The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Diane Lane Thing is deep and it’s real. Especially with women.

Diane Lane, 53, on her career at the moment: “Now it’s getting fun. Now I can say, ‘How far can I take this?’ ” (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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NEW YORK — A recent uncontrolled experiment revealed that if you mention the name Diane Lane in a roomful of women, two things will happen. An adoring gasp will go up. And then the “I loved’s” begin: Gasp: “I loved her in ‘A Little Romance.’ ” Gasp: “The bus scene with Viggo Mortensen in ‘A Walk on the Moon.’ ” Gasp: “That train scene in ‘Unfaithful.’ ” “Lonesome Dove.” “Secretariat.” “Under the Tuscan Sun.” Gasp. Gasp. Gasp.

Lane’s friend Jane Fonda attributes the Diane Lane Thing to one thing: “Vulnerability. You want to protect her. You know she’s kind, there’s not a mean bone in her body, and you sense that. She’s cautious, and so you want to wrap your arms around her and encourage her, and at the same time, she’s a real survivor.”

Along with the rest of us, Fonda also found herself gasping at the train scene in “Unfaithful” — for which Lane received an Oscar nomination — when the actress’s character, a straying wife, was allowing shame, disbelief and remembered desire to wash over her, sometimes all at once. “And [then] she bursts out laughing, and it’s like, ‘What?’ ” Fonda recalls. “It was the most surprising reaction; it was so effective and unexpected and multifaceted. And that’s Diane.”

The Diane Lane Thing is deep, and it’s real. Men love her, sure. But women looove her, on a reflexive, almost pheromonal level that defies ready explanation. She’s that rare Hollywood creature who, at 53, seems both glamorous and radically authentic, still capable of furrowing her brow, betraying a crinkled frown, allowing a panoply of competing emotions to play across her face. Blessed with spectacular beauty, she’s somehow still relatable. We get Diane Lane, and, more important, we feel as though she would get us should we ever be friends. Which, really, we could be if . . . we could be.

Lane experiences the Diane Lane Thing firsthand, all the time. “They come up to me,” she says of her swooning female fans. “It’s very sweet. They say, ‘I love you.’ I don’t know [why]. I can’t take any credit for it.”

Isn’t that exactly what Diane Lane would say, in our BFF dreams? Over a freewheeling two-hour lunch recently, Lane was mostly everything her admirers would expect: thoughtful, candid, confiding, self-deprecating and instinctively caretaking, at one point passing a basket of bread, taking a piece and saying, “Remember the ladies who waved away the dessert tray on the Titanic.” She evinces an almost subversive altruism when it comes to her female peers in Hollywood, refusing to play along with popular myths of zero-sum success and Bette-and-Joan catfights.

Lane’s instinctive feminism is now coming into play in the form of two new gigs: She stars in not one, but two streaming series, Netflix’s “House of Cards” and the Matthew Weiner anthology series “The Romanoffs” on Amazon. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Lane still evinces mild surprise to be part of “House of Cards,” much less its sixth and final season. In recent years, she has found even a fleeting image of the White House “triggering.” She admits to admiring the show for its writing and acting but shying away from its nihilistic worldview. “There is a deliciousness to leaning into cynicism for humor,” Lane observes, “and then it kicks into a kind of terror.” When she was cast a little more than a year ago — as Annette Shepherd, who with her brother Bill, played by Greg Kinnear, evokes comparisons to sundry Kochs, Mercers and DeVoses — Lane took it as a dare. “And I love that feeling,” she notes. “There’s just a thrill about it.”

The pursuit of new thrills — and new platforms — looks like yet another canny move in a four-decade career that has proven to be exceptionally enduring, supple and, in its most recent incarnation, steadily percolating. There was a time when Lane would have been forced to accept an inevitable winding-down at this stage of life. “Now it’s like a contest,” she says with her signature catlike smile. “Now it’s getting fun. Now I can say, ‘How far can I take this?’ ”

There was a moment last year when the answer might have been, “Not as far as you think.” One of Lane’s first scenes on “House of Cards” was with Kevin Spacey, whose Frank Underwood was the scheming Shakespearean center of the show’s pathologically transactional world. The day is etched in memory, she says, not because of any disquieting signals, but because, in joining what had become a strongly bonded family over five years, she was under “extra pressure to deliver the goods and fit in with the vibe.” From there, she traveled to New York to be an Easter egg in an episode of “The Romanoffs”; during a break she learned that Spacey had been terminated from “House of Cards” because of allegations of sexual misconduct. The show hadn’t even officially announced her involvement yet.

After a three-month hiatus to retool, the show’s final season wound up being much more female-centric, with Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood — now the U.S. president — navigating a poisonous and sexist political culture, while playing mind games with Annette, with whom she has a fraught history. “All I know is I fell uphill,” Lane says now, “because I got more screen time with Robin Wright. She is formidable; Claire is formidable. And it’s delicious for the audience, I think, to see two women like cobra snakes, doing their mesmerizing dance together.”

