Diane Lane Is a Lane Changer

A producer of the new documentary "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide" asked Diane Lane to help expose the abuse of women in Somaliland, she leapt at the chance. Here, the Oscar-nominated actress talks about what she learned, the newly empty nest she shares with husband Josh Brolin and the difficult childhood that led to her extraordinary career

by Margot Dougherty
diane lane image
Photograph: Peggy Sirota

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide executive producer Jamie Gordon initially approached Lane partly because she knew of her involvement with Heifer International, a charity that donates livestock to the desperately poor. “Four years ago,” Lane says, “I went online and signed up with my [teenage] daughter to go on one of their trips, to Rwanda. No camera crews, no celebrity do-gooder thing. We just wanted to witness their work.”

The experience primed her for the Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide project, for which Lane spent 10 days in Somaliland, in bare-bones conditions. “Diane’s not a diva,” reports director and executive producer Maro Chermayeff, who accompanied her. “She’s thoughtful, an observer, but she didn’t want boundaries. She was physically warm with people and didn’t care about the camera or worry about how she looked.”

There’s a resilience about Lane that’s palpable, a sense that her beauty is something of a feint, an exquisite shield concealing a determined soul. As she talks, she tosses her hair back like a teenager, but her low-register voice is commanding. “She chooses her words with great care,” says Laura Dern, a friend since the two starred as punk rockers in 1981’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. “Diane considers what she’s expressing and takes incredible personal responsibility.”

Onscreen she dares us to accept her characters at face value: In Unfaithful and A Walk on the Moon, she’s the picture of propriety while secretly immersed in torrid affairs. As Pat Loud in Cinema Verite—the HBO movie based on the 1973 PBS series An American Family—she’s an affluent Santa Barbara mom with enigmatic motives. “Diane’s elegant,” says James Gandolfini, who costarred. “She’s beautiful and refined and a smart, smart lady.” But check her out hammering on the storm shutters at the beach house in Nights in Rodanthe. The woman is profoundly capable.

“I have learned a lot from my characters,” says Lane. “They’ve made me more accepting of my own . . . the dreaded word: vulnerabilities. You must be vulnerable emotionally for the audience to care and feel for you. I’m much more the tough cookie. When I was younger, I didn’t want to explore that. I was more interested in protecting myself. I’m grateful that with time I’m accepting my own true heart and the tenderness more. Things don’t last forever, so you take care of them. I learn from working.”

She’s been at it for a long time. Her father, Burt Lane, was an acting coach and sometime cabdriver for whom the craft of acting was, she says, a religion. At age six, she performed with New York’s experimental theater company La MaMa, playing a role in Euripides’s Medea (she learned her Greek lines phonetically); later on, she toured in other ancient tragedies. “I got killed in every play,” she wryly notes. But she saw the world, performing in the ruins of Athens, Persepolis and Baalbek, and traveling to Italy, Germany, France, Scotland and Finland.

When A Little Romance began filming in Paris, Lane was 13 and had already been to the city five times: “I’d performed at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. I knew La Rochelle and areas of France. People thought that was precocious. I realized I shouldn’t talk about it.”

At school in the U.S., her acting was “very much a stigma,” she says. “Isn’t that weird? But kids can be mean with whatever you offer them.” Her parents had split when she was a newborn, and when Lane wasn’t living with her father in a series of Manhattan residential hotels, she was in the South with her mother, Colleen Farrington, a former nightclub singer and Playboy centerfold from Georgia.

Lane’s ambivalence about her career fueled a rocky relationship with her dad. “You’d have made me an actress if I had two heads!” she recalls shouting when she was 12, before throwing a chair to drive the point home.

First Published August 28, 2012

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