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AFI Honoree Jane Fonda Draws Strength From Engagement

Given Jane Fonda’s hard-earned stature as an actress, activist, author and self-help guru, she’s amazingly humble and grounded in the moment. There’s no calcified nostalgia for the past. Sentences don’t begin with “In my day…” There are no unfavorable comparisons between today’s conglomerated entertainment landscape and Hollywood’s second Golden Era in the ’70s, when she earned Oscars for “Klute” and “Coming Home.”

Instead of citing the icons of her generation and those previous, she’s generous in her praise of younger peers. On Meryl Streep: “She has raised the bar so high that it throws the gauntlet at our feet.” When asked who the equivalents of Costa-Gavras and Stanley Kramer are today, she points to Clooney, Damon and Affleck: “These young and big movie stars also direct and produce movies that are very, very relevant politically and socially.”

Even the relatively green Adam Driver, with whom she appears in the upcoming feature “This Is Where I Leave You,” doesn’t escape her admiration: “He’s the real thing as a human being and an actor.”

As it’s been her entire adult life, Fonda’s thirst for knowledge and new experience is unquenchable. “My mantra is that it’s more important to be interested than interesting,” she tells Variety. “If I seem younger than my age it’s because I’ve stayed interested.”

For the record, the 76-year-old Fonda, the 42nd recipient of AFI’s Life Achievement Award, looks at least 20 years younger. Part of it has to do with an exercise regimen that started with ballet and continued with those aerobics workouts that became part of the Fonda brand. But it’s her curiosity and restless mind — which she keeps sharp by reading, writing and engaging with the world — that must harbor some kind of restorative powers.

When it’s suggested that the cultivation of the mind is perhaps an actor’s most important tool, she demurs.

“I don’t know if exercising the mind is exercising the heart,” she says. “Acting is a profession of empathy. We’re invited to enter someone else’s being, their psyche. And in order to do that you have to have empathy for that person. So you sort of go through life with your antenna way out.”

That antenna has extended beyond researching roles. She’s spent way more time directly involved in various causes — from opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq to civil rights to gender equality to income disparity — than she has in front of the camera. And the Academy would likely have granted her a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by now if it wasn’t for that unfortunate photo op on top of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun.

But even the specter of Hanoi Jane, or a 15-year absence from movies, could derail her career. On the contrary, her activism has added gravitas to her screen presence. In a way, her transformation from a Bardot blonde to the radical-chic brunette with her militant shag — a look she sported in “Klute” — was the pivot from starlet to respected thespian.

In her 2005 memoir, “My Life So Far,” she cites several turning points: being accepted into the Actors Studio and the attendant encouragement from Lee Strasberg; director Sydney Pollack taking an active interest in her feedback for the script of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”; forming her own production company to address issues close to her heart, like the dangers of nuclear power (“The China Syndrome”) and sexism in the work place (“Nine to Five”).

Her most personal film, “On Golden Pond,” adapted from a play for which she bought the screen rights, drew on the real-life tension between Jane and her taciturn father, Henry. It would earn the elder Fonda his only Academy Award before he died shortly afterward. And the outpouring of grief would remind her of just how much they had in common.

“I think it’s important for someone who has received so much from society in terms of recognition, celebrity, money, privilege — to give back. I didn’t get into (activism) for that reason. I honestly believe it was because of the movies that my father made. I think that those early works — ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘The Ox-Bow Incident,’ ‘12 Angry Men’ — became part of my DNA.”

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