Jane Fonda: I’ve always loved walking mostly because I’ve always loved exploring. I’ve always loved nature. My favorite place to walk is in the depths of a deep, dark forest because I become very conscious of layers of time and of life.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time To Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos, and songs that have influenced their lives. Two-time Academy Award winner Jane Fonda is a legendary actor, producer, author, and activist. On this walk, she talks about standing up to her fears, and the power of taking action to fight climate change.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
Jane Fonda: In my mid-40s, I made a movie, and it was called “On Golden Pond”.
Before he died, I wanted to do a movie with my dad. He was ill, and I knew he wasn’t going to live much longer. So it really meant a lot to me, this… this movie. It starred my father and Katharine Hepburn. Katharine Hepburn was a… She was an odd duck, you know. She was… God, she seems young now, but at the time, I thought she was really old. She was about 73 years old. I’m 83 now, by the way. She was 10 years younger than I am now when we made the movie, and she was very prickly. And she didn’t like me.
In fact, the first thing she said to me was, when I met with her in her apartment in New York to discuss the movie, “I don’t like you.” And the reason she said that was because I hadn’t been present when she and my father first met. You see, they didn’t know each other prior to making the movie. But I was doing something else. I was traveling through the South with Dolly Parton.
So, anyway, in the movie, as you may know, a lot of people have seen the movie, I have to do a backflip into the cold waters of Squam Lake. I hate cold water. I hate having to go over backwards, and I was utterly terrified. And so I had no intention of doing it myself. In fact, they’d already lined up a, a stunt double to do it for me. But during the same meeting, when Katharine Hepburn told me she didn’t like me, she also said, “Are you going to do the backflip yourself?”
Well, the minute she said that, I thought, “Oh, god. I’m going to have to do it.”
And I said, “Oh, yeah. I’m, I’m going to do it.” So we all moved up to New Hampshire, where we were making the, the film, and for about a month when I wasn’t actually shooting, I would train with the University of Maine swim coach, first using a mattress and a harness, then off the diving board with a harness into his pool, always very clumsily. Then eventually I graduated, and he took me out to the… to the raft, the floating raft out in the lake in front of the house that Katharine Hepburn and my father lived in, the one that I actually dove off of in the movie. And, day after day, I would practice trying to go over backwards and never really succeeding.
And then, one day, I finally managed to do a backflip.
Mind you, my body was covered with bruises, and it wasn’t very beautiful, but I did a backflip. And as I crawled out of the water, I looked up, and Katharine Hepburn stood up.
She’d been crouching down behind the bushes watching. Oh, god. And she walked over to me, and she looked me straight in the eye, and she, “Jane, you’ve taught me to respect you.” She said, “You’ve stood up to your fear. You won’t get soggy. That’s what matters. Never get soggy.”
You know, I made the movie “On Golden Pond” for my dad, but oddly enough, it was actually Katharine Hepburn who taught me the most lessons.
She really assumed the role of the elder. She took me under her wing and taught me things. I will never let myself get soggy after that experience with Katharine Hepburn, who liked me because I’d stood up to my fears.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
In 1972, I went to North Vietnam. I went by myself, which was a mistake. But I went there because we had been told by European diplomats that the United States was bombing the earthen dikes in North Vietnam. North Vietnam, the Red River Delta is below sea level. And so if the dikes are destroyed, the Red River Delta will flood.
And the 100 or 200,000 people risk starving and drowning. People in this country who were concerned about the war were really worried because it was right before the monsoon season. And so I went there to try to call attention to what was happening. And early evening before my last day in Hanoi, I was asked to step outside where they… a stage had been erected because they wanted me to look at a Vietnamese production of the Arthur Miller play, “All My Sons”.
Now, for those of you who have not seen the play or read it or who don’t know anything about it, this is an Arthur Miller play about a factory owner, a guy that owns a factory that makes parts for American bombers. And one of his sons is a pilot who’s flying bombers. It is discovered in the course of the play, his other son discovers that the father’s factory has been turning out faulty parts. But the father hasn’t said anything because he doesn’t want to lose his government contract.
And the son who’s a pilot crashes and is killed. We don’t ever know if it’s because his plane had a faulty part, but he dies. And the younger son attacks his father, not physically, but lets his father know what a terrible thing he’s done in not speaking up and telling the truth and risking people’s lives for greed. Okay?
So this is the play that a troupe of Vietnamese actors are performing for me on a stage outside the hotel I was staying in in… in Hanoi.
It was Vietnamese. So I didn’t understand it, but I was somewhat familiar with the play. And I, I sat next to the director of the play. The translator was on the other side. I wasn’t particularly moved by the play, but what I kept thinking and what I asked the director is, “Why? The United States is dropping bombs on your country. Why are you showing this play?”
And it turns out the actors… It was a traveling troupe of actors that would go into villages that had just been bombed and perform this play, and I couldn’t understand why.
And the director called the translator over, and this is what was told to me through the translator. He said, “One day, the war will be over, and your country and mine will have to be friends. It’s important that my people don’t hate Americans, and what this play shows is there are good Americans,” and that, of course, would be the son that attacked his father for manufacturing faulty parts, “and there are bad Americans,” the factory owner.
He said, “We’re trying to teach the people who live here who are being bombed that not all Americans are bad so that, when the war is over, they won’t unilaterally hate Americans.”
And I just remember sitting there. My jaw was on my chest. I couldn’t… I mean…
I just think that’s an important story to take in and reflect upon. It certainly had an effect on me.
