08/14/2012 12:07 EDT | Updated 07/29/2014 04:59 EDT

Jane Fonda's Sex Talk: Actress, Activist's New Book Helps Talk To Kids About Sex

TORONTO - After releasing a book last year that explored sexuality at an older age, Jane Fonda says she's just about finished penning new material geared toward young people who are curious about sex.

The 74-year-old bombshell, activist, feminist and workout-tape guru says she's nearly wrapped a book aimed at middle-school-aged kids and another for teens in high school.

Fonda runs two Georgia-based non-profits dealing with adolescent sexuality and reproductive health, and says she's surprised by the attitudes about sex she's encountered.

"I've spent a lot of time with kids and with parents and it's just stunning how little they know and how nervous parents are about talking," Fonda told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview, noting that how and when the books are released will be up to her publisher.

"There's a lot of books about plumbing and how everything works, but ... I talk about sexuality in the context of identity. That it isn't just about intercourse, that to be human is to be sexual. There's nothing dirty or weird about it, and it's important to understand it very deeply."

And yet, she admits she missed her opportunity to talk to her own kids about sex.

"I did very badly as a parent," Fonda said. "I was not good. I think I was a few years too late. But I didn't know enough at the time — that it's not about waiting and then having the quote-unquote big talk. You have to start young, when they're young, and in an age-appropriate way to begin to talk about things sexual so it's no big deal.

"And you create an environment where your children feel comfortable coming to you with questions. If they feel that you're nervous, which you tend to be if you wait to have the big talk, they won't come to you.

"Be what's called an askable parent," she added.

Fonda speaks so frankly and with such apparent ease about a topic typically taboo in celebrity interviews, it's easy to see why she took so strongly to her forthright character in the new film, "And If We All Lived Together," originally released in France with the title, "Et si on vivait tous ensemble?"

The two-time Academy Award winner portrays the candid, compassionate Jeanne, one of a close-knit cluster of retired Parisiens struggling with how to spend their final years.

Jeanne is secretly coping with a fatal diagnosis while tending to her Alzheimer's-afflicted husband (Pierre Richard). Soon, the pair and three long-time pals dealing with serious issues of their own decide to move in together in a stately French estate to fortify their support network.

The role in the subtitled film represents Fonda's first French-speaking performance since she graced the screen in Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's political drama "Tout va bien" in 1972. Fonda, whose first husband was French filmmaker Roger Vadim, speaks the language fluently but still worked with a dialogue coach to get her lines just right.

Asked why she accepted the part, Fonda says the film represented a linguistic challenge she cherished.

"I have a bucket list, OK, and one of the things on the bucket list was to do at least one more French film before I die," Fonda said.

And then there are the thematic similarities between her new film and "Prime Time," her 2011 meditation on old age that covered love, fitness, food and self-analysis but mostly nabbed headlines for its 'tween-the-sheets straight talk.

The film, which opens in Toronto on Friday and expands to Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal and Ottawa in the coming weeks, covers much of the same ground. Characters deal with loneliness, impotence, deteriorating mental states and chilly relationships with their grown children.

But it's not as depressing as it sounds. It's actually quite cheerful — even bawdy — and even the film's heaviest moments are soon leavened by a sight gag or cutting quip.

Had the film been a sobering meditation on the stark realities of getting old, Fonda might not have been interested. She rarely seems particularly hung up on her age, boasting at one point during this conversation that she's the oldest living brand ambassador for a skin-care company (L'Oreal). In "Prime Time," she even wrote about how she wants to die (surrounded by loved ones holding her hand).

But, she laments, Hollywood is less interested in portraying life after retirement.

"I don't know if it's as true in Canada as the U.S., but we're very youth-oriented and there's this feeling that you're born, you peak at middle age and then you decline into decrepitude," Fonda said.

"I am bound and determined in whatever way I can ... to say, no, uh-uh, it doesn't have to be that way. It's very important to know this because we live a third of a lifetime longer than we used to.

"So understanding that late life can be something very beautiful in every way — intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, sexually ... we have to make old age less scary for young people. Not that they're necessarily going to look forward to it, but why not?"

She hopes that the prevailing attitude in Hollywood begins to change with the recent success of films geared toward older audiences, including the Meryl Streep romance "Hope Springs" and the ensemble comedy "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," a similarly themed film to Fonda's which she says she simply "loooved."

"We're the growing demographic globally — older men and women ... because we're living longer," said Fonda, whose myriad film credits include "9 to 5," "On Golden Pond," "Klute" and the beloved cult cheesepuff that cemented her sex-symbol status, 1968's "Barbarella."

"I think (that demographic is) more and more going to be served as these films do well."

On that note, she was encouraged by the response of European critics to "And If We All Lived Together."

"I was so happy to hear from a lot of the reviewers who said, 'God, you know, people don't talk about these things — old people and sex and fantasizing,'" she recalled.

Of course, most of those lines in the film are Fonda's. At one point, a Hungarian ethnology student moves into the house to patiently study the lives of the elders, and Fonda's character embarks on long walks with the curious academic to explain the ins and outs of sexuality amongst seniors.

"I liked the fact that I talked to him about sex," she said. "I think it's nice when an older person can talk that way to a younger person.... (It's) a reminder not only to him but to the audience that old people don't necessarily retire from sensuality."

Well, it's just another way in which Fonda's new film echoes her real life.

But as Fonda prepares to dive into the pool of youth sexual education, has she given any thought to atoning for her parenting regrets and counselling her grandchildren about sex?

"Totally, yeah," Fonda responded. "Of course, I need permission from my children before I can do that."