s platform was a piece of genius.

“I hoped it would inspire more celebrities to join us,” says Jane. It did! Jane also wanted to reach out to older women.

“It was me saying I am famous, I have a platform, I’m old …If I can do this, it will cause others, especially older women – which is a demographic that we have to get right now because the elections are coming up – to understand the urgency and it will motivate them to action. And it worked.”

Jane moved to Washington to host weekly rallies and was arrested five times, including spending a night in jail. And every demonstration hit prime-time news.

When a Fox News TV reporter poked a microphone in her face as she was released from her night in a cell and bleated, “Why have you done this?” Jane quipped, “To get you to cover climate change.”

Jane was arrested in Washington last year for civil disobedience as she campaigned against the government’s inaction on climate change called Fire Drill Fridays.


Of course, it’s not the first time the double-Oscar winner and mother-of-three has dominated the headlines. Political activism has been a sideshow to her acting career and marriages since the 1960s.

As the daughter of Hollywood star Henry Fonda and connected socialite Frances Ford Seymour (actually a distant relation to King Henry VIII’s third wife), Jane was famous before she even flexed her own acting muscles – which, by the way, proved a match for her father’s. And that early public persona was something she quickly realised she could use to change the world. Jane Fonda the freedom fighter was off.

Jane admits she has “a tendency to go full bore 200 per cent for better or worse” and this ferocious passion fuelled her work with the civil rights movement, American First Nations tribes, the Black Panthers, feminism and more over the ensuing decades.

Jane pictured in 1970 campaigning for peace in Vietnam.


Her most infamous exploit was in 1972, when she spent two weeks in North Vietnam protesting President Nixon’s carpet bombing and caused uproar back home with a photograph which she now admits was a mistake.

“I was naive,” she says in the intimate HBO TV documentary Jane Fonda In Five Acts.

“Henry Fonda’s daughter sitting on an enemy aircraft gun was a betrayal. It was like I was thumbing my nose at the military of the country that gave me privilege … I will go to my grave regretting that.”

While the photo stunt dubbed “Hanoi Jane” by the media may have been foolhardy, the sentiment behind it was deeply felt. Jane was angry.

“For myself, I didn’t know how to channel my anger in constructive ways,” she admits.

The following year Jane married her second husband, charismatic activist and politician Tom Hayden, and together they raised their family – Jane’s daughter Vanessa from her first marriage, their son Troy born that year and daughter Mary Williams adopted as a young teen in 1982 – in a world of bohemian radicalism.

Jane Fonda in a mug shot following her arrest in 1970.


Today Jane is angry again, but this is different. She is wholeheartedly single with no husband or lover in the background guiding her – or in some cases holding her back. And as we talk it’s clear that she feels truly free to be herself, possibly for the first time in her life. She’s responding to emotions deep inside with the urgency of someone who, in her autumn years, doesn’t have time on her side.

Jane had fallen into a state of depression, she tells me, unable to see a future for her children and grandchildren in a world gripped by the fossil fuel industry.

“I was depressed because I knew that we were facing a crisis that could mean the end of humanity and I didn’t know what to do,” she explains.

Then she read Naomi Klein’s book On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal and was especially inspired by the author’s words about teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and her movement ‘Fridays for Future’ invoking school strikes around the world for climate change.

“I find Greta compelling,” says Jane.

“She just cuts right through the bullshit. I knew that what Greta had seen was the truth, that, as she said, ‘we should be behaving as if our house were on fire …’

“I knew what I needed to do, and I felt so strongly I was quivering all over,” says Jane who immediately announced to her friends – Hollywood actors Rosanna Arquette and Catherine Keener – that she was moving to Washington D.C. to camp out in front of the White House.

“If Greta can do it, so can I,” she declared.

I ask Jane if she feels her generation has let down her grandchildren’s and Greta’s generations.

“They think so and that’s what matters,” she replies. “I hate to say yes, because that is what the fossil fuel industry wants us to feel – that it’s our fault. But the reason that this is happening is because the fossil fuel industry is knowingly destroying our climate. They knew as early as the late 1960s and they proceeded anyway. It’s our generations that witnessed the slow unravelling. Why didn’t we know sooner? Because the fossil fuel industry lied to us and cast doubt.

“Young people have the right to be angry. My grandkids are angry. The older two grandkids came down and got arrested with me. My young one is only 11 months old so he doesn’t know yet what’s going on.”

Now, Jane is angry again, but this time, she is wholeheartedly single with no husband or lover in the background guiding her – or in some cases holding her back.


Jane has galvanised her thoughts into a new book, What Can I Do? The Truth About Climate Change And How To Fix It, which is part personal revelation, part science and part activism with additional commentary from experts.

It sits side by side with her monthly Fire Drill Fridays video conferences and explains her decision to embrace jail time.

Even though spending a night in jail in your 80s is no picnic, Jane says she was well aware she was treated with kid gloves.

But I wonder if she was also scared?

“It’s different when you’re white and you’re famous, because the police aren’t as likely to rough you up as they would if you were a person of colour. Every single other person in that jail was black and they should not have been in jail. They should have been in mental institutions; they should have been under medical treatment. There are not enough safety nets in this country to deal with the problems facing the people that were in jail with me. I had it easy. They gave me a sandwich to eat, juice to drink. They had a guard outside my door.

