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Fonda retakes the Hill: ‘Cancer is scary, but the climate crisis is scarier’

After years away from Washington, the actress is reviving her Fire Drill Fridays rally — and occasionally still talking movies

Jane Fonda speaks at Fire Drill Fridays, a climate change rally, in Washington on Dec. 2. It was the first in-person Fire Drill Fridays event in three years. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Jane Fonda is back.

The actress and activist, who will turn 85 in a few weeks, arrives at an upscale Washington hotel looking chic in a snappy charcoal blazer, a gray newsboy’s cap and an array of tasteful gold jewelry pieces. She’s just come from Capitol Hill, where she’s been lobbying Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). But her main reason for returning to Washington is to revive Fire Drill Fridays, the weekly grass-roots political action she began in 2019 to draw attention to climate change.

“I’m so glad to be here,” Fonda whispers as she grabs a quick lunch of burrata salad and iced tea. In-person Fire Drill Fridays were put on hold during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and delayed further when Fonda was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma this summer. She has mostly sailed through her chemotherapy treatments, although she admits the last one was hard. “It took a couple of weeks to recover,” she says. But she literally laughs off a disease that she insists won’t stop her from doing what she cares about most. “Cancer is scary, but the climate crisis is scarier,” she says flatly.

Fonda recalls co-founding Fire Drill Fridays with Greenpeace three years ago. “Our goal was to reach the 70 percent of the population who were concerned about the climate but had never taken action,” she explains, “and move them from being alone and concerned to together and active.”

Thousands of people turned up for Fonda’s in-person weekly demonstrations, which included famous friends like Joaquin Phoenix, Martin Sheen, Gloria Steinem and Diane Lane and occasionally landed Fonda in jail (she was arrested five times, usually with fines). Once the event went online, where activists, celebrities and experts delivered climate-related content, Fonda says, involvement soared. “A month ago we hit the 11 millionth person across all platforms,” she says proudly. “Thousands and thousands of people are signing up to be trained by Greenpeace. They know how to speak at a town hall now, and write letters. They’re becoming activists. And what’s really important to me is that we’re becoming a community. People don’t feel so alone.”

The Journey of Jane Fonda: 'I've always been curious. I've never really wanted to settle.'

At the welcome-back rally on Dec. 2, Fonda intended to make two demands: calling on President Biden to declare a climate emergency, thereby giving him leeway to enact policy on the executive level without congressional approval, and defeating “permitting reform” legislation sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to encourage the development of both renewable and fossil fuel energy. Although supporters focus on what the bill would do to spur green energy, Fonda is unconvinced. “It fast-tracks fossil fuel deals, and it totally reduces the ability of the public to have input,” she explains. “Plus, it would throw all the young people who helped win the [midterm] election under the bus.”

At the Dec. 2 rally, she predicted that Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) would retain his seat in the Senate. “Here’s the best news. Not if, but when, we win in Georgia, we will dethrone Senator Manchin and his unilateral veto power. That alone is worth dancing in the streets for.”

She’s aware of the four-dimensional chess involved with going after Manchin, whose defeat on the permitting measure would make him a more vulnerable target for Republicans in 2024, but she’s far more interested in a new generation of political leaders emerging in state races across the country. (After the Dec. 2 rally, Fire Drill Fridays will travel to the Gulf Coast and California.) She recently formed the Jane Fonda Climate PAC, which supported 70 “climate champions” in down-ballot races this year. Although the final tally isn’t in yet, Fonda’s proud to note that all but one of the candidates she campaigned for won. “Oh my God, it’s exciting,” she enthuses. “It’s the states where it’s happening.”

The night before, she met one of her candidates, Greg Casar (D-Tex.), at a reception at the AFL-CIO. She rhapsodizes about New Mexico Public Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard (“She’s a firebrand”) and Lina Hidalgo, the county judge in Harris County, Tex., home to Houston. “Remember that name,” she says of Hidalgo. “This is a rising star.”

Fonda was on the hustings in New Mexico and Texas this past year, doing the kind of ground-level campaigning she’s loved since becoming politically active in the 1960s and 1970s. “The best antidote for depression is knocking on doors,” she observes. “Over and over, it happened to me. It just makes all the difference in the world.”

Seeing voters face-to-face, she says, “has filled me with hope,” adding that issues like reproductive freedom and climate change motivated voters to turn back the “red wave” that might have been. “It’s like, ‘Congress, climate change is real,’” Fonda says, “and Americans care about it.”

She stabs at her plate of greens and melty mozzarella. “This salad makes me think of Italy,” she says. “I made a movie there this summer.” That would be “Book Club 2: The Next Chapter,” co-starring Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen, expected next May. In February, she’ll appear with friend and “Grace and Frankie” collaborator Lily Tomlin in “80 for Brady,” about a group of women who obsessively follow NFL quarterback Tom Brady.

Both films sound like a hoot, but one can’t help recall such Fonda classics as “Coming Home” and “The China Syndrome” — mainstream, hugely entertaining movies that centered on real-life issues (even the comedy “9 to 5” was rooted in Fonda’s research into sexual harassment and wage discrimination). Fans of those fact-based but un-spinach-y films wish they’d come back. “I do, too,” Fonda says, but she has aged out of being able to produce them. An effort to reboot “9 to 5,” she says, came to naught. “I’ve given up. … I just don’t have time. [And] my heart isn’t in it.” Quoting scientists who warn that fossil fuel emissions must be cut in half by 2030 to avoid catastrophic environmental damage, she says: “We have eight years. Eight years! I don’t want to spend that eight years making a movie.”

That doesn’t mean she won’t continue to act. For now though, she says, “I’m just going to do climate for a while. … You know, everything changes when you get old. It’s kind of great. Things become much clearer.”

She finishes her salad and begins to make for the door. She’s headed back to the Hill, where she’ll meet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). (“If you were meeting with Pelosi, what would you want to say to her?” she asks.) Then, it’s her usual nine hours of sleep — the one thing she insists on, she says — before once again sounding the alarm on Freedom Plaza in her signature red coat, with the usual cadre of friends and activists. And, this time, the Rebirth Brass Brand. “I wanted to have a brass band,” Fonda says. “We’re not marching. We’re not getting arrested. But we’ll have horns.”

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