By the time Jane Fonda retired from acting in 1991, she had assembled a diverse array of accomplishments: two lead actress Oscars, a workout video that became the bestselling VHS of all time, and a legacy of political activism that made her name synonymous with principled dissent.
And then, a little over a decade ago, she decided to re-launch her career. At 81 years old, she’s starring on the Netflix sitcom “Grace and Frankie” — which begin its fifth season this month — the breakout movie hit “Book Club,” and an epic HBO documentary about her life, Susan Lacy’s “Jane Fonda in Five Acts.”
Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, Fonda says she’s feeling good about the decision to launch her sixth act. “It’s not like I’ve had some grand scheme, you know, some strategy overall,” she says. “I just needed those 15 years off to kind of find myself, and in the process felt, ‘OK, I can find joy in acting again if Hollywood will have me back.’ And it did.”
Many of Fonda’s most iconic roles — “Klute,” “Coming Home,” “The China Syndrome” — were in dramas, but this latest phase is spotlighting her comic gifts.
“I don’t have a funny bone, really,” she admits. “I come from a long line of depressives. What really changed it for me was spending a decade with [then husband] Ted Turner, who is hysterically funny and over the top. I got funnier because of Ted.… I let go a little bit more.”
Though “Grace and Frankie” reunites her with “9 to 5” co-star Lily Tomlin, Fonda admits that the sitcom format was still a challenge. “That was an eye-opener. But I really like it. I’m a perennial student. The great thing about episodic television is that it’s not like you have one chance to ‘get’ a character; you have a lot of years to figure it out and try things.” She and Tomlin each have earned SAG Award nominations for their roles.
A rare comedy focused on the vibrant lives — and sexual appetites — of senior citizens, “Grace and Frankie” follows the titular characters, longtime adversaries thrown together after their husbands (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) reveal that they’re gay and in love with each other.
After a fourth season that skewed darker, with Grace and Frankie landing in assisted living, Fonda hints that her character arc is headed in a new direction in future seasons. (It has already been renewed for Season 6.) “As a feminist, I find it very exciting to be able to play a character who is suddenly back smack-dab in the middle of the patriarchy. ‘Oh, honey, yes. Anything you say. Of course I won’t let my hair go gray. And, yes, I got a face-lift. Anything you want.’ And then realizing what she has done and what Frankie represents for her.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Fonda used her celebrity to produce Hollywood films about pressing social-justice issues. She says “Grace and Frankie” “does not feel like a piece of that. And yet when I get feedback from people in Australia and Germany and England and France, they make it sound like it really is kind of radicaI. I mean, women will come up and say, ‘This series has given me hope again.’ And I’m thinking, well, it doesn’t feel like that when we’re making it, but it’s being received with a lot of import and impact.”
The show’s adeptness at tackling the indignities and surprises of old age is surprising, since its writing staff is generally much younger than Fonda and Tomlin. “They’re all pretty young,” Fonda says. “But they’re really smart people. I was trying to put my two cents in much more early on, and now I realize I don’t really understand what they do that makes it work. So I’m just gonna keep my mouth shut,” she says with a laugh.
Staying quiet is hardly Fonda’s natural stance, and she remains active in the social-justice arena. She’s currently working with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United on a One Fair Wage campaign for restaurant employees, and with Working America, the largest canvassing organization in the country, mobilizing in advance for the 2020 elections.
Does she think her lifelong activism has made it easier for celebrities to amplify the voices of the marginalized?
“Well, obviously, if people think that my career was harmed by my visible activism and controversy, then they’re going to be reluctant to want to step out,” she says. “And that’s certainly what the right wing has tried to create, the impression that you don’t want to be like Jane Fonda [because] look what happened to her. But because they can’t say that now, it’s like, ‘Yeah! Look what happened to her,’ ” she says, laughing even more.