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Diane Lane is best known for her decade-spanning film career—my personal favorites include Unfaithful, Under the Tuscan Sun, The Perfect Storm, and the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola cult-classic Rumble Fish. But what many people don’t know is that the bijou beauty’s métier began in the theater. Lane made her Broadway debut as a child in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (which starred a 28-year-old Meryl Streep), and this season she’s back as the play’s “poster girl,” the privileged but despairing Madame Ranevskaya. The new translation is written by Pulitzer Prize–nominated playwright Stephen Karam, and directed by U.K.-sensation Simon Godwin, and is showing at Broadway’s Roundabout Theater Company’s American Airlines Theatre until December 4. Lane spoke to me over the phone from her apartment before heading to the Midtown Manhattan theater for her day’s work. Here, a transcription of our conversation about the new production, what she’s learned from the stage, and the next big projects she has on the horizon.
You started acting at a very young age, correct?
I was in Medea at six, and turned seven by the time it got to the stage, which was off Broadway at La Mama Experimental Theater [in New York].
And how old were you when you were in your first Broadway production of The Cherry Orchard?
I was 12. Andrei Serban was the director, the same director as the Medea production. It was 1977, the year of the blackout. We were on stage during that, which was fun.
Did everybody go nuts?
Actually, I was backstage when it happened. You could hear the power grid of Manhattan shut down, it was incredible. There were purple runway lights that guided us to the exit route. But first we finished the show! With big lighters and flashlights. A lot of people stayed because they knew they were walking into absolute chaos out in the street.
What got you acting so young?
Well, I came from a challenged family unit, and my father was a teacher of acting, anyway. A decade before I was born, he had a theater workshop with John Cassavetes for many years, and they taught a lot of interesting, diverse groups of people—a lot of people who were famous already but from other industries.
The short answer is theater was better than daycare. Public school didn’t offer much in 1972. I had no siblings, and home life was a tad unstable, so it was fantastic, in hindsight, to be adopted into the family of theater. I didn’t understand how much of a community theater folk are; I thought it was just the people I knew. Everyone was so tolerant and patient and willing to invest in me. You’re more tender-hearted towards a child than you would be to an adult, and I had to be watched. We did world tours. I had to have somebody with me when we went to Italy, Germany, France, Scotland, Finland, Lebanon, Iran. We went everywhere. My parents weren’t with me, and I had these incredible life-sustaining adventures. I think I peaked at age ten! [Laughs] so, you know, by the time I did A Little Romance, I was searching.
Was that the film with Laurence Olivier?
Yes. I’m mentioning it because once I went into movies, I didn’t come back to the theater for many years. The next play I did was when I was 25 years old. That was Twelfth Night with Cherry Jones. We’ve been friends ever since. She is a formidable actress. I was her Viola, she was my Cesario. Theater connections are much more bonding than film connections. You have to have a very strong root system, a foundation, to accomplish what’s asked of you on stage in front of a live audience.
You were recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and you talked about how stressful it is to get up on stage night after night in front of 750 people. But I will say that you struck me as the most composed of all the actors when I saw The Cherry Orchard in previews—perhaps because you have a ton of experience. You seemed like you had it completely under control.
Well, yes, that’s 50 percent of my task. Madame Ranevskaya is a highly polished woman. Ranevskaya is a pearl; she’s been protected in her shell. She’s a different subspecies, if you will, of woman, because she’s been so sheltered and her world has been so controlled and contained, and money has protected her from things that are frightening, unsavory, and hostile.
How do you think viewers are meant to feel about your character? Since she basically represents a member of the 1 percent, should the 99 percent be celebrating her collapse? Do you find yourself sympathizing with her? Should we?
It’s a very astute question, and is a delicate line for me to walk and try to answer in print. But let’s make the 1 percent versus 99 percent portion a separate conversation.
This has to do with being composed on the stage, you know? I mean, Anton Chekhov does a brilliant job of not only mocking the rich, but mocking the very system by which we divide people: Meaning financial status. It’s a preposterous notion to value a person more because of their financial blessing, but we do it because money equals power. Power equals choices. That could be a good thing, but only if you choose wisely.
A lot of people don’t realize Chekhov was a doctor. He approaches humanity from the point of view of a healer, and in order to accomplish that, it takes great patience and a lot of listening and observing and time to think. It’s not that he was mocking the rich, it’s that he was mocking the human condition.
I felt the action in the play being pushed strongly forward, and by the intermission I was almost anxious. Is that something Simon Godwin [the director] is purposefully going for?
From the moment we meet these people we are walking into a state of grand denial. Every nervous tick manifests around the fact that they realize the building’s coming down on their entire livelihood. Every person in this play is caught in a centrifuge of this wealthy family’s existence. When it ceases to exist, they will lose their identity. Yepikhodov has to find another way. Well lucky for him, he found a capitalist that he can service. Varya has no place to go, so she’s going to be somebody’s housekeeper. Poor Charlotta, we don’t know where she’s gonna wind up. Maybe she’ll go back to Pischik and flirt with him some more.
But what we learn about everybody is that people want to settle in for what is comfortable and what works, and they don’t want change. But change is inevitable. Whether it’s coming from outer space, or the ground beneath our feet, or whether it’s coming from just aging. Life is complex, and people spend most of their time in denial about the luck they have to even be alive. I think Chekhov understood that from a physician’s point of view, and a philosopher’s point of view. He asks us to look deeper at ourselves, at the stories we’ve already lived, and how we’ve triumphed over adversity, and to garner strength within ourselves, and the play deals with that, too.
