Diane Lane, a Child Star, Returns to the Theater Older, Wiser and Just as Gorgeous

Broadway baby, all grown up

(Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
Diane Lane is starring in The Mystery of Love & Sex alongside Tony Shalhoub. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

A child of the theater, actress Diane Lane grew up backstage at Lincoln Center. Now, almost four decades on, walking into its theater every day is a curious homecoming.

“It’s so strange,” she said, wistfully, over breakfast, recently. “I feel as if I’ve walked past a ghost of myself at 12, playing jacks on the floor with Raul Julia during intermission. He was such a mensch. And I remember Helen Hayes coming to see Irene Worth in the play. She was just tout a fait, in the old sense of the word, [spying on a rival]. It was very infectious energy. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time what it all meant.”

The play she was talking about was the landmark 1977 revival of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Andrei Serban. In addition to Ms. Worth and Mr. Julia, not to mention a pre-teen Ms. Lane, the stage of the Vivian Beaumont was cluttered with the likes of Michael Cristofer, Mary Beth Hurt, George Voskovec, Max Wright and a fairly new girl, Meryl Streep.

Back then, Ms. Lane was just “Ensemble,” but that meant playing “the Ghost of the boy, the Ghost of the cherry orchard, some memory being acted out and a little scullery wench running around in the background”—all without a word. Words came aplenty with her second Serban show that year, Agamemnon. The director who had cast her, at 6, as Medea’s doomed first-born in a production at Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa, cast her this time as Iphigenia, doomed to be slaughtered as tribute to the Gods.

“Another death on stage,” sighed Ms. Lane. “I thought it was personal. Then, I realized the death of innocence is archetypical in Greek tragedy, and childhood represents innocence. But if you’re little and no on tells you this, you wonder, ‘Why do I get killed in every play?’ ”

Now, she’s returning to New York theater—and, ironically, finding herself in the same building where she spent her entire Broadway career, only this time she’s in the Mitzi E. Newhouse, the space under the massive Vivian Beaumont. After a 37-year detour into film and TV, Diane Lane has come back home to star in The Mystery of Love & Sex.

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Earlier this winter, Ms. Lane decided she would spend her 50th birthday in as low-key a manner as possible. She would have her actual breakfast before her breakfast interview with a writer at The Smith (so she could sip herbal tea, cool and collected, throughout), then cross the street to Lincoln Center, put in a full day rehearsing and mark the personal milestone by treating herself to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

When she entered the restaurant, the designated reporter stood up, extended his hand in a courtly fashion and spoiled the whole thing. “Happy birthday,” he said.

The play’s publicist was clearly caught off guard. “This is your birthday?” she asked.

Ms. Lane notes that doing Runaways for Joe Papp got her kicked out of Hunter College High School for missing class.

Ms. Lane nodded a helpless guilty-as-charged and waved that little fact away as she slipped into a booth. “Yes,” she told her, “but we’re not going to make a thing of it.”

Up close and personal, without makeup or camera lights, Ms. Lane looks like the movie version of 50. Age has only added character and accessibility to a drop-dead gorgeous face that has literally matured in public on a very big screen for decades. In The Mystery of Love and Sex, written by Bathsheba Doran and directed by the inestimable Sam Gold, far from the incandescent ingénue, she plays mother to an altar-bound college girl.

This isn’t a stretch for Ms. Lane, who in real life has a daughter in NYU “studying various forms of journalism,” by her first husband, French actor Christopher Lambert. Her second marriage—to another actor, Josh Brolin—ended in divorce in 2013 after nine years (and she has only nice things to say about her ex-stepmother-in-law, Barbra Streisand).

“Tony  Shalhoub plays my husband in the play,” a detective novelist, she said, quickly changing the subject. “He’s lovely. We get to kiss twice in the show. You think about that when you’re going into something,” she giggled, then realizing that giggles don’t translate into print, she clarified: “I mean that with levity because that is the least of it, obviously. This play challenges our understanding of things. When one person changes, the entire family changes. It’s great to see that domino effect.”

The crisis in the play could pass for a happy ending in another play: Their daughter (Gayle Rankin) announces that she and a friend from childhood (Mamoudou Athie) are going to wed. “As parents, we’re taken aback,” said Ms. Lane. “We want her to look around and check it out and consider her options because marriage is marriage. It’s different from anything else, A), and, B), it would be strange for anyone to marry the person who was their playmate when they were 9 years old. So there’s something going on here, and we want to figure it out …” Add issues of race, of a childhood trauma, of homophobia, and this is a family at a crossroads.

