Jane Fonda and Sir Ian McKellen (both 76) on what makes them tick

Having grown up without the constant presence of my grandparents, I feel I’ve missed out on a number of life lessons. As I start making inroads into adult life I find myself wondering where I might end up one day. What will my hopes and dreams be when I’m old? Which memories and lessons will I cherish? What will I regret? Even more simply, what will my day-to-day look like?

In a recent episode of Anna Sale’s podcast Death, Sex & Money, I listened to Jane Fonda reflect on her long and varied careers in acting, political activism and aerobics (previously, I actually had her mixed up with Holland Taylor, the grandma in trashy American sitcom Two and a Half Men). She also discusses her marriages, and what she does with herself now she’s 76 and single. I didn’t expect to be as captivated as I was by her story, and I felt rewarded for giving it a go.

The fact I enjoyed Marc Maron’s chat with Sir Ian McKellen, (for his WTF podcast) was altogether less surprising. He is, after all, Gandalf, Magneto, and one of the most prominent grey-haired gay rights activists in the world. Even still, it was incredibly eye-opening to learn more about how he got to where he is today – what it was like growing up in post-war Britain, how acting has always challenged him and brought him joy, why he chose to come out as gay on national radio.

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One common thread in Fonda and McKellen’s words is their awareness of and respect for death. Being old is not a taboo. That our time is limited is simply an inescapable fact.

“Do you feel afraid about death?”, Sale asks Fonda directly:

“I watched my dad die. He took a long time to die, so I had a long time to watch. He was never a talkative person… [and] I never got brave enough to ask him if he was scared or anything… What I’m really scared of is dying with regrets, which I feel that he did. So… I realised, okay then you have to live your life, especially as you get older, so that when you come to the end you won’t have regrets.

“And given the title of this radio show—what is it, Death Sex and Money? Haha. Living [life] intentionally means living it with the constant awareness of death. You know, I’m 76, I have a lot more time behind me than I have ahead of me, and living with the awareness of that helps me make decisions in life. It helps me not squander time.”

The subject of death also comes up as Maron and McKellen discuss McKellen’s favourite characters to play:

“MacBeth’s passed me by now, perhaps there’s not much point in trying to do it again – anyway, I’m too old, a lot of parts have passed me by. There’re plenty of old men left but they’re not necessarily the leading parts – which i may be grateful to in my dotage, I don’t want the responsibility of carrying the play…”

“Does it become risky for you at your age to [play older characters]? …Is it frightening?”

“It’s frightening to the extent that these old boys are old… And you think of them as far distant from yourself until, in your early 70s, you play a man in his early 80s who is going mad… Well, it’s a bit close to home. It’s the same with Mr. Holmes in the movie I’m doing at the moment, I’m playing him when he’s 93 years old.”

LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1990: Actress Jane Fonda poses for a portrait circa 1990 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)
Los Angeles – circa 1990 (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)

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I really admire Fonda and McKellen’s for their persistent desire to grow. For example, after divorcing her last husband (billionaire media mogul Ted Turner) at age 64, Fonda found herself moving in with her daughter. It was only through this experience that she had this realisation:

“I stood in the middle of the room in tremendous pain with sadness that the marriage hadn’t worked, and yet there was also this voice that said, I’m okay. For the first time in my life, I do not need a man to be whole. And that’s what our life is supposed to be about, and man it takes work. It doesn’t just happen.”

Twelve years on and it really sounds like Fonda’s living the life she wants to live. She travels a lot and is working hard on a novel. She also finds herself in another relationship (with music producer Richard Perry) but, this time, you get the feeling she’s retained her sense of self and is a better person because of it. In her words: dating Perry is “like living with a girlfriend who likes sex… He’s just really easygoing… Also, he has Parkinson’s, and I feel like… I’m learn[ing] to be more empathic [a self-confessed weakness of hers], and to kind of slow down.”

McKellen isn’t slowing down either. Since his seventieth birthday he’s been in seven movies and has two more already lined up. On why he’s still so busy:

“I’m a craftsman… I’m still trying to make that perfect table. But there’s no such thing so, on we go… So my work is a constant interest to me because I know there’s no end in sight. I haven’t found out yet how to do it. [When choosing projects I always ask myself]: ‘Am I going to learn anything… At the end of this, am I going to be better?’”

Almost poetically, McKellen’s acting career started with the same curiosity: “What’s behind that curtain? When they leave the stage where do they go?”

Photo by Nobby Clark
Romeo and Juliet (1976) (Photo by Nobby Clark)

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While Fonda captivates you with her openness and honesty, McKellen gets you with his eloquence and charm. These are two interviews I can’t recommend highly enough, delivered by two fantastic interviewers who each own one of my favourite podcasts – Anna Sale of Death, Sex & Money and Marc Maron of WTF. 

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