Jane Fonda On Getting Older, Family Secrets And 'Prime Time'

08/22/2011 01:12 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2011

Jane Fonda is 73, but she shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.The Academy Award-winning actress has written a new book, "Prime Time," which is part memoir and part guide to navigating the “third act” of one’s life.

Fonda spent several years researching for the book which covers all the big subjects -- love, health, sex, friendship and, of course, fitness. She is keenly intelligent, highly articulate and happier than she’s ever been in her life, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t uncover some dark family secrets along the way.

Why did you decide to write this book?
I realized as I approached the end of my 60s and looking at my 70s, I was happier than I’d ever been and, needless to say, this was not what I expected at all. I didn’t even think I’d live this long, much less be happier and I wanted to know why. Was this something unique to me and, if so, could I bottle it and sell it? And I discovered that it is common and nobody is talking about it. People still look at aging with horror. I was discovering that once you’re inside aging as opposed to looking at it from the outside, that it’s kind of not bad at all, so I decided I was going to research it. I spent four years travelling around the country, and reading research from other countries as well. I made a list of everything I wanted to know for myself and things I already knew that I wanted to pass on to readers about how to prepare for and go through the last third of your life which I consider [a person’s] prime time.

What did you mean before when you said you didn’t think you’d be alive?
Well I was not very happy when I was young and I didn’t think I’d live very long.

Do you think society doesn’t respect older people?
Ageism is unfortunately alive and well and I’m trying to do my small part in doing away with it. I think it’s going to happen anyway. We are growing in numbers. We older people are vibrant and healthy and living way longer than we did 100 years ago. It’s important to be thinking about how we make the most of it. The old way of looking at ageing is an arch -- you’re born, you peak at mid-life and then you decline into decrepitude. The way I look at it is like an ascending staircase -- even if your body is weakening, in many ways, in terms of wisdom and consciousness and soul and spirit and even health because we’re staying healthier so much longer, we’re really ascending a staircase rather than sliding down a slippery slope.

You talk about a life review.
As I was approaching 60, I realized, ‘Holy cow, this is going to be my last act, my last three decades and I have no idea what I want to do with them.’ I realized in order to know how to navigate the last third [of my life], I really had to know what the first two thirds have been about. So I did what I later found is called a life review and it’s something psychologists advocate that people do. It means going back and not just saying I did this and that -- it means really researching yourself and how you felt.

I found out on my father’s side of the family there was a history of depression. My mother killed herself when I was 12, and I discovered she had been sexually abused as a child. I discovered a lot of things I had not known.

And what did this say to me? It said to me that it wasn’t my fault. It had nothing to do with me. My parents were good people but they didn’t really know how to show up for their children. They weren’t entirely present and I believed I wasn’t good enough and they didn’t love me because I wasn’t good enough … I went through a large chunk of my life feeling that I wasn’t good enough, that I had to be perfect to be loved. Doing a life review freed me from that.

What do you like about aging?
You have this long backward perspective -- you’ve been there, and you’ve done that. When you really look at it, you discover that some of the hardest parts of your life were the things that you learned from. You don’t make mountains out of molehills. You know where the tiger is looking in the bush -- you don’t keep going and looking for it. You get lighter. You know what you can overlook. You know what you need and what you don’t need. You lose your eyesight but you gain insight. Picasso said it takes a long time to become young.

In the book you say your daughter Vanessa accused you of changing for each of your husbands. Did you feel that was true?
That was the rap on me … I’m only whatever the man I’m with wants me to be. It was one of the things I had to investigate when I did my life review and what I found was on some level it’s true, especially since I lacked confidence. I wanted to please [them] but on another level there were themes that ran through my life irrespective of the men I was with. I’ve always been brave. I’ve always been honest. The life review allowed me to sort of feel OK about myself, and it gave me a lot of confidence.

Do you still have those legwarmers from your fitness video days?
I found them in storage the other day. I have the striped leotard too.

They should be at the Smithsonian Institution.
(Laughs) Yeah.