After more than 50 years in the biz, Jane Fonda is looking, and, I suspect, feeling more youthful than ever. So it seems entirely appropriate that Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s perfectly titled Youth should bring her roaring back into the Oscar conversation. It’s been almost three decades since Fonda’s last nomination in 1986 for The Morning After, in which she played an actress—just as she is in Youth. Fonda’s Brenda Morel, a ball-buster who nearly steals the show in just eight-a-half-minutes of screen time, blew everyone away when the film first showed in Cannes. Fonda won two Oscars in the 1970’s (Klute and Coming Home) and has been nominated seven times. Youth could bring an eighth nom, but Fonda doesn’t like to talk about that prospect, just the role itself. It’s one she knew she was born to play.
What was your reaction when this role was offered to you?
Well, I had heard about the film from Al Pacino, who said there’s this role that feels like it’s written for you, so I immediately called my agent. It had already been cast with Shirley MacLaine. I have not confirmed this with her. A few weeks went by and then we heard that she was no longer attached. I said to my agent, “Go after it.” When Paolo offered the role to me I was just ecstatic, without having read it.
Did you base Brenda on anyone?
No. I mean, I came into the business just at the tail end of the era of the women that she was talking about. But I didn’t base it on anybody. I just tried to be her.
There’s no punches pulled with her…
She knows what she wants.
And you seem to know what you want. You have that passion that seems to be in all phases of your life.
Right, but I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I just want to stay curious.
Does acting still do that for you? You gave it up for a long time…
Oh, it totally disappeared for me as something I cared for or was passionate about. I took a 15-year break. I was 49 and I was really unhappy. I remember I was making a film with De Niro called Stanley and Iris in Canada. I sat on the edge of my hotel room bed and I was trying to envision a future for myself, and I couldn’t. I thought, “I can’t keep doing this.” I can’t act if I’m miserable and so I thought, “Well, I’m just going to stop.” I bought some property in New Mexico and I was going to become a full-time environmental activist. And then Ted Turner came into my life. People think I gave up acting because of him. The fact is that I was on the way out. I had 10 years with him that were fabulous and then I had five years writing my memoir, which was very cathartic. It’s hard to know who you want to be if you don’t know who you’ve been. At the end of that process I got offered Monster-in-Law. I was now 62. Even though it was a popcorn movie it was transformative for me in terms of my career. It was the only strategic career thing I ever did. I thought, “Hmm, people will come to see J.Lo and they will either rediscover me, or, if they’re young, they’ll discover Fonda,” which is absolutely what happened.
And then you did TV.
It was Newsroom. It was Aaron (Sorkin), bless his heart, giving me the role of Leona Lansing that kind of said, “She’s back.”
And there’s that line in Youth about your character Brenda going into TV, which used to be verboten.
If you wanted to be a movie star you never could do television. But for reasons that you know as well as or better than I do, it’s kind of where you want to be now, especially if you’re an older woman, because it’s much more forgiving. We wrapped our second season of Grace & Frankie last night—at midnight. We shot a nine-page scene that should be in a Broadway play. Some people cried and then it was really, really funny. It just felt really good.
In the opening shot in Youth your character has a classic screen entrance.
Yeah, she’s looking at that terrible piece of sculpture on the wall. What did you think about the knife?
You know, I liked that.
It was me. Paolo had me doing something different and I said, “You know, us women—when we’re waiting for somebody—sometimes just kind of check our teeth in a knife.” And he liked that, so we did it.
What did you think about the way the film was shot? In person, you don’t look anything like Brenda. Is that a startling thing to see on screen?
Well, if you’re purposely going to light me for how old I am or older, yeah, that’s how I look. It’s all in the lighting. I loved what they did—I had a wig that really looks like a wig, and you see all my wrinkles. I don’t want people to think that I’m not going to appear in a movie unless I only look really good. If that’s what it calls for, I’ll go for it.
Actresses you knew, some who had worked with your father, like Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis, came to mind, seeing you in this role.
When you know those great divas, and I did, without saying I’m going to base the character on anyone, they’re kind of in your DNA. Do you know what I mean?
To see more of Youth, click play below: