WASHINGTON — Jane Fonda insists she is not a visionary.
“You know, I’m not out in front,” she told BuzzFeed News during a wet Friday morning last week in Washington, DC. “I kind of come to things late.”
At 81, the Hollywood icon is entering yet another stage in her life. She has made weekly headlines in recent months as she protests each Friday against climate inaction near the Capitol building — demonstrations that have often resulted in her arrest. Week by week, Fonda has recruited other stars to join her public foray into environmental activism in demonstrations dubbed “Fire Drill Friday.” On this particular day, she was joined by Oscar nominee Diane Lane, Coyote Ugly star Piper Perabo, and Manny Jacinto of The Good Place (his costar Ted Danson had been arrested alongside Fonda just weeks before).
They’ve gathered to demand an urgent response to the climate crisis — an end to fossil fuel use, a shift to renewable energy sources, and the halting of deforestation. Such measures came into focus again just four days after our interview when a new UN report warned of “potentially catastrophic” global warming of 3.4 to 3.9 degrees Celsius by 2100.
“We're living in a generation where the decisions we make in the next 10 years can be the difference between 100 million people dying or 400 million people dying,” Fonda said. “These are life-and-death decisions.”
Referencing an HBO documentary released last year titled Jane Fonda in Five Acts, a woman attending Friday’s rally characterized Fonda’s climate activism as the sixth act in the star’s life.
In her senior years, the protests have indeed upended Fonda’s life — a life that has famously (or infamously, in some circles) been shaped by activism, most prominently against the Vietnam War. In addition to moving to DC for the weekly demonstrations, Fonda has stopped buying new clothing to try to reduce her impact on the planet. She won’t live long enough to see the worst predicted outcomes of the climate crisis, but it’s an obsession that consumes her as she thinks of those she’ll leave behind.
“I have a 4-month-old grandchild. I have two older grandchildren,” she said. “I love nature. I love birds. I love whales, dolphins. I love the ocean. To see these things disappear… I mean, that just breaks my heart.”
In 2015, Fonda was busy enjoying something of a career renaissance. Fresh off a spin on HBO’s The Newsroom, she had begun working on the Netflix series Grace and Frankie alongside her old friend and 9 to 5 costar Lily Tomlin. But in 2016, she was shocked back into action by the election of President Donald Trump. “I thought, I have to get back in the barricades,” Fonda said.
She addressed the 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles and began working to register others to vote and get them to the polls. But it was 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg who reinvigorated Fonda’s passion for public activism like nothing had before. Fonda became captivated by Thunberg after reading about the teen, who has a form of autism called Asperger’s that she has called her “superpower.”
“She sees things with such a laser focus more than us who aren't on the spectrum,” Fonda told BuzzFeed News. “It gives her clarity.”
On this particularly dreary Fire Drill Friday, Fonda arrived only 10 minutes late for our scheduled interview at the United Methodist Building, just footsteps away from the Supreme Court. She was full of energy, wearing the signature rose red coat she’s worn to all the climate protests, along with a wide-brimmed beige hat that cast a shadow over her eyes. She and a team of supporters packed themselves into a room where large flyers were strewn across a long wooden table, emblazoned with the phrases “No New Fossil Fuels!” and “Water Is Life!”
The name “Fire Drill Friday” was inspired by the student strikers across the world who were motivated by Thunberg to conduct their own weekly protests, “Fridays for Future.” Fonda said one of the camera crew members working on an upcoming documentary about this portion of the actor’s life came up with the fire drill name, and it just stuck.
As she and her fellow protesters prepared, Fonda sat at the head of the table looking straight ahead, silent, hands clasped, while everyone in the room listened as one of the women on the star’s team gave a detailed legal briefing about how to make the process of being arrested for civil disobedience go as smoothly as possible. Supporters were instructed to keep their personal items to a minimum, as this would hinder the booking process, and to make sure they didn’t have any illegal substances on them, like marijuana, which is legal in Washington but not on federal property. After a few in the room gave spiels about the dos and don’ts of the protest, Fonda, apparently concerned with the optics of a protest being broadcast around the world, then urged people to refrain from being on their cellphones while onstage at the rally. “Let’s be sure that when we are there and visible, we are focusing on the person who is speaking and trying to learn all we can from what they’re saying,” she said.
The meeting wasn’t over until the group performed a few collective activities: silent meditation followed by three guttural “hi-yahs” as a way to ground the folks who are putting their bodies on the line by physically advocating for change.
There is no special routine to Fonda’s morning when she’s preparing for a protest. She rises an hour and a half before she needs to leave and does the “usual things,” like putting on makeup and paying attention to the weather to make sure she’s appropriately dressed — though she does make sure to wear layers in case she spends a night in jail so she can use them as a pillow and bedding. And she always makes sure to leave with her red coat, which she now considers to be something of a good luck charm.
Fonda has said in interviews before that the red coat would be the last item she ever buys, but there are other measures she’s taken to demonstrate that her advocacy to save the planet isn’t just an elaborate PR stunt. “I made personal changes,” Fonda said. “Electric car, get rid of single-use plastic, less meat — cut it out altogether — recycle, all those kinds of things.”
