In The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual comedy actress roundtable, Fonda joined Regina Hall, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Alex Borstein, Natasha Lyonne, Maya Rudolph, and Tiffany Haddish to discuss their experiences as comedic television actors and writers. There, Fonda spoke candidly about the shift in Hollywood toward including stories about older women and their relationships to their bodies, especially as portrayed in her successful Netflix show Grace and Frankie.
The series follows Fonda and Lily Tomlin as an odd-couple pairing as they deal with the dissolution of their marriages and eventually grow to like each other enough to start a business selling sex products for older women. “[Our] culture doesn’t like people with wrinkles to be talking about sex. And kids don’t like to think about their parents doing it, either. But the fastest-growing demographic in the world is older women, and a lot of them are doing it very pleasurably,” Fonda said. “I wrote a book about it and I gave it to the writers. When I was in my 40s, I said before I die I want to be part of giving a cultural face to older women, and I can’t tell you how much feedback Lily [Tomlin] and I get from older women who say it’s given them hope—and not-so-old women who say, ‘I now see another way forward.'”
The full roundtable covers the pros and cons of onscreen nudity, saying no to jobs they don’t want, and is chock-full of laughs, but the occasional serious comment lands in the interview too. One of those weightier moments occurred when Fonda revealed that playing her Grace and Frankie character, the Waspy, no-nonsense Grace Hanson, has been not only a landmark experience in her career for the show’s groundbreaking representation of older women onscreen, but an emotional roller coaster as well. “It took me a season to come to care for my character,” she revealed before adding, “I had to go back into therapy and start Prozac.”
While Grace and Frankie is often billed as a lighthearted comedy, it does delve into some darker subject material, and over the course of five seasons there have even been a couple of deaths written into the plot. Fonda admitted that playing Grace eventually caused her to have a “nervous breakdown” when she was filming the first season. “It took me a long time to figure out [my relationship to this character]. I had a nervous breakdown during the first season and I discovered it’s because the very first episode our husbands tell us that they are going to leave us after 40 years and marry each other and that triggered abandonment,” Fonda revealed, while becoming increasingly choked up. “It was a big trigger, and I didn’t realize that a character in a comedy could actually trigger something very profound,” she admitted. “And so I love her and I learned to invite her into the room. After the first season, I couldn’t have written a backstory for her; and then I wrote 30 pages without ever stopping.”
For decades, the actress has acquired notoriety as someone who takes good care of herself. Her 1982 workout tape, Jane Fonda’s Workout, became the top-selling VHS of all time, and today she announced that she plans to launch her first activewear collection for evine.com. It’s never been clearer that Fonda is the poster child for maintaining good physical health, but just as recently as last year, the actress opened up about her personal relationship to mental health.
In her HBO documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, the Oscar-winning actress spoke about her mother’s experience with mental illness. When Fonda was 12 years old, her mom died by suicide after a battle with bipolar disorder. Her father, Henry Fonda, told her that her mother had died of a heart attack, and it was not until she read a magazine during study hall a year later that she discovered the truth. Before the documentary premiered on HBO, the actress told People that her mother’s death had a profound impact on her for the rest of her life. “If you have a parent who is not capable of showing up, not capable of reflecting you back through eyes of love, it has a big impact on your sense of self,” she said. “As a child, you always think it was your fault…because the child can’t blame the adult, because they depend on the adult for survival. It takes a long time to get over the guilt.”
It seems that her role on Grace and Frankie has provided an opportunity for showcasing the realities women face as they age, and some sort of catharsis as well. And Fonda knows that she shares some parallels between her real life and that of her fictional character’s—they both have had their relationship ups and downs, and they both love a good vodka cocktail—but she wants the comparisons to stop right there. “I don’t really want to have to be anything like her,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “We have too much in common as it is.”