Well before becoming a movie star, Diane Lane led a movie-worthy life. The daughter of an acting coach and a Playboy centerfold who split up when she was two weeks old, she was first on the stage at age 6, and worked steadily through her childhood and teen years. At age 13, she starred in her first movie, A Little Romance, opposite Laurence Olivier. At 15, she abandoned her father and moved to L.A., but her mother physically abducted her back to Georgia, until Lane took her to court. She continued working in film, notably in the S.E. Hinton adaptations The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, as well as in Streets Of Fire, The Cotton Club, and Lonesome Dove. Her recent roles have been copious but less memorable; she garnered the most attention for playing a cheating housewife in Unfaithful. In 2004, she married actor Josh Brolin (her second husband, after actor Christopher Lambert), and after four roles in 2008 (in Killshot, Nights In Rodanthe, Jumper, and Untraceable), she took a few years off of film acting.
Now she’s back as Penny Chenery, the housewife-turned-horse-breeder who owned and managed record-breaking champion racehorse Secretariat. In Disney’s Secretariat, directed by Braveheart writer and We Were Soldiers director Randall Wallace, she brings a gentle strength to the role of a woman generally derided for breaking into a male-dominated sport—at least until the wins started rolling in. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Lane to discuss playing Michael Corleone, the martyrdom of directing, and the egotism of racehorses.
The A.V. Club: After your last two films in 2008, you said you were ready to leave acting completely if you didn’t see some better roles for women. You specifically said you basically wanted to play Anjelica Huston in The Grifters.
Diane Lane: Still looking!
AVC: This is not that role.
DL: No, but at least it’s a woman who can own her anger. It’s a step in the right direction.
AVC: Would you say that is the primary problem with the roles being written for women, the failure to own their anger?
DL: Well, I think a lot of the time, the studio system is so compelled to kowtow to its fear that women are not going to be found sympathetic. It just sort of euthanizes any hope of more diverse examples of the emotional realities of people. Representing my gender, I think, “Well, I have those emotions, why don’t those ever get brought to the screen so I can feel recognized?” People like to go into the dark and see themselves onscreen, and something they can relate to, and what have you. It’s not always—I guess there are horror films, but that’s not my cup of tea either.
AVC: What about this role particularly drew you?
DL: I guess the reality of it, you know, to portray a historic figure who would trust me with that opportunity. She’s immortalized anyway, but to go the next step and take it into round two of global recognition, and to do it while she’s alive, is rather unique and odd and surreal. I mean, frankly, I wasn’t aware of Penny, I was only aware of the horse. The parallel journey of the horse owner in this case, and how much was at stake, and how she was vilified for her risk-taking, and baited by the media. “What are you doing here? You’re a housewife, you have no business being here.” I don’t know if it was her hairdo, or what people were so taken aback by. I’m kidding, but only half-kidding, because did they forget that she was born into horse breeding? Did they forget that this was her daddy’s industry? And she sort of inherited the mantle of that, the family farm, and the hope of the industry, staying in the game, as it were. So there was sacrifice, and there was judgment, but at the same time, to the victor goes the spoils, and she had the last laugh.
AVC: It’s interesting that you’d seize on the movie’s historicity, given Randall Wallace’s attitude toward history: “Let’s not let the facts get in the way of the story.” How do you feel about that take on historical films?
DL: I don’t really know. I mean, we sent our kids to a specific high school based on the hopeful fact that the history book was A People’s History Of The United States by Howard Zinn. I had no idea that we would wind up getting into People Speak, and my husband’s involvement with that. [Brolin co-produced and starred in a History Channel adaptation of Zinn’s book The People Speak in 2009. —ed.] That was a whole other larger-than-life thing. But yeah, the revision—the people who win the wars get to write the history books, so I understand that. I don’t really want to see the movie about Sham [Secretariat’s primary rival in the movie] because my heart would break, and I’d have to step on it on the floor while it was still beating. That just tears my heart out. He’s the only other horse who even came close to breaking Secretariat’s record, and he never ran again, because he was so shattered by having his ego so thrashed. Racehorses, I didn’t know—I mean, I’d heard that was such a cliché, about the ego of racehorses. Well, now I understand they can’t do what they do without it. Sort of like when I read Elia Kazan’s book A Life. He was at one point talking about Marlon Brando, and the ego of the artist, and how it’s necessary—some people can perceive it as an evil or an inconvenience or whatever they want to say about it, but it’s an inherent enabler to the end result, to being a risk-taker. So Randy has this philosophy that I adore, where he’s always capable of locating the archetypes in a story. Honor, valor—he gravitates toward that. He kept saying, “You’re Michael Corleone in this scene.” I liked that. That was fun for me. That wasn’t—I’m not standing there with a parasol and being a delicate flower or a shrinking violet. This woman was demanding. So that was refreshing.
