Jane Fonda had a scheduling problem, the collision of two important parts of a very busy life.
The Oscar-winning actor had moved from Century City to Washington, D.C., in September, intent on a mission: to raise awareness of climate change. She protested on the U.S. Capitol grounds in a bright red coat — purchased on sale at Neiman Marcus — was arrested five times, spent a night in jail with a herd of scurrying cockroaches.
But she was under contract for the seventh and final season of her comedy series, “Grace and Frankie.” Being half of the title, she couldn’t just bail. She asked for a hiatus in filming. Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, “looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “He’s a good guy, but he’d already signed all the contracts.”
Her four months of weekly protests in the nation’s capital, called Fire Drill Fridays, came to an end in January. But they “had been transformative,” the 82-year-old told 150 or so mostly millennials Saturday afternoon in West Hollywood. “And when the time was coming to an end, I started to get real depressed. I’m going to have to leave and go back to business as usual.”
Which is how the California version of Fire Drill Fridays was born. Starting Feb. 7, Fonda will kick off a series of monthly Golden State protests with a rally on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. There will be celebrities — Norman Lear and Rita Moreno, among others — speeches, a march and a little civil disobedience at a venue to be named later. Future events are planned for Wilmington, Bakersfield and other cities.
Washington had the White House as backdrop, legislators to persuade and a ready army of television cameras. But California is strategic, she told members of The Wing, a women’s co-working space. Lots of oil extraction, lots of fossil fuel consumption, a reputation as a national environmental leader and a reality that could use some help.
“I’m really happy that we’re here,” said Fonda, urgent and intense. “This is the place we can really emphasize stopping the drilling and the fracking.”
She said she wants Gov. Gavin Newsom to put an end to new oil-drilling permits in the state.
She paused. Smiled. And continued in a conspiratorial whisper: “We’re meeting with him, by the way, next Thursday.” The women’s laughter drowned her out. “Oil rules in California. It’s very hard for politicians to stand up to Big Oil. But that’s where leaders come from.”
Fonda has spent most of her adult life juggling two full-time careers: as an actor with dozens of movies, documentaries and television shows under her very small belt; and as an activist, supporting women’s rights, the antiwar movement, the United Farm Workers, the Black Panthers, Native American rights, reproductive rights and the environment, among other causes.
Climate change, she said in an interview after the West Hollywood event, “brings it all together. .... It may look like, in my life and my history as an activist, there have been a lot of different things, [but] they’re all connected.”
Fonda said she’s been supporting indigenous rights in tribal country since 1970. Today, she said, much of that same land contains “so much fossil fuel, so much of the materials that the oil companies want to extract, that they are front-line communities now in the war against fossil fuel.”
Annie Leonard is executive director of Greenpeace USA, which is part of the Fire Drill Friday effort. She said Fonda has “a phenomenal ability to draw new people into the movement, especially women over 50. She did [the Washington protests] for 14 weeks. ... Hundreds and hundreds of people came.”
Fonda said she sees herself and other celebrities as “repeaters,” the antennae on the tops of mountains that pick up communication signals and transmit them to wider audiences.
“I don’t do the science,” she said. “I don’t do the research. I’m not the wonk. But I can pick up the signals of the people in Wilmington or the scientists in their labs and expand their voices. That’s what I think the role of someone like me is.”
Among her biggest regrets, Fonda has said repeatedly through the years, was posing on an anti-aircraft gun during a tour of North Vietnam in 1972, which earned her the nickname Hanoi Jane.
She has been proudest, she said Saturday, of Fire Drill Fridays, which are the joy of her ninth decade.
“Ten thousand people have signed up to take it nationally,” she said. “I had no idea that this was going to happen. It was an instinct. I may be famous and white and privileged, but when I feel a need for something, I find there’s usually a whole lot of people who feel the same need. ... With Fire Drill Fridays, the rallies, the civil disobedience, the risking arrest, appealed to a whole lot of people.”
In her daily life, Fonda says, she does her best to be environmentally minded. She bought a Prius when they first appeared and switched to an electric car last year. Meat once a month, fish, twice. No single-use plastics.
The red coat she bought for the protest was the last piece of clothing she plans to purchase, she said, with the exception, perhaps, of some underwear and socks. When you see her at the Oscars on Feb. 9, she’ll be wearing a dress that’s a decade or so old, an Elie Saab number she’s already worn on the red carpet at Cannes.
“I haven’t changed sizes, and I have a closet full of clothes,” Fonda said. “I don’t need anything. So If I don’t need anything, I’m not going to get it.”
But she won’t be getting arrested in Los Angeles on Friday. After five arrests in Washington, she was facing possible court dates 2,000 or so miles from the set of “Grace and Frankie,” community service equally far away. So her lawyer negotiated a deal: She can film in California if she does not engage in civil disobedience for 90 days.
Which ends in April. At which time, she said, she plans to hold out her wrists for those zip-tie handcuffs yet again.
“Of course,” she said.