Steve Daly
April 11, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

On the massive dining table in Jane Fonda’s minimalist-chic Atlanta home, which is largely a study in metal and glass and concrete, there’s a grouping of round cacti, each one the size of a pumpkin. They’re set atop squarish trays filled with pebbles. From that rocky bedding, and a bit of water, the plants take in enough nourishment to survive.

You need not journey far into Fonda’s sprawling, 599-page new autobiography, My Life So Far, to discover that in the hardy-constitution department, cacti have nothing on the Oscar-winning actress and former high priestess of exercise. The book unsparingly documents a childhood of greater deprivation — at least emotional deprivation — than anybody might have guessed, even though other biographers have long since charted the stormy relationship she had with her distant, unpleasable dad, Henry. And while Fonda asserts in one chapter that she is at least ”the co-captain of my ship,” the book also shows her willfully reshaping herself, with astonishing ferocity of purpose, into one new guise after another — often, it seems, to please and serve the strong men in her life, lest they abandon her. Leaving each of them behind wreaked more havoc on her psyche than she’s ever said before — a state of affairs that the book, framed in language that’s heavy on therapeutic questing, is meant to heal and wash clean.

Has Fonda, at 67, succeeded in conquering the many demons she describes, from eating disorders to raging insecurity to bouts of depression that at times left her sleeping the day away? That will be Topic A as the book is disseminated, examined, and probably — as she herself acknowledges — attacked on various moral and political grounds. But no one can fault Fonda’s honesty in tackling her life story. She’s quite willing to be hard on herself, reporting that when she asked her daughter, Vanessa Vadim, what sort of imagery she should use for a 60th-birthday-party retrospective, Vanessa replied, ”Why don’t you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?”

We sat with Fonda for an in-depth discussion of her chameleonic life, assaying where she’s come from and where — with the book and a summer movie, Monster-in-Law, her first since 1990’s Stanley & Iris — she might be headed next. For maximum enjoyment, summon the sound of that unmistakable voice so many viewers fall in love with during Klute: strong, deep, clear, and always a little tremulous underneath.

EW We live in an era of reality TV shows and Internet blogs. Did that make it easier to write such an extremely revealing account of your life?

JF When I started, there were certain things I thought, Oh, God, I can’t write about this. It’s too personal, too hard.

EW Like?

JF Breast implants. Collapses of [my three] marriages [to Roger Vadim, from 1965 to 1973; to Tom Hayden, from 1973 to 1990; to Ted Turner, from 1991 to 2001]. The threesomes with other women and my first husband.

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