Oprah Talks to Jane Fonda
Oprah: There's Jane!
Jane: I haven't joined any church—that's the church I've been to a number of times. I go to other churches too. I'm on a quest. I grew up in secular environments on both coasts—either in New York or Hollywood—and the only people I knew who had faith were Jewish. Most of the people whom I did organizing work with were lapsed Catholics, including both of my previous husbands.
Oprah: So you grew up with no faith? I was raised a Christian in the church, and I'm always fascinated that there are people who never had faith. I don't know how you exist without it.
Jane: My father was agnostic. Once when I was about 13, I wanted to go to church on Christmas Eve. I wanted to go hear the Christmas carols, and my father said I was a hypocrite—that was the environment I grew up in. And yet for 15 years, I have felt guided. I interpreted that in a secular way in the beginning, but then I heard Bill Moyers say, "Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous," and it unleashed my need to be spiritual. This was about ten years ago. I began to pray. I felt the hand of God on my shoulder. When I got on my knees and touched my fingers to my forehead and prayed—and I always have to do it aloud—I felt this incredible connection to God, or to what I call the Holy Spirit. That only happened once, when I moved to Atlanta, because it was the first time that I had spent time with people of faith—those who go to church and read the Bible. Ted has read the Bible cover to cover, twice. He can quote Scripture better than most preachers.
Oprah: The same Ted who has been quoted as saying, "Christianity is for losers"—that Ted?
Jane: That's right. Ted is a fallen angel. He was going to be a missionary. He was saved seven times, he says. He felt betrayed by God when his sister died horrifically from lupus when he was about 19. And it turned him hostile—and it's not hard to be hostile to the church. Because you can go through history, the Crusades and the inquisitions, and the formal church has a lot to apologize for.
Jane: But that's facile. And Christianity or any religion doesn't necessarily have to be about a church. You carry your God inside you.... It's been difficult, because when you're famous and the word gets out that you're a Christian, every church is saying, "Even Jane Fonda." People come up to me in airports and throw their arms around me.
Oprah: Jane, a whole generation of women knows you as the workout queen who urged them to "go for the burn." How do you feel about—
Oprah: Why conflicted?
Jane: There are two sides. What got me into it was my move from eating disorders to compulsive exercising. So what's bad about it is that it was compulsive in the beginning. But it is a healthier way to deal with body image than having eating disorders.
Oprah: I remember trying to keep up with your workouts, when you wore that pink striped bodysuit and headband. You were being compulsive then? No wonder I couldn't keep up!
Jane: After Vietnam, Tom and I started the Campaign for Economic Democracy, a California organization, and I raised a lot of money. Then it became hard to raise money, because there was a recession. Tom and I sat down and said, "Why don't we start a business to fund the political work?" That was the workout [series]. It was owned by the political organization and raised 17 million dollars.
Oprah: That's a lot of tapes!
Jane: And I was nervous about it, because I'm an actress. Was this going to upset my career? But the minute I started doing it, I started hearing from women. Women would say, "I don't take sleeping pills anymore. I haven't had to take insulin. I can stand up to my boss." And I realized it was about more than the shape of one's body. It was empowerment.
I always tried, in the books I wrote, to make it clear: Thin is not the goal. But I was thin. So no matter what I said, the subliminal message was, "You have to look a certain way." And I'm not happy about playing into that.
Oprah: But you helped so many women define their boundaries—and you really started an exercise movement.
Jane: That's why I'm conflicted. Because so many women say how positive it has been for them, but then there are also women who say—
Oprah: "I can never look like Jane." But what you intended was for every woman to find herself.
Jane: What I intended was to raise money for a political organization. Then it turned out that along with all the other women, I began to realize it was about a lot of stuff, including empowerment.
Oprah: In the years just before those tapes, you were bulimic. When did you stop the bulimia? I read that you stopped at age 36.
Oprah: What was that like?
Jane: It was like hell. No one quite understands what causes it. And I think some people are more prone to it than others, but it has something to do with living a lie. Not being authentic. Faking it. It's like becoming a woman and then rejecting it. Like alcoholism, it's a disease of denial. And the problem—which you don't realize in the beginning—is that it's just as addictive as a drug.
Oprah: Which is hard for people to understand. We all think that you can stop yourself from throwing up.