Ranevskaya is coming from a suicide attempt, she’s coming from the loss of her son, she’s coming from a lover humiliatingly betraying her and taking advantage of her financially. That would probably do it for me! And I don’t care how much money you throw at that problem. No money in the world is going to make a dent in that deep, howling empty space in your soul that you’re trying to fill when life has handed you such unfairness.
I heard you once say in an interview that you love how the art of acting allows you express your latest life epiphany: That those life experiences have an outlet. I would love to hear which life experience you’re putting into your role as Ranevskaya.
I mean, there’s none of it that’s not available. In order to accomplish this, I become truly open to feeling all of my own feelings. If you think about the list of human emotions, there’s probably only about four that are considered “thumbs up,” and there are probably forty-four that are considered “thumbs down.” I’m exaggerating, but most people are striving to avoid unpleasant sensations. That’s what often drives life forward. The rest of the time, if you’re lucky, you can pursue good sensations. I see myself as a very basic unit of humanity, and I try to allow as much to flow through me as possible rather than shutting out anything. Which is scary, and I only allow it when I’m working because otherwise I’d be overwhelmed and running amuck in my daily life. This play deals with loss and change, and I certainly have had my share of those. You can’t not have those and get to your fifties.
How do you feel it’s going for The Cherry Orchard? You said there were a lot of changes in previews?
You know, it’s funny. The first ten previews I spent crying and screaming my way through certain scenes, exhausting myself and most likely other people, too. It was such a tall mountain to climb that it got me from my arches in my feet all the way through my hair. I was just leaning into this thing, until finally I was feeling faint on stage, and I realized, You know, I’m leaning forward enough. I can start to back off a little bit now. But that’s just it: You don’t know how much is too much to invest until you’ve gotten to the red line, and you’re at diminishing returns.
But that was just my little experiment with my work and my character. My equipment. I don’t really remember anything anymore about the broad strokes of what the changes were. We had costume changes, we had blocking changes, everything affects the lighting then, of course, so we would rehearse, make changes, and then employ them that night. That’s what I meant by hair-raising. A little incremental change, that’s like saying, “I’ve got a little speed bump in the kitchen. It won’t affect you much while you’re roller skating and trying to serve people.” And you’re like, “Really? That’s what you think! You don’t want me to look down when I get to that speed bump. You want me to sail right over it and roller skate serving tea!” And that’s what it feels like.
So what do you do to keep yourself sane during this performance period? Do you have any rituals or observances?
I find a rhythm as much as I can, and then within that rhythm I have to make adjustments. Yoga is something that I crave and can always do with more of. It centers me. I come out of it feeling like I’ve had a massage and a workout. And I made sure that I found an apartment where I can see some sky. We are such indoor creatures in the theater. You start to feel like a subterranean species. We’re in the theater from 12 to 12 sometimes. I leave for the theater at noon, and I get there at 12:30, and I don’t emerge until almost 11 at night. I’m missing less in the colder weather than I was missing during the summer months, when you think, Oh, I’ll go to Jones Beach. Nope! I made it one time. I got on the train, walked to the water, got in it once, laid on the towel, and then got back on the train. Just to say that I did. I had to tell myself that I cared enough about my experience to take myself there.
I’ll try to go to some museum exhibits, and a bunch of my old friends are here, so that’s very comforting. And there are a few old blocks and buildings, three or four that I grew up in that are still intact. I walk by them, I walk by the high schools I went to. Central Park is so much nicer than it was when I grew up here. I wish I lived here just for Central Park.
On a Monday, you’re in triage. You’re like a marsupial looking for a pouch you can crawl into. Any corner will do to curl up in the fetal position. That’s why it’s a limited run. This is not for someone to do for a year straight.
I know you’ve recently worked on Justice League (2017). Do you have more projects on the horizon?
I’m on a film that I did with the director Eleanor Coppola last year called Paris Can Wait (2017), which Sony Classics just picked up. This is her debut as a director, writing her own material. And then I play Liam Neeson’s wife in the movie about Mark Felt called Felt (2017), which covers the Watergate scandal from his experience.
Can you tell me a little more about the grant you started for female educators? It’s dedicated to the memory of [writer, director, and composer] Elizabeth Swados, correct? And is it specifically given to music educators?
Yes. This year is the first one in terms of we’ve located a recipient. I am not part of the selection committee because that’s a little close to home. There are qualified people to vet and research people. The grant is specifically given to music educators of one sort or another. Elizabeth Swados was a very tender, fiery combination as a personality. And she was very demanding, but she was also a door-opener for people. There was no vanity in her. She was tough, but she was honest and she brought forth people’s courage where they might be lacking it. And young people need that. I wanted to encourage and reward people for doing that for young people, and women in particular. Music and arts in general are horrifically underfunded and undervalued. Teachers are as well. It’s a way to give support back and love back and give a little something to whatever their pet project is, too. Some thoughts enter your body from your head down, this one came right to my gut. I was shocked when I heard Liz had passed away. She was part of all the shows I did as a child, all the way through Runaways.
You once said she felt like a parental figure?
She was a sibling, she was a parent, she was an educator—she was somebody who judged people pretty severely. She chastised me in writing in the press! What can I say? I don’t hold it against her because I understand that she was not a perfect person. Nobody is. This is not saying that she’s a saint. This is saying that her effect when you look back is a beautiful thing. Maybe the delivery was a bit tricky or harsh. Sometimes medicine doesn’t taste good, but it does a great job. We can’t always be winning popularity contests when we’re around, but we can certainly be valued for our contributions once we are a finite entity in the past.