The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jane Fonda on her climate-change activism: ‘I wanted to show that we have to leave our comfort zone’

Jane Fonda (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Jane Fonda, 82, is an award-winning actor and a longtime activist. She moved to D.C. for four months to launch "Fire Drill Fridays," a campaign with weekly demonstrations to focus attention on the urgency of climate-change issues.

You’ve been an activist for a long time. Can you talk about your first exposure to activism?

I remember very well. I had been living in France for nine years. Married. Child. There were American GIs who were resisting the war. They had been in Vietnam and had deserted, and were in Paris, and looking for compatriots to help them with doctors and dentists and stuff like that. They are the ones that helped me understand the war and what was wrong. Long story short, they gave me a book by Jonathan Schell called “The Village of Ben Suc.” And it just rocked me.

My life, up until that point — it was glamorous. It was interesting. It was empty. And I was feeling the emptiness. And I just realized, Where have I been? What have I been doing with my life? The worst thing in life is to be going through it and not know why you’re there. Not feel that your life has any meaning. So I was totally prepared to throw all of that out and to completely immerse myself into a new world. I left everything, and I moved [back], and I called up [a] person running [antiwar] mobilizations and I said, “I’m Jane Fonda, and I know that there’s big things happening around the country. What can I do to help?” He said, “Well, what are your politics?” [Laughs.] And I didn’t know — I was so not active, I didn’t even know what to say. I thought, Well, I’m going to have to learn really quick a whole lot of things. I didn’t learn quite quick enough, but I did my best.

Right — you have said of sitting on the enemy aircraft gun on your trip to North Vietnam, “I will go to my grave regretting that.”

You know, I made a mistake. But I went to stop the bombing of the dikes. Because the United States was bombing the dikes of North Vietnam. And we knew from the Pentagon Papers what that meant. Because it had been proposed before to [President Lyndon] Johnson. And Johnson had said no, this is what Hitler did, we cannot do that. We cannot be responsible. [Henry] Kissinger estimated that several hundred thousand people would die from starvation and so forth. And I said a lot of people have gone, but not a celebrity. Not a movie star. I’m going to go, and I’m going to focus on the bombing of the dikes, and I’m going to bring back proof. And the bombing of the dikes stopped two months later.

I’m sure, over the years, you’ve talked to people who have that lingering association of “Hanoi Jane.” How did you handle the backlash?

It was so weird. It didn't happen right away. It was four, five years. Something like that [before] they created the myth of "Hanoi Jane." But I am realizing, now that I'm in the middle of oldness, there's something wrong with me: It doesn't go in; I just never let it get to me. The more it would come at me, the more I dug my heels in: "If they think that they're going to scare me into not doing what I'm doing, boy, do they have another thing coming." And I've always been that way, since I was a little girl. I'm not sure why, except that I've never been alone; I'm always part of a movement. So there's that collective thing.

What about pushback from people close to you? Your family?

One time I visited Angela Davis when she was in prison in Northern California – I had known her before she went to prison. And I came home and told Dad where I had been. And he said, "If I find out that you're a Communist, I'm going to be the first person to turn you in." I went to bed and pulled the covers over my head and cried for a day. Yeah, that affected me. Because it was my dad! And I adored him and respected him. But the rest of it, not so much.

You know, it's the story of so many American families. The generational divide. The first base that I went to, I'll never forget it. I was sitting on the floor with a group of GIs, and this young one came over to me, and his mouth got close up to my ear. It was clearly hard for him to speak. And what he said to me, in this halting whisper, was that he had killed a baby. And other guys told me things that they had seen, and they were all, like, shellshocked. I went home and told Dad what I had heard. And he couldn't believe it. He said, "If you can prove to me that it's true, then I will lead a march on the White House." So I brought a guy who had become my friend, Donald Duncan — he was a Green Beret. I said, "Donald, would you go and talk to my dad about what's going on over there?" And he did. And Dad listened. But it wasn't in his DNA. It was a different generation. He voted to try to end the war, but he couldn't march. You know what I mean? It wasn't his thing. And that was fine. But he never got angry with me again.

What made you take a break from your life to organize “Fire Drill Fridays” — why that, and why now?

I spent the last year feeling a big malaise. You know, knowing that I wasn’t doing enough, and I didn’t know what to do, and I’m not part of a movement. I was searching. I got an electric car. I stopped using single-use plastics. I’m not eating red meat, or very rarely. All those things. But I knew it wasn’t enough. And then, over the Labor Day weekend, I read Naomi Klein’s book “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.” It cannot be business as usual. So I wanted to do something that will get attention, to support Greta [Thunberg] and the student activists to raise the sense of urgency. I wanted to show that we have to leave our comfort zone. We have to get used to being in the streets. I mean, if necessary, we’re going to have to shut the government down. And that’s not radical. What is radical is not doing anything — given what that will lead to.

And you said, “Why now?” This is the time. I have to live this last act in such a way that, when I get to the end, I will minimize the regrets. I feel quite young, actually, now, even though it takes me forever to get in and out of a car! [Laughs.] And if I have to sleep on a metal bed at a jail, it’s going to hurt more than it would have 30 years ago. But the malaise is gone. I mean, I’m scared to death, but I know that I’m doing what I need to do.

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This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen’s latest book, “Activist: Portraits of Courage,” was released this fall.