Jane Fonda reflects on her lifelong passion for activism
Jane Fonda
Credit: Bret Lundberg/Getty Images

I often get asked about aging and how to do it gracefully. I’m 80, and I like giving a positive face to getting older. I also know that my career as an actor depends to a certain degree on how I look. And while I’m not free of vanity by any means, I really do feel that one of the most important parts of aging successfully is to have a purpose in life. You’ve got to have something to wake up for.

Now, I’ve always felt very blessed to be an actor. It’s a profession of empathy because we're invited to become other human beings and understand their reality. But it’s my work as an activist that has given me purpose.

When you can commit your life to trying to make things better, it infuses you with a new spirit. Your spine gets straighter, your eyes get brighter, your heart gets fuller, your mind is stimulated, and you walk, talk, and act differently. It affects your inside, and your inside affects your outside. I have felt that way from the very beginning.

Back in the ’70s, when I first got involved in activism, I wasn’t very happy or proud of myself. We were still in the Vietnam War, and I saw so many people who were giving their lives to something far greater than themselves. I had just been a passive, slightly hedonistic celebrity. It didn’t sit well with me, you know?

Maybe it would’ve been fine if it had been the ’50s, when everybody else was passive too. But I was living in France at the time of the war, and because of what was swirling around me, I felt I needed to better understand what was happening. So I met with American soldiers who had been in Vietnam and right away knew I had to participate in ending what was so clearly a tragic error. And so my husband at the time [Tom Hayden] and I moved back to the United States to join the anti-war movement.

I still remember my very first rally. I was asked to speak in Washington, D.C., to the GI movement as a civilian adjunct. There were about 300,000 people who showed up, and I was terrified. I spoke about how the soldiers were not the enemies of the movement, nor were the police. I said it was the government that was the problem. And the more I talked, the easier it became.

Of course, I have some regrets about that time too. When I traveled to North Vietnam [in 1972], I was shaken to my core by what I saw. I didn’t want to visit any military sites, but for some reason I accepted an invitation to go to one, which is where the infamous photo of me [on the antiaircraft gun] happened. I was set up, I guess. And it’s still the biggest regret I will ever have.

After that trip a lot of news was fabricated about me. We didn’t have the term “fake news” back then. [President] Nixon said about me, “She’s a great actress. She looks pretty. But she’s often on the wrong track.” I think it’s hysterical now. In the ’80s, the insults became an art form with [President] Reagan.

At that point I was in my mid-30s, and I was starting to feel differently. I was paying attention to what was happening in the world and, in turn, beginning to understand it in a new way. I knew I was on the right track as a human being, despite what Nixon said. And so even though it was no fun having people shout nasty things at me, I wasn’t going to go backwards either. I was part of a movement. The people around me didn’t get as much attention or any of the vitriol, but they were my support.

My activism began to affect other parts of my life too. For the first time I decided I wanted to make movies about things I cared about. The first one was Coming Home. The second one was 9 to 5. Then it was Rollover, followed by The Dollmaker. They weren’t all overtly political, but they contained messages I wanted to express. I had more agency in my work than ever before.

A lot of people don’t realize this, but the idea for my workout video came from the need to raise money for the Campaign for Economic Democracy. I had been doing a workout like that of [fitness instructor] Leni Cazden, and since we were in a recession, I was trying to think of a business that could help raise funds for the campaign. Someone once told me that you should never go into a business you don’t understand. And if there was one thing I understood, it was working out. So that decided it. And we raised a lot of money.

VIDEO: A First Look at Jane Fonda's HBO Documentary

These days there are so many causes that need our attention. And the rest of Hollywood is finally using its power to amplify the voices of others who aren’t usually heard. One of the most transformative examples is the Time’s Up movement. I never thought I would live long enough to see something like this. I’m well aware of the fact that at first the women speaking out were mainly white and famous, but they were still saying, “These things happened to me.” And they were still heard and believed, which is the most important thing.

Then the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas wrote an open letter to us on behalf of 700,000 female farm workers that essentially said, “We stand beside you. We know what this means because we have experienced sexual harassment.” Suddenly we realized that if we’re really going to have an impact on this incredible moment in the history of women in the United States, we are going to have to reach across sectors — farm workers, domestic workers, restaurant workers, and others.

It’s one of the reasons why, lately, I’ve been working with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. The goal is to get One Fair Wage legislation on the ballot in the states that don’t already have it. Simply put, it allows restaurant workers to be treated with respect and also paid a living wage. We have to stand side by side with women who are more vulnerable than we are. Now really is the time. It’s not going away — and neither am I.

I am proud that for a privileged white woman who has faced more than her share of hostility, I’m still here trying to make a difference. I think that’s good for people to see. You don’t always have to be loved, but you have to take risks. You have to take leaps of faith. These days that’s mostly how I stay in shape. Leaps of faith instead of jumping jacks.

—As told to Jennifer Ferrise.

The documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts premieres Sept. 24 on HBO.

For more stories like this, pick up the October issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Sept. 14.