Diane Lane submitted to my Secretariat Q & A for SAG members Friday night. The 45-year-old actress, who launched her career opposite Laurence Olivier in A Little Romance at age 13, may be coming from behind right now in the Oscar race for best actress. But she’s one of those popular folks that her peers grew up with; they know the history of her Playboy centerfold mother and acting coach father (John Cassavetes stole Gena Rowlands from him) and they like this uplifting feminist true story; and she’s in the nominated-but-never-won club.
AT: Was it intimidating to meet the your character, Secretariat owner Penny Chenery?
DL: She’s such a great woman, and she crackles with wisdom and wit and humility and suffers no fools and I don’t know where she is up there –in her upper eighties– but we should all be so blessed. She’s been through all the phases of motherhood and wifehood and business-woman. She’s a graduate of Columbia Business School—people like to forget that– and I took a great page from her book, as they say. She didn’t become defensive with the media when she was so bated, through this era of women’s lib, just one housewife brought up the ire of so many. Anyway, her marriage did not survive this episode.
AT: Did you relate to the feminism of this, in terms of how you came up in the industry?
DL: Well it’s a funny conundrum because I remember all the jokes about ‘you have to be twice as everything to get the equal amount of something,’ and that may or may not be true, but growing up in that era I recall the tension of the changing mores of Roe vs. Wade and birth control. When I did that film A Walk on The Moon, I very much visited 1969 and what it was to have a mother who lived a different experience of being a woman and is raising a daughter with a whole different rule book. So Penny embodied that as well. And it takes a lot of grace to walk that tightrope of existing in both worlds simultaneously and representing both. And I’ve said this in the media about this film and about my relationship to Penny and how I looked up to her so much: We’re both Daddy’s girls. And we both wanted to make good on the family business, and shouldered it. I’ve also said, my father raised a son disguised as a woman, because he did. He made me tough and he used to say, ‘I want you to be tough enough so that nobody is going to hoodwink you, or pull the wool over your eyes and that you can handle the role with it’ and Penny had that moxie too and would be able to have that kind of grace under pressure.
AT: Did you soften her at all for the sake of the story to make her likable and not too tough? How did you deal with that balance?
DL: It’s a great, subtle question and very very tricky question. The screenplay is the screenplay, and that is the task– to bring that to life. Penny has verbalized very succinctly that this is a Disney film, and no more need be said by her. Because this is not her book of her life that this story came from. There was this fantastic blog that occurred awhile back: John Tweedy, her son, spoke on it, and he expressed his gratitude that the film handled a really messy family era that was very personal for them, and they were thrust into the media spotlight at an incredibly awkward age for the children (teenagers), etcetera, with the difficulty, all the challenges of staying married with the troubles they were having. So it does address these issues, at the same time it doesn’t get pulled down the rabbit hole and make them the issue. And again, the backdrop of Watergate and Vietnam–that was all interesting to bring up or not bring up and how much, and to determine how significant is all of that? I think that this is a rather timeless story and the backdrop is not critical but worth mentioning.
AT: She was this interesting combination of feminine and masculine, of business-woman and housewife. And so you are embodying all these different things. She’s ladylike in the way she dresses, and all of that, so it wasn’t simple.
DL: No, it wasn’t. I have to thank Julie Weiss for doing an amazing job with the costumes that my character wore because I brought it to her and asked her to single-handedly really capture Penny. We think of the ’60s and ’70s in terms of the rabblerousers and those ‘up with the people.’ You can’t have the disestablishment without the establishment. So Penny was really caught in the cross-hairs of her time and her qualities that are considered masculine are, I say, universal qualities of strength and courage. I mean, what do they say, courage is fear that’s said its prayers. So I admire her, I really do.
AT: So this is another movie about someone realizing their potential. Now, you grew up in New York City. Did you have a relationship with horses?
DL: My relationship with horses was and is Western style. The English saddle always seemed to me – I’m sorry, I got to say it – snooty. You know, it just always seemed the people who had the money had English saddles, and you know, I went the other way. I grew up watching Westerns and to be in a Western was the end all because you get to hang out with horses.
AT: Lonesome Dove!
DL: That’s true, but and I grew up with Burt Lancaster in 1979 also, with Cattle Annie and Little Britches, which was Scott Glenn, I don’t know if it was his first picture but it was early days for Scott Glenn, when I was fourteen. We have memories, so to go back and work with him again on this was very touching, and he’d met my father. It was heartfelt for us because I had lived that scene with my father a few years before filming it, and not to belabor it, but it was really one take print and moving on, because it was very real and if you’ve lived it, you know, it’s like when you’ve had a baby, you pretty much get it in one take. It’s cheating, but it’s life experience.
I’ve always had a thing for horses: Pegasus, you know, child archetypal imagery that’s conjured up everything that horses still bring up for me, I just think that they have an innate communion with people. I don’t understand it, I just need to enjoy it and marvel at it and appreciate it. People and horses are very similar, you’ve got smart ones, fast ones, funny ones, dumb ones, lazy ones, ones who want to show off—everything under the sun. And I will never hop on a horse, willingly, without spending a little more time getting to know what’s under the hood or the saddle, or under the noggin, because there’s somebody there, you know. Having worked with–how many Secretariats did we have on set? I heard we had five. I really only got to know three.
AT: So you were communing with these horses, you were looking in their eyes, washing them, getting close. Were you frightened?
DL: I was frightened. I mean, they’re 1200 lbs of right. Customer’s right and that co-star is right, because, you know, he could be frightened of anything, and decide that he wants to go left, and that’s the end. Call up the insurance company and that’s the end of the film. It’s funny now because we’ve made it through, and I know that everybody involved, Dean Semler, our brilliant cinematographer, and of course Randall Wallace, our amazing director, they’d have safety meetings everyday, and the priority was that everybody come away from this unscathed with all of this horsepower. They had to film the races daily in increments because you can only ask a horse to perform at its maximum capacity for very brief moments without exhausting it or hurting the animal. But they love to run. I’ll tell you one quick little story. One horse did blossom into professional racing again! Got so jazzed by this experience that he’s winning races!
AT: So John Malkovich ran with the ball, was that fun or also frightening?
DL: You know when he throws that golf set? I’m glad I wasn’t standing around for that. That was take one print, move on. I think he just felt like doing it and he did it. I’m glad the camera was rolling because – that was just him!
AT: So this is the kind of movie that you don’t get to do everyday. They don’t make them anymore. What types of script are you getting now? Romances?
DL: I remember the first time I played a mother on screen: I played Robin Williams’ mother, and that was such a leap, no gentle entry, it was just ‘that’s my son, let’s fake some acting, OK’ – and you run with it, but it’s been mother roles [that she’s being offered], and I find that mothers are amazing. I don’t know that you meet a woman and you say, ‘Now that person is a natural mom’ – do you know what I mean? A mother is a woman who didn’t used to me a mom, so there’s this extra layer of responsibility, accountability – it’s a task, it’s a real character forming – I mean, you grow a spine as a mom that you didn’t even know you needed, because you have to be a role model for somebody who’s going to point out every flaw you’ve got.
AT: Do you get offered enough good roles?
DL: Well I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me. I don’t feel a single atom of complaint or neglect. I’m very grateful. I don’t feel a dearth or a lack. I look around and I see my peers and it seems to me like we’re all doing really well. Everybody seems to be on top of their game. I think being mid-forties is OK. I was worried there for a minute in my twenties, that they weren’t going to let me stay working…so I’m glad for all of us.
Q: For us in Kentucky, this is a story we’ve been waiting to have told for a long time. How long did you film in Kentucky and what was your experience like?
DL: I was just in Kentucky promoting, and it was really a gas to hand the film to them because they just wanted it, you know, they wanted this movie, forever, and I’m so grateful that Penny is alive and part of it because it was fated to become a film. I’ve made jokes saying that if Disney had to have written it, they would have, but the fact that its a true story is just an extra dose of brilliance. And the whole state takes it personally and I love that too. We were in Lexington and we were in Louisville. I remember watching Penny having a conversation with the mayor when we were at the Kentucky Derby, I’d never been to a Derby until this year and we were the grand marshals, and I just: ‘I don’t believe this, I can never top this.’ I was amazed. I keep having to pinch myself at the Kentucky Derby, it really is everything you’d hope it to be: A slice of Americana, everybody’s lining the streets, they don’t know who I am and they don’t care, they’re just so happy to be there, they love it, and they’re figuring it out as they talk, “she’s…(whisper, whisper, whisper),” …and then there’s the real Penny Chenery, which is like going to Tennessee with Elvis.
Q: What assistance did Randall Wallace give you? There’s a non-verbal scene you had with the horse – did that have dialogue originally or was it scripted that way?
