An Interview with Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda An interview with Jane Fonda

Coming to the Weinberg Center as part of the Frederick Speaker Series


Catch Jane Fonda when she makes an appearance downtown Friday as part of the Frederick Speaker Series.

Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2015 2:00 am

When you talk to Jane Fonda, you talk to many people -- over the years, she has been the ingenue, the sex kitten, the Oscar and Emmy-winning serious actor, the exercise maven, the activist, the feminist, the Christian ... and a few other archetypes.

We all undergo transformations as a part of our search for identity, but Jane Fonda has undergone hers in public, out there for all to see and comment on.

And people have commented.

The adjective most commonly used to describe her -- by friends and detractors -- is polarizing. As her friend and biographer Patricia Bosworth said in an email exchange, “Jane polarizes, and the public remains fascinated by her. She has an extraordinary ability to reinvent herself in response to the times. Consider that she transformed herself from movie star to political activist to exercise guru to tycoon wife and now, in the twenty-first century, she’s turning into an exemplary philanthropist. She doesn’t generate, she reacts — to people, places, and events; everything about the fast-paced, chaotic reality that is American life turns her on.”

We watch her change identities as quickly as a shape-shifter in a Marvel movie, but her friends insist that the transformations are legitimate.

Author Gloria Steinem said, “We are many selves. It’s not just the long-ago child within us who needs tenderness and inclusion, but the person we were last year, wanted to be yesterday, tried to become in one job or in one winter, in one love affair or in one house where even now, we can close our eyes and smell the rooms. What brings us together, these ever-shifting selves of infinite reactions and returnings, is this: There is one true inner voice.”

And Jane Fonda has always manifested one true inner voice.

Bosworth agreed, writing, “Jane keeps on transforming herself — working on herself — fighting for her causes — caring for her children and grandchildren — she is an archetypical woman of our time; she has been an inspiration — the bottom line is that she works at it — she doesn’t give up — she knows whats important an whats not — she is also a devoted friend (and) of course it boils down to her search for an identity — she has a triple one — artist mother activist ... .”

In a phone interview with the News-Post, Fonda spoke of her transformations with characteristic honesty.

“I’ve never tried to settle. I never liked myself particularly. I don’t want to die without doing something positive, without trying to make a difference.”

To her, it’s been a lifelong quest and has a lot to do with the fact that she grew up without strong parental figures. Her mother committed suicide and her father, the actor Henry Fonda, was a remote and distant man who was never able to tell his children how he felt about them. He was also critical. “According to my step-mother, who passed this information along to me, my father thought I was a lightweight, that I was frivolous and not very serious about anything.

“I remember talking to Yolanda King, one of Martin Luther King’s daughters. I asked her if her father had ever sat her down on his lap and talked to her about values and truth and ethics and the other important things. She said no. I said my father never had either, but she had her father’s sermons and I had my father’s films. The heroes of ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘Twelve Angry Men,’ those were the men he modeled, the men he wanted to be.”

Recently, she gained access to videos of her father’s appearances on TV talk shows, where he talked about how proud he was of her and her brother, the actor Peter Fonda. On those shows, he said all of the things he could never say to them directly.

“That was powerful,” she said simply. “I cried.”

It is likely an oversimplification, but many writers believe that a key to Fonda’s constant reinventions lies in those missing strong parental influences during her own adolescence. Al Aronowitz pointed this idea out in a profile back in the mid-’60s, quoting her as believing that being her father’s daughter, in fact, discouraged her from being herself.

Certainly, she said, it contributed to her lack of confidence. She admitted to suffering from a lack of confidence for much of her life and continues to do so now. In fact, that was what led to her retirement from movies in 1991.

“I had no confidence as a human being and found it very painful to work, so I quit. But being married to Ted Turner -- you can call me a trophy wife or whatever, but it was a very good marriage. We were very much in love. He gave me love and confidence. So I decided to come back to work. It wasn’t easy. I was 65 and had been away a long time, but I made it back.”

She attributes her successful comeback to her hard work and perseverance. When reminded that the actor Shelley Winters once said that Fonda always worked five times as hard as she had to, she said, “I suppose that’s true. I might not have any confidence, but I have a lot of energy.”

What does all of this have to do with her upcoming talk? Her own painful adolescence led her to take a strong interest in the problems of the young. That’s what’s bringing her to Frederick.

“I’ll be talking about adolescence. My latest book is ‘Being a Teen.’ I’ve been studying adolescence, especially in girls, and I’ll be talking about why I do this, what I’ve learned.”

This is no recent interest. “When I was married to Tom Hayden, we started a performing arts children’s camp which we ran for 15 years. I learned a great deal. When I married Ted Turner, Georgia had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation and that’s where I lived. I started the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at Emory University in Atlanta to help prevent teen pregnancy through training and programs, the Grady Teen Clinic at Grady Hospital and the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential.

“That’s attacking it from an educational, medical and grassroots approach. Georgia’s teen pregnancy rates have dropped 50 percent. I don’t claim to have done that, but I feel I contributed to the decline.

“I’ve studied adolescence. It’s a unique stage of human development, a time when values, identity and a sense of self are being established. It can be uncomfortable to be around, but it’s very important to understand.” She laughed at the idea that adolescents can be hard to be around.

“I saw a sign in a store in Georgia: quick, hire an adolescent while they still know everything.

“When I discovered what happened to girls in adolescence, I identified. Since I had no mother, no one to discuss these things with, I took it upon myself to try to outgrow that.”

She has also taken it upon herself to try to do something about it. She has worked to outgrow the scars of a troubled adolescence, and during her appearance in Frederick, she’ll talk about how she is helping young girls make their way through these same problems.

A separately ticketed meet-and-greet reception will take place immediately following the on-stage presentation. All proceeds from this reception will benefit children’s programs at Frederick County Public Libraries.

What: Jane Fonda, Frederick Speaker Series

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 16

Where: Weinberg Center for the Arts, 20 W. Patrick St., Frederick

Tickets: $50 to $65

Info: 301-600-2828;