Two-time Oscar-winning actress Jane Fonda is not a stranger to controversy or compliments. Her career has occasionally been overshadowed by her opinions political and otherwise, but the focus always comes back to her creative expression. She worked with her legendary father, Henry Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn in the 1981 movie “On Golden Pond,” which won her dad his first Academy Award. In the 1980s she found legions of new fans with her workout videos. At 77 she looks half her age and has been candid about her plastic surgeries and knee and hip replacements.
Last year she was in Pittsburgh to film “Fathers & Daughters;” this year, she’s starring in the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” with Lily Tomlin, about two friends whose husbands have left them to be together. Her memoir “My Life So Far” (2005) is a good summer read.
Q: One of the best scenes in “Grace and Frankie” is when you are about to get in bed with a man for the first time since your husband of decades left, and you lift your arm up and wiggle it in the mirror. Did they ask you to do that or was it your idea?
A: I came up with it.
Q: If Jane Fonda, with the perfect body and all the resources, has jiggle, what hope is there for us?
A: (Laughing) It’s life! I thought it would be kind of universal, and I like sending myself up like that.
Q: Were you always able to make fun of yourself?
A: Yeah, I think so. Maybe I’m fooling myself, I don’t know, but I like to think so. I never thought all that much of myself so it hasn’t been too difficult (laughing).
Q: There is a lot for you to relate to in the Grace character. Did you recognize that right away?
A: For all kinds of complicated reasons that we won’t go into now it took me — I did not get it at the very first. For that reason, I think the second season will be better for me. I resisted seeing myself in Grace for complicated reasons (She laughs). I now realize we have a lot in common.
Q: Can you see your strengths and accomplishments more clearly now?
A: Yeah, I have worked hard to be able to do that. I have always been able to list my weaknesses, my foibles. Writing my memoirs was part of what helped me to be able to say these are my strengths. It took a while.
Q: You have such warmth and grace. Was that self taught or innate?
A: Thank you. Oh I don’t know about the grace. If there is any, then that is definitely a function of age. I certainly don’t think I was very graceful when I was younger. I think maybe warmth has come with age, too. You know, my dad was very cold. I’m very much like my dad. I just read an article about myself in Harper’s Bazaar and the woman had interviewed me in 1989, and she said I was taut, a bunch of nerves, and that I seem like a totally different person now. I feel like a totally different person now, and that has taken time and intention.
Q: Is it true for the joy? You seem to exude that as well.
A: Totally of late. Totally new (laughing). I’ve worked hard (laughs).
Q: What do you get out of acting now that you didn’t earlier in your career?
A: I think that I’m more willing to take great risks and leaps of faith, which I did in an Italian movie that has not come out yet called “Youth,” directed by Paolo Sorrentino. He won an Oscar two years ago for “The Great Beauty.” It’s a very small part. I have one major scene that is about 7 minutes long. It’s something I probably wouldn’t have been able to do earlier. I don’t know, I am more able to take risks. I don’t think that is evident in “Grace and Frankie.” It doesn’t require that, but in general I would say that is true.
Q: But, Jane, what do you get out of it other than a paycheck and accolades?
A: Well, hey, when you’re 77, a regular paycheck is not to be scoffed at. Really, I love having a steady job.
Q: You have been so candid in your memoir “My Life So Far” and interviews. Have you had any backlash from being honest in your personal life?
A: No. I mean, first of all, do I reveal everything? No. Do I tell all my secrets? Absolutely not. I try to use my life and my considerable experience to — I think it helps other people. In fact I know that’s true because I get to this day — I mean my book has been out and translated into 17 languages, and I get feedback all the time about my book, about my interviews about my Master Class that I did for Oprah, about all the various venues in which I talk about my life candidly.
I do it in a way that I think is helpful. The feedback that I get tells me that it is helpful. It gives people hope — mostly women but also men.
Q: It also deals with something you don’t see done much, which is friendship.
A: Yes, I like that a lot. You know, you work so hard in a TV series. Sometimes 14 or 15 hours a day, learning a lot of lines and with different directors it’s not easy so to be working with someone who you love and trust [Lily Tomlin] makes it a lot, lot easier.
Q: It’s funny, you have played her character — the hippie/Zen woman — in other movies. [2011’s “Peace, Love and Misunderstanding.”] ... Now you are playing the opposite.
A: (Laughs) Yes, and I have a little of both in me, frankly.
Q: This is only from the outside looking in, but it seems like you were acting before you were acting, because you were trying to please everybody.
A: Oh, yes. Yes in that sense. I was acting before I became a professional actor. I once said — only partly joking — I should have won an Academy Award for my life.
Q: Did you feel like acting was easy?
A: No it’s not something I grew up wanting to do. I did not think I was pretty enough. I was very painfully shy. I had low self-esteem. My dad was not encouraging it. It was because of Lee Strasberg’s encouragement that I dipped my foot into acting. It was very scary for me. It happened too fast for me I guess. I became — my very first film I was starring opposite Tony Perkins.
I wish that it had gone a little slower and I had more chance to grow my technique, my craft. I have sort of gone back now. I have an acting coach for the first time in 50 years. I want to take stock and try to do it better. I think a big problem when you get older and you’ve won a bunch of awards and everything is you kind of rest on your laurels. That’s a killer. I don’t want to do that. I want to try to get better until I can’t work anymore.
Q: Well you don’t look your age and you don’t act your age. You are the living example of — your world does not have to get smaller just because you get older.
A: That’s right. It’s partly how you look, but I also think it’s an attitude. My attitude is always remaining a student. I feel like I am always learning and I am always studying. I think it keeps you young.