Jane Fonda On Aging, Feminism, and the Importance of "Grace and Frankie"
“I think one of the reasons that people like the show is that it’s really easy on the eye,” Jane Fonda says of her Netflix sitcom, "Grace and Frankie." "There's kind of a feel-good thing about it."
The description may not seem plausible for a series that follows a group of late-in-life divorcées, but Fonda is onto something. "Grace and Frankie" is as charming as the San Diego beachfront house in which the two titular protagonists, played by Fonda and Lily Tomlin, move into after learning that their husbands are leaving them for each other. The show’s lighthearted humor, paired with Fonda's impeccable collection of cashmere sweaters and Tomlin’s earthy cool aura, also makes it a pleasing binge-watching choice for lazy weekends.
But that ease hasn't always extended to the relationship between our leading ladies. Season one focused on the pair's odd-couple nature — Grace, the martini-sipping WASP; Frankie, the pot-smoking artist — but the show’s second season, which premieres this Friday, finds a balance between the two roommates. "A lot of older women say to me and to Lily, 'You know, you gave me hope. I can now see that there could be a future,'" Fonda told Vogue.com. We spoke to the 78-year-old actress this week about the cultural importance behind "Grace and Frankie," her fitness tape empire, and why she's certain the pay gap will close in her lifetime.
In more than 50 years of acting, you never had a starring role in a TV show. What finally convinced you to do it?
I wanted to do one for quite a number of years, but I hadn’t found the right thing. I have long wanted to give a cultural face to old age. And it’s hard for older women to do that, in particular in major feature films these days. Maybe always.
I thought this was a show that could potentially give a lot of hope to people, especially to older people, especially to women. And I think that’s actually happened. The other day my boyfriend, Richard Perry, and I were being honored at the Pasadena Playhouse and a woman came over to us and said: "You saved my sister’s life. She'd been married for 45 years and her husband left her for a man and she was suicidal. We finally got her to watch 'Grace and Frankie' and it saved her life. We were able to laugh at it." So that feels pretty good.
Had you seen anything on TV or film that you felt spoke honestly about old age?
"Harold and Maude." There was Ruth Gordon years ago playing a feisty older woman. But there’s not a lot else. It’s no secret that movies tend to cater to the young.
When Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris came up with the idea for "Grace and Frankie," were you always in mind for the role of Grace?
She says that she heard that Lily and I wanted to work together again.
Is that true?
Not really. We hadn't talked about it. I was actively seeking a TV series to do. Several hadn't worked out. And Lily and I had been friends since 9 to 5, but we had never talked about developing a project for ourselves. However, what a great idea! There was no script, so Marta and the cocreator, Howard J. Morris, pitched the idea to the two of us. And we said, "Yeah, let’s go for this."
I read that you were afraid you couldn’t do comedy anymore when you started "Grace and Frankie." What gave you that idea?
Episodic television is a different animal and I had never done it before. Being a recurring guest star when you come in every three to four weeks is very different from doing episodic television. It’s very hard work, it’s very long hours. It takes a while for the writers to get used to your voice, to write for you. You have to find your groove. A real comedian has a sense of timing and delivery. And I’ve done a lot of comedies. I started off doing comedies primarily, but I’m not that kind of comedian. So it took me a while for me to get my feet under me.
Do you think you’re funny now?
I see myself like the straight man, which can also be funny.
I have to say, you look unbelievable in the show. I kept thinking how I needed to try your aerobics exercise videos.
I did a whole new series about six years ago! I started a new series called Prime Time. I did a yoga one. And they’re for older people and people who haven’t really worked out before. They’re very successful. I also rereleased my original ones.
You’ve been an active feminist throughout your career. How do you feel about this fourth wave of feminism with actresses speaking out on issues like equal pay?
I think it’s fabulous. They happen to be very talented and successful and very funny. It's interesting how many of them are comedians. I think that issues of gender and equality lend themselves to comedy. Whether it's Lena Dunham or Amy Schumer or Samantha Bee. We had a whole night of feminist comedians a few months ago in New York to support the new campaign for the equal rights amendment. There were men there, too.
Do you find it at all frustrating to see that the pay gap has persisted throughout your career in Hollywood?
Equal pay is still an issue everywhere. I think it's a big problem and I think it’s going to be solved. I bet within my lifetime. Which is saying something because I'm pretty old!
What gives you hope?
Watch Fonda's exclusive MAKERS story in the video above.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.