Jane Fonda: ‘Here I am’
As Jane Fonda strides across the marble entranceway of the 1940s hillside home she shares with her boyfriend, music producer Richard Perry, she’s already explaining her most recent break with convention: their living situation.
“I have an apartment over there,” she says pointing out the window to a building in the distance, rising up from the neon blur of city lights below. “But I’ve never slept there. I never thought this is where I’d be at this point in my life — 73, shacked up with somebody in the music business,” she laughs. “But here I am.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Jane Fonda: A photograph of actors Jane Fonda and Zach Grenier on the cover of the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition is incorrectly credited to Jay L. Clendenin of The Times. It was taken by Lawrence K. Ho of The Times. The error was detected after the section went to press. —
“Here” is a place, for Fonda, that’s both enormously active and quietly introspective at once — a self-described “third act” that’s buzzing with new people and new projects, but equally awash in self-reflection. Settling onto a brown velvet couch in Perry’s media room, her white puffball of a dog, Tulea, nestled beside her, there’s much talk of synchronicity, bucket lists and parental forgiveness. She is thoughtful, giving careful consideration to each question — until the silence is cut by a crisp assuredness when she finally answers. There’s the sense that if Fonda felt her time was being wasted, she might snuff out the conversation. She has too much going on to dawdle.
Even now, on a languid Friday evening, there’s a cacophony of familial noise in the background: doorbells and buzzers, distant voices fading in and out, a phone ringing, the collective clickety-clack of multiple dogs’ paws on hardwood floors, the arrival of a tree (a gift from Perry), a car engine starting up in the distance.
Of her professional endeavors, front and center is starring in the Moises Kaufman play “33 Variations,” which begins previews at the Ahmanson Theatre on Sunday night. Add to that the recently released fitness videos for boomers and seniors, the blog, a book about aging due out in September, two just-completed films and an upcoming LACMA film retrospective opening Feb. 11. Yet all these disparate parts seem bound by a sense of calm and purpose.
“33 Variations,” especially, embodies that same sense of cyclical completeness for her. The play mirrors much of what she’s been thinking about these days, like late life resurgence, healthy aging and how the freedom and release that come with age can facilitate creativity and deepen one’s art.
“It just fit into where I am right now, and how I feel, and what I believe, and what I’d just written about [in the new book]. And I thought: ‘I’m supposed to do this’” she says of the play’s initial run on Broadway in 2009, which earned her a Tony nomination. So fulfilling was the experience for Fonda that she agreed to revive her role in L.A.
The Broadway play marked Fonda’s return to the stage after 46 years — an event that could have been daunting considering how different the process of acting is for stage and screen. But Fonda says she took it in stride. “I did not feel afraid. I felt challenged. And I like challenges,” she says. “It felt like closure. My father loved the theater more than anything, he loved that immediate live response and reaction from the audience. So [in returning to the stage] I wanted: a) the chance to perform the things I was feeling in my body and my mind, and b) to try and find out what my father experienced.”
Written and directed by Kaufman, who has revised parts of the production since its New York run, the play concerns Beethoven’s 33 variations on a single waltz that was written by his publisher Anton Diabelli. Fonda plays aging musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt, who is struggling with ALS and becomes obsessed with unraveling the riddle of why the by-then-deaf Beethoven descended into obsession over the relatively mediocre waltz. In the process, she learns to let go and confront her own mortality with grace.
“My character has physical infirmities, but right up until the end, she’s focused on her obsession” says Fonda, who has had hip and knee replacements in the past and recovered from non-invasive breast cancer in 2010. “And I have physical infirmities, but it doesn’t define me. Her illness doesn’t define her — and I like that. I like that she’s not afraid of dying.”
Fonda hasn’t appeared in many plays throughout her career — just four on Broadway prior to “33 Variations.” “And none of them were a gratifying experience for me,” she says. Her 1960 Broadway debut, in “There Was a Little Girl,” earned Fonda a Tony nomination; but she describes the experience as traumatic, nonetheless. Two nights before the opening of the play’s tryouts in Boston, her leading man was fired; two nights later, the actor who played her father had a heart attack and died; and two nights after that, the play’s director had a nervous breakdown.
Why, then, did Fonda continue acting in plays? “I had to earn a living,” she says. “I was with the Actor’s Studio and you did plays, that’s what you did. A lot of it had to do with earning money.”
Over the years, however, it’s been that personal connection to the material, not money, that’s propelled Fonda and drawn her to projects, from the Vietnam War era drama “Coming Home” (1978) to “On Golden Pond” (1981), in which she starred with her late father, Henry Fonda. “33 Variations” is no exception. It’s a story about curiosity, passion and creative obsession, the strive for perfection in art, and familial estrangement.
The Venezuelan-born Kaufman notes the parallels, saying he was struck by the intensity of Fonda’s work ethic, matched only by the characters in the play. “Just the way Beethoven was obsessed with the waltz, Jane is obsessed with the role,” he says. “She’s so hardworking, so focused, always on a quest. She has that hunger — to delve deeper into the character, to profoundly understand the work that’s being done. She’s a real artist.”
Partly spurred by Fonda’s desire to continue honing her character, Kaufman — who’s also the artistic director of the Tectonic Theater Project in New York — embarked on rewrites of the play after the Broadway show wrapped. It’s now a different play, he says, than what garnered five Tony nominations in 2009, but was also met with mixed reviews from critics. “After two years, one has grown and changed; and one revisits the play from a different perspective,” says Kaufman. “Our understanding of the characters and their struggles has deepened.”
Of her revised performance for the L.A. stage, Fonda says: “Things are much more internal now. And a little bit drier. It feels right.”
Something else that feels right to Fonda is blogging, which she has been doing since Broadway rehearsals of “33 Variations” two years ago. The two-time Academy Award-winning actress/activist/producer/workout guru/philanthropist/author/feminist icon (she prefers “role model”) is once again redefining herself, this time in the social media space. Her blog (janefonda.com) — on which she posts such items as behind-the-scenes updates from play rehearsals, philosophical musings on religion and pictures of her dog —- is surprisingly robust; and she says she writes every post, and reviews all comments, herself.
“I was frustrated that I really did not understand … blogging and Facebook and Twitter and that whole world that was foreign to me,” she says. So in characteristic fashion, Fonda threw herself in with unbridled determination to conquer her obstacles, blogging all through the first run of the play, sometimes during intermission. “What I didn’t expect is that I learned [about my performance] from it, I learned from the feedback I’d get from the people who sent me comments.”
Fonda says she’d consider another play — or film — if the right script came along. But what she really wants to do at this point in her life is … cable. “The most interesting, edgy, exciting cultural statements are made on cable TV now,” she says. “‘Nurse Jackie,’ for example, I think is amazing. ‘Weeds,’ ‘The Big C,’ really interesting stuff. I would like to find a way to express, in a television series, what it’s like to be a woman of my age in the world today.”
Clearly, Fonda is back — in L.A., on stage, on screen, on the page. But where, exactly, she’ll go from here is wide open. “I swear in the last 10 years I’ve given up trying to know what I’m supposed to do” she says, not at all concerned about the uncertainty. After three marriages, she says, she’s finally found true emotional intimacy with Perry, whom she’s been with for 18 months now. And she feels more her “authentic self” than ever. Though not “finished,” by any stretch.
“I still feel like a work in progress, I’m happy to say. I think that’s the way life is supposed to be. Until the very end.”
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