At her recent big party (ahead of an even bigger birthday), the actress and activist told us she’s bringing back her Fire Drill Fridays, because she’s ready to get arrested again.
With a career that spans more than six decades and a lifetime of activism, Jane Fonda’s body of work is so robust that everyone has at least one core memory of her. It might be her role in the classic film 9 to 5 alongside Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton or her wildly popular workout videos from the early ‘80s. Maybe you remember her vocally opposing the Vietnam War in the ‘60s or the now widely published mugshot from her 1970 arrest for suspicion of drug trafficking (baggies of vitamins were found in her luggage at an airport). Maybe she first hit your radar starring as Lindsay Lohan’s grandmother in 2007’s Georgia Rule. Perhaps you discovered the legend in the midst of the COVID pandemic, when she raised awareness about climate change with virtual events during the shut-down.
I have a very specific Jane Fonda imprint: I grew up in Atlanta during the time Fonda’s marriage to media mogul Ted Turner overlapped with his ownership of our Major League Baseball team, the Atlanta Braves. When the games aired on TV, the camera would frequently pan to Turner and Fonda sitting in the front row right behind home plate, Fonda always looking notably stylish in the crowd. She often donned a custom Braves cap with a hole in the top, so she could wear a high ponytail while still rocking a ball cap. To this day, I remember wanting a hat just like Fonda’s, so I, too, could look stylish while doing sporty things.
Fonda will ring in her 85th birthday on Dec. 21, but despite her illustrious career and the legacy of philanthropy and social activism she has already established, she’s not slowing down one bit.
“Turning 85 isn’t any different than turning 84 or turning 86 will be. I’m seriously in the middle of ‘old,’” she tells me via Zoom with her signature candor. “But once you’re inside of it, as opposed to looking at it from the outside, it’s not all that scary.”
And her consistent vigor for her many endeavors comes on the heels of her Sept. 2 Instagram announcement that she has been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and will undergo six months of chemotherapy. “I’m a curious person, and I’m constantly learning, and I think that’s important,” she says of thriving in your 80s. “My dad died six years younger than me, and sure, I have cancer, but we’re getting that dealt with with chemo and I feel lucky.”
In November, Fonda had an early birthday celebration in Atlanta, which served as a fundraiser for the charity she started in 1995, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential, known as GCAPP. Fonda was inspired to start the organization in her then-home state after learning that Georgia had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the entire nation. In 2022, that number has dropped 73%. GCAPP impacts more than 70,000 teens each year and is the only organization in the state that works with schools to implement comprehensive sex-ed programs (among many other programs and endeavors).
“My goal for GCAPP is and always was to help young girls and boys not have babies when they’re not able to take care of them," Fonda shares. "And to teach adolescents to manage their bodies and lead powerful, productive lives.”
Her birthday fete was held at a private home in an historic Atlanta neighborhood and was attended by longtime GCAPP supporters, Fonda’s friends, and somewhat out of place, me. Notable guests included Glennon Doyle and Abby Wambach, Tyler Perry, Catherine Keener, Ludacris, and Spanx founder Sara Blakely. The night was hosted by comedian and Instagram megastar Heather McMahan, whom Fonda sat onstage with throughout the night to avoid excessive mingling post-chemo. The pair kept the crowd in stitches with their irreverent humor and had such comedic chemistry that I felt like I was watching a televised comedy special.
Ludacris toasted Fonda and sang “Happy Birthday.” At the end of the evening, Gladys Knight performed a mini concert. The night was also punctuated with a plethora of video messages from stars, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Helen Mirren, Whoopi Goldberg, Nicole Richie, and Salma Hayek.
“All those people that showed up with tributes to me blew my mind and moved me so much,” Fonda shared during our call after the party. And while the night was filled with laughter and festivities and was a true celebration of Fonda, her primary purpose was also fulfilled — more than $1 million was raised to help further the impact GCAPP has in the state.
Of course, her work with GCAPP only scratches the surface of what Fonda has been occupying herself with recently. Although her Netflix hit Grace and Frankie concluded earlier this year after a seven-season run, she has stayed busy acting. Her film 80 for Brady (the true story of a group of octogenarians who fulfill their lifelong dream to go to the Super Bowl and meet Tom Brady) hits theaters on Feb. 3, 2023, and at her party, she shared what a blast she had filming alongside her longtime friends Lily Tomlin, Sally Field, and Rita Moreno, and that Tom Brady is a legitimately good actor. In May 2023, Book Club 2: The Next Chapter (a sequel to her 2018 film Book Club) arrives.
Then, there’s her climate crisis work. In the fall of 2019, Fonda moved to Washington, D.C., for 14 weeks of planned protests and rallies to demand our country’s leaders take action for climate change and specifically demand that Congress pass Greenpeace’s proposed Green New Deal. These weekly events were named “Fire Drill Fridays” and immediately captured the eyes and ears of the public. Each week, the rallies featured different celebrities, indigenous leaders, and thought leaders as speakers, and saw Fonda arrested five times for acts of civil disobedience.
During her first four arrests (make that her second through fifth when you count that vitamin incident from years ago), stars and friends of Fonda’s such as Sally Field, Catherine Keener, Sam Waterston, Ted Danson, Rosanna Arquette, and Piper Perabo were arrested alongside her. The protests were set to move to Los Angeles in February of 2020, but COVID changed everyone’s plans. Not one to be deterred by a global pandemic, Fonda moved Fire Drill Friday events online and held monthly virtual rallies continuing to put pressure on politicians to adopt the Green New Deal. Since going virtual, she has reached more than 11 million viewers.
On Friday, Dec. 2, Fonda will host her first in-person rally in nearly three years in Freedom Plaza in D.C. She’ll be joined by a host of speakers and activists to demand that Congress reject Senator Joe Manchin’s “Dirty Deal” and that President Joe Biden declare a climate emergency.
“It’s all hands on deck, and we have to get people to understand what is going on and get them ready to do something about it,” says Fonda. “Things aren’t looking good for the climate. The climate is getting hotter, migrations will double, triple, quadruple; pandemics will multiply. The things that lay ahead will be very scary if we don’t make change.”
She continues, “We have to reduce fossil fuel emissions, and we can never again elect officials who take money from the oil industry. The ‘Dirty Deal’ that Senator [Charles] Schumer and Manchin are going to foist on the American people has to be stopped. If President Biden will declare a climate emergency, it engages lots of measures and accesses money that would help the cause.”
In 2023, Fire Drill Friday rallies will be held in communities on the Gulf Coast and in California that are among those most impacted by our climate crisis.
When I mention to Fonda how good she is at rallying people, she is frank as ever. “I don’t know if I’m all that good, but the fact that I’m 85 and have got cancer, people think, ‘If she can do it, I can do it!’”
I note how many of the birthday messages from her friends mentioned what an inspiration she is and ask who she looks up to. “The names would mean nothing to many people,” she responds. “They are the frontline activists, many of them indigenous, whose lives are directly threatened by the climate crisis, but never give up.”
I can’t help but think that other than the name recognition, this sounds quite familiar: That very same frontline activism and relentless tenacity is exactly what people admire about her.
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