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Leading Ladies: Sharon Stone, Jane Fonda and Alfre Woodard

Three screen icons beat Hollywood's ruthless ageism by changing the game

(Video) Owning Your Age with Sharon, Jane and Alfre: Sharon Stone, Alfre Woodard and Jane Fonda explain how their approach to work has changed, how sex is different now and more.

ON A PERFECT CALIFORNIA AFTERNOON in early spring, Sharon Stone and Alfre Woodard are deep into a far-ranging conversation that skips from purifying cleanses to the late conservative commentator William F. Buckley. The women are passing the time in a sculpture-filled home in a tiny Los Angeles neighborhood as they wait for the third member of their trio to join them. Then, suddenly, Jane Fonda makes her entrance, gliding into the room in white, figure-hugging trousers, a matching fitted jacket and a see-through lace blouse that reveals a fair amount of cleavage.

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Alfre Woodard, 63: "Age is what you decide you want it to be. I am still in motion here."

"Woooooooooo!" shouts Woodard approvingly.

"Look at you!" enthuses Stone, who a few minutes later asks Fonda about the famously rigorous exercise program she developed in the early 1980s — especially as it pertains to her butt. "Yours looks so great," says Stone, lifting up the back of Fonda's jacket and peering appreciatively at the older actress's pert derriere. "I've done your workout a million times over the years and look at me."

"Well," Fonda shoots back. "You have other things."

And with that, they're off and running.

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Jane Fonda, 78: "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."'

We gathered together these three accomplished, opinionated women to talk about the radical idea of owning their age in Hollywood, of seeking out roles that illuminate their wisdom and experience, of the joys and difficulties of sustaining their careers through the decades. As they strike a pose in front of the camera, the ever-feisty Stone sums up their collective mood by punching a fist in the air and hollering cheerfully, "We're alive, and we're still working, motherf---ers!"

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.

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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."

Stone is unapologetic about the number attached to her age. "What's the big deal? I'm 58. I also have green eyes. So what?" Instead of moping about her future during one particularly dry spell in her career, Stone went out and helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fight AIDS. "Was that less than being in some movies? Not so much. And guess what? Now I'm working with [producer-director] Steven Soderbergh [in a boundary-pushing HBO series called Mosaic]. The tide goes in, and the tide goes out."

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Sharon Stone, 58: "I don't think we have to accept the assignment of aging, that all of a sudden you're supposed to be dowdy, with a really bad hairdo and wear Easter candy-colored clothes."

During her almost 25 years in the public eye, Stone has spent a fair share of time generating tabloid headlines about her romantic partners. But at this stage, the two-time divorcée (a single mom to three adopted boys — 15-year-old Roan; Laird, 11; and Quinn, 10) says that she'd rather stay home than try to find a boyfriend. "Obviously it's pretty easy to get a date. But to me, my life is so full. I don't want to take time out to just go on a date, or to just have sex with a stranger. At this point, I get more satisfaction — physically, spiritually, emotionally — from a smile, a laugh, a warm conversation or a really sexy look," she says. "You know the way a man can look at you? Where you know he really sees you? I don't want to be with someone unless it's like that."

With a reputation that has continued into her late 50s of regularly and proudly baring nearly all, Stone takes the being-seen bit literally. "I don't think we have to accept the assignment of aging, that all of a sudden you're supposed to be dowdy, with a really bad hairdo and wear Easter candy-colored clothes," says the woman who appeared in Harper's Bazaar last year looking svelte and movie-star glamorous attired in nothing but Jimmy Choo heels, a Tiffany diamond necklace and her birthday suit.

The afternoon sky is darkening as Fonda, Woodard and Stone sit perched on director's chairs after sharing their animated, divergent opinions about everything from the upcoming presidential election to the unexpected blessings of adoption. ("I can get cranky," Stone confesses. "I'm not sure that passing along my disposition would have been my greatest gift.") Long after the camera crew is gone, they continue their conversation. Then, in a shift, thoughts turn to how they plan to unwind when they get home. "I don't drink alcohol," says Stone, while Woodard, who for the past six months has been based in New York filming, chimes in that she is looking forward to spending time with her husband and kids. As for Fonda, she's going old school. "I don't know about you," she says, throwing back her head and laughing, "but I can't wait to have a vodka martini."

Margy Rochlin also writes for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times

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