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'Always fight back,' says Jane Fonda. 'Always'

In an interview in Toronto on Monday, Jane Fonda was on it. She opened with the line, "I'm sorry to hear about your party leader," referring to the death of Jack Layton, which had been announced less than an hour earlier. She followed with a brisk series of instructions to a photographer: no natural light, only direct flash, absolutely no shine on her nose. She wore pants, a jacket and a drapey scarf in tones of grey, and she was trim, coiffed, discreetly made up. Her face has been lifted more than once, but she still looks like herself. Then she sat down and conversed for half an hour with genuine candour.

Fonda has written a new book, Prime Time, a chatty, wide-ranging guide – "everything from physics to penile implants," she said – to living fully, from age 60 to 90. At 73, she's a walking advertisement for her own advice. Stay interested in the world, check. Ask for what you want, check. Keep fit, check. Own up to who you are, check, check, check.

In many ways, as Jane Fonda goes, so goes America, whether it's battling eating disorders (she suffered from anorexia and bulimia from adolescence to age 37); rocking the sexual revolution (she won an Oscar for 1971's Klute); protesting the Vietnam War (she won a second Oscar for Coming Home, 1978); kick-starting the eighties aerobics-video boom; playing Real Housewife to her third husband, mogul Ted Turner, in the go-go nineties; or now "giving back" by proffering advice on the health benefits of eating by colour, the joy of meditation, and the sensitivity of men's nipples. I've never read a book where the writer travelled from the virtues of vitamin D to the pleasures of a "penis ring" so seamlessly, maintaining the same earnest tone throughout.

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"I actually never lead," Fonda demurrs. "There's always something there first, and then I am the cheerleader for it. There are many, many books about aging. Mine just covers everything that I wanted to know."

Her "everything" is a lot. But then, she has always lived a big life. During her eight years of research, Fonda undertook a "life review," in which she combed through her past, interviewed friends and family, and forced herself to relive events in as much emotional detail as she could. The results have filled three books: her 2005 memoir, My Life So Far; a new biography, Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, on which she collaborated with writer Patricia Bosworth; and now Prime Time.

The facts are extraordinary, starting with this doozy: On the day her mother committed suicide by slitting her throat (Fonda was 12), Fonda's father Henry went to work as usual, acting in a play. "Wasn't that something?" Fonda agrees, eyes widening.

But thanks to her life review, she's able to put events in context: Her mother had been sexually abused and was "unable to love." Her father, a taciturn Nebraskan, came from a long line of men who suffered from undiagnosed depression. "I viewed my mother as a snob. Well, she was a snob," Fonda says. "Had she lived long enough, I probably wouldn't have cared for her very much, frankly. She didn't love me. She didn't love anybody. So the way I protected myself from that is, 'Okay, I don't need you.' But of course I blamed myself when she killed herself.

"And Dad could not deal with emotion, he just couldn't," she continues. "He didn't know what to say, and if we had cried – which of course I wouldn't – he wouldn't have known what to do. But what can you do? Forgiveness. He did the best he could. I knew the kind of person that he wished he was. And I loved him."

That schism between who her father was and who he wished to be "is one of the reasons that I try to live my third act in such a way that I won't have regrets," Fonda says. "You never get there entirely, but you can spend your life working at it."

In Fonda's view, all life's dung can be turned into fertilizer. So, she suffered from postpartum depression after her daughter, Vanessa (with her first husband, director Roger Vadim), was born, and let nannies do her parenting. So, recently, Vanessa cracked that Fonda could dramatize her life by simply letting a "chameleon crawl across the screen." And so, now that Vanessa is a mother, Fonda's current challenge is "biting my tongue" about her parenting style. "I mean, my tongue has just about bled," Fonda says.

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But so what? First, Fonda cops to it all – her and Vanessa's relationship "is very difficult. But I think we're both determined to make it work." Then she turns it into a learning opportunity. "I've subsequently studied parenting," she says. "You teach what you need to learn. I could write a book on parenting – and plan to." She was better with her son, Troy (with her second husband, politician Tom Hayden). "But sometimes it takes a long time to grow up."

Fonda has her patter about her husbands down: "My first taught me to be a female impersonator." (Vadim directed her space-babe turn in 1968's Barbarella.) "My second gave me depth of perspective. My third and favourite ex-husband taught me to laugh."

She and Turner are still close, sharing dinners and e-mails. But her life review showed her that she couldn't stay with him. "For his own reasons, Ted moves laterally through life, very fast. Across his millions of acres," she says. "I wanted to go vertical. I knew if I stayed with him, I'd be safe, I wouldn't need to work, and it would be interesting. But I would never be a whole person, and I wanted to be a whole person." She's currently dating music arranger Richard Perry.

After a 15-year acting hiatus, Fonda went back to work, costarring with It girls Jennifer Lopez and Lindsay Lohan. She tried to mentor Lohan, to no avail: "She would see me coming and she'd flee," Fonda says. "For Lindsay to create a new norm, I would have to wrap my arms around her, or someone would, and take her far away, for a long, long time. I don't think she would allow it to happen. Her norm is chaos. Of course, when you know that about somebody, you can't help but love them." She leans forward sincerely. "Empathy," she adds, "is so great." Fonda also earned a Tony nomination in 2009 for the play 33 Variations, and she's a hippie mom in Bruce Beresford's Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, which is coming to the Toronto International Film Festival next month.

As well, Fonda is a keen user of social media – two weeks ago, when the TV channel QVC cancelled her appearance to promote Prime Time because some viewers protested, she blogged that she regretted posing on a Hanoi gun site during the Vietnam War. "There are soldiers and families who don't understand the war, and blame me for the deaths. It is to those people that I very willingly apologize, because I would never, ever want to hurt them.

"But there is another segment of well-oiled political operatives who whip people up, based on lies," she continues. "So when QVC cancelled my appearance because those people had conducted a campaign against me, I fought back. And that was the right thing to do – always fight back, always."

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Fonda is now in such a good place that she's not sure what to work on next. "I've been thinking about that, so much," she says. "If I died tomorrow, that would be fine. My house is in order. I have to start a new bucket list." The only item on it so far? Learn to tap dance.

As I rise to go, I remark on how frank Fonda is, and how comfortable she seems being so. "That's 'cause I know what not to say," she says, laughing. The mind reels at what that could possibly be.

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