Diane Lane. (Illustration by Hellovon)

Her own family? Ms. Lane’s father was an acting coach, and her mother was a nightclub-singing Playboy centerfold. They divorced when she was 13-days-old, but the tug-of-war over her continued until her 20s. An orphan of that storm, she found refuge in The Family of Theater and was raised, a la Romulus and Remus, by genuine giants in that field.

“Andrei and Ellen [of La Mama Theatre] were, absolutely, pater and mater to me—my second family,” Ms. Lane declared. “It was like joining the circus and going on tour with them to summer theater festivals all over the world. I feel very grateful they tolerated me at nine and 10. All those world tours we did! I tried to run away a few times, and we didn’t tell my parents about it. I was always very dramatic, I suppose. I didn’t realize it.”

She grins as she calls up memories of the time: In that star-studded Cherry Orchard, for example, the curtain calls were electric, literally. “We would have amps of physical electricity from all the women’s petticoats dragging across that light, snow-colored carpeting. Static electricity would build up, and, at curtain call, we’d jump at the current going through all of us. Our arms would convulse uncontrollably. The challenge was to hang on because that wattage was crazy.”

Then there was the night there was no electricity—the big blackout of ’77—but they finished the play anyway, with flashlights and Zippo lighters. “Years later, I told that story to an actor on a film set. When I finished, he said he was at that performance. It was Kevin Bacon. I said, ‘Well, I guess now we have our six degrees of separation.’ ” 

Was Meryl Streep Meryl Streep back then? “Absolutely! My God, she was indelible. Her Dunyasha—Chekhov should be so lucky! But there it was. She brought such dimension and vigor to the character. We’d all wait in the wings and watch her.”

Recently, she and Ms. Streep bumped into each other at Jane Fonda’s American Film Institute Tribute (Ms. Streep made her movie bow in Julia, getting slapped off a bar stool by Ms. Fonda), and it was like old times. “We always go back to 1977. She’s 26 again, and I’m 12 again. I said to her, ‘I can’t help it if my references are when you crossed over into movies then. The whole company was so thrilled for you.’ ”

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In less than a year, and barely a teenager, Ms. Lane followed Ms. Streep into movies, amid a flurry of acrimonious telegrams between Hollywood and The Public’s kingpin, Joseph Papp, who wanted her Off-Broadway developing Elizabeth Swados’ musical, Runaways.

“It always sounds quite desirable to be fought over, but it was really unpleasant at the time—you feel so apologetic, like you’d done something wrong just by showing up. Joe Papp wanted me to go to Broadway with the show and said, ‘You’re in or you’re out.’ I said, ‘Really? You’re going to take this piece of my life away from me, just because I can’t promise to be there for a six-month run?’

When she began her career on stage, ‘I was very much the cherry on the whipped cream. I wasn’t the main serving.’ But when she went to Hollywood, Laurence Olivier dubbed her ‘the next Grace Kelly.’

“As it was, rehearsing that show got me kicked out of Hunter College High School. It started at noon and finished at six so I missed classes. I was so exhausted I’d sleep on the floor of the bathroom. Finally, somebody said, ‘You have a problem?’ ‘Yeah. I got sleep depravation.’ ” All she got out of Runaways was an IBDB.com (Internet Broadway Database) credit for “additional text.”

Meanwhile, in the film business, A Little Romance provided a charming screen introduction for Ms. Lane—and, for a scene partner, Laurence Olivier. She called him “Lord Larry.” He called her, to the press and anyone who would listen, “the next Grace Kelly.”

The legendary actor “was in a lot of pain physically at the time, but he was very gracious toward me. My dad used to love telling the story about the two of them going out for drinks one night. Halfway through, Dad realized Olivier was rehearsing conversations for a Times interview he had to do, but what a wonderful thing for my dad to be able to sit with Laurence Olivier. My whole career was worth that moment for him.”

Ms. Lane’s beauty was so pronounced so early on that “the awkward age,” which has stymied and often stopped many a child star, wasn’t even a speed bump for her. (In 1979, her big blue eyes looked out from the cover of Time magazine, with the headline “Hollywood’s Whiz Kids.”) It helped to have director Francis Ford Coppola easing her through adolescence into young adult roles in films like The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and The Cotton Club.

