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Diane Lane is not entirely at ease being a movie

Diane Lane is not entirely at ease being a movie star. A versatile, under-the-radar actor, yes—but a celebrity? She's still working on that. "I'm trying to get comfortable with the idea of expectation, I'm trying to get comfortable with the idea of some form of accountability to the success of a movie, and I'm trying to be comfortable with being anything other than the underdog and the discount actress, you know?" she says, laughing. "Because for years, it was, like, 'Well here's our list, and if we don't get anybody on our list, we can get Diane and save some money, too.'"

Those days are long gone. Though Lane has been making movies for the past 26 years, most would agree she began her ascent to the A-list with her earthy turn as a young, 1960s-era housewife in 1999's A Walk on the Moon and landed firmly there with her Oscar-nominated tour de force in 2002's Unfaithful. "I still try to follow my heart and listen to an inner voice about what roles to say yes to, especially when there [are] paychecks floating around that certainly are tempting," she says. "But you sort of have to stick to your inner guidance, which is tricky, and I'm not saying it's always about integrity; sometimes it's about location, and family, and just saying, 'Look, I cannot leave my family for that long.' It was one thing to have a second-grader and take her with me to New York and change schools for six months—that was fun. [But] when you're 12 years old, you don't want to leave your friends for six months. I don't want [a] Mommie Dearest book written about me."

For all the success she's had in the last few years, Lane seems to have remained grounded. She speaks eloquently and passionately about the twists and turns she's navigated in the business, but she's not prone to affected, celebrity-style artifice. When asked how she's doing today, for instance, Lane doesn't immediately plaster on a chipper game face and perkily declare she's "great," or even just "fine." Instead she laughs a little—somewhat wearily, given that she's been doing press for her latest film all day—and delivers a refreshingly honest answer. "I don't know yet," she says. "I'll let you know."

It's this air of authenticity that makes her an easy-to-relate-to onscreen presence. Whether she's playing a grieving widow (Indian Summer), a flinty survivor (The Perfect Storm), or mother to an overgrown Robin Williams (Jack), Lane has grounded even the most bizarre situations with her emotionally real performances. Her charisma sneaks up on us, and it makes itself known in surprisingly subtle ways: a brilliant smile here, a heartbreaking line delivery there.

Her most recent role is no exception. In the genial romantic comedy Must Love Dogs, she plays Sarah, a preschool teacher and recent divorcée who finds herself thrown back into the world of dating after her well-meaning sister (Elizabeth Perkins) posts her personal ad online. Naturally one of the suitors (John Cusack) stands out from the rest. It's a formula we've seen before, but it works thanks to Lane's relaxed likeability and her gentle chemistry with Cusack. So many standard rom-com heroines resort to cutesy tics: forced daffiness, giggly pratfalls, or over-the-top neuroses that we're supposed to instantly relate to. Lane, however, offers something a little different: She plays Sarah's troubles and triumphs in a way that is rooted in reality. A funny, trailer-made scene in which she berates a butcher, for example, comes off as a genuine expression of frustration rather than as an actor trying desperately to convey "zany."

"It Ain't About Me"

Lane seems like a natural fit for a romantic comedy, but she says the film was a bit of a challenge. "Drama is something that I'm more familiar with, and Gary [David Goldberg], our wonderful director, said to me, 'This may be the toughest job you ever do, this may be the easiest job you ever do; maybe you'll never want to do a job like this again,' because it was almost foreign to me in the beginning," she remembers. "He's very sure of what he wants, and I was completely dependent upon him to guide me, reassure me. It's not like it's a territory that I'm experienced at, so my hat's off to him: He got a good performance out of me. I gained my stride as I went along, and fortunately you can't see the seams of my discomfort. And maybe it served the character anyway. Maybe that was a bit of cheat: to be unsure of myself. Sometimes that serves [you] very well."

