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Interview: Diane Lane Talks Career and Paris Can Wait

The actress is quick to laugh, yet thoughtful in her almost free-associative answers.

Interview: Diane Lane Talks Career and Paris Can Wait
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

After he acted with Diane Lane in her first film, 1979’s A Little Romance, Laurence Olivier called the then-14-year-old “the new Grace Kelly.” The description still feels apt. Like Kelly, Lane comes off as simultaneously hot and cool, her honey-smooth voice and air of classy self-possession paired with a mischievous sense of fun and unselfconscious sexuality. But fortunately for Lane, as she discussed in our recent conversation, she came along at a much better time for women than Kelly did, a time when Hollywood and the world at large were less prone to stereotyping women.

Lane has played everything from tough to tender in a wide roles ranging from a preternaturally self-reliant teen in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish to an inchoately frustrated young housewife in Tony Goldwyn’s A Walk on the Moon to early reality television star Pat Loud, who embodied so many of the changes that rocked middle- and upper-middle-class America in the ’70s, in Cinema Verite. For all their differences, her characters share a sense of integrity and a watchful intelligence that point to complicated inner lives.

Her latest feature, Paris Can Wait, is a spiritual midlife journey written and directed by Eleanor Coppola, Francis’s wife, that’s packaged as a will-they-or-won’t-they romance. Lane’s Anne, the wife of a prominent director, is happily married and living a more than comfortable life, but her creativity and engagement with the world has been channeled almost exclusively into supporting her husband and daughter—until they are reawakened on a road trip with Jacques (Arnaud Viard), a friend and colleague of her husband’s.

Lane was back in her hometown of New York last week to promote Paris Can Wait, which she describes as a “middle-life check-in.” Quick to laugh, yet thoughtful in her almost free-associative answers, she seemed unguarded and comfortable in her own skin throughout our interview.

What time did you start these interviews this morning?

They came to my room at 7:30. Girl hours. Backwards in heels. [laughs] And then they have the nerve to criticize how you look! [laughs] You do it!

Exactly! When you quit acting in films for a while in 2008, you said you weren’t coming back at all if you didn’t start seeing better roles for women.

Oh sure. Eighteen months felt like a long time when I was in my 20s. Now it feels like—a couple of hours. Time does morph as it goes forward.

But do you think things getting somewhat better for women in Hollywood?

I think the culture wants to be represented. I think that’s what’s going on, rather than some minority being a squeaky wheel that needs grease. You see what I’m saying? We’re 52 percent [of the population]. I just was a juror at the Tribeca Film Fest for the Nora Ephron award, which was fascinating. I’d never been on a jury before. It gave me a frame of reference for this film, because it would have qualified: female director, female screenwriter. That’s Nora’s legacy, and she set the bar high. She grossed a lot of millions of dollars! She was very successful. So, be successful. That’s the punchline. Because it’s show business. Its not show love, show friends, show respect, show fair. We are a capitalist contribution to the globe.

But even being successful at the box office isn’t always enough. There have been films by and about women that have done well but then have been treated like one-offs.

I think looking forward is the key, keeping your eyes forward and focusing on what’s right, what’s improving, rather than looking back. I mean, it’s good to take stock once in a while of the improvements, but I don’t like living in the past, that’s for sure. I’ve enjoyed—I guess mostly in westerns—playing women from other centuries, because we’ve come a long way. [laughs] You know, we’re not chattel; we can own land; we can keep our name; we can vote; we can have our kids inherit things from us.

One traditional trajectory for an actress has been to do love stories when you’re young and then other things as you get older, but you seem to have done the opposite. You did all kinds of roles when you were young, but you didn’t really do romances until your late 30s and 40s, and here you are making another one. Do you think this is another sign of things getting better? Is Hollywood finally ready to let grown women have romantic and sexual lives on screen?

I think that the female perspective and the female experience is invariably expanding, and that’s being reflected back to us in the media that we pay to enjoy. I’m very grateful for television, that there’s such diversity of roles available for women to relate to and feel spoken to, in terms of experiences that they’d never seen reflected back before. You see it on screen and you feel the thing: I have felt that. Thank goodness someone is interested in seeing that thing, or hearing what this quagmire or this conflict is. I think we’re out of the box. It’s an interesting time because I’m not 14. I’m not marketing my youth. I have other things to offer. And my peace of mind and my value have increased tremendously, simultaneously, as I have released that craving for that particular—what do you call it when they appreciate you?

Affirmation?

Yeah, that particular affirmation of being judged on your appearance. You’re more realistic about what’s doable, and choosing how to use your energy more wisely.

Francis Ford Coppola gave you two of the early roles that helped get people to take you seriously as an actor, in Rumble Fish and The Outsiders, and he cast you in two other movies after that. What’s your relationship like with the Coppola family?

We didn’t socialize. But I remember Sofia when she was eight years old, playing my sister in Rumble Fish. And I was close enough to experience the loss when [Francis and Eleanor’s son] Gio passed away, tragically and violently, when I was about 20 years old. It was shocking to think: How are they going to pull together after such a loss? It’s dealt with in our film, a bit, when [Anne] talks about losing her son. We discover things about these characters. Nobody is spared grief in life.

Did you feel like you were playing Eleanor Coppola in this film?

No, I definitely felt like I was playing a character. It wasn’t an autobiographical thing. There was so much hyperbole, and so many twists and turns that she gave to the story to make it more suspenseful or impactful or layered. How do you get that story to become something that people can understand when it’s something that’s just going on between your ears, in your inner life? How do you bring it to the screen? That was quite a challenge. I thought she did a great job with both the delight and the awkwardness of being exposed to this existential line of questioning [laughs] that this man seems to have purchased the right to ask, with his free meals—and then she winds up paying. Wait a minute! Is there a fast one being pulled? You kind of don’t know. Also, they’re not strangers. They’re not starting up a relationship. This isn’t the blooming of a romance or the death of a marriage. This is a middle-life check-in. Which we need. We need to be reminded of our options, and I think we need to be reminded of what to be grateful for.

Your dad was an acting coach. Did he ever give you a piece of advice about acting that stuck?

Essentially, he wanted me to be a company man, which means—from his Mad Men era, I think it was about the work ethic, about being supportive.

Supporting the piece rather than your own ego?

Yeah. And mutiny isn’t serving the greatest good, whatever the goal is. If you see room for improvement, is it necessarily my place to do that? At this point, maybe people would appreciate hearing from me. When you’re a young person, it’s best to just play the part of a young person. Even if you know some stuff that maybe people could benefit from, they don’t want to hear it from you. [laughs] That’s a lesson that I’m glad I learned as early as I did.

That sounds like advice you needed as a young person. Is there anything else that he taught you, or that you just learned from watching him work, that has helped you later in your career?

He loved to tell the story of where I outgrew him. I said, “Dad, I love you very much, but what you are trying to protect me from or prepare me for, I’m already navigating much more than that on a daily basis.” But he’s done well, because I’m open to learning, and that’s key, I think. I love the beginner’s mind. It’s that whole apologist thing of [waving her hands as if to say “wait”]: “Learning!” [laughs]

Does acting now feel different than acting as a kid?

Oh, yeah. It’s very different. There’s a level of trust…

In yourself?

Yeah. I’m just very familiar with the equipment. [laughs] I can’t trade for another hand inside the puppet. It’s still going to be me in there. I can only morph so much in terms of my appearance. Am I going to bedazzle somebody with my accent or in terms of my appearance being changed dramatically? I’m not really sure if that’s the goal. I’m really not sure what the goal is, honestly. It’s about committing to telling the story the best way I can. Am I ambitious to try to extend my grasp? I don’t know. Everybody wants to be something they can’t quite get to, right? Don’t we all have that desire to have some quality that we don’t have that somebody else was born with?

Your mother was a nightclub singer and a Playboy centerfold. Did you learn anything from her about how to be a beautiful woman—or maybe how not to be?

Well, it’s a cautionary tale, for sure, that generation. I mean, we’ve got to learn from the women who went before us, right? So my mother is there, very easily positioned to learn from. [laughs] There’s a photograph that’s kind of funny of me and my mom and Hugh Hefner. We’re at the Playboy Mansion. I must have been about 14, 15. I’m making one of these faces like, “Can you believe this photograph is being taken?” and Hugh’s eyes are closed. He’s kind of in a blurred moment. And my mother just has this pissed-off smile.

What was she mad about?

Just the whole thing. She’s just pissed off about it. If she had it to do over, I wonder. I don’t think she would have allowed her beauty to be captured in the manner in which it was. But I also think that it’s really cool, historically, that women did that. There was an era where it was like Betty Boop. I mean, it wasn’t even nipples. It was just cheesecake, and it’s kind of fabulous that it was allowed to happen. I just don’t know. I’m very grateful that my mother was pretty and she made me pretty. [laughs] Thank you, Mom. I give you all the credit. That’s why I’m working, and I know it. And that’s okay. I’ll just walk through the open doors and be grateful to her. I’m sort of living her dream. She’s the one that wanted to be an actress.

You were cast as Hillary Clinton for a 2013 miniseries that never got made. Did you work on that enough to tap into the secret of how to play her?

No. I like to think I would have gotten there, in terms of bringing something unapologetic to the screen as a portrayal, not betrayal. It became such a slippery slope of presentation and the fact that she was going to run. I think that nobody wanted to tip the scales in one direction or another. You don’t ever want to feel like you altered the experiment that we call democracy.

Unless you’re James Comey.

Unless! Yeah. It’s a funny time, isn’t it?

Is that why it didn’t get made? Was there a hue and cry from people who didn’t want it to affect the outcome of the election?

No, I don’t think so. I think people were very interested [in seeing it]. I don’t understand the sequence of events. I just know that it didn’t come together in time. We really wanted to be completely clear of any presidential bid, and I don’t think we could have made that window. So we just backed off.

Elise Nakhnikian

Elise Nakhnikian has written for Brooklyn Magazine and runs the blog Girls Can Play. She resides in Manhattan with her husband.

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