'Women get much feistier and braver': At 82, legendary actress Jane Fonda ramps up her activism
Now an octogenarian, Fonda has led protests, slammed Justin Trudeau, and gone to jail.
Originally published on Sept. 8, 2020
Jane Fonda wasn't entirely surprised that, not long after she reached her 80s, she landed in jail.
The Oscar-winning actress has appeared in films including They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Klute, Coming Home, Julia, The China Syndrome, On Golden Pond, The Morning After, 9 to 5 and many others, and released the first exercise video, Jane Fonda's Workout, which became the biggest-selling VHS of all time.
But for decades Fonda has also been a political activist, speaking out about causes from the Vietnam War to racism to climate change — and in recent years, she has seriously ramped up her activities.
She moved to the U.S. Capitol to lead weekly climate change demonstrations, which she called Fire Drill Fridays. Every week she would appear wearing a red coat and, using a megaphone, lead thousands of people in protest.
She's been arrested five times, and spent a night in jail. Celebrities including Sally Field, Joaquin Phoenix, Ted Danson, Diane Lane, Piper Perabo and Sam Waterston have also been arrested.
"I never imagined I'd live this long," jokes Fonda in an interview with q host Tom Power. "But if I'd ever imagined I would live this long, I would have figured I'd go to jail. Women get much feistier and braver when they're older."
'I knew that I needed to do more'
It turns out it was a Canadian author who helped to inspire the shift: when Fonda was on a trip to Big Sur with friends, she read a book by Naomi Klein.
"All of her books have a huge impact on me and my life. But her last book is called On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. That's what I needed to get me off my duff and into action. I knew that I needed to do more," says Fonda.
"I started reading the science and realizing that the window of opportunity is closing. We have to work really fast."
Seventeen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg also inspired Fonda by "putting her body on the line."
"That made me realize that what I wanted to do is put my body on the line," says Fonda. "I'm a celebrity. I'll raise a lot of attention that way."
Fonda says her activist streak began in Washington State in the 1970s, when she began protesting in support of Indigenous rights.
"That's when I really realized that I had a special responsibility because I was a celebrity," she says, "when I realized what it meant to have my presence there among all those tribal nations that were protesting."
Fonda also visited young Native American protestors in Alcatraz prison from 1969 to 1971.
Around the same time, she became involved with the movement to end the war in Vietnam — and was arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking after an anti-war speaking tour in Canada. The charges were later dropped.
More recently she also joined Indigenous leaders in Canada to speak out against the Canadian government's purchase of oil pipelines.
"We shouldn't be fooled by good-looking Liberals, no matter how well-spoken they are," said Fonda, referring to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
"He talked so beautifully of needing to meet the requirements of the [Paris] climate treaty and to respect and hold to the treaties with Indigenous people. Such a heroic stance he took there, and yet he has betrayed every one of the things he committed to in Paris."
'I dug in my heels'
Fonda says she was raised by her parents to stand up for the underdog — her father, Henry Fonda, appeared in films including The Grapes of Wrath, 12 Angry Men, The Wrong Man and The Ox-Bow Incident.
"Those were the films that he loved," she says. "And they were about fairness and justice."
Still, as the anti-war movement grew, Henry Fonda expressed concern about his daughter's activism.
"It was a generational struggle, so there was a lot of intergenerational clashing. I remember when he went over to Vietnam with the USO — you know, the entertainers who go over and entertain the troops," she remembers.
"And when he came back, the thing he kept talking about was there are no battle lines. You don't know where the enemy is. He was just flummoxed by that fact," says Fonda.
"But he was just worried that I was going to get in trouble like celebrities had in the '50s when they spoke out."
Despite her father's concerns, and public backlash for her firm stances, Fonda says she recognized her privilege and decided she wanted to speak out about issues that mattered to her.
"The more they attacked me, the more I dug in my heels and moved forward with resolve."
'Be more intentional'
In 1972, Fonda also earned the infamous nickname "Hanoi Jane" after she was photographed sitting atop a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun during a visit to Hanoi.
The image, which Fonda says happened after the soldiers sang her a song, led to the actress being blacklisted from Hollywood, and deterred other celebrities from getting involved in anti-war efforts.
"It was a terrible, thoughtless, irresponsible thing to do. I mean, it was not an active gun. There were no planes in the air. Nothing was happening. But I realized that the image belied everything that I am," says Fonda.
"I believe in non-violent civil disobedience. I don't believe in shooting evil and dropping bombs. So it was a terrible mistake and it was thoughtless."
Still, she says, her trip to North Vietnam brought international attention to the bombing, which was her main aim. "Never let perfect get in the way of good," she says.
Fonda says celebrities can act as "repeaters" — she describes them as antennae at the tops of mountains that pick up weak signals and amplify them — and send voices that don't normally get heard to wider audiences.
At one point she considered focusing on activism full-time, but her friend Ken Cockrel, a prominent politician, attorney and organizer behind the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, convinced her otherwise.
"He was like my mentor at the time, and I said, 'I think I'm going to quit Hollywood and become just a full time organizer.' And he said, 'Fonda, wait a minute, wait a minute. The movement has plenty of organizers. We don't have movie stars. Not only should you stay in the industry, you should pay more attention to your career. Be more intentional about your career," remembers Fonda.
"And that's where I decided to start making movies that were about things that I cared about. Fun with Dick and Jane and Coming Home, The China Syndrome, 9 to 5, et cetera."
'Such a feeling of empowerment'
Fonda has just released a new book, What Can I Do? My Path From Climate Despair to Action. In it, she retraces her decades of activism, and weaves personal anecdotes with insights from top climate scientists who discuss key issues including water, immigration and human rights.
The book also provides tips on what people can do in their own communities.
Now 82, Fonda says that getting older "takes work," but that it also helps keep her hopeful because she knows things have been bleak before. "Been there, done that, you know?" she says.
She insists that for her, the best antidote to depression is activism, and when she puts herself on the line, the hopelessness disappears. That's partly why, as an octogenarian, she is still willing to get arrested.
"The first [Fire Drill Friday] that I was standing on the steps with 15 other people holding our placards and chanting, I felt so good. It was like stepping into myself," says Fonda, who moved Fire Drill Fridays online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"When you're putting your whole body on the line for something that you believe in, when you're fully aligned with your deepest values, there is such a feeling of empowerment," she says.
"And I realized that the other 14 people felt the same way. And on the last day, four months later, when there were 350 people standing on the steps. And I could see in their faces that they all felt that."
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Vanessa Greco.