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Last Labor Day weekend, Jane Fonda was sitting around in Big Sur with pals Rosanna Arquette and Catherine Keener feeling “very depressed that I wasn’t doing enough about the climate crisis.” She’d already stopped using single-use plastics, started driving an electric car, and cut back on meat, but she still yearned to make a bigger impact.
“When you’re famous, you have this incredible potential platform, but how do you use it?” Fonda says. And then she realized, “I have to put myself on the line.” So she called up Annie Leonard, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, and told her she was going to camp out in front of the White House. “She said, ‘Well, that’s great that you’re willing to do that, but it’s illegal,’ ” says Fonda, laughing over a hummus platter one February weekend afternoon at The Wing in Los Angeles, where she’s filming the seventh and final season of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie. Fonda was undeterred, but “didn’t want to be some aging movie star moving to DC” and butting in on existing activists, so she reached out to environmental organizations and students who, inspired by Greta Thunberg, had been protesting on Fridays, wondering where the adults were. Someone told her to “see if the students will welcome you, and if they do, go every Friday,” Fonda says. “So right away, I went to DC.”
She was greeted with open arms, and for 14 weeks beginning in October, Fonda and a diverse coalition of groups staged weekly protests in front of the Capitol to pressure leaders to address climate change. She dubbed her movement “Fire Drill Fridays,” and soon Fonda and a host of famous friends, including co-star Lily Tomlin and Ted Danson, were arrested and herded into police vans, wrists ziptied.
Long ago, Fonda made an important calculation about her celebrity: People were going to watch her, and she could use their attention to promote her agenda. For decades, she’s spoken out against the status quo and made headlines for agitating against authority, be it opposition to the Vietnam War or social inequality. Her mug shot from a Cleveland jail in 1970, fist raised and hair shagged, became an iconic symbol of people power and feminism.
Even the Jane Fonda workout—her quintessential-1980s exercise videos that became a global aerobics phenomenon—was created to raise funds for an organization she helped start with her then-husband, political activist Tom Hayden, to end corporate control of the economy. Inspired by Lyndon LaRouche, an infamous fascist hatemonger who used his computer business profits to pay for antigay protests, Fonda tried to think of what business she could start to fund the causes she cared about. She thought about starting a restaurant, but after someone advised her not to go into an industry she didn’t understand, she thought, “There’s only one thing I understand, and that is working out.” With her bouncy ringlets and tiny leotard-clad figure, Fonda showed people how to target their inner-thigh muscles—while raising $17 million to fight poverty, racial injustice, and corporate malfeasance.
Despite her long history of fighting for change, Fonda says it is only now as an octogenarian that she senses her strength as an activist. She’s been frank—in her memoir My Life So Far and in a 2018 HBO documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts—that it’s taken her a long time to feel she’s fully present and living her life for herself. Married to three different powerful men over the decades—French director Roger Vadim, who directed her in the 1960s sci-spoof Barbarella; Hayden; and media mogul Ted Turner—Fonda says she often felt unsure of herself and preferred to follow others. “I always felt like the student,” she says. “This is the first time that I am the leader.”
After her fourth arrest this fall, the endlessly glamorous actress had to spend the night in jail. While Fonda is matter-of-fact in saying she’s far more fortunate than most—“I’m white and I’m famous and I think orders came down from the attorney general to handle me with kid gloves”—it isn’t easy spending the night in jail when you’re in your eighties. She used her red coat to soften the metal of her bunk and managed to sleep through the sounds of fellow inmates sobbing, screaming, and rattling the bars of their cells. “It’s very hard in life to find a way to align your body with your deepest values, and that’s what civil disobedience can do,” says Fonda, building to a rapturous crescendo when she describes the way her renewed purpose makes her feel. “Even though you’re being handcuffed and put in a situation where you have absolutely no control, it’s like stepping in to yourself. I have chosen to put myself in this position where I lose all power because of something I believe in. And it’s incredible.”
Her resolve is greater than ever. She expanded Fire Drill Fridays, first to the West Coast, with a protest held in front of L.A.'s City Hall in February, and now, to the entire nation—virtually. In March, during the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, Fonda announced that she would be moving Fire Drill Fridays online starting April 3. (Text Jane to 877877 for more info.)
Prior to the national mandate for social distancing and isolation, Fonda had planned to take a two-year hiatus from acting to tour the country and get out the climate vote. She says she’s a good messenger because, well, she’s old. “I’m 82, which is very useful because people say, ‘Well, gosh, if she can do it, I can do it, too.’"
Styled by Arianne Phillips. Hair by Jonathan Hanousek for L'Oreal Paris. Makeup by David Deleon at A. Spiegelman Mangement. Manicures by Alex Jachno for Tom Ford Beauty. Set design by Jack Flanagan at The Wall Group. Produced by Nathalie Akiya at Kranky Produktions.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of ELLE.
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