During most of 2019, I was really in the dumps. It was a profound sense of doom that I… I don’t remember feeling quite like that before. I knew that global warming was getting worse. I knew that there was a crisis. I had done everything that an individual person can do to reduce their carbon footprint. But I knew in my heart that that wasn’t enough. I knew that, even if we all did that, it can’t scale up fast enough to really make a difference. But I didn’t know what to do. I was in the doldrums.
And I went with my friends up to Big Sur. You see, it’s this stretch of land that’s five hours north of Los Angeles and about two or three hours south of San Francisco right on the coast. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful place.
I have had transformative experiences before in Big Sur. And literally, the Friday before we left, I received Naomi Klein’s new book, called “On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal” and I took it with me. And we got there, and I started to read it.
And the first thing that got me was the way she talked about Greta Thunberg. I mean, everybody has heard of Greta Thunberg and know she’s on the spectrum and know that she’s a major climate leader. But reading Naomi’s book and the way she talked about Greta, it was the first time that she connected Greta’s Asperger’s and why she is really explosive when it comes to the way she talks about climate. When you have Asperger’s, you have a laser focus on whatever you’re interested in.
Greta, at a young age, around nine, she began to understand that there was a climate crisis. And she went into a very deep depression. She stopped speaking. She stopped eating. They were very, very worried about her. And then a time came when she decided to take action, and that’s when she made her sign and went and, every Friday, sat with her sign: “I am striking from school for the climate,” in front of the Swedish parliament.
And what I have read her parents said is that once she started the action, her depression began to lift. She began to speak. She began to eat. And I had to laugh when I read that because my experience is that that’s what happens. Taking action is the best antidote to depression. But the thing that Greta said was, “It’s like our house is on fire. We have to behave like it’s a crisis because it is. Stop going around like it’s business as usual.”
And I knew in my gut that, if this young girl saw things so directly and clearly, that that’s what was real. And I could feel it in my body. It was like my body began to hum. I felt like I was being electrified.
I thought, “Okay, I know. I know what I have to do.” And I said, “I’m going to move to Washington, and I’m going to start protesting.”
So I moved to Washington for four months, and with Greenpeace and with a lot of other organizations there, including all of the young student climate activists because I met with all of them to get buy-in… I didn’t want them to feel like there was this aging movie star bopping into D.C. that was going to try to steal their thunder. We all had to be in this together.
We had decided, together with Greenpeace, strategically, that we needed to get all the people who care about the climate but have never taken action to take action. I wanted to ask them to take action.
So we decided that every Friday we would have a rally, and every rally, every Friday would focus on a different aspect of the climate crisis, how it affects oceans, how it affects the forests, how it affects women, how it affects health. And after the rally we would engage in acts of civil disobedience and risk getting arrested.
And it was a very… Look, I’m white, and I’m privileged. They weren’t going to beat me up. But it was an okay experience for me, and I did it a number of times until I couldn’t risk getting… having to be put in jail for months because I had to come back and start a new season of “Grace and Frankie”.
So I became part of the… what we call the jail support. You’re there waiting outside when they come out. And I… That’s what I did. I would be there when they came out, and I would hug every single one of them. It made me so happy.
And over the weeks, the crowds began to grow. And most of them had never done it before. They had never engaged in civil disobedience. They were coming from all over the country: Oregon, Washington State, Cleveland, Wisconsin.
And then COVID hit, and so we had to go virtual. And we have had, every Friday, Fire Drill Fridays virtually. You know, we were so worried that with the pandemic, people would forget about the climate. They didn’t. Within one week in D.C. of Fire Drill Fridays, this gal was not depressed anymore. I knew that I was doing everything I can to confront the climate crisis.
I was 82. I turned 82 while I was there, and it was very interesting. I tend to be a loner. I have a very hard time meeting new people, but during those four months in D.C., where all I was doing is meeting people that I didn’t know, I got over that. I’ve never hugged so many people in my life.
And, even though these times are so difficult and challenging and turbulent, because I know that I’m doing my best, I’m not depressed anymore. And I feel proud that I’ve overcome some of my fears, and just following through with that initial inspiration. I did it, and I’m going to probably do it until the end, when I can’t physically do it anymore because this is not going to go away any time soon. We have to keep at it.
So, if you’re feeling depressed, take action in whatever way you can. Do something that makes you feel that you’re making a difference because, believe me, it makes a difference.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
I’m not what you would call a major music person. I mean, I… I don’t go to a lot of concerts, and I don’t have music playing all the time. But there are certain artists that, when a song of theirs comes on, I put down everything I’m doing, and I just groove with it.
And one of them is Marvin Gaye. I actually knew Marvin Gaye. In fact, I was told he had a photograph of me on his refrigerator door. I loved Marvin Gaye, and this is my favorite song of his.
It’s a perfect song for the time that it was written, and it’s a perfect song for now, “What’s Going On”.
[MUSIC - “WHAT’S GOING ON” BY MARVIN GAYE]
I love Annie Lennox, and this song is my favorite song to make love to. I just think it’s so romantic and so sexy.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
And it’s one of my all-time favorites, Annie Lennox singing “Why”.
[MUSIC - “WHY” BY ANNIE LENNOX]
I love k.d. lang, and I had every one of her albums that I would listen to over and over again. And one of my favorite songs that she sings is a song written, I think, by Leonard Cohen. And many other people have covered it. It’s k.d. lang’s cover of “Hallelujah”.
[MUSIC - “HALLELUJAH” BY K.D. LANG]
So there you are, my fellow walker. Thank you so much. I’m proud of you for being out and for walking, and I hope you keep it up. And I hope you’ve enjoyed my stories. I hope, in different ways, that they added a little something to your life on this day.
Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.