“At my age,” Jane Fonda says, “it gets hard to find a role that’s fun and sexy and a little bit outrageous.”
Which is exactly what she found in “This is Where I Leave You.” Playing the shares-too-much matriarch of a non-observant Jewish family who insists her adult kids sit Shiva with her in mourning for seven days after her husband/their father dies, Fonda “finds the grace notes in a character that might easily have become another shrill “Monster-in-Law,” Variety notes.
That’s another way of saying that the Oscar winner still has her comic chops, still can land laughs in the middle of a cast that includes comic all-stars Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Dax Shepard and Kathryn Hahn. And that at 76, she coyly says, alluding to a comic plot twist in the film, “There are a few NEW things to try in this one. Uh huh.Oh yes.”
We caught up Fonda at the Toronto Film Festival.
Q: So what’s this movie saying about the state of the American family?
Fonda: “What is says is that there can be a lot of dysfunction, and that every family could stand a little — a LOT — of healing. I think audiences can identify with, to a little degree, the strangeness and hurt that comes up in this film. People keep coming up to me telling me about the family members who fall within the ‘types’ we play in the film.”
Q: Are families more mixed-up now, or are we just talking about all our problems and familial complaints more?
Fonda: “Oh, we have NAMES for things now, like ‘dysfunction’ and ‘narcissism’, words most of us didn’t know decades ago. Too much information! We know what to CALL someone we see acting differently. I think this stuff has always been around.”
Q: Your character, Hilary Altman, is the matriarch here, the psychologist mother who wrote a tell-all book about her kids, which they (Fey, Bateman, Driver and Corey Stoll) still hold against her. Is any of what’s wrong with them Hilary’s fault?
Fonda pauses, gives this some thought: “Somebody, like Hilary, who has porous boundaries, probably has issues when it comes to parenting that would have impacted her children.
“But none of the kids are MASSIVELY dysfunctional. The cops haven’t been called. They just have troubles with intimacy and things like that. REAL dysfunction, for me, is having a house full of addicts. I guess she’d have to take the hit, a little bit.”
“Could have been a lot worse. I guess I’m getting defensive for poor, old Hilary. She probably did OK. But I identify with her and where she probably messed up. If you ask my children, they’d almost certainly say that I tended to reveal too much about them in my own books. But unlike Hilary, in my defense, I gave the books to my children before I published them so that they could remove anything they would find offensive. Hilary would NEVER have done that.
Q: OK, mothers are never supposed to play favorites, but you have one-on-one scenes with a lot of funny people playing your kids. Who was your favorite?
Fonda: “Jason is a consummate pro…Very easy to work with, because when you look into his eyes he takes you into exactly the place you need to be in the scene.
“I kind of fell in love with Adam Driver, I have to admit. I’m old enough to be his grandmother, but I wish I could date him. He’s a doll.
“But Tina Fey is a genius. The funniest riffs in the movie came out of her head right there on the spot. She’s just got one of those brains, and what I found out over the course of making ‘This is Where I Leave You’ is you either have that brain, or you don’t. You can hone an existing talent, but comic improvisation isn’t just something you can do. I did try. And when the movie was over, I got Ben Schwartz, who played ‘Boner,’ the rabbi, to let me do some work at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade with him. Me and five guys, and while I got through it and did OK, I hope, it’s plainly not my forte. I can improvise drama, but comedy is a whole different thing.
“That will help me, I think, with my new project, this Netflix series, ‘Grace and Frankie,’ that will air second quarter of next year. Lily Tomlin and I co-star in it, and even though we’ve been friends since ‘Nine to Five,’ this is the first time I’ve had any type of improv background to bring to the party. With Lily, you need that just to keep up!”
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