AVC: You met Penny and spent time with her to help build this character. How much did your idea of her from personal interaction coincide with directions like, “Play this like Michael Corleone”? Were there points where your image of her didn’t fit how Randall saw her as a character in the story?
DL: No, because I don’t think Penny ever had the burden of having to—no, that’s not really fair. I don’t want to say ever. I’d say it’s very rare, comparative to my experience, that Penny had to be conscious of her sweetness quotient, and whether she was sympathetic. She knew what needed to happen, and she wanted to make it happen. And if that meant being tough on somebody, she would be tough on somebody.
AVC: While playing her, did you have to intellectually think about things like “sweetness quotient” and “valor level”?
DL: I try not to be overly analytical. A lot of it’s done for me by what’s left finite in the screenplay of the person’s life. I mean, sure, you fill in the blanks of what came before, why these choices were made, what this reminds the character of, those types of things, so that work is filled in by me, but a lot of this was answered by the history books I had access to, whether that’s interviews or online or in print. Certainly Bill Nack’s book [Secretariat: The Making Of A Champion] was a bible for us on Secretariat. So there was a lot of potential for vilification of Penny, that she would be perceived as vainglorious. And there was a lot of “Who do you think you are?” over her abandoning her post as mother and housewife. “Women’s lib” was still a concept at that time. [Laughs.] Roe v. Wade hadn’t happened yet. I remember when Secretariat won, and I had a very childlike innocence in my perspective on things. I just loved horses, so it made perfect sense to me that they finally put a horse on the cover of Time. [Laughs.] That’s all I cared about. So I’ve come a long way from that, but it did really move into my heart in a sort of secretly magical way that happens sometimes to people, and I think that the lightning striking and the miracle of Secretariat’s performance at the Belmont, it changed the meaning of everything that came before it. It made it seem as though everything that came before it was leading up to this, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think the horse—if you can refer to Secretariat as “the horse,” because to me he’s so much more than that—but he just felt like doing that. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? Was it a miracle, or was it a mood? When you have that much power in your engine, you can press the pedal down, and different things happen than with other horses.
AVC: You’ve said in the past that the screenplay is the most important element of a film to you, that it’s more important than who’s directing or starring in it, as far as your decision to be in it. Do you still feel that way?
DL: I do feel that if it’s not on the page, there’s no hope of it getting to the stage. You really can’t take a cat and turn it into a dog, or try and get lemons off an apple tree, or what have you. Sometimes there’s this real naïveté that people possess, where they want you to infuse a scene with a certain quality, and it’s like an apology. “I read the script, didn’t you? What’s the agenda here?” I think that’s what I was referring to when I said that, because living up to a screenplay and fleshing it out—the play’s the thing, it’s been established.
AVC: But have you never taken a role primarily to work with someone specific?
DL: Of course. But I haven’t ever—I wasn’t offered options. I was working with the best I had offered to me. So if I could’ve opted for a magnificent screenplay or role that would be totally different—that wasn’t always the case. I don’t know, I mean—Burt Lancaster, Laurence Olivier, George C. Scott, Robert Duvall, Jessica Lange. I wish I got to work with more women, but they don’t pair us up so often. A lot of very tender, warmhearted older males that wished me well, and really wanted to see the fruition of my aspirations. Not in terms of anything flashy, but I think they actually understood that I was trying to live up to what my dad hoped for me. I know that sounds really corny, but it’s sort of a family business, and that’s what I felt I had in common with Penny. She’s sort of a daddy’s girl that made good, and I feel like that too. And it’s funny, because I feel like I resented it in the beginning, but my dad’s been gone a while now, and perspectives do change with the passage of time, and I’ve had my attitude adjusted too.
AVC: Do you prefer taking roles where you can find a close similarity between yourself and the character?
DL: I always find something. I always find something, even if it’s a guilty indulgence of a trait that I don’t allow myself access to in my real life, because my behavior’s my choice. But yeah, I have to put my hand in the glove and master it, and the character is the glove and I’m the hand, but I still have to make myself fit. So I have to shrink or expand—I mean, there are qualities in Penny that are much larger than what I possess.
