By Aaron Hicklin
Photo by Jessica Miglio
In Jane Fonda’s long movie history, one thing stands out above all others: She has a knack for picking movies that have come to epitomize their respective decades, whether it was her 1968 sci-fi odyssey Barbarella, her pair of paranoid ’70s thrillers — Klute, for which she won an Academy Award, and The China Syndrome (another Oscar nom) — or her working-gals revenge comedy, Nine to Five, which heralded the ’80s. Here, the legendary actress talks about her new, very now ensemble movie, This Is Where I Leave You (in theaters Sept. 12), in which she plays the matriarch to a dysfunctional family brought together for a funeral, as well as her upcoming Netflix TV series, Grace and Frankie, with Lily Tomlin, about two women whose husbands leave them for each other.
This Is Where I Leave You is an ensemble film with many fine performances, but the standouts are you and Adam Driver.
God, I love him. I think he’s the most exciting new actor anywhere. He has a physical presence that’s unique. He has tremendous integrity. I think he’s going to last a long, long time — and he will never sell out.
A lot of people would use “integrity” to describe your career.
Oh, I’ve done plenty of things because I needed the money, and in the beginning I did plenty of things because I didn’t know how to say no. He is way more savvy and sophisticated than I was at his age.
Is that a gender thing? You’ve talked about feeling terrified as a woman.
I was shy. Some of it may have been gender. I’m sure there are also young men who feel the same way — possibly because they’re gay and not out and scared, but possibly because they’re worried they don’t fit with what they think movies are supposed to be. So many of us have insecurities. Fortunately, I’ve managed to harness my own.
That’s something you have in common with Hillary, your character in the film.
I was emailing with Taylor Schilling from Orange Is the New Black, and like me in This Is Where I Leave You, she’s kind of the tadpole in that show. And I said, “It’s the kind of character that is the most identifiable, and sometimes you can feel boring because all the other characters swirling around you can be out there and crazy. It’s a challenge to not feel like you’re the boring one.”
In a movie with so many big characters, what’s the most gratifying aspect?
Well, it’s gratifying because everything doesn’t depend on me. We shot in a real house on Long Island, which felt really small, and in the beginning we were falling over each other. And then we started enjoying coming to work — it didn’t feel so claustrophobic anymore. In spite of my age, which is considerable, I feel like a kid. I’m sitting there on these little low stools with Tina [Fey] on one side and Jason [Bateman] on the other and “Boner” the rabbi [Ben Schwartz] and Adam, and they’re all ad-libbing. I’ve ad-libbed entire movies that are dramas, but ad-libbing comedy is a whole different thing. They’re a new generation, and my generation can learn a lot from them. I always like being in a situation where I’m a bit off-kilter.
This movie would definitely pass the Bechdel test [for having strong female protagonists that aren’t dependent on men].
So does my Netflix series, Grace and Frankie, with Lily Tomlin. I’ve wanted to do a TV series that would give a face to older women for a long time, and [Friends co-creator] Marta Kauffman came up with this idea for me and Lily. My husband is Martin Sheen, and her husband is Sam Waterston, and they’ve fallen in love and want to get married. And Tate Taylor, who directed The Help, is the director of the first and last episode. He’s a gay man from Mississippi and, boy, does he get it.
We’re in an era now in which TV is where the good writing is — a big turnaround from when you were first in movies.
Early in my career, a movie actor would never do television, but that’s all changed. I heard Adam Driver say, in response to a question, “You follow the words.” You go where the writing is good.
You took a long period off from films and then came back.
I left for 15 years, and for 12 of them I didn’t ever expect I’d come back. I was just very unhappy as a person — as a woman — and I find it difficult to act when I’m really unhappy. But then I changed very much as a person, and I could find joy in it again.
You’ve said that when you were younger, being a woman meant being a victim in a way, or being destroyed, as you felt your mother had been. I wonder if that gave you an appreciation and empathy for the gay community because many of us, certainly in the past, could identify with feeling that we were destined to be victims.
God, yes. When I wrote my memoir, which I assumed was mostly a woman’s story that would be appreciated by women, what really struck me is how many men, especially gay men, really responded to it. That feeling of, If I’m not perfect, if I’m not what people want me to be, no one will love me. I don’t fit in. That’s why, early on, I worked with Harvey Milk. I was kind of a straight activist for the gay struggle. And you know, I’ve just written a book called Being a Teen for older teenagers, and I have a chapter on sexual identities that I think is one of the best chapters. It was really important to me, and I had a lot of my gay friends and trans friends edit for me, because after spending 20 years in Georgia and seeing the tremendous pain — I mean, it’s such a homophobic place — and kids who kill themselves, it was very important to me that I get it right.
A lot of people are now aware of gay and lesbian rights issues, but transgender initiatives are still way behind.
My son [Troy Garity] did a movie for Showtime called Soldier’s Girl. Lee Pace played the transgender woman who met a guy [Garity] in the army, and the real woman is Calpernia Addams, who is a good friend of mine. I got to know her and her roommate really well, and because of that I persuaded [writer] Eve Ensler to allow a transgender production of The Vagina Monologues that was done [in 2004] at the Design Center. I said, “You know, these people gave up penis privilege voluntarily.” And Calpernia wrote a monologue for it. People came from all over the country — it was so moving.
You were the commencement speaker at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television this year. What was your advice to the class of 2014?
Well, if you’re not into collaboration, you’re in the wrong business. Learn from your failures. Don’t blame it on everybody else, because your failures are the ones that teach you.
A few years ago, you said that at 74 you were having the best sex of your life.
I was talking about intimacy. I am having good sex, but it’s more about intimacy in a relationship with someone who is kind and really knows how to show up.
Watch the trailer for This Is Where I Leave You below: