The star of Fatal Attraction, Short Cuts and Patriot Games revealed Oscar-winner Fonda, who was at the height of her fame when she visited Vietnam, had tried to halt the project in its infancy, warning it would merely reopen “a can of worms.”
Archer said the play, The Trial of Jane Fonda, which revives a tense confrontation between the actress and a group of veterans years after the Vietnam conflict had ended, was too politically sensitive to be launched in the United States and said Scotland had been chosen as “more neutral ground” for a world premiere.
Archer, who at 66 is 10 years younger than Fonda, has joined forces with her screenwriter husband Terry Jastrow, who has penned the script and will be directing the play, which will have a full Fringe run in August.
The pair, who are hoping to take the show to London’s West End after its world premiere at the Assembly Rooms, said they hoped the international exposure for the play in Edinburgh would make it easier to take it back to the US. It is hoped it will eventually become a feature film.
Although Fonda acted as an advisor on the play and put Jastrow in touch with many of her personal contacts before he visited Vietnam, the couple said they would not be inviting her to see the play this summer and also cast doubt on whether she would ever want to see her high-profile struggles re-enacted on stage.
The play focuses on controversial episodes such as Fonda’s ill-fated decision to pose for a photograph on top of an anti-aircraft gun during her visit to Hanoi in Vietnam in 1972, a trip during which she regularly accused the US military of being “war criminals.”
It has taken around seven years to bring the play, which will suggest Fonda was set up for that infamous photograph, to the stage in Edinburgh. Shortly after Jastrow started researching Fonda’s interest in the war, he wrote to her asking for her co-operation and she visited the couple at home, but made clear her opposition.
Archer said: “She will never come and see the play. Why would she do that to herself?
“She did’t want Terry to do it. When we first met she spent the first hour trying to talk him out of it. She said: ‘You’ve no idea the can of worms you’re going to open up. It’s not good for me and it’s not good for you.’
“She was more than a bit reluctant, she wasn’t interested at all. But when she realised Terry was going to do it anyway, she thought that if he was going to get her side of the story she needed to spend some time with him and also give him access to people who were close to her and knew her story.
“He also talked to dozens of Vietnam vets and POWs who were in Hanoi, that she met when she was there, so he has got the other side of the story as well. The script is very balanced, it tells both sides of the story.
“It is more difficult playing someone in a play if they are still alive and it’s also very public. She has almost had a resurgence, she is acting again and she is working all the time. I’m merely trying to do her story and represent her well from that time.
“We really wanted to launch the show in Edinburgh, give it a run in the West End and then take it back. It is more neutral ground here. It can get very politicised in the United States. Edinburgh is such a good place to mount a new play. It will get international attention, as a lot of reviewers come here to find new work every year. I’m not worried about the reaction the play might get here.
“If it works, and it is really good and really successful, then it becomes an important piece of theatre. People are always open to telling a story through art.
“I wouldn’t say we were concerned about launching it in the US, but I think it would’ve been more difficult. It is too important - we need to do it in the right way.”
Jastrow said: “We just felt the UK would be a much better environment for the world premiere. My over-arching desire is to tell the story as fully and accurately as I can and have people decide about it themselves.
“I felt we could get a full hearing for both sides of the story here. On top of that, I consider the UK to be the world capital of English-speaking theatre. It just seemed like the right place and the right time.
“I’m told there are around 1000 buyers around in Edinburgh during the Fringe. We’re hoping to create real word of mouth and that people think it will be one of the must-see plays of this year’s festival.”
At the heart of the play is a showdown between Fonda and a group of veterans who had threatened to picket a film - Stanley and Iris - that she was about to make in Connecticut with Robert De Niro, in 1988, because of her stance over the Vietnam War, which had ended 13 years earlier.
Archer said: “When it was announced that the film was going to be made in Connecticut, a few of the Vietnam vets there started fanning the flames and they even burned an effigy of her in front of the City Hall. They just didn’t want the film there at all.
“It was actually Robert De Niro who suggested she should meet with the vets. It took a lot of courage as she was on her own with 26 of them in that meeting. But she knew if she could just get them in a room and talk to them it would be useful for them and her. The minute she met with them that was the end of it.”
Jastrow said although he was not a historian he felt that Fonda - who developed an interest in the Vietnam War while living in Paris after recovering from a difficult pregnancy - had been a major factor in the US ending its involvement in Vietnam,
He added: “At the time she was certainly the most famous American actress and many people considered her the best at that time.
She had never been an activist about anything and had not even been following the Vietnam War. She wasn’t interested in political things at all.
“She always say it as a humanitarian thing, rather than an anti-war protest. The more she learned about the more disquieted she became, and it became a real David and Goliath story, it was really Jane against the US military.
“She has tried to talk me out doing the play. She just felt it was so polarising. She said: ‘You have no idea of the hatred and disquiet this will stir up again.’ But I knew, as a storyteller, that as long as I could do it accurately, I could do the story with her or without her.
“I think she’s conflicted about it. On the one hand she would want the truth to be told. There are things that she did that she should not have done and has apologised for. But the number of things that people say she did and hate her for...a lot of it is just inaccurate.
“She has no creative input or approval rights, she is not participating in any way, she has zero involvement. I just don’t want to make it awkward for her or put her in an awkward situation. I don’t know if she’ll ever see it. She may think that coming to see it might be construed by some people that she supports it. She probably wishes I’d never done it. But I think part of her is happy I’m trying to set the record straight. There is not one thing in the play that is fictional.
“We think this is an international story, which would suit virtually every market-place in the world. It deals with timeless and universal themes. You only have to look at the Iraq War. The whole question of the drumbeat of war needs to reviewed all the time. It just shouldn’t be a fait accompli that every time there is fear-mongering and war-mongering that wars are fought. If you do not learn from the past you’re doomed to repeat it.”
Archer and her husband have visited Edinburgh on several occasions in the past, when he was involved in American TV broadcasts from the Open Golf Championship when it was staged at courses like St Andrews or Muirfield.
She added: “I would often come with home on those trips and we would pass through Edinburgh but I never got to know it the way I will get to know it now at the Fringe. We never managed to make it here at that time.
“We cast the other six actors in the show in London last week and they’ve all been to the Fringe. Everyone involved in the show is very excited about it and especially being the Assembly Rooms, which is such a beautiful venue. We’re on at 4pm every day so once I get my feet wet and the show is running smoothly I’m sure my mind will start wandering to whether I have the energy to see something else.”
Jastrow said: “The Fringe has the reputation of being the world’s largest and best arts festival, that it is a marathon and is also a very eclectic experience that goes on morning, noon and night.
“I’ve had the pleasure of producing television coverage for six Olympic Games over the years, so I have a good idea of what a massive, multiple-day event can be. I don’t expect to get a lot of sleep. The passion and excitement about the play will propel us on but I’m sure we’ll need about a week’s rest afterwards.”