Some will be quick to point out that her recent role, as a newly divorced writer in Under the Tuscan Sun, was also in the romantic-comedy vein. But the feel of that film—and the way Lane approached her performance—was different. "Under the Tuscan Sun was definitely similar; however, I would say that the comedy was not in the scenes, so much as the comedy was in the voiceover and reflection…. What [the character] was actually going through was a lot of uncomfortable circumstances," she says. "[Writer-director] Audrey [Wells] was describing to me that it was funny, and I'm saying, 'Well, when is it funny? When I fall off the ladder? Is that slapstick, are we gonna have a stunt double; how is that going to work?' And then I realized, 'Oh, it's because hindsight [is] 20/20, and we laugh at our mistakes because we're healed of our pain. And that's what makes the levity come into play.' [Must Love Dogs] was direct-hit; we're aiming for humor right there in the scene, and the rule of thumb that I've always heard is, 'Never go for a laugh.' This was the exception to the rule, you know?"

She has a higher profile these days, but, as she's quick to point out, she has always been a working actor. "I was very blessed always to find work; even when people thought I wasn't working, I was," she says, laughing. "It's just that people weren't seeing [the films]. And I became very comfortable with being in movies that people never saw."

Born in New York City, Lane took to the stage at age 6, in theatre director Andrei Serban's version of Medea. She appeared in productions of Electra, The Trojan Women, As You Like It, The Cherry Orchard, and Runaways. At 13 she was cast in her first film, A Little Romance, opposite Sir Laurence Olivier. She then starred in the coming-of-age classics Rumble Fish and The Outsiders. She somehow managed to escape the fate of many child stars, staying grounded even when her face graced the cover of Time magazine for an article titled "Hollywood's Whiz Kids."

"I was, I think, extremely lucky, because the minute I saw my face plastered on Time magazine in the subway with my mother, I just said, 'Wow,'" Lane remembers. "And it made Time magazine come down to life-size scale. It just made it seem like anybody could be [on] the cover of Time, if I was. It just was, like, 'Well, that wasn't so hard, was it?'"

This, she says, gave her early insight into the industry's star-making machine. "I learned that these things are created," she says. "Very rarely are they earned. The movie that the cover of Time was for [A Little Romance] wasn't released yet. It was a promotional moment…. They were choosing which girl was going to be on the cover out of a slew of girls that [were in an article about] the anomaly of how many young people [were] in film [then]…. And because my project hadn't come out yet, the movie I was in, that's the one they chose. And, hello, I believe the gentleman that was hired by Orion Pictures to be the head of publicity used to work in the Carter administration or something and had big connections at Time-Life. So you see, even at 14, I said, 'Oh, I see how this works. It ain't about me.' It's not about merit, it's not about fair, it's not about earning. It's about luck and the powers-that-be wanting to feed themselves, and if you happen to be standing in the right spot, lightning will strike you. Much later, it can be about merit. I was really fortunate that I was not in 'successful movies' when I was younger, because whatever's given, there's an undertow that wants to take it away. Fortunately I think I have enough foundation of work where I will hopefully always be allowed to continue working; it's not gonna be about being popular—because I worked even though I wasn't [popular] for a long time."

Dog Years

There are periods in her career during which Lane wasn't as in-demand as she is now. There's a common perception, for example, that she took several years off in the '80s. "It seemed that way," she says. "I took a year off, which is like dog years for an actor—it's, like, four in any other line of work. And as you know, this line of work is such that if you step off the conveyor belt, it keeps moving, and you've lost your spot in line, which sounds really kind of awful in a certain way, but it's the nature of the beast…. I remember there were all these interviews I gave for the mandatory promotion for the project I did after taking a year off, and they kept saying 'comeback,' which…when did I go away?"

Her year off came after completing work in Walter Hill's rock 'n' roll fantasy Streets of Fire and Francis Ford Coppola's high-profile box office bomb The Cotton Club, both released in 1984. "I graduated [from] high school, and I moved to California," she remembers. "Then there was an earthquake, and I said, 'I can't do this,' and I got a U-Haul, and I moved to Georgia." She moved in next door to her mom, settled in—though it was a different vibe from Manhattan, where she'd grown up—and worked on her house. But then, she says, "I started to miss work."

