Still Reinventing At 80, Jane Fonda Says, 'I Feel Better Than I Ever Have' The actress, activist and fitness icon is the subject of the documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts. Married three times, she says, "It took me into my 60s and 70s to begin to say: I deserve respect."
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Still Reinventing At 80, Jane Fonda Says, 'I Feel Better Than I Ever Have'

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Still Reinventing At 80, Jane Fonda Says, 'I Feel Better Than I Ever Have'

Still Reinventing At 80, Jane Fonda Says, 'I Feel Better Than I Ever Have'

Still Reinventing At 80, Jane Fonda Says, 'I Feel Better Than I Ever Have'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/651167286/651221403" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

"In order to know where you're going you have to know where you've been," says actress Jane Fonda — and she's been in a lot of places. The 80-year-old actress, activist and fitness icon is the subject of a new HBO documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts. Arthur Mola/Invision/AP hide caption

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Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

"In order to know where you're going you have to know where you've been," says actress Jane Fonda — and she's been in a lot of places. The 80-year-old actress, activist and fitness icon is the subject of a new HBO documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts.

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

About 20 years ago, to mark her 60th birthday, Jane Fonda asked for her daughter's help in creating a very short video about her life. Her daughter suggested, "Why don't you just get a chameleon to crawl across the screen?"

"Ouch," Fonda says, recalling the conversation. "She knew what buttons to push and she wasn't wrong."

Fonda has lived many lives. From starlet, to fitness guru, to Vietnam protester — now 80, she's a comedic actress, securing roles at an age when many in Hollywood would have left the screen.

Filmmaker Susan Lacy tells Fonda's story in a new HBO documentary called Jane Fonda in Five Acts. The first four acts are organized around the men in Fonda's life — her father, Henry Fonda, and her three husbands, Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden and Ted Turner. The last act is Fonda's own.

At the outset, the money from Fonda's workout videos went to the Campaign for Economic Democracy, an organization she co-founded with her second husband, Tom Hayden. Above, she exercises in her Beverly Hills studio in September 1979. Reed Saxon/AP hide caption

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Reed Saxon/AP

At the outset, the money from Fonda's workout videos went to the Campaign for Economic Democracy, an organization she co-founded with her second husband, Tom Hayden. Above, she exercises in her Beverly Hills studio in September 1979.

Reed Saxon/AP

Fonda acknowledges she's redefined herself again and again, but says her courage has been a constant. "I've always been brave," she says. "There's been a certain integrity and that was always there in spite of my willingness and talent at becoming who my husbands wanted me to be."

Lacy describes the documentary as a portrait. Fonda — who only saw the film after it was complete — says it's a "gender journey."

At every stage of her life, Fonda says she's asked herself: Am I all that I can be? "One of the things I hope that people will take away from my documentary is the value of an examined life," she says. "You don't become wise by having a lot of experience; you become wise by reflecting deeply on the experiences that you've had."

"I'm almost 81 and I feel better than I ever have," she adds. "I know that sounds preposterous, but it's true."


Interview Highlights

On being a "late bloomer"

Up until my 60s, I never thought that relationships should be democratic. I had never seen a democratic relationship between a man and a woman. Certainly my father who was married five times — none of his relationships were democratic. So I just thought it was the way things are supposed to be. I tried to do whatever I could do to be sure that the men I was with — all of whom were utterly brilliant and fascinating — loved me.

I was a pleaser and it took me into my 60s and 70s to begin to say: I deserve respect. I am somebody on my own standing, on my own two feet, and I'm going to begin to define my own life. [It] took a long time, but we live so much longer ... than our parents and grandparents on average. So it's not bad being a late bloomer.

Fonda participates in a demonstration in Rome on March 8, 1972. Claudio Luffoli/AP hide caption

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Claudio Luffoli/AP

Fonda participates in a demonstration in Rome on March 8, 1972.

Claudio Luffoli/AP

On not regretting her marriages

You have to own your mistakes and you have to learn from them. And while my three marriages didn't last, I don't regret any of them. I learned a tremendous amount from all three remarkable men that I was married to. And I think I had to go through that to end up where I am.

On her father, actor Henry Fonda — and why she decided to do something unexpected during the filming of the 1981 film On Golden Pond

He hated emotion — emotion terrified him, which is pretty interesting in an actor. He always wanted to do things exactly the way they had been rehearsed. And so when we were playing that scene I waited until what I thought was going to be his last close-up and then I did something that we had not rehearsed. ... I reached out and I touched his arm and he ducks his head and he reaches his hand up to cover his eyes. ... I could see his eyes well up and it meant the world to me. All the audience sees is him kind of turning away and ducking his head and covering his eyes. It was a big deal for me. ... I cry every time I see it ... it was so hard for me to do.

Jane Fonda, right, starred alongside her father, Henry Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn in the 1981 film On Golden Pond. Everett Collection/Courtesy of Universal/HBO hide caption

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Everett Collection/Courtesy of Universal/HBO

Jane Fonda, right, starred alongside her father, Henry Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn in the 1981 film On Golden Pond.

Everett Collection/Courtesy of Universal/HBO

On learning to accept the relationship she had with her father

One of the great things about getting older — if you've bothered to really examine your life and really figure out who your parents were, and who your grandparents were — you come to the realization, as I did with my father, that it's not that he didn't love me — he just didn't know how to express it. ... But he did the best he could.

On her complicated relationship with her own daughter

I've studied parenting ... and I came to understand what good parenting looks like. I didn't know that when I became a parent so I just I didn't know what to do. But I know now that it's never too late. I think my daughter and I are growing closer. I flew her from where she lives in Vermont to be with me in California and I showed her the documentary ... she's not in it — she chose not to be in it — and I didn't want her to see it publicly. I wanted her to be with me and — phew! — she liked it. She thought it was really, really well done. She cried a lot. So that was a huge blessing for me.

Hear More With Jane Fonda

On remaking the 1980 movie 9 to 5

We have writers working on a script for a sequel with a very funny premise and I'm hoping it will happen. ... The issues in offices for women today are even worse than they were back in the day when we made the original. ... Sexual harassment is not abating in offices so that's still very much a topic. But today many people in all kinds of jobs — not just office workers — they're not beholden to the boss. They're hired by another company and then subcontracted to the company where they work. So if they're fired because of pregnancy, or there's wage theft, or sexual harassment, who do they go to? ... I mean it's just a catastrophe for more and more working people. And we want to try to hit all that and still have it be really funny.

On her "final act"

Final acts are really important — just like they are in the theater. ... I have since 2002 spent a lot of time ... determining what I want to do with my final act. ... I didn't want to get to the end of my life with a lot of regrets when it was too late to do anything about it. ... It's important to face death, and accept it, and understand it, because then you can kind of prepare. I visualize my death and I want to have people I love around me — which means between now and then I have to deserve to have people around me who love me.

Marc Rivers and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.