Jane Fonda doesn't appear in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth until the movie is three-fourths over, but she makes such a forceful impression in her scant screen time that pundits are already predicting Oscar attention. In the film, she plays a legendary movie star named Brenda who's ostensibly come to meet with film director Harvey Keitel about a role he's offering her; she instead offers him five minutes of the most scathing criticism imaginable, and she does so while wearing a blonde fright wig, some really intense makeup, and a dress the color of a ripe banana. (Later, we see Fonda as Brenda attacking a stewardess on a wild plane ride. She's full-throttle!) It's a juicy part, and Fonda was happy to talk about it recently ... but first, we had to have a little discussion about dancing.
Jane, we have a mutual friend, and he’s told me that you host some really wild dance parties on the regular.
I’m very curious what a Jane Fonda dance party is like. Who gets to go, what’s being served, and what are you playing?
Well, first of all, there’s no dinner. It’s always after dinner, after babies have been put in bed. We usually have a few special cocktails, and regular booze — and a little stuff to nosh on so that people don’t get too drunk. I live with Richard Perry, and we re-created Perry’s infamous pub from where he lived somewhere else, with a jukebox and plastic palm trees. Sometimes I’ve had a disc jockey, but more often than not, I’ll ask a few key people like Catherine Keener to bring their playlists. She has great taste. Diane Lane is very good, too.
And they’re all good dancers?
I try to invite people who are very good dancers. I’m not, so I sit and watch a lot. Elizabeth Banks is a fabulous dancer! Ellen Page is a fabulous dancer! Catherine Keener, after a certain point in the evening, becomes like a Native American warrior. Bill Maher only danced once, at the end of the evening when “Under My Thumb” was played, which I thought was interesting. Jake Shears is all over the place. And I invite some people because they bring their friends who are fabulous dancers. When I have my next one, James Corden is definitely going to be invited.
Let’s talk Youth. When you’re required to operate at that level of anger during your entire shoot, is it exhilarating or exhausting at the end of the day?
Well, the two can coexist! You can be exhilarated and exhausted! But I was more exhilarated than anything, because I was totally fascinated by Paolo’s process. You imagine how it’s supposed to be, but then he wants you to play it from beginning to end in one take, with no rehearsal — and then he conducts! “Okay, bring this moment down, and this moment up.” Not only did he shoot it from many angles, but all day long we’d play the entire five-page scene out with different levels of intensity. I will have to say that in the final cut, he’s using moments from all of those takes. So I watch it and think, Oh wow, that’s interesting. I go from this place to this place pretty quick. Interesting.
What did Paolo have to do to pitch you on the part?
Nothing. About four months before I got offered the role, Al Pacino told me, “There’s this incredible scene in a movie that feels like it was written for you.” So I called my agent and he looked into it and said it’s been cast, which it had been. Eventually, the actor dropped out, and Paolo came to me. I hadn’t read the script, but I said, “I'll do it,” because I wanted to work with Paolo. I’d never worked with a director like that, with all that surrealism. What have you got to lose, even if it’s two lines? Then when I read the script, I was like, “Holy cow.”
Was there a lot of collaboration on the look of the character?
Very little. He knew exactly what he wanted. He sent me pictures from a Fellini movie, then he sent me pictures of Sophia Loren with a red wig on that really looked like a wig. He wanted it to look like a wig, but he wanted it to be blonde. He knew the jewelry that he wanted, he knew the color of the dress, he knew the color of my skin he wanted — he knew everything! I just said, “Here I am.” It was a luxury to be in the hands of maestros. After two days of hair and makeup and wardrobe fittings, I was presented to Paolo, who had not seen any of this. He walked into the room, and he said, “This is exactly what I envisioned.” I was so happy! I remember when the film was shown in Cannes, I read in one of the write-ups, “The hair and makeup people certainly didn’t do her any favors.” And I remember thinking, Are you kidding? That’s exactly how it should have looked!
It sounds like Paolo is very hands-on, but not all directors are like that. I’m curious what style you prefer. A lot of actors talk about working with Woody Allen, and apparently he gives them virtually no direction.
Fred Zinnemann was that way, too. He said very little to me on Julia. Hal Ashby was like that, too: He said almost nothing to his actors, and then he’d shoot 40 takes and print them all! I’m just fascinated by all of it. You know, you’re a puppet. If you were always having your string pulled in the same way — boring! What’s so great if you’re lucky to work with great directors is that they’re all puppeteers of a different ilk. To use a sports analogy, you’re using muscles you don’t usually use, and so you get sore because they’re asking you to do things you’ve never done before. That’s exciting! I personally like being directed.
Even in a scene as surreal as Youth’s airplane freak-out, where Brenda smacks a stewardess and screams after receiving some bad news?
That was weird. It was very strange. I was worried people wouldn’t know why Brenda was acting that way. The daughter of my manager saw an early screening with me in Rome, and she thought that I was having a baby! [Laughs.] It’s a weird scene.
I want to ask you about the way Hollywood treats women. Jennifer Lawrence has gotten a lot of attention for writing about the gender pay gap. Was it ever better? At the peak of your movie stardom, did you feel like you were being paid on a level commensurate with male movie stars?
This is gonna sound really weird, but I never paid attention.
That’s something Jennifer talked about, too: Women often don’t pay attention to those negotiations and leave it up to their reps, but she was surprised to find that men do pay attention.
You know what? I have no idea what I was paid to do Youth. No idea. I’m gonna do a movie with Robert Redford again, and I’m gonna pay more attention now, because of the conversation.
It made some headlines last year when you and Lily Tomlin said that your ex-husbands on Grace and Frankie were making the same amount you were.
Well, that was a joke. It was!
But people ran with that.
I know! Because this is a real issue. Meryl Streep has talked about it a lot, too. The thing is, it’s not just true of movies — it’s true across the board. Women earn approximately 75 percent of every dollar that a man earns from doing the exact same work, and it’s been that way for a long, long time. You know, I made 9 to 5, I produced that movie, and pay equity was an issue that was raised then. A lot of the other issues that have been raised for workers have been dealt with since, but not pay equity. No, no, no. We’re still out there.
What about women directors? How can studios get away with putting out yearly slates that feature no movies helmed by women?
You know, as I do, the reasons why. We hardly have time to talk about them all, but it’s a business, bottom line, and it’s an expensive business. When your job is on the line and you’re earning millions of dollars as a studio executive, you tend to be conservative and go in the direction of what’s familiar and comfortable. What’s familiar is someone that looks like you — a white male, probably. The good news is that you can’t solve a problem until you name it, and now it’s being named. We have to shame studios into changing it. Why is it important? It’s important because women view things differently, whether it’s a relationship or the entire global situation. If the narratives only come from men, we’re missing the narrative of half of the world’s population! Movies are what create our consciousness, so we’re being harmed — not just women, but men, too. If you don’t get the narrative of the other half, you’re going to be diminished because of it.