There is no doubt that viewers will watch Claire and Annette’s lean-in-with-a-stiletto brand of feminism in “House of Cards” through the lens of #MeToo, Time’s Up, the Kavanaugh hearings and the Trump resistance. Of-the-moment themes of accusation and belief also animate “The Romanoffs,” in which Lane’s character, Katherine Ford, is a professor of Russian literature whose choices as a wife, mother and female professional are challenged when a family acquaintance is blamed for a troubling boundary violation.

With the testimony of another Dr. Ford still very much top of mind, Lane has been keenly aware of how her work is overlapping with the zeitgeist in ways that feel both strange and acridly familiar. “I remember watching ‘The Stepford Wives’ when it was on TV, back when we had three channels, and it chilled me,” she says, “as did the Anita Hill hearings just a few years later. And then there are just so many benchmark moments. . . . Did you ever put a battery on your tongue? You never forget that sensation. And I feel sort of like, is that the norm now?”

Later, she will attend a performance of the Broadway play “The Lifespan of a Fact” with her 25-year-old daughter, Eleanor, who has decided to become an actress, too. “I’m so glad she waited to be ready on her own terms,” Lane says. “Because I was hijacked.” There’s no bitterness in her tone, just realism: Lane’s father, actor and acting coach Burt Lane, raised her in New York after her parents divorced and her mother, a singer and model named Colleen Farrington, moved out of the city. (Lane has spoken often of riding along when he drove a cab for a living.)

She compares the kismet of her career to being a toy in an arcade claw machine. “I don’t mind it,” she says with a laugh. “I’m very grateful and lucky that I can live up to being picked.” If she inherited her mother’s beguiling looks, she also absorbed her father’s view of acting, which he considered a near-sacred calling. Her first professional gig was at La MaMa Theater at age 6, in an experimental production of “Medea.” When she acted opposite Laurence Olivier in “A Little Romance” — at the ripe age of 13 — he pronounced her the next Grace Kelly.

She didn’t exactly follow Kelly’s trajectory. But then again, Kelly didn’t fashion an enviably resilient career over the course of more than 70 movies, TV series and plays. Famously, those didn’t include “Splash,” “Risky Business” and “Pretty Woman,” all of which Lane passed on. What if she had done one of those instead of the near-universally panned “Cotton Club” or “Streets of Fire”? She admits to having harbored some second thoughts along the way but, she concludes, “Isn’t the road to madness pondering the road not taken?”

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Lane’s biography is that, even as a vulnerable child actress, she was spared the kind of exploitation and abuse that the #MeToo movement has uncovered over the past year. “I was Burt Lane’s daughter,” she explains simply. “I never knew that the couch was a verb. I’d heard the phrase, but I thought that was something from the 1950s.”

As an adult, she’s also managed to carve out a zone of privacy that, in an era of 24/7 celebritainment and citizen paparazzi, is virtually unheard-of in Hollywood. Currently single, she’s been married twice, to the actors Christopher Lambert and Josh Brolin. She succeeded in raising her daughter outside the public eye long before stars and their kids became a tabloid obsession.

“It was just a consistent way of living,” she explains. “The people who get paparazzi attention all the time are the people who put themselves where the paparazzi are. It ain’t rocket science. I literally have walked directly in front of paparazzi walking my dog, because I’m dressed like a civilian. It felt so delicious, it was sort of like a mouse eating a piece of cheese right in front of a cat.”

Instead, she pursued the life of a jobbing actor, accepting parts through instinct, taste and luck. “I’ve always got that little fly trap out, trying to catch whatever’s in the wind,” she says. “I throw it at the wall. Old school.” Within a Hollywood culture where one person’s gain is another’s motive for justifiable homicide, she has adopted a fiercely noncompetitive attitude toward her fellow actresses.

“When I look at films that I’m not in and I see work that I get lost in because it’s so true, my hat’s off to these women so much,” she says. “And very rarely do I feel, ‘I wish I’d done that’ or ‘I would have done it differently.’ I completely lend myself to the offering that’s on the screen or in the theater.”

It’s this sense of altruism that might explain the undying love of Lane’s female fans. “Maybe I got the dose my mother didn’t get,” Lane says philosophically. “She was a great woman, but I think women resented her because she was so beautiful and so appealing to the opposite sex, and she knew how to play that like a fiddle. That was her domain, nothing I was ever comfortable with. So I’m thinking, Okay, maybe I got mom’s dose of girlfriends, too. Maybe there’s a mutual goodwill that some women feel I have for them.”

The Diane Lane Thing, in other words, goes both ways. “I do feel that one women’s success is a win for the team, because we are collectively sharing in a journey of furthering our potential,” she says. “So what’s good for the goose is good for the goose.”