Yet, much of her film career has been spent decorating vacuous leading lady slots, often looking worried about the menfolk. (For every sexy A Walk on the Moon, in which she spryly moved between Liev Schreiber’s bed and the back of Viggo Mortensen’s van, there were two The Perfect Storms, in which she fretted and mourned.) “I remember vulnerability being an unattractive word for most of my life,” she recalled, “and I resented it as a direction coming from a director just because it implied weakness so I get the job. But it is that humbling place that creates compassion.”

But her movie star glamour worked well for her when she played Paulette Goddard in Chaplin, a role so difficult Robert Downey Jr. said he swore off drugs.

“I take the fifth,” Ms. Lane deadpanned. “All I know is it was incredible watching Robert Downey Jr. bring Chaplin to life. Talk about weight-lifting!”

She made the Emmy running for Lonesome Dove and Cinema Verite, and Unfaithful, in which she played a seemingly happily married housewife who cheats on her husband—Richard Gere—got her Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for making the somewhat unbelievable believable, plus the actual award from the New York Film Critics.

All the awards commotion then got her a couple of classy “chick flicks”—Under the Tuscan Sun and Must Love Dogs—and doubled her salary to $6 million.

In 2013, Fox announced she would play Hillary Rodham Clinton in a television miniseries. “That did not come to pass. There was a little bit of resistance,” she explained. From on high? “Or down low, I dunno.” Or maybe the former first lady is holding out for a bigger name. (She is starting to look like Meryl Streep.)

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Over the years, save for the last-minute Olivia she did for Mr. Serban’s Twelfth Night at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater in Boston in 1989, Ms. Lane generally has stayed clear of theater.

Director Michael Wilson tried to woo her back to the stage in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, but they discovered Richard Burtons don’t come in bunches and abandoned the project. Then another Williams property, Sweet Bird of Youth, presented itself—in shambles: When Nicole Kidman and James Franco bowed out of a production planned for Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2012, she rushed in and won some impressive notices for it.

“We had a ring-binder ‘Bible’ that had every jot and jiggle that Tennessee Williams had written for the play—I mean, notes on napkins, everything. You could feel his struggle and his suffering and his application of those things for the play. You could find so many layers in the writing where there are clues. It was like a treasure hunt. It takes you back, and you circle around again. It’s the circle of life—or it should be like life.”

Her portrayal of Princess Kosmonopolis, a faded movie queen traveling the Gulf Coast incognito with her boy-toy keeper, came in for particular praise.

“For me, it was so much larger than anything that I would have knowingly attempted,” she admitted, “maybe the strongest thing I’ll ever do! I had a blast with it—despite the five-show weekends. With all that screaming, I made the ride—then we extended a week. I’d already programmed the DOS level of my hard drive and couldn’t go back in and say, ‘Oh, it’s an extra week.’ I blew out my pipes, which is what I said I wanted to do. I missed two shows, but the play went on. We did great, and it ended well.”

There was talk at the time of a Broadway transfer, but it soon subsided—although the embers of that aren’t all out. “They want me to do it again—and in New York,” she said.

But she can’t say she has really missed the theater all these years. “No, I was very busy with movies—and, besides, the stage always terrified me. The live audience is just something I bewilderingly look back on and say, ‘How did I ever participate in that?’

“I guess that it’s like singing in the choir. You can hide in numbers. The Cherry Orchard—it sounds so grand. Please! If I didn’t show up for a performance, maybe Andrei wouldn’t have forgiven me, but the show would not have a problem. I was very much the cherry on the whipped cream. I wasn’t the main serving.”

And she was never Juliet, although Mr. Papp once gifted her with a bracelet from Cartier’s that was engraved, “Someday Juliet.” It floored Ms. Lane. “Can you imagine? I thought, ‘How does he think I could pull that off?’ I always felt as though I got away with it by hiding and not really working hard. There usually wasn’t much asked of young people—certainly not in my era of young people. They make young people today with more stuff. They’re computers. They’re faster, funnier. They have more hard drive and more RAM. Would you listen to me! I sound like some wispy senior citizen, but the truth is that it’s the mileage, not the years. I’ve got a lot of mileage, and I love my mileage. I wouldn’t trade a mile of that for a minute of being younger.” 

Now, that’s facing 50 with a smile. Diane Lane, a Child Star, Returns to the Theater Older, Wiser and Just as Gorgeous