Jane: It's very difficult. I saw myself going down a dark hole, and I had two children, and I was making a difference in the world, and I had to make a choice between the light and the dark. Life and death. And I chose life. I stopped cold turkey. I don't advise everybody to do that, but I did. But it was years before I could sit at a meal without feeling anxious.
Oprah: I would imagine that every time you saw food, you would feel anxious. Because how could you do this and keep it a secret?
Jane: I think I lived on apple peels and the crust of bread, because if I went any further into the food, there'd be no stopping. So that's what caused the anxiety—I preferred not even to be around food.
Oprah: This started when you were 12?
Jane: No. I learned it in boarding school, the way a lot of girls did. But it was mostly when I became an actress at 21. There was the pressure to be thin—and I was a model.
Oprah: Jane, because of all that I have read, I thought that you and Ted were finished. But you don't seem finished at all.
Jane: We'll never be finished. Whatever happens in terms of our living arrangements, we will always be close. We've shared too much. We have too much in common.
Oprah: Is it hard to be at places with Ted now?
Jane: Not at all. We have a blast. We went out when my brother was here, with my brother's wife and Ted's kids, who adore me, and I adore them. It's hysterical because Ted's ex-wife Janie was there, too. We had such fun—Janie and I can relate better now. I said, "Janie, you sit on that side of him, I'll sit on this side and we'll breathe really hard!" We picked on him, and he laughed!
Oprah: But what about dating—do you intend to date other people?
Jane: I haven't been. I'll tell you what, I haven't thought about it.
Oprah: You haven't?
Jane: I haven't the need. I don't know what's going on. At the end of my last marriage, man, I was lookin'! But now I don't care.
Oprah: What do you need in a companion?
Jane: I have always been with men who were type A, alpha males. I must exist because I'm with him, I'd think. But what made them what they were [also often meant] they were lacking empathy genes. And now I know I don't need an alpha male; I need somebody who's interesting. I'm not pretending that I'm 100 percent healed, so I might not know [if a man is right for me] right away, but it wouldn't take me seven years to figure it out. Maybe a month or two.
Oprah: You said earlier that it's in the third act of life—the last 30 years—that everything gets pulled together. What do you need to pull together in your third act?
Jane: When I began making On Golden Pond [in the eighties], I met [co-star] Katharine Hepburn, which was terrifying. She looked at me and asked, "Are you going to learn to do the backflip?" And I had no intention of learning to do the backflip; I'm terrified of going over backward, and I hate cold water. But what was I going to say—no? So I said, "Of course."
Knowing I would have to shoot this scene in which I had to do a backflip at the end of the summer, I started taking lessons with a swimming coach. First I practiced on a mattress, and then I graduated to the raft on the water. On the days I wasn't shooting, I'd go out there and practice my flip. And Katharine used to hide in the bushes on the shore and watch. One day, I finally did a backflip! I was covered with bruises, and I crawled up on the shore. And she was standing there. "You made me like you, Jane," she said. "I've watched you day after day. You know, you've got to conquer your fears. Otherwise you'll get soggy. You have to do what you're afraid of." That really stuck with me. What am I afraid of now? Intimacy. So that's what I have to work on. In the third act, I don't want to be soggy—to get to the end and have regrets.
Oprah: And when you say intimacy, you're not talking about sex, right?
Jane: Sex and intimacy are not the same: You can have sex all your life and never be intimate with a person. There has to be empathy in the relationship. You have to enjoy seeing through their eyes. When you're with them, you're there and not thinking about what you're gonna do tomorrow.
Oprah: Doesn't intimacy require a fully opened heart?
Jane: Well said. You can think that you have a fully opened heart, but as with an onion, there are layers to the heart. You can think it's fully opened and then discover a whole other layer.
Oprah: Do you think that what has happened to you—this finding your voice, continuing to grow—is possible for everybody?
Jane: Not for everybody. Some people have been wounded beyond repair. Some people just can't come back. And at best, they can maintain. That notwithstanding, I think anybody else can. But you have to be prepared to take leaps of faith. You have to be brave.
