Diane Lane is a little like Zelig, and your birthday. She doesn’t come around all that often, but you’re pretty happy when she does. And she’s been popping in and out of moviegoers’ field of vision, with startling, chimerical regularity, since the Nixon administration.
Now a nature-defying 42 (have you seen the Neutrogena ad?), she’s been on the big screen since her auspicious debut at age 13 - co-starring with Laurence Olivier in “A Little Romance.” She had what most people would describe as a midlife crisis when she was 18, and she’s been declared the best thing about the movies she’s made so often you do have to wonder a little about her choices. Still, she works - in a town where women are largely considered defunct at age 26. And if Diane Lane isn’t a sex symbol, who is?
“I’m an anomaly,” she admits, “and I have no business speaking about the way things are because I live on an island just out of the range of the way things are. ... There’s a handful of us who’ve stayed working through - well, I think I’ll be finishing my third decade of film and starting my fourth. And I love it, because it’s so preposterous. I feel like Methuselah. I go, `How is this possible?’ And I kind of feel it’s time to get a life. I mean, after 30 years, don’t you want to do something else?”“
Fortunately, no, but Lane’s psychic and professional survival may be due in part to the fact that she’s had an off-screen life, one that contributes mightily to her performance as FBI cyber-investigator Jennifer Marsh in the new thriller “Untraceable,” which opens Friday. It’s a film with a clever hook - a serial killer puts his captives on a Web site and their fates depend on how many hits the Web site gets. Needless to say, several of them die.
But for all the techno-drama of “Untraceable,” motherhood and general humanity inform Lane’s performance, and her view of cyberworld. Married to actor Josh Brolin (“I love being Mrs. Brolin; that’s a full-time, fabulous job. I highly recommend it”), she’s mother to a trio of teenagers from his and her previous marriages. So when it comes to the Web, she knows whence she speaks.
“As a parent, it’s kind of a challenge to deal with the entitlement factor teenagers have with the Internet,” she says, during an afternoon interview in fogbound Santa Monica. “This generation was born into it,” she said, and they feel “that they’re entitled to a private life online. I think you have to really know your children well even if they’re not children anymore in their own minds, and continue to do your best to be vigilant about their comfort zone, and their proclivities.”
As shocking as “Untraceable” may be to some audiences, it was just as shocking to Lane.
“I was so naive I thought computer viruses didn’t spontaneously grow, like in a petri dish. Someone explained to me, `No, no, “virus” is probably the wrong term, because while it acts like a virus, it’s created on purpose with malicious intent by some clever person who took the time to commit a very sophisticated version of arson.’
“And I thought, `What? Why? How? How does that exist in the universe?’ I couldn’t wrap my brain around someone taking the time to do that and said, `OK, I’m an actor, I track motives - that’s a very hurt person who’s very angry at a lot of people. And feels a lot of entitlement about the rage that they possess. And who has a lot of time on their hands.”“
Lane has none. Following a highly lauded performance as trophy wife Toni Mannix in “Hollywoodland” (2006), she has completed three more movies over the past year - “Killshot,” a thriller directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”); “Jumper,” from Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”), and George C. Wolfe’s “Nights in Rodanthe,” a romance that reteams her with Richard Gere, her cuckolded husband in “Unfaithful” (2002).
It was Lane’s performance as an adulterous suburbanite in that film - and, to be specific, her character’s solo, post-coital reverie on a train en route home from a tryst - that won her best-actress prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics and an Oscar nomination.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center feted her in December of that year with “Always a Natural: An Evening With Diane Lane.”
“She’s always been a goddess,” says the Film Society’s Joanna Ney, who curated the Lane tribute, “but kind of a real person. Probably a little moody. But I liked her.”
Ney adds: “She gives performances that are right on target. She has tremendous technique, which she probably just picked up along the way. She never overplays, she understates. And the camera loves her.”
Lane has several moments in “Untraceable” that evoke the power of the celebrated “Unfaithful” scene. It’s the type of acting - during a grief scene, for instance, or when her character Jennifer’s child is endangered - that separates the pros from the pretty faces.
“Sometimes when actors talk about other actors, they dance around the question,” says Lane’s “Untraceable” co-star, Billy Burke. “But I kind of consider Diane one of my favorite people. We like to work the same way, we find the same stuff funny. If she has any Method to her acting, she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve, which is something I think is unnecessary. And she’s respectful of everybody on the picture - which doesn’t happen all the time. In fact, a lot of the time you get just the opposite. But she’s a good human being. And she delivers the goods when she has to.”
The daughter of the late Burt Lane, who managed her early career, and onetime Playboy pinup Colleen Farrington, Lane was on stage at age 6 at La Mama, Manhattan’s legendary experimental theater, appearing in the likes of “Medea” and “The Trojan Women” for director Andrei Serbian. When Hollywood called, it meant a series of so-so successes, the triumphs of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumblefish” and “The Outsiders” and, later, the back-to-back flops of “The Cotton Club” (also starring Gere) and “Streets of Fire.”
Which put the rising star in downward trajectory. “So I backed off,” she recalls, “and said, `This is so much larger than me and I don’t want to pretend for a minute I’m big enough to meet it even halfway. I’m OK being an actress, but I think I’m uncomfortable being a movie star.’
“I didn’t say it quite that way,” she adds, “but I think in hindsight that’s what I was feeling. So at 18, I took a year off.”
It has grown, in the lore into something like Lane’s “Garbo period.”
“I just wanted to be near my mom and have a reconciling with her and live in the country,” she says. “But then I thought, `What am I going to do? Do I have a means of a livelihood? What am I going to do for a living?’ The offers were still coming; some of them were lousy, some were OK, none were amazing. So it was a mental health break for me.”
Lane doesn’t take the peripheral stuff of celebrity too seriously.
“I don’t ever track my movies, I don’t like to go to premieres,” she says. “And I don’t enjoy publicity.”
Not even this interview?
“This is like going to the dentist,” she says, smiling indulgently. “But it’s par for the course. It’s in the fine print in my contract, and if I don’t do it I may never work in this town again. ... I don’t imagine a painter having to go around like this. I guess authors do interviews and book signings, but the business of celebrity has always gotten in the way of my being able to receive an actor on screen - the more famous they are, the less I’m able to lose myself in their work. Even if they’re really famous for being a great actor.”