AVC: Have you thought about going into directing or producing specifically so you can get that Anjelica Huston role, that ideal role that’s out there somewhere?
DL: [Laughs.] It’s possible, but I think I would have more of a thrill just to take a break from being on the receiving end of the lens of the camera. I think that directing is the ultimate martyred task of filmmaking, that it has nobility to it. It takes three years to make a film, for the most part. I think it requires the attentiveness of a mother hen. I don’t know how people raise children and direct films. I’m sorry, I don’t know, how can you be good at both? Some kind of superhero of stamina, because the attentiveness is the same. You have to be available to answer, “Why is the sky blue?” to every department at 3 in the morning in every time zone, no matter what. You have to be there to have godlike answers for everybody. Anyway, I don’t know. I haven’t come across anything I feel passionate about yet, but I have a feeling it’s going to come conveniently on the other side of the empty nest.
AVC: Do you still think about getting out of acting?
DL: I took two years off to be home, and I think that helped me out a lot. Penny was a strong enough exercise for me, and enough of a departure from previous expectations that it was fun for me to come back and work. I think fun is an important part of the entertainment industry, and it should be. Anybody who’s not incorporating some of that into their work needs to take a break, go away, and have an attitude adjustment. Periodically, I need to do that, because I can get too analytical and in my head, you might have noticed. So yeah, I needed to be home, My daughter was 14 and 15—that’s a really tough little window of time. Now she’s 17, and we’re applying to colleges, and I’m holding my breath. I’m very excited for her, and envious of her real childhood. It’s nice, I’m happy for her. There was a question in there that I don’t think I answered.
AVC: It was just whether you continue to think seriously about getting out of acting, or whether that was just a momentary mood that day. It’s always hard to tell with interviews that get heavily quoted and repeated over time.
DL: I know, and you know I’m entitled to change my mind…. Just because I’m quoted doesn’t make it less of an option. Finding what’s fun in it, that’s the difference between a parent and a grandparent. A grandparent will tell you, “Have fun!” and a parent will tell you, “Be safe, do a good job, make me proud.” You know what I mean? [Laughs.] I try to grandparent myself now, because it’s important to have fun, it’s important to impart the fun in things to other people.
AVC: Your next project is currently Cinema Verite, about the Loud family, the subjects of the first reality show back in the early ’70s. What can you say about that? Are you still working on it?
DL: No, we wrapped a couple weeks ago. I still have to pinch myself, the people I get to work with sometimes, like John Malkovich. But you know, Tim Robbins, James Gandolfini—I just have to sit back sometimes and say “Really? I got to work with him?” I’m lucky. Very, very lucky. Anyways, I just love a good archaeological dig in terms of how things came to be the way they are. I can’t bear reality shows—that’s an oxymoron—but how did we get here? And I love the fact that HBO is interested in the first domino, the first virgin thrown into the volcano. I mean, Margaret Mead said it was a new form of cultural examination, as important as the novel, and that’s fine, well, and good. I think the show, An American Family, had noble intentions in some passable fashion, the producer and PBS. Everybody had their sociological—everyone wanted to put their flag on the moon and do this, but they had no idea what they were getting into, and the Louds were completely vilified. You know, if you bleed in the piranha tank, people are going to want to see what happens.
There was no way to process that information. America couldn’t handle the truth. They didn’t like what they saw. They’d been weaned on The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch, and they preferred that, and it’s just very interesting. I read Pat Loud’s book and loved it, and what came of it all in terms of Lance Loud being the first person who was undeniably enjoying the fact that he was gay on national television, becoming an icon for that demographic and their families. He wasn’t doing anything for the camera—he was that way anyway. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true of reality stars any longer. I would call it “cinema naïveté” instead of “cinema vérité,” because there was no way to believe that they would be so vilified. People don’t know how to separate—you know how people write in, “How could you kiss so-and-so in the hallway?” to soap-opera actors, because they don’t understand that they were acting as characters? It was the same for America, watching these people. “How could you have the awkward moments of silence? Don’t you want to raise your children differently than this?”
AVC: Do you get letters like that? “How could you cheat on your husband in Unfaithful, how dare you?”
DL: I don’t really know, honestly, because I’m not a reliable reader of all that mail.