Fonda said she knows that the small everyday changes people can make to combat climate change can’t be scaled fast enough to significantly roll back the effects of the climate crisis, but she believes it’s important to make people feel part of the process.
“Our goal here is not to try to convert people who don't believe that there's climate change,” she said. “What we want to do is reach people who know there's a climate crisis and know that it's man-made, but they're not activists yet.”
As people made their way to listen to speeches from Fonda and others in the pouring rain, there were echoes across the Capitol grounds from hundreds of voices yelling various chants in unison: “The water is rising and so are we!”, “A people united will never be divided!”, and “What do we want? A Green New Deal! When do we want it? Now!”
Michael Marceau, 70, an Army veteran from the DC area who attended the protest on behalf of Veterans for Peace for a fifth time, circled Friday’s event with an inverted American flag. He told BuzzFeed News that Fonda first came to his attention after he was medically retired from the Vietnam War. “She was not my favorite person back then,” he said, “but I’ve come to realize she was way ahead of the curve in speaking out against the policies of the US government.”
Another DC resident, David Barrows, 72 who showed up to the rally in a disfigured mask of the US president, whom he considers "an enemy of the planet," along with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, said he wishes more celebrities would come out and support the cause like Fonda's been doing. “Hollywood royalty brings glamour and brings people out and I wish we'd have more movie stars because you'd get more press,” Barrows said. "Some people look down on demonstrators and just say they're wackos, but when you have a draw like that, it helps a lot.”
Recent retiree De Herman, 66, who lives just outside of DC in Takoma Park, Maryland, told BuzzFeed News that this was her sixth time protesting for Fonda’s cause and that she’d been arrested once before. “I was very inspired by Earth Day 1970,” she said. “The first Earth Day I was in high school, and I've carried that feeling with me ever since. It's just in my cells."
Herman praised Fonda, calling her remarkable, and pointed to a sense of responsibility she shared with the actor. “The youth movement is begging us as adults to step up and take responsibility for the world we’re living in that we’ve been harming,” Herman said.
In a year when the phrase “OK boomer” has caught on as a Gen Z riposte to a generation it blames for the world’s ills, Fonda, who is a member of the generation born before the baby boomers, believes it’s important that “citizens, no matter what generation we're apart of, don't blame ourselves.”
“This is not the fault of individual citizens, although the fossil fuel industry wants us to think that,” she said.
Fonda believes fossil fuel companies have long known that their output wasn’t sustainable but lied about it. “If we had started doing this right 40 years ago, it could have been a very incremental, moderate transition,” she said. “Consequently, what we're doing now has to happen very fast.”
After passionate speeches from various speakers during the listening portion of the protest were complete, hundreds of activists moved to another location on the Capitol grounds, chanting the same lines but this time in preparation to meet the authorities, where some would be arrested for civil disobedience.
Almost immediately, police began shouting that people must get out of the streets or they would be handcuffed and escorted to jail. At this point, unlike at her recent protests, Fonda moved out of the way, choosing to support her friends and the movement from the sidelines. She insisted she was not necessarily afraid of getting arrested again, but said it is something she must “time very carefully” as she can’t be detained again because it could be for 90 days this time, which would impede her ability to film the final season of Grace and Frankie in January.
Fonda clarified that when she spent the night in jail on Nov. 1, she was held in a detention center where people are kept before going to court. While she was in custody for more than 20 hours, she said, she reflected on how there’s no social safety net for many of the people she heard banging on their cell doors and wailing with various “incomprehensible words tumbling out of mouths.” Fonda said she noticed most of the people locked away in the center were black, calling this quite deliberate and racist. “And it's only going to get worse as the climate gets worse," she added.
But her night in jail was quite different from those of her counterparts arrested that day, many of whom shared rooms with other people. Instead, Fonda had a room to herself and though no one could get into her cell without a key, there was a guard outside her door during her stay. “That kind of freaked me out,” she said, “because what were they guarding me from?”
Fonda insists she is rarely frightened by things. “I sometimes worry about myself because it’s like I’m missing a gene,” she said. She recalled the Vietnam War when she endured attacks “by the powers that be,” including former president Richard Nixon, and threats against her life, but chose to dig in her heels — a choice she said she was able to make due to the privilege she enjoys as a white woman.
“It was pretty bad, and if I were black, I would probably be dead,” Fonda said. “The more they pushed me, the more I became resolute — and that's just the way I am. And it serves me well now. Nothing can come at me now that's worse than what existed then.”
In a 1970 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Fonda uttered arguably one of her most memorable quotes: “Any healthy country, like any healthy individual, should be in perpetual revolution, perpetual change.” This, in many ways, has been the framework of Fonda’s life and career, so it’s no surprise she’s still constantly evolving and learning, even as an octogenarian, fighting for a younger generation to be able to thrive on Earth long after she’s gone.
“If you don't know that something is wrong, or that a problem exists, then you're kind of forgiven because you're innocent, and ignorance is comfortable, safe,” she said. However, “once you know, if you turn away and go appropriately, then you're part of the problem. And I don't want to die being part of the problem.” ●