Actress Brie Larson Interviews Screen Legend & Activist Jane Fonda About Feminism, Film & Politics

Two Oscar-winning actresses walk into a bar (well more like a fashion magazine studio) and discuss film, feminism and politics. There’s no punchline here (or a joke, really), only the thrill of anticipating that a conversation between screen legend and 50-year activist Jane Fonda and ‘Room’ star Brie Larson is going to pack a punch.

In an enlightening inter-generational exchange between the two for Net-A-Porter’s The Edit magazine, Brie played the role of journalist asking her real life hero to impart wisdom about her incredibly successful film career and what it is like to balance that with her passion to see change in the world.

Brie opens by sharing how she often tells people that she sees her own film career as a form of activism, and how many people would recommend her meeting Jane Fonda, whose activism has been highly public since her days as an anti-Vietnam War activist in the ’70s.

Needless to say, the two talk about feminism and the moment Jane realized she was a feminist, despite not always knowing the word or necessarily being associated with the movement in her earlier years.

“I grew up in the ’50s and it took me a long time to apply feminism to my life. The men in my life were wonderful, but victims of a [patriarchal] belief system. I felt diminished. Eventually I decided I wasn’t going to give up who I was in order to please the man I was with. I became an embodied feminist when I was single and saw Eve Ensler perform ‘The Vagina Monologues. While I was laughing, my feminism carried from my head into my DNA. It took a long time, though, because I was brought up with the disease to please,” she recalled.

Talk turned to rape and sexual abuse, and how the “disease to please” (especially the patriarchal systems of power) have become conduits for sexual violence.

“I’ve been raped, I’ve been sexually abused as a child and I’ve been fired because I wouldn’t sleep with my boss and I always thought it was my fault; that I didn’t do or say the right thing. I know young girls who’ve been raped and didn’t even know it was rape. They think, ‘It must have been because I said ‘no’ the wrong way’,” said Jane.

“One of the great things the women’s movement has done is to make us realize that [rape and abuse is] not our fault. We
were violated and it’s not right.”

Brie agrees, and mentions having played two characters who were sexually abused and the research she did with victims of abuse to fully understand how many perpetrators often get away with their crimes because of a system which protects their best interests.

In our current heated political climate, we are seeing many celebrities speaking out against injustice, using their creative platforms to advocate message of resistance and solidarity with those who are being discriminated against and marginalized, such as Meryl Streep at this year’s Golden Globes. Many in the alt-right as well as vocal Trump supporters are quick to imply they should “keep their mouths shut” and essentially “stay in their lane”. Brie asks Jane her thoughts on this, given she has been both a celebrity, and a vocal one, for a very long time.

“Everyone has the right to speak up; it doesn’t matter what you do. Whenever there’s been an important revolution or social upheaval, artists, actors, writers and poets are always the people that can reach into areas that
politics can’t. Recently I was in Alberta speaking out against the [oil] pipelines. Walking through the airport, people were screaming, ‘Go home, we don’t want you here’…It means you’re having an effect. People want to silence you. If it didn’t matter, no one would bother saying, ‘Shut up’,” she said.

Brie says she too has experienced this wave of negativity, especially on social media.

“I’ve been getting a lot of backlash recently. People say I’m an “elite”; that I don’t know what I’m talking about. When so many people tell you that, it’s easy to start believing it,” she said.

The young actress is quick to credit Jane with her relentless passion for speaking out as it has given other women in the business like her the confidence to do the same. Yet for many in Hollywood, especially women and minorities, speaking out against systemic injustice or taking a political stance can potentially be career-ending, given the industry is still at large run by white men. Jane says for her it wasn’t an option to stop speaking despite the threat of losing work.

“I didn’t become an activist until I was 31. When I found out what was really happening in Vietnam I didn’t care if I ever worked again; I considered leaving the business to become a full-time activist. My father was terrified for me. He remembered the ’50s when people’s careers were destroyed,” she said.

“I’d put it all on the line and be an activist for the rest of my life because it doesn’t feel right to me to be quiet,” said Brie in response to this.

Both women agree that becoming more involved in activism has helped them look at their art in a different perspective, notably with more authenticity and empathy.

“For ‘Short Term 12’, I shadowed at rehab facilities and it broke my heart. I thought, ‘I don’t want to be an actor; it feels so frivolous.’ But then I couldn’t believe how many people saw the movie and said, ‘I’m going to adopt a child or I am going to donate. I had no idea this was happening.’ That’s when it clicked that [film] really can make a difference,” said Brie.

Jane stresses how important everyday voices are in making a different at a grass roots level all the way up to a national policy level. She has been making regular calls to her Congressional representatives, something which has been happening in a very increased way since the election, and judging by the way constituents are showing up to Town Halls and angrily voicing their opposition at the Republican healthcare bill (which thankfully failed), the voice of the people matters more than ever. But one aspect Jane sees different in today’s activism than in previous years, is the increase of women.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, protests were mostly led by men and there was a macho edge to it. Activism didn’t feel as loving as it does now it’s women-led. I think that’s what’s made the difference. I mean, you saw the incredible signs [at the recent Women’s March] – whether it was for reproductive rights, or health for the disabled, or LGBTQ, they’re all issues that make up democracy,” she said, emphasizing the intersectionality which makes up a large part of the feminist movement today.

The two main issues Jane discusses with Brie in terms of her Hollywood career are the wage gap, and aging on screen. Her Netflix show ‘Grace and Frankie’, which co-stars Lily Tomlin, is a big middle finger to the standards that often subtly tell women to age is a sin.

“I was frightened of getting old…in time, got offered this part in ‘Grace and Frankie’ and thought, ‘It’s happened. We’re giving a face to aging women.” People think of age as an arch: you’re born, you reach midlife, then you decline into decrepitude. But instead of being an arch, aging can be a stairway leading upward, where the older you get, the more you can evolve and become an authentic person,” she said.

One issue she was a late bloomer on was being paid what she was worth, and not settling for less than her male co-stars.

“I never thought about it. I’m talking about at the height of my career in the ’70s and ’80s: I never got paid a huge amount of money – I never thought I was worth it. For me, it was just the way things were. Guys earned more. I am so glad people are feeling righteous anger about it now… I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. Now, I would say, ‘No. This is a piece of s***. I don’t like the way you’re treating me,’ and leave. If only I knew then what I do now,” she said.

We’ve seen actresses like Jennifer Lawrence, Charlize Theron, Emmy Rossum and Robin Wright fight for equal pay on their respective projects and it has been a huge eye-opener to the silence injustices that women in the film industry have been putting up with for too long. With women like Jane Fonda who have been leading the way for many years, we can see she is still going to have an impact on younger generations, like Brie Larson, for many years to come.

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