What do a wig nicknamed “Peaches,” a Jackie O-style wardrobe, and four-legged actors have in common with Diane Lane?
In Disney’s Secretariat, the Oscar-nominated actress gets up close and personal with it all in her role as Penny Chenery, whose horse, Secretariat, was and remains the only racehorse to win the Triple Crown since the 1970s.
The impossibly beautiful Lane, who has been my girl crush (and fave mom) since I first saw her in The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, sat down with me at the Trump Tower to talk about Penny, who she describes as a “dog that doesn’t bark but bites in the end.”
Do you see Penny as a role model?
Penny was quite a figure on the race track. She was sort of vilified a bit. The media certainly baited her with this attitude of ‘Who do you think you are, and what are you doing here,’ and I don’t know if it was her hairdo or what, but it told everybody that she was born to this industry of horsebreeding and was in it and around it.
It was her fahter’s business and she knew how to read the books and understood pretty much everybody’s job in that field. So like me on a film set, she would know what the weak link is and who the problem is, and who’s not doing their job.
When it’s your money and you’re financing this thing, I think you have the right to step up and point it out, and it was very refreshing to hear of a woman and be a woman and certainly portray a woman or live up to woman who was willing to not be movitaved out of that way women can be sometimes. She was very direct and trusted people to either understand or get out of the way because she had no time to fool around with this. She had a lot at stake.
She was more like the dog that doesn’t bark but bites in the end because she knew what she had. She knew what Secretariat was capable of.
How do you think she perceived the men in the movie? As much as they stereotyped her, do you think she might have done the same back?
I think that she was trusting up until you gave her a reason no to. She also knows what the standards are that are to be met, and if someone’s failing at their job she’s willing to point that out.
She gives somebody a chance to reveal who they are. Loyalty, family, and people who knew your father or knew your mother… there’s an inherent larger picture that those people understand about you, they understand that you’re motivated out of something bigger and larger than yourself. You’re actually trying to live up to something here. It’s not for glory or ego. The mission is understood rather than the exercise.
You were a little girl when Secreatariat raced. What was it like to play an adult woman from that era?
It was very fun for me because I remember that era and those women and how they dressed and how they carried themselves. My mother, too, and she’s more of the Jackie O. version, not the Jackie Kennedy version. There was the before and after.
I’m very humbled to be the generation that I am, because I’m riding on the back of all the women who came before me, and who endured less than equal status, so I have to remember that.
If I were there then and at that age then, with the options that there were then, how would I conduct myself?
With tht said, it was great fun to be wearing my mother’s clothes and I always wanted to be that lady at the cocktail party. Mothers used to bring their kids to adult parties then, because you’d just go sit at the children’s table, but I would look around, and now I can finally be at the party.
What was it like to meet with Penny and hear her story?
It’s very surreal to be imaging Penny’s point of view which is sort of my job, and at the same time here she is meeting me about to play her in a movie, so I’m trying to interview her without interviewing her.
I was trying to forget that I was playing her because really I just wanted to absorb whatever I could of her. I could have brought one of these recorders with me, but instead I just vibed her out, and enjoyed basking in how comfortable she is with herself, and how unapologetic she is.
She’s the victim in history here. She’s trapped in a glass ceiling in an international fort and she’s a grand dame for a reason. And it’s not for her triumph because of Secretariat, but because she wasn’t an opportunist within it. She asn’t a speculator, which was a real personal expression of what I call “daddy’s girl made good.” And I have the same thing. I’ve inhereited the mantel from my father, and I think that behind any woman that I’ve admired ever, if I parted the curtain, I would see a daddy back there who loved their daughter or in some way put a challenge out there for the daughter to live up to.
So I think subconsciously girls and women have this, they want to please and live up to their father’s estimation of them. And then I look at people who are just – their lives are completely like an imploded soufflé, and I can trace it back and find that there was either a father who was absent or neglectful or abusive or something was wrong with that relationship, that dynamic.
So I find that that was something Penny and I had in common. The father connection was pretty huge. I was there for my father when he passed, and I was there for the last two weeks of his life, and caretaking for someone was challenging and very humbling and very amazing to be there… to express gratitude for their birth and the afterlife. Don’t know where we came from, don’t know where we’re going back to and some other things, but it’s a big mystery and all I wanted to do was be grateful.
So, there were some secenes in this film that were one take, done, moving on, and I’m missing my kids, I feel guilty for not being in their life, I can do that, maternal guilt knows no bounds, we’ll take the blame for anything, gimme what you’ve got.
What did you enjoy most about filming?
When you’re number one on the call sheet, there’s no down time. You really have to fight for your sleep time. But, I really enjoyed the beauty of the countryside of Kentucky when we were filming there, that was really spectacular.
Getting to tour the farms where Secretariat was buried, it’s kind of daunting being allowed into what I’ve perceived all my life as a very clubby, horsey world of thoroughbreds.
So when I saw under the hood and realized, ‘Oh my gosh,’ this sport needs re-apprecation and a revival and deserves it, because like Penny always said, it’s about the horses. People get distracted by the wagering.
It’s true. It really is about the horses and that was my love for it always. When I was a little girl, I would choose the horse based on the number of years that I was. I’m four, number four win! It’s corny but it’s true. And Pegasus and all that. When Secretariat won, I was eight, and it I felt that it was appropriate that a horse should be on the cover of Time magazine, because who didn’t love horses?
I didn’t make the connection that the earth had stopped spinning on its axis that day because of what a horse had felt like doing in displaying his historic running. You can’t make a horse do that, if you could, they’d do it more often. You can lead a horse to water and that whole thing…
What was your initial response to the script? Did you feel you could relate?
I learned a lot about Penny from Bill Nack’s book, Secretariat. It’s sort of the Bible in terms of what happened sequentially, and what was historically accurate.
Bill was great and he’s actually in the movie. The real Bill Nack, in the secene with the reporters, is next to the actor who’s portraying him.
Back then, he’d sleep outside the barn where Secretariat was sleeping because he was that much of a fan, and had that much of a passion for it. And someone who would be that interested, to document what was really happeneing and the behind the secenes fights that were going on, trouble in paradie and the demise of Penny’s marriage and people wanting to say ‘Oh it was her success,’ or ‘It was the distraction of the horses,’ and frankly that was the catalyst. The problems were already there.
But for me, I have to make peace, as I’m sure Penny did all the many times that she’s turned down offers to have her story brought to the screen. Who wouldn’t want to make the story? It’s sort of a perfect movie. It’s like fiction. The omission of certain thing was always a challenge. For example, Penny went to the Kentucky Derby the year before with another horse. It didn’t serve the purity of our story and also, you only have 100 minutes. So sometimes, knowing too much is a curse, and sometimes you don’t want to meet the person you’re playing. I was so afraid she was going to offer me something I couldn’t use. So when I met Penny I felt like she had read the script and made peace with handing over history to this format of storytelling.