At the end of my second marriage, I had a nervous breakdown. I needed a wheelbarrow to carry my heart: I thought it weighed ten pounds. I thought blood was coming through my skin. I would step outside and be shocked that the sky was still blue. How could the sky still be blue when life was such pain? I couldn't believe I could hurt so bad. I couldn't speak above a whisper. That was when Ted first called me and asked me out. I said, "I can't talk; I'll call you back." Then I thought, "If God is asking me to suffer this much, there has to be a lesson." And my friends were telling me, "You have to keep busy." I just sat at home. I was careful who I had around me. I would take-bike rides with my girlfriends. And I began to notice these coincidences—like the incredible people who came into my life....
Oprah: Because you started to pay attention.
Jane: Yeah. I wasn't living authentically before, but I didn't realize it. So what's the lesson? Don't give up. There are lessons to be learned even in the most horrendous pain. And you don't know that when you're young.
Oprah: Maya Angelou has taught me, when I'm in the deepest pain, to say, "Thank you, God." Because no matter how dark the day, there's a rainbow. So now I say, "God, what are you gonna teach me?" And that makes it about the lesson, not the event.
Oprah: Jane, it's been rumored that you're going back to theater. Is that true?
Jane: I would love to do theater if it resonates with me and speaks to things I really want to say.
Oprah: Was your appearance at the Academy Awards this year a coming out?
Oprah: It sure looked like one—if that wasn't coming out, I don't know what is! What was that?
Jane: Fun. Apparently [the show's producers] called [my friend] Paula, who used to be my agent, and said, "We want Jane to present the special award." Paula called me right after the separation was announced. I was still in the crying stage, and she said, "You better do the Academy Awards." And I said, "I can't do that! People will resent it. I'm not in the business anymore. It looks like I'm trying to hog the limelight." And she plain bullied me into saying okay. About 15 years ago, I had hosted with Robin Williams and Alan Alda, and I wore this fabulous dress. I said to Paula, "I've got just the dress!" And she said, "You're not gonna wear a dress that you've worn before! Are you kidding? Ask Vera Wang." And Vera made my dress!
I raise money every year for [charity]—I auction everything but my underwear—and [after the Oscars] I thought, "I'll auction the dress!" That got into the papers—and then I got to liking the dress. So I got a second round of publicity saying I'm not going to sell the dress, I'm going to wear it for a year and then sell it!
Oprah: Did you feel sexy when you walked out onstage?
Jane: I owned the stage. I was inside my body. I was a little worried when I had to turn—I had on heels that were about four inches high. I was curious about how I would feel being back [in Hollywood]. I felt welcomed. I went to the parties, and I sat there thinking, "Everybody is so nice, and I'm so glad I don't live here!" I've done it already. And I wouldn't go back there if you paid me.
Oprah: Even if I paid you a lot?
Jane: A lot. Because at my core, I'm an activist. And California is so big, and the problems are so vast, that you can never feel you have an impact. Here, I can matter.
Oprah: Who are you now, Jane?
Jane: Who am I? I'm a survivor. I'm a woman with tremendous inner resources and resilience. I care about people. I believe in "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," and I live by that. I am becoming authentic, and that's important to me. I have surpassed both my parents in terms of emotional stability, happiness and well-being. And I'm a lucky woman. I've deserved my luck.
Oprah: Do you believe you created your luck?
Jane: No. I think that, like most of us, I was born with an innate goodness. And I believe that God has seen that in me and has protected me through times when I should have died so I could fulfill my potential and do his work.
Oprah: The Bible says, "Many are called, but few are chosen." Do you believe you're called?
Jane: I believe I'm called.
Oprah: And what is your calling?
Jane: To provide opportunities for people who don't have the opportunities they should.
Oprah: Have you had different callings in your three different acts?
Jane: The innate calling is the same.... I've always felt like a teacher. Whenever I've learned something important, my reaction has always been to tell everybody about it. I read a book, I buy 100 copies and I send them out.
Oprah: Tell everybody!
Jane: That's what I live for.
Oprah: Is there anything about the third act that scares you, Jane?
Oprah: Not even death itself?
Jane: Not at all. I feel so full. I just feel good. I'm 62, and I'm finding my voice. I mean, if that's not fabulous—
Oprah: That is!
Jane: Ted said, "People your age aren't supposed to change!" I said, "Oh?" I can't tell you what living in Atlanta means to me. I can't tell you what having the opportunity to hang out with my girlfriends means to me. I feel like the world is before me.