Lane returned to moviemaking with a pair of 1987 films: The Big Town, with Matt Dillon, and the erotic thriller Lady Beware. She remembers the pressure to star in a studio movie to "make up" for the fact that she made Lady Beware, a small, low-profile film. "I remember in those days—and it sounds like I'm Methuselah or somebody—but I remember my agent saying, 'You can't be in a…' I don't think the word was even 'independent' yet; there was another word for it. It wasn't a B-movie, but, you know, a nonstudio picture. It was, like, illegitimate in some way. And if you're going to make a movie like that, then you must make a studio picture, because you can't just float out there with [an independent film]. It was unheard of, really. I just remember that moment being so funny, like, I had to do this movie to make up for the fact that I'd done this other movie. Now, the Oscar winners are, 80 percent of the time, not necessarily a studio-generated project."

She has worked steadily over the years, taking roles in projects as diverse as sci-fi action film Judge Dredd, gentle family fable My Dog Skip, and sinister thriller The Glass House. But her star-making performance was as adulterous wife Connie Sumner in Unfaithful. In conflicted, happily married Connie, Lane created a vibrant, complex, sympathetic character. If we had to guess, we'd say the scene that landed her the Oscar nomination is the one in which Connie takes the subway after her first sexual encounter with her lover: Every emotion and detail of the character is etched into those few minutes of footage. Director Adrian Lyne notes on the film's DVD commentary track: "The way her face mirrors everything she's feeling, I almost didn't have to show…the love scene, because it's all written on her face—the guilt, the elation, the sadness, the happiness. Everything. It's just an extraordinary performance, I think," he says.

Lane noticed changes in her industry status after she received the Oscar nod. "I was afforded the opportunity to be the person who would make a movie become greenlit," she says. "So if I would say yes, the money would come into the project, the whole movie would be greenlit—that is something that just blows my mind, and it makes me very nervous and feel very accountable and very fortunate indeed. It's not a power trip." She elaborates, saying she feels the need to "be judicious and make decisions on the same basis" that got her to where she is, "and [not] suddenly become somebody else because I have a modicum of 'power.'"

"Float Like a Butterfly"

Though she's had many phases in her career and a wide variety of acting jobs, the actor isn't sure what her biggest challenge has been. "I don't know," she says, considering the question carefully. "I mean, there [are] different challenges all the time, whether it's the role itself; or missing home, because that's just part of the job; or the specter of ageism—expecting at any moment for the ax to drop and [someone to say], 'Okay, you're just not going to work now, because there are not so many roles for women over a certain age.' I don't know what's more challenging than another challenge, but those are all in there."

She ponders for a moment more. "And then, this process, too, is quite challenging," she says, indicating the interview and press junket, "the fine print in the contract of promoting the work. Because for me, I got in this because it's a fun, wacky, challenging adventure to become a family with a film crew, create a story on film, and then you're done. But then it has to come out, and there's this horrible process of becoming commercial, and that, for me, is something that I refuse to get too comfortable with. It's like the…what is that? There's a two-headed dragon, and you have to grow this other whole head that is pragmatic and analytical and objective. And it's, like, right brain–left brain."

Whatever challenges her career presents in the future, Lane takes the pragmatic view: She is still cautious about the weight of stardom and all that comes with it, but she's willing to roll with the punches. When asked if she has any regrets about her career, she thinks for a moment, then says, "Well, I would say whatever regrets I have, it's nice to stay standing. Essentially, my hero–role model is Muhammad Ali, because when I watched this one fight of his with my dad when I was a kid, and I watched him not go down…I think him just taking a lot of blows and not going down, it was so moving. And everyone wanted him to have it. There was a metaphor in that. I said, 'Well, if I just don't go down, if I just don't get disheartened by anything, if I don't judge myself too harshly by any one project, then I think I'll be fine.' And just one step in front of the other, you know?"

With that she flashes a dazzling smile, and it's like the moment that happens so often onscreen, when her charisma suddenly takes our breath away. In that moment—whether she's comfortable with it or not—she is every inch a movie star. BSW

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