Excerpted from Jane Fonda’s NYTimes #1 Bestseller “My Life So Far”
As I write this I realize that I’ve done a good deal of thinking about acting in the fifteen-year hiatus I have taken, and I’d like to try to give you a sense of what it’s like, at least for me.
In most films there is a scene when the main character is going through a critical transition or defining event. Whether or not the story works often depends on the success of that scene. Sometimes the director will want to shoot it in one long take, with the camera following you as you move from place to place, hitting your marks, all the while making the emotional transitions. This delicate balance between technical and emotional demands is the hallmark of movie acting.
I would usually wake up the morning of the critical scene feeling quesy, with a knot in my belly. I’d arrive at the studio for makeup and hair, and at some point I’d be asked to stop what I was doing and come to the set for rehearsal. Should I give it my all? There is the risk that if I do, I won’t have anything left when the real time comes (as was the case in my big scene in On Golden Pond). On the other hand, the purpose of rehearsal is to discover what my moves will be so that the lights can be set and the camera will know where to follow me; and if I don’t dip fairly deep into the emotional waters during rehearsal, how will I know where I’m apt to go? So I rehearse and pray that I’ve given just enough, but not too much.
Rehearsal now over, I go back to my trailer to finish hair and makeup and then wait while the crew lights the set and practices camera moves with my stand-in. It can be a thirty-minute wait or an hour or, if it’s a complicated setup, three hours. What do do? Do I read a book or get into a conversation that might risk taking me too far away from where my emotions are meant to be? Do I just sit here and think about the scene and risk getting too much into my head? The challenge is knowing myself well enough to calibrate correctly the balance between physical relaxation and emotional alertness that will most benefit me during the one- to three-hour wait. But it’s hard not to feel like a balloon from which air is slowly leaking.
Then the moment comes. The knock on the door: “We’re ready, Miss Fonda.” Truthfully some small part of me (which I would try to ignore) has hoped that the sound stage would catch fire or the director would have a breakdown so that this moment could be postponed—for a year, maybe. But, no, there’s the knock. No going back now. So I step out of my trailer and begin the endless walk to where everyone is waiting, all one hundred people who work on a film on any given day. As I run the gauntlet, the issue of my salary comes to mind. Why didn’t I agree to do the damn thing for free? I know there are people on the set who are just waiting to see if I’m worth all that dough, like that guy over there on the ladder reading the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. I remember being told that shooting on an average Hollywood film costs in the neighborhood of $100,000 a day. If this goes badly, maybe I can offer to deduct it from my salary; otherwise I may never get hired again. Please let me stay relaxed, help me stay in my truth, tell my muse to be with me now. I arrive on the set that just a short while ago during rehearsal was a place of forgiving shadows. Now it’s a pitiless glare of light under which my possible disintegration will be exposed for all to see. Breathe deeply, Jane. Get out of your head and into your body . . . quiet the demon voice that is trying to tell you that today is the day you’ll be exposed as an overpaid fraud.
This is the part of film acting that I was only too happy to leave behind, the part that became more agonizing as time went on. Yet you have to go through those terrifying times if you are ever to have the magic ones, the times when it all works—and to be truthful, those I have missed. There were perhaps only eight or nine of them out of forty-five films, but they were the times when I stepped into my light and my muse was with me, all my channels were open, the creative flow coursed through my body, and I became. Whether the scene was sad or funny, tragic or triumphant, never mattered. When it worked it was like being enveloped in love and light, as I danced the intricate dance between technique and emotion, fully inside the scene while simultaneously a separate part of me observed and enjoyed the unfolding.
Ah. but just because it has happened once doesn’t mean it will again! Each time is starting new, raw; its a crapshoot—you just never know. Which is why this profession is so great for the heart—and so hard on the nerves.
I always assumed that the more you did something the easier it would get, but in the case of my career I found the opposite to be true. Every year the work seemed to get harder and my fear more paralyzing. Once, on the set of Old Gringo, I watched Gregory Peck late in his career doing a long, very difficult scene over and over again all day long. I saw that he too was scared. I went up to him afterward and hugged him and told him how beautiful and transparent he had been.
“But, Greg,” I asked, “why do we do this to ourselves? Especially you. You’ve had a long and incredible career. You could easily retire. Why are you still willing to be scared?”
Greg sat for a moment, rubbing his chin. Then he said, “Well, Jane, maybe it’s like my friend Walter Matthau says. His biggest thrill in life is to be gambling and losing a bit more than he can afford and then have one chance to win it all back. That’s what you life for—that moment. The crapshoot. If it’s easy, what’s the point?