Jane Fonda on life in Trump’s America: “Chaos is where tyrants rise to the top”
We’re in the midst of what feels to many like a renewed era of Hollywood activism — or, perhaps, uncharted territory for the industry as the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements have forced Hollywood to look inward. But Jane Fonda is a veteran when it comes to “actorvism.”
In fact, Fonda — who came to political engagement during the Vietnam War, speaking out against the conflict — has now been an activist for decades. She’s lent her voice and her celebrity to causes like the civil rights movement, supporting the Black Panthers and promoting reproductive health and a living wage for workers. Even her famous workout videos were just a means for financial support of her activist work. With all that, it can feel like she’s left a thumbprint on every progressive cause of the past 50 years.
Fonda’s ongoing activism is prominently discussed in the new documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts, which premieres at 8 p.m. Monday on HBO. The documentary, directed and produced by Susan Lacy, follows Fonda through her often lonely childhood, her schooling and the start of her big-screen career, all the way up through her three marriages and her current work in film and television.
Each of the first four acts in the documentary is named for a man in her life — her famous father, Henry Fonda; her first husband, French director Roger Vadim; her second husband, the activist Tom Hayden; and her third husband, media mogul Ted Turner. But the fifth and final act is named for her and her alone.
Fonda is candid and open in the new documentary — speaking about her mother’s death from suicide, her own struggle with eating disorders, her views on motherhood and the decisions she’s made as an actor and producer. Mic sat down with Fonda and director Susan Lacy in the HBO offices to discuss the film and Fonda’s work as an activist.
(Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Mic: I wanted to ask you if you have any advice for young people in the public eye who are becoming politically engaged maybe for the first time in the Trump era?
Jane Fonda: What I would advise is what I do myself, and I’ll just use myself as an example. When Trump was elected, I read everything I could. I wanted to understand how this had happened. It’s complicated, I don’t mean to simplify it, but one of the things that I realized had happened was that Democrats and progressives had not gone into the middle of the country, where people are so hurting, and so scared, and so angry, because they, their parents, their grandparents, used to have union jobs. [They] used to be able to afford a house, and send their kids to school and not have to worry. They could have a piece of the American dream and it gave them an identity, and the union fought for them. That’s gone.
And when that suddenly goes, and nobody on our side, meaning the progressive side, seems to be paying any attention, nobody seems to be talking to you, when that happens and then a strongman comes along and is talking to you in the vilest and the worst and most divisive way you’re gonna go for it. Because at least someone is paying attention and saying, “I hear you, and I know how much you’re hurting and we’re gonna bomb the whole fucking place. We’re just gonna close the border for all these people of color that are taking your jobs.”
When we’re in this kind of late-stage capitalism plus climate chaos, chaos is where strongmen, tyrants, rise to the top. So I said to myself, “I am gonna go into the middle of the country, right on the ground.” But I can’t do it alone. I’ve learned my lesson: Don’t do it alone. What are the organizations that have the longest track record, with the most brilliant strategic leaders, that are doing what makes sense to me? For example, ROC, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, fighting for one fair wage in Michigan. Raise the minimum wage to $12 including tipped workers I didn’t know that when we raise the minimum wage we don’t include tipped workers. And they’re living on nothing! Which means they have to put up with the most horrible behavior.
So I hitched my wagon to ROC, which has the most amazing leader, Saru Jayaraman. And I’ve taken Lily [Tomlin] who comes from Michigan, and we go to Michigan, we’ve been many times now, going and talking to people on the ground. Not about a candidate, not about a political party — many of the people that come are Republican — talking about one fair wage and the importance of winning that.
Another organization I’m involved with is Working America, which was founded by the woman that used to organize secretaries, she’s the one that inspired me to make 9 to 5, Karen Nussbaum.
So I said this is where I want to put my time and energy and money, into organizations that are on the ground, in the communities that have felt left out. Even if progressives could win without those people, morally we can’t forget that whole middle of the country. The people who built this country.