DL: Randall is an amazing man. He is a songwriter, he is a novelist, he wrote Braveheart, which is an iconic-proportion ideal screenplay. He’s a Southern gentleman, he went to Duke, he’s proud and he’s humble, he’s well-spoken and he has that rapier wit, he just gets in there and he likes to tell a story, so take your time, don’t rush it, because it’s going to be worth it, and he’s got a heart that’s – you know, he cries easy. And my Dad is like that, and I love that about both of those guys. I’ve always had a daddy-thing with all of my directors, which serves me very well, I like to make them proud of me and pleased with me, you know, they put wind in my sails, they believe in me, and that’s just – well, why fix it, it’s not broken? It works for me. So he had cast that spell on me, where I wanted to please him, selfishly, you know, to answer that question on a personal level. But he had specific things to give me, at different times. There was a scene where Penny is gently trying to break it to her husband that this is just beginning, that she wants to see the horse run, and her daughter is sneaking up and hearing part of the conversation, and the dialogue is really quite loaded, she’s going “Um, I gave up a career to have a family.” So this was a heavily weighted, dynamic situation and I was very curious how it was going to be handled. When I was doing that scene, Randy was displeased with my choices, he finally came over and said: “You’re just cold. You’re cold. Be warmer.” And I was like, ‘well, I can handle that.’ I like a straight shooter director. Fast and funny, like Howard Hawks. But he was right: I had an agenda, I was looking at it through modern eyes. I was a little bitchy about it. And I didn’t even know it. And I had to step back, snap back and be like no, no, no, no. So that was very helpful, I remember that. Of course we always remember the moments of chagrin. He would often say, he would talk about Al Pacino from The Godfather, I said OK…I’m not going to question this at all – it gives me a goal, and it’s good to have goals in life, aim high, you know?
AT: What did he mean though?
DL: He meant that I seem knowing, and willingness to be – you know, just the balls that it takes to be right when nobody believes in you, in a word.
AT: And the scene with the horse?
DL: Oh, yes. There was dialogue in that scene, and thank Jesus, personally, that they edited it out because I didn’t think it needed it, and I am glad they filmed it, because they had all the options in the editing room, and that’s always good. I say, film everything. Figure it out later. I don’t have Buddha on my altar, I have an editor.
Q: Is there any coaching that your father gave you that you consistently use in your work?
DL: I’ve said it before and I think it’s come down to this, very often, about being a team player, being a company man, never being on the side of the scales that is negative, frankly, versus positive. In the team sport of being on a film set, or in a theatre company, but you really feel it on a film set, because there is a lot of idle time, and that’s the devil’s workshop for sure. Or you can learn an instrument and be really constructive like my husband. So, to always be helpful, and kind. It’s not rocket science, but it will get you really far in doing a good job and serving the greater good of what is needed that day, and often it has to do with morale – just helping people out with morale. It may sound really basic, but it’s tremendous how peoples’ reputations are founded on that over time.
AT: I agree with that 100%.
Q: The real Penny was in the stands at the Belmont. Was she there on set a lot?
DL: Penny did come to visit us on set, not often, but when she did it was so surreal. It was like the fourth dimension of surreal. She and I would look at each other, and it was like, ‘oh don’t go there,’ and her kids came and they looked at me and they were having flashbacks. It was great, but it was also really odd. And we were just savoring it. I am old enough now to know how to do that. The suggestion was, ‘hey, why don’t we put her in some wardrobe and scoot her in a little closer, she’s here anyway!’ And she certainly seemed game and into it, so that’s how we got that great shot. I’m so grateful that the editors figured out how to do that. It was an extra slice of pie for the audience.
Q: I wasn’t surprised to hear that they divorced, because, however he did it, you got a sense of it from the movie.
DL: I think it had to be there enough to be noticed but not enough to be noticeable. One thing that Penny did say when she saw the film was that she forgot how lonely she was. You see, she was a woman and she was considered an outsider by the very insider group that she was trying to be a part of. She was quite shunned, and didn’t really belong, and people thought either she was to the manor born, because they saw her with her daddy, or that she didn’t know what she was doing or being there because of her gender. They always found a way to make it work against her, never for her, until she won. So when she was with her dear friends who knew her back in the day, the pat on the back that she got for her sufferings of having missed the kids, being vilified for this at home and abroad and all of it, I think that mammalian comfort of someone patting you on the back and understanding your journey was what they saw, because they were in cahoots and comrades and underdogs until the minute they weren’t.