Indeed, when it comes to disrupting aging, Fonda, 78, Woodard, 63, and Stone, 58, are living proof that your post-50 years are what you make them. Last year, Fonda earned a Golden Globe nomination — her 15th — for her turn as a survival-minded leading lady in Paolo Sorrentino's movie Youth. And May saw the premiere of Season 2 of Grace and Frankie, a Netflix odd-couple series in which Fonda portrays a type A, late-in-life divorcée who opens her home to her free-spirited friend (played by Fonda's real-life pal Lily Tomlin) when their husbands fall in love with each other. Meanwhile, Woodard and Stone are about to become very familiar to the highly sought-after comic-book-film crowd: Woodard's character is a villain in Marvel's anticipated Netflix series Luke Cage; Stone has been cast as a superhero — she'll only reveal that her secret power is heat — in a yet-to-be-named movie, also for Marvel.
When asked what has surprised her about getting older, Fonda says she's happier by far. She's more candid and emotionally resilient, and she has forged closer relationships with her two children — Vanessa Vadim and Troy Garity — as well as with her two grandchildren, her friends and her boyfriend of seven years, music producer Richard Perry. "If you'd told me when I was 20 or 30 that I'd be happier at 70, I would have said to you, 'You're out of your mind,'" Fonda says.
The daughter of Henry Fonda, she dropped out of Vassar College when she was 18 to pursue, like him, a career in show business. "At 20, I was so old — I was cynical, hopeless, drifting through life. Same at 30. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't know who I was." Because she has lived a large-screen life, it seems fitting that Fonda's epiphany about growing older began to gestate in the cargo bed of a cowboy-filled pickup truck on her way back from helping round up bison on then-husband media mogul Ted Turner's New Mexico ranch. It was the day before her 59th birthday. "I thought, Holy cow — in one year, I'll be 60. I probably won't live much past 90. That means next year will be the beginning of my third act."
Fonda notes that in the theater, the final act is the one that can make sense of the first two. She decided to do what she called "a life review," dedicating the next five years to analyzing her past as a way to discover what she wanted to do next. By the time she'd finished her research, her marriage was over, and she'd taken up temporary residence in her daughter Vanessa's tiny house in Atlanta. The two-time Oscar winner (for Klute and Coming Home), who had retired from acting in 1991, would soon write a memoir called My Life So Far and realize she was ready to return to show business. Her first third-act role was playing Jennifer Lopez's brittle nemesis in 2005's Monster-in-Law. Fonda hasn't stopped working since. Her next project will reunite her with Robert Redford — their last film together was 1979's Electric Horseman — for a Netflix adaptation of the best-selling novel Our Souls at Night.
BACK IN LOS ANGELES, as the funk-inflected sounds of New Orleans' Trombone Shorty spill from a loudspeaker, Alfre Woodard begins swinging her hips to the beat. Married to screenwriter Roderick Spencer for 32 years, she has two adopted children — Mavis, 24, and Duncan, 22. For Woodard, it's the intangibles that have come into focus as she has aged. "You're a mess in the first act, going on instinct and bravado," she says. "I'm better now at all the things you can't touch with your hands. I'm more discerning. My joy is deeper and less shakable. My craft is really fine-tuned." To further her point about why the experience of the mature trumps the energy of the young, Woodard answers the rhetorical question "Who would you want in charge when it comes to an unpowered emergency water landing on the Hudson River?" "I'd want Sully landing my plane," she says. "No panic. Been there, done that. Just relax."
Born in Tulsa, Okla., to Constance, a homemaker, and Marion, an interior designer, Woodard could have thrown in the towel when she moved to Los Angeles more than four decades ago and was repeatedly told there were no roles in Hollywood for African Americans. Instead, she has won four Emmys, three for guest appearances on TV series (The Practice, Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law) and one for her starring role as a small-town nurse in the acclaimed TV movie about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Miss Evers' Boys. (For proof of her gift for turning in magnetic, delicately observed performances, regardless of the size of the role: She has been an Emmy nominee a record-breaking 18 times.) The West Coast transplant readily adopted California attitudes toward health, fitness and aging. "It's that, 'You're only as old as you feel,'" says Woodard, who recalled being dumbfounded as she listened to classmates at her 15-year high school reunion talking as if their best years were over. "People had just recently turned 30 and were already complaining about their knees and saying things like, 'At our age …' 'At your age' what? I'm a friend of [actor-director] Norman Lloyd, who, for God's sake, is 101 and playing tennis and has a beautiful girlfriend-companion. Age is what you decide you want it to be. I am still in motion here."
DURING A LUNCH BREAK, Fonda and Stone trade notes about their various outfits for the day. "A white number" is Fonda's description of her clinging, curve-hugging floor-length gown, while Stone jokingly categorizes the strappy, barely-there bathing suit and sheer gossamer cover-up she posed in as "a negligee with a black thingy underneath." Stone's positivity is infectious, a sure sign that, after surviving a life-threatening medical emergency, realizing she could get herself back in the game was everything. In 2001, the blond Basic Instinct star suffered a near-fatal massive stroke and subsequent cerebral hemorrhage that lasted nine days. Having spent two years teaching herself to read again, walk without a limp and talk without a stutter, she says, "just being alive is pretty exciting." Seven years later, Stone, who in 1996 won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for her turn as a doomed Vegas hustler in Martin Scorsese's Casino, arrived at a career low point: guest-starring in a role as an assistant district attorney on Law & Order: SVU in its 11th season. The experience didn't deter her. Stone's formula for getting herself professionally back on track mixes maturity, confidence and patience. "It was all about consistency, about keeping your cool, having a plan and doing that plan every day," Stone says. "I didn't have enough stamina to hit a home run. In the game of life, you just have to be able to hit single after single after single."