But then, at the same time, one of the things that I’ve become more aware of because of Trump being elected is how close to the surface white supremacy is. So I have very deliberately studied, the way I never have before, race. The history of slavery, in every possible way. So now I work with a group called Reform L.A. Jails on mass incarceration. I’ll go to the organizations, in other words, that are dealing with issues the way I think is going to be the most effective in the long run, that are going to be talking to the people that need to be helped. That’s what I’d advise people to do.
That was a long answer.
Susan Lacy: But it was a good answer.
Privilege is something we now talk about a lot, and leveraging privilege for activism is really important. Did you ever have that thought consciously, where you thought, “I have a platform, I need to use it,” or did it just happen naturally?
JF: It just happened naturally. But then when I started speaking out, I was a complete neophyte. I didn’t have control of the narrative, and I was all over the place. But I realized, “Wow, just because I’m famous, I’m being asked to appear at all these places to help people on the ground.” That’s when I realized that it was important to try to figure out how to best use my platform. But it took me a while to get it together.
You mentioned that you and your co-star Lily Tomlin go and do activism work in Michigan together, and your friendship is an inspiring partnership for working women. What do you think women can do in Hollywood to better support each other in the industry?
JF: Oh, it’s happening. The meetings that I’ve been to — the #MeToo, Time’s Up meetings — are amazing. I just sit back and watch. I remember one, it was Natalie Portman, Reese Witherspoon, Amy Adams, Rashida Jones, America Ferrera and on and on and on, and brilliant. I mean, it was like, “Whoa.” Back in my day, when I was their age, I wasn’t anywhere near as savvy as they are about how to move forward.
SL: I’m just curious about how that credibly influential block of women can get the word out there to vote — there are a lot of women voters who don’t want to see women’s rights go back 50, 100 years — for that very reason. You know, “You will lose our vote, senator from wherever-you-are, if you don’t change your ways. We’re gonna get you out.”
JF: That’s happening. It’s happening.
Was sexual harassment in Hollywood something you had thought about before as a pervasive problem?
JF: It was something that went on. I never thought that what’s happening now would have happened, ever.
Did it feel like the status quo?
JF: Yeah, yeah.
Was it something you had experienced on set?
JF: Not so much, because my dad was Henry Fonda, and I think guys were more leery, a little bit. I mean, it happened a little but not like what I hear from other women. And not like what I hear from the farmworkers and the domestic workers and the hotel workers and — oy. It’s horrendous, the way women are treated.
We’re hoping to do a sequel to 9 to 5, so there’s a friend of mine who used to be involved in 9to5, the national association of women office workers. [She] got a group of women office workers together to meet with one of the writers on the sequel and, the stories they told, it’s so much worse than it used to be. I mean, women who are having to work two and three jobs, who are single mothers, with children who have [pre-existing conditions] and have no health care. I don’t know how they do it. How can we treat people that way?
Focusing more on the doc, did it feel natural to you to be so vulnerable on camera? I mean, you’ve had this public life, but did it feel like a risk at all to be so open and so candid about your life?
JF: Well, I wrote my memoir, and I was candid in my memoir, so I had been through that, “Do I say this or not?” But it’s different when you’re live, talking on a camera to Susan. We went through a lot of Kleenexes.
SL: We also did a lot of interviews. This doesn’t happen in one interview. A relationship builds, and trust and comfort level. I call it an extended conversation, really, more than an interview.
You talk specifically in the doc about struggling with disordered eating. Do you feel at all as though things are changing for the better in terms of the pressure we put on young women to look a certain way?
JF: I think the pressure is just as bad, if not worse. I think the only thing that has changed, which is fantastic, is that today’s millennials may have had feminist mothers. And those mothers may have had enough wits about them to not allow their girl to be judged just based on how she looks. And those are young women who are very lucky, that they have that.