Fonda made her Broadway debut at the age of 22 in There Was a Little Girl, a 1960 play that isn't remembered for much other than nabbing the young actress a Tony Award nomination. She did four more plays before bidding Times Square adieu in 1963, after Strange Interlude. Dozens of films and a few Oscars have filled up the interim, making Jane as famous an actor in her day as her father Henry was in his. Now 71, Fonda has finally been persuaded to return to the stage her father loved so well, in Moisés Kaufman's latest play, 33 Variations, which begins performances Feb. 9. In it, she plays Katherine Brandt, who is trying to solve a centuries-old mystery about the great classical composer, Beethoven. Fonda, with her beloved dog resting in her lap, talked to Playbill.com about coming full circle.
Playbill.com: What do you remember about your Broadway debut in There Was a Little Girl?
Jane Fonda: Terror. Abject terror. It was my Broadway debut in a play that was not very good, directed by Joshua Logan, who was going through some personal challenges. It was difficult. It was a situation where if you weren't spot-on 100 percent perfect every single night, the play didn't hold up. I said, "God, what it must be like to be in a play where the play holds itself" — which I think is the case with 33 Variations.
Playbill.com: What did it take to get you to return to the stage?
JF: The play. I'd like to say that [Moisés Kaufman] knew from the beginning that if it was ever going to get to Broadway that I would be the one he'd want in the role. I've gotten other plays over the years. I read this play, and I happened to be writing about Beethoven at the time — a book about aging. There's this chapter I'm writing about how you can look at Beethoven, you can look at Matisse, you can look at Cezanne, you can look at so many great artists who did their best, most profound work later in life when they were physically challenged. Literally, I'm writing this chapter, and this play arrives. I read it. It's not an easy play to read. I have never read a play like this, structurally, stylistically. It's very hard to read it and take off the page exactly what it was. But I knew that there was something about this that was really different, that was calling to me. I happened to be in Phoenix making a speech, and I was talking about it, and a woman came up to me and said, "I saw it in La Jolla. It knocked me off my feet." So I said, "OK, I want to meet Moisés" and then Moisés and I had dinner and we really hit it off, and I said, "I'm going to take this leap of faith."
Playbill.com: Had you seen Moisés Kaufman's other work?
JF: Some of it. And what I noticed in his other work is, it starts, and you think, that's good, and you suddenly find yourself overcome with emotion. And you don't really know why. "When did that happen?" That's what happens with this play. It's a total ensemble piece. I don't like the fact that people sort of thought it was a one-woman show. It's a real ensemble piece.
Playbill.com: Are you on stage the entire time?
JF: No! There are 15-minute chunks when I'm not on stage. But it's this cumulative effect of the play that I think is going to do what that woman said. It's going to bowl people over.
Playbill.com: Your father, Henry Fonda, returned to the stage fairly regularly throughout his career. Did he ever give you any advice about the theatre?
JF: No, he wasn't an advice giver. Those were the days when it wasn't common for people who were Hollywood stars to come to Broadway, and he did it all his life. Four years in Mister Roberts! He never missed one performance, always was exactly the same. But he did talk to me often about his love of the theatre. It was the immediacy, that immediate feedback that fed him far more the movies. I've started my own blog, JaneFonda.com, it's going to go up on Feb. 2 — me, who doesn't like to Google!
Playbill.com: To talk about the experience of the play?
JF: I want to take people through the experience of the play, day by day. And yesterday I was blogging about how I miss my dad. He can't know that I've come back!
Playbill.com: Even though he didn't give advice, you must have seen him on stage many times. Did you learn anything from watching him perform?
JF: Minimalism. Less is more. It's interesting to me how I'm a very different actor than he. I was thinking how he always did exactly the same thing at each performance, and I can't even, from one rehearsal to the next, do the same thing. I can't seem to do that.
Playbill.com: What's the name of your dog?
Playbill.com: Where's that from?
JF: The breed is Coton De Tulear — a town in Madagascar, which is where the breed originated. I wanted to call her Barbarella, but my daughter would not let me. Her father directed "Barberella." She took it personally. And so it's Tulea.
Playbill.com: You could have called it Julia.
JF: I should have called it Julia.