Plain (talking) Jane Fonda, now appearing on Broadway, isn't shy

by Robert Kahn

Newsday (MCT)

17 April 2009


Jane Fonda walks into a 55th Street tea house carrying Tulea, her small, white canine companion. Where Fonda goes, Tulea follows. The bichon-like dog (officially a Coton de Tulear) recently ran onto the stage during one of her master’s curtain calls, after a performance of “33 Variations.”

In the Moises Kaufman drama, Fonda, 71, plays a reedy musicologist suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease and using her dwindling time to finish a thesis about Beethoven. The role marks her return to Broadway after a nearly half-century absence.

Fonda, in the interim, has led lives as a sex kitten, social activist and workout guru, and is now reinventing herself once more, as a blogger.

Janefonda.com is home to a name-dropping chronicle of backstage visitors (“Dreaming of Bob Redford” begins one post) and, naturally, updates on Tulea.

Over a plate of steamed dumplings, the two-time Oscar-winning, thrice-married actress talked about ... oh, she’s not shy about much.

Q. You’re blogging every day. Will you keep it up after “33 Variations” is done?

A. I started it because of the show, and because I’m crassly commercial. I have things to sell - books and videos - and I’ll have more books and more videos. I’ll do just about anything to raise money ... I don’t want to be writing about brushing my teeth, you know, but I’m making two more movies this year, and I have some big adventures planned the year after that ...

Q. Two movies? One of them is an Eve Ensler project, “Necessary Targets,” but I didn’t know about another.

A. “Necessary Targets” evolved out of interviews she did with women in Bosnia during that conflict. I would play an uptight American psychiatrist who’s been sent by a presidential commission to spend time in a refugee camp.

Q. Ah, so we should expect you only to play uptight doctors from here out?

A. Or victims of illness.

Q. What about the other film?

A. It hasn’t been announced, so I can’t talk about it. It’s more of a Hollywood movie.

Q. Dr. Katherine Brandt is so focused in her pursuit of this mystery about Beethoven. What’s something you’ve been as single-minded in?

A. Writing my memoir. Learning to fly-fish. Learning to make my body healthy. That was a very lengthy obsession that I now know so well I don’t need to think about it anymore.

Q. Yeah, I downloaded a snippet from your first workout video this morning. It was jarring, having just seen you on stage, dying.

A. This is a very easy part for me to play. I just looked at a whole lot of video of people with ALS. Some people can talk pretty clearly right up to the end, even though their bodies can’t function. Some people lose their voice right away, even though they can walk pretty well. I’m very in touch with my body from all those years of exercise.

Q. You’ve said this is a show your father, Henry Fonda, would have appreciated. Can you elaborate?

A. Dad never saw me in a good play, and I wish he was here to see me do this. I think he would be very proud, because I know I take command of the stage the way I never did when he saw me before ... He liked acting in theater better than he did acting in movies. The only way he ever described it was by talking about the “immediate” feedback. An actor is so much more in control onstage. You’re there, and you either rise to the occasion or you don’t.

Q. How’s it been, returning to Broadway after 46 years?

A. I feel safer there. It’s just the little rituals that are very comforting, in a world that is so uncomforting. I know when I have to go to the theater. I know where I’m going to take my nap. I know when Heidi (the company manager) is going to come in and say how many people are in the house. You look for those little things. ... And then, like yesterday, I arrived at the theater, and there were people lined up at the box office, so I went and talked to them, asked them “Why are you here?” and “Why did you want to see the play?”

Q. That must have caught a few people off guard.

A. This one joker from Long Island said, “Well, I don’t know ... me and my lady thought we’d just come and see this person we’ve been hearing about for so long. She’s in movies.” People are very loving, very emotional.

Q. Some people are not so loving. There was a small group of Vietnam vets protesting outside the theater one night.

A. ... Look, the good news is, people know where to find you. The bad news is, people know where to find you. My dad, all my young life, whenever someone would be coming at him for an autograph, he would run away, and the rest of the day would be shot. He’d be in a bad mood, and my brother and I could never get it. ... Dolly Parton, really through her example, taught me the grace and value in acknowledging fans.

Q. Dolly Parton is amazing. It’s some coincidence that you’re on Broadway just as “9 to 5” is getting ready to open around the corner.

A. Isn’t it? I keep seeing it on the directory. There’s “9 to 5,” and then “33 Variations.” I’m going to walk the red carpet (at the “9 to 5” opening). I can’t see the show, because we’ll be performing.

Q. You could ask for the night off, to make a cameo.

A. If only I could sing and dance.

Q. You’ve talked about another book. This next one will be about aging?

A. In my memoir (2006’s “My Life So Far”), I divided my life into three “acts” - the first 30 years, the second 30 years and the last 30 years. It did well, and my editor came to one of my speeches and asked me to write a book about “the third act,” based on things she’d heard me say. It’s going to be called “The Third Act: Entering Prime.”

Q. So, by that paradigm, this is Act 3, Scene 2 of your life. How are you imagining Scene 3?

A. In three years, I’m going to be climbing in the Himalayas. I’m going back into medieval Tibetan villages at 16,000 feet, which has been a dream of mine. ... I’m not saying everyone can live their old age this way. Obviously, they can’t, and everything doesn’t have to be quite so dramatic as it is in my life. But a lot of it has to do with state of mind.

Q. “Monster-in-Law” with Jennifer Lopez introduced you to new fans. Is there anybody else you’re eager to work with?

A. You know something? My experience is, when you’re 71 and you’re a woman, you don’t think in those terms anymore. You try to send out vibes that you’re wanting to work and hoping that you’ll come into somebody’s mind as a possible actress for a part. Somebody just sent me something that they said was for Al Pacino. I’d love to work with Al Pacino. If it comes, it comes, and if not, I’ll climb mountains and write books.

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