“So, I wasn’t scared, but I had a feeling that putting my body on the line and aligning myself 100 per cent with my deepest values would be empowering. And it was. And so many people who were with me who had never done it before said that they felt transformed by doing it.”

As an amusing aside, the former queen of aerobics also used her cell time fruitfully, doing wall squats.

“Hey, you gotta seize the opportunity when you can,” she jokes.

Finding Jane

But the transformation was also elemental, representing a new chapter in Jane’s life with the shackles of partnerships cast off.

Did she feel she was now able to be her own self?

“God it’s about time, right? If not now when?” she says with a hearty sigh that breaks into a chortle.

“It took me into my 70s to be able to stand on my own two feet, but part of the reason I can do it is because I’m not in a relationship and never will be again … It’s over. I’ve closed up shop. I’ve had a lot of husbands, I’ve had a lot of lovers, been there done that …my best self is when I’m alone.”

While she was in jail, Jane met a woman who had worked on a climate protest with Jane’s second husband, Tom Hayden, before he died in 2016. The speech he made back then was probably his last, pondered Jane.

“I admired him so much, he was a very skilful strategic organiser,” she explains.

“To be truthful, though, I’d been privately wondering if I could have gotten up the nerve to move to D.C. and launch Fire Drill Fridays were Tom still alive. I had always been in awe of his fierce intelligence and … always feeling myself the student to the teacher. I knew that if I had gone to him and asked him if I should do it he might have said no … I might well have backed off.”

In the heart of this incisive actor, orator and activist there has always been a painful dose of vulnerability which has prevented what she calls “being authentic” and I sense it’s something Jane is only now coming to terms with.

“It took me into my 70s to be able to stand on my own two feet, but part of the reason I can do it is because I’m not in a relationship and never will be again … It’s over,” Jane says.


Although from the outside her life looks pretty charmed, it has been an emotional ride, influenced first by her complex childhood family dynamics and then by husbands whom she always felt “I had to please”.

Jane’s mother, Frances, committed suicide when Jane was 12. She had bi-polar disorder and was being treated in a hospital at the time and snuck a razor blade in.

“My mother was a very complicated woman, very beautiful but she always seemed sick,” Jane told documentary maker Susan Lacy.

“We’d be sitting in the living room and her hand would be trembling and I didn’t want her to feel bad so I would make my hand tremble too … I think my father was not the person she ever should have married. He was not kind to her.”

Jane and her brother, Peter, (who also became an acclaimed actor and died in 2019) were told that their mother had died from a heart attack. Peter was crying but Jane took it on the chin.

“People would say ‘God, Jane – isn’t she amazing, she’s so strong’ …that was approbation and became my modus operandi – keeping it all in.”

Her father remarried and Jane was sent to boarding school. Henry Fonda was cold and distant with his daughter and she felt constantly judged by him and thought she was somehow unlovable. “No one ever talked about my mother,” she adds.

Fortunately, Jane loved school, especially history and Roman and Greek mythology. But she says it was reading about how Romans would gorge themselves and then purge that introduced her to bulimia.

It started as a secret game with her roommate, Carol, and developed into a life-long addiction with bouts of anorexia and bulimia, later coupled with Dexedrine in her 20s, which made Jane manic and speedy.

“Mothers are often blamed for that, but for me it was my dad,” she says in the documentary.

“I made him ashamed. He thought I was fat because I didn’t look the way that he wanted me to look.”

Jane famously acted opposite her father in his last film On Golden Pond.

“It was about the reconciliation of a hard dad and an emotional daughter,” she says.

While the two didn’t ever really talk about their difficult relationship, there is a well of love in the film that speaks volumes.

That need for approval from her father also seeped into her three marriages, to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden and Ted Turner.

“It took me a really long time to find my own narrative,” she admits.

“None of my marriages were democratic because I was too worried about pleasing. I had to be a certain way in order for them to love me. I had to look a certain way, but different for all of them.”

Jane’s son, Troy, who is now 47 and of course an actor, recently said that his mother is in a constant state of reassessment. Does Jane agree?

“Uh huh,” she says quietly. “I feel compelled to do it to become better, to be the best. You can’t make your life longer but you can make it wider and deeper.”

Jane says that she was an old 20-year-old, sad and joyless, and I wonder now how she would counsel her younger self.

“I would say it gets better. It’s really hard, Jane, to be young. You’re not alone, just understand that it’s normal that you feel these things. It gets easier when you get older but especially if you work real hard to understand yourself, to take responsibility for the mistakes you made and to try to learn from them. Also, to understand why your parents were the people they were so you can forgive them. This is what you have to do and your old age will be much better than it is now.”

Over the past decade Jane has started to really value her growing group of female friends.

“I can be more authentic with them. They’re all smarter and braver and more strategic than I am, so I always learn from them. I learned from my husbands too but I just let myself be more real when I’m with my women friends.”

Today she is “the whole Jane with agency over my own life” and it’s something she only started to feel in her mid- to late-70s, she says.

“It is a life’s work. Yes it is. I’m still a work in progress … When I watched my dad die I felt that he had a lot of regrets. I do not want to get to the end of life with regrets and I know the regrets will not be for what I did, they’ll be for what I didn’t do.”

What Can I Do? The Truth about Climate Change and How to Fix it, by Jane Fonda, published by Harper Collins is out now.

Read more in the October issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.

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