Everyone needed a hero. They got two. One is a massive, chestnut-colored horse, known to his friends and family as Big Red. Everyone else will call him Secretariat. The other, a self-described Denver housewife, is less recognized, but she is as gallant and charismatic as her steed. Her name is Penny Chenery Tweedy, and her faith in this horse will galvanize the nation, revolutionize horse racing and, ultimately, change her life’s course entirely.
Just like the incredible horse it’s inspired by, this film has great heart and goes the distance. Based on the remarkable true story, “Secretariat” chronicles the spectacular journey of the 1973 Triple Crown winner. Housewife and mother Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane) agrees to take over her ailing father’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables, despite her lack of horse-racing experience. Against all odds, with the help of veteran trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), she manages to navigate the male-dominated business, ultimately fostering the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years and what may be the greatest racehorse of all time.
MoviesOnline sat down with Diane Lane recently at a press conference held at the world famous Santa Anita Racetrack located in Arcadia, California to talk about her new film. She told us what attracted her to the role, what it was like living up to Penny Chenery’s legacy on screen, and how the film affected her on a deeply personal level.
Q: This film is about one of the greatest racehorses of all time, but it’s also a story about a woman taking charge and coming into her own. What was it like playing this character from the early 70s?
DIANE: Thank you for the question. First of all, it was very surreal to spend time with the real Penny Chenery because invariably it’s unusual to spend time with somebody that you’re going to be bringing to the screen. It raises the stakes. Personally, I really wanted to make it a gratifying experience for her. But, as far as the times that the film took place in and the glass ceiling that was, I don’t think it was even recognized as being there or an issue. I don’t think that Penny ever took on or saw herself in a vainglorious manner at all representing any gender or any generation. It was rather a timeless story from her point of view of her family business and doing what needed to be done to save it. She rose to the challenge and really inherited the mantle of that task. It was interesting to me because she’s such a strikingly handsome woman and you could spot her from across the racetrack with that hair. So, I think it was actually distracting to journalists. They wanted to say “Hey, what are you doing here?” and she would never stoop to being defensive. So I take a page from her book and salute her for not letting this become an issue but more one for the history books for people to, with the patina of time, say “Well there’s a hero.”
Q: What was your biggest challenge in finding your role?
DIANE: I don’t really know that I can answer that because every film to me is unique. It’s its own planet. It’s its own life and family. It’s a team sport when you’re in it and then the infinite becomes finite and the film is done and you see it with the music and the editing and all the parts that you weren’t there for when it was being filmed and you really appreciate all the names that are scrolling by and you go “My God, look at us. We were huge. We accomplished so much.” I just feel very grateful and daunted by the prospect of living up to Penny’s legacy on screen and it’s really very gratifying. She called me yesterday and I got the shot in the arm I was hoping for that she was happy. She’s bringing her 10 grandkids to the premiere and we’re going to get our kids altogether so it’ll be like old home week. Finally we can relax and celebrate a little.
Q: You watched the three original races that are shown in the film with Penny. I wondered what you got from that and if she told you moment by moment how she felt during those races?
DIANE: Watching the original races in their original broadcast form with Penny on a VHS was a reminder to see all the commercials in between the broadcast to know where we are in our history. And then, to be watching Penny watch it again, she was absolutely reengaged and it just really sealed the deal for me that I’d better not screw this up. So that was it in a word.
Q: On a personal level, what do you think you brought to your portrayal in this film?
DIANE: I selfishly and very personally love horses as a species. It’s my totem animal, if you will. I know that’s a little corny to give away at a press conference, but there it is. And that’s fine because it’s my truth. So, Secretariat was always the blend of mythology and reality that I didn’t understand as a child. It made perfect sense to me that a horse was finally on the cover of all the magazines. I took that personally being 8 years old and that everybody was finally waking up and appreciating the great species that they are. I’ve learned a lot in this process, but aside from that childlike aspect, the similarity between my father and his wish for me and Penny’s father and his wish for her, that was a very sweet meeting spot of intention for me on this particular film.
Q: In the movie, Penny has a difficult time being a working mother and wife, and in real life, you’re a working mother and wife. How do you relate to her and how do you keep your family together? Is there any secret?
DIANE: Well, it’s no secret that mothers – I don’t know – it’s the number one topic in therapy. So, you know, it’s all going to be your fault no matter what you do. If you know that going in, then you can sort of pick and choose what you say “yes” and “no” to because either way you’re always wrong. With that said, and with all good humor, it’s the most precious and most daunting task that I can imagine, let alone that I know exists to be a good parent because, like horse training, calling forth the greatness of an entity – whether it’s a child or even a racehorse – calling forth their greatness and working within their understanding of themselves and getting them to believe in themselves, that’s a noble task. So the jury is out on me, but I sure love my job and I think Penny is very gratified too in terms of this was one of her kids, Secretariat, so she got to show him off.
Q: Penny has a very specific look in the film. Can you talk about how the wardrobe, makeup and hair helped transform you for the role?
DIANE: I think we were all so informed by the era and being reminded of it physically is very helpful. It’s like being on location. If we were sitting in a backlot in L.A. trying to recreate these spaces and this sky and the… No, we were all very…as tactile as we can become serves us all. I mean, aside from John (Malkovich), who it was a personal statement which I’ll stay out of and stay in my department, but for Penny, she was a woman of her time and she was a beautiful specimen of her time. I don’t know. They say the clothes make the man and the shoes make the man and all the various things I’ve heard but I think maybe she’ll bring it back. I love those shoes with the authentic heel. I had to fight for them because sometimes in film people always say “Oh, can you do the sexier version of this,” or what have you, and I’m grateful that it’s celebrated and respected as it is to be authentic to the time. Thank you.
Q: Did you have a point where pursuing your dream of acting was difficult and you had to soldier through in the way that Penny had to believe in Secretariat?
DIANE: I don’t think so. I think that this story is a bit larger than I could draw an analogy from my own life. I had to step out of my comfort zone which is where they say life begins so that’s a good thing to live up to the scale of this story. I feel like a mere mortal compared to Penny.
“Secretariat” opens in theaters on October 8th.