Better late than never.
Jane Fonda, the legendary film star, is acting in her first TV show as a series regular at age 77 and she’s loving every bit of it.
The show is Grace and Frankie, a comedy that launches Friday on Netflix.
It’s about a pair of 70-something women who are thrown for a loop when their husbands announce they are gay and want divorces — so they can marry each other. How will Grace and Frankie, the “left-behind wives,” deal with the news? What will the next chapter of their lives be like?
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The series teams Fonda (who plays Grace) with her former Nine to Five co-star Lily Tomlin (Frankie) as odd-couple friends who have to lean on each other.
It’s a showcase for some of the richest work they’ve done onscreen in years.
Martin Sheen (as Grace’s husband) and Sam Waterston (as Frankie’s soon-to-be ex) also have wonderful moments as men in their 70s, longtime closeted lovers suddenly trying to figure out how to be openly gay together.
Created by Marta Kauffman (co-creator of Friends) and Howard J. Morris, Grace and Frankie is funnier than most sitcoms and more poignant than most TV dramas. If television had been as good in the 1970s as the shows that are made today, Fonda says, she would have been acting in this medium long ago.
“The great movies of the 1970s, in my opinion, were a pinnacle of American cinema, a golden age,” Fonda says. “Now it’s television that’s bringing those great stories to the screen.”
We chatted last week with Fonda, a two-time Academy Award winner, about the show.
What was it about the premise of Grace and Frankie that turned you on?
I wanted to do a television series for a number of years about an older woman. I’m an older woman and I’m interested in how the reality of being an older woman is very different from the stereotype. The stereotype view of aging is that you’re born, you peak at midlife, and then, sadly, you decline. But the reality, especially for women, is that after 50 you get much more kick-a--.
Older women are like, “What have we got to lose? We’re not in the marketplace for a guy anymore. Our kids are grown and out of the house. We can be as brave and courageous and fun-seeking and wise as we want to be. We don’t have to be afraid anymore to show our strengths and our smarts.”
Then Marta Kauffman pitched this idea to me and Lily: two women in their 70s whose husbands leave them for each other. And I thought, “Bingo! Here I have a chance to bring in my thoughts about being an older woman and I can do it with my old pal Lily!”
It has been 35 years since you and Lily worked side by side in Nine to Five. What is it like working with her again? What do you think of her as an actor and as a person?
People don’t know this, but I was initially planning to make Nine to Five as a pretty serious film. But I went to see Lily in her one-woman show, called Appearing Nitely, in L.A. and I fell in love with her. I said to myself, “I can’t make a movie about secretaries without Lily Tomlin.”
Then, as I was driving home from the theater — this is a true story! — I turned the radio on and Dolly Parton was singing Two Doors Down and I thought, “Bingo! Dolly has to be in the movie, too. She’s never done a movie. That will really bring people in: Dolly, Lily and Jane. But it’s got to be a comedy.”
So if not for Lily, Nine to Five might not have been a comedy. We’ve stayed friends ever since. I am utterly fascinated by her, as a serious actor and as a comedienne. She is multifaceted and brilliant and spontaneous and complicated, and I love her to pieces.
Grace, a tightly wound former beauty product executive, and Frankie, a New Age “hippie” type, are complete opposites. Is the same true of you and Lily in real life?
We are very different. I’m completely anal-retentive and very highly organized and disciplined. For example, I watch all of the dailies. She doesn’t watch any. But we both are very professional, we’re never late, we always know our lines, we rehearse endlessly together, and we get along great.
Making a television series is hard, especially when you’re our age. You work 15 hours a day, every day. So you want to be working with someone who has your back. You don’t want to be working with someone who you think is trying to steal the scenes or undercut you. We really trust each other.
As an actor, there’s nothing that you have to prove anymore. So what drives you today?
Here’s the thing: In 1989, I decided I couldn’t do it anymore. The thing that keeps you wanting to do it had vanished for me. I found no joy any more in acting and I couldn’t be creative. It was too painful. So I left the business for 15 years.
Ten of those years were spent with Ted Turner (married from 1991 to 2001). Five were spent writing my memoirs (2005’s My Life So Far). As I was finishing my memoirs, which had a profound effect on me, just writing the story of my life, I said to myself, “I think you could find joy in acting again.”
So I let it be known that I was in the business again and wanting to get a part. They sent me Monster-in-Law (2005) and I had a blast working with Jennifer Lopez. It was a very popular movie and a totally different role for me. It was fun again.
I feel lucky that, after 15 years, I was able to build a new career. So the reason I still do it? Because I enjoy it again. I said to Lily just the other day, “Hey, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to keep going until we’re actually in adult diapers.”
Grace and Frankie
▪ All 13 episodes will be available to stream beginning Friday.