Secretariat - The real Penny Chenery and Diane Lane
Secretariat - The real Penny Chenery and Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) ©2010 Disney, Photo by John Bramley

From her memorable role as a teenager in George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance, Diane Lane has gone on to do what many child actors find impossible, obtaining tremendous success as an adult performer. Her films include Rumble Fish, A Walk on the Moon, Unfaithful, The Perfect Storm and Nights in Rodanthe.

In her latest movie Secretariat, Lane takes on her most daunting role, to portray Penny Chenery Tweedy, the real life owner of Secretariat, considered the greatest racehorse in history. This remarkable true story begins in 1971 and chronicles the spectacular journey for Penny and Secreatariat, the winner of the 1973 Triple Crown.

What was it like to talk with Penny Chenery about her life?

Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) © 2010 Disney

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.

Can you talk a little about playing a woman in the seventies?

As far as the times that the film took place in, and the glass ceiling that wasn’t even recognized as being there or being an issue, I don’t think that Penny ever saw herself in a vainglorious manner at all, representing any gender or any generation. From her point of view, it was rather a timeless story 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. I think it was actually distracting to journalists. They said, “Hey, what are you doing here?,” and she would never stoop to being defensive.

I take a page from her book and salute her for not letting this become an issue. It’s one for the history books where, with the patina of time, people can say, “Well, there’s a hero.”

Did the hair, make-up and wardrobe help inform this character for you?

Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) © 2010 Disney

We were all so informed by the era and being reminded of it physically was very helpful, as was being on location. If we had been sitting in a backlot in LA, trying to recreate these spaces and this sky, it wouldn’t have worked. As tactile as we can become, it serves us all.

Aside from John, who was making a personal statement, Penny was a woman of her time. She was a beautiful specimen of her time. Maybe she’ll bring it back. I love those shoes with the authentic heel and I had to fight for it sometimes. I’m grateful that it’s as celebrated and respected as it is to be authentic to the time.

What was your biggest challenge in playing the role?

Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) © 2010 Disney

I don’t really know that I can answer that because every film, to me, is unique. It’s its own planet, its own life and its own 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.

You really appreciate all the names that are scrolling by. You realize that you accomplished so much. I just feel very grateful and daunted by the prospect of living up to Penny’s legacy on screen, and it really is very gratifying to know that she’s happy with it.

What did you personally bring to your portrayal of your character?

Selfishly and very personally, I love horses, as a species. It’s my totem animal. 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. 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 eight years old. Everybody else was finally waking up and appreciating the great species that they are. I’ve learned a lot in this process. Aside from that childlike aspect, the similarity between my father and his wish for me, and Penny’s father and his wish for her, was a very sweet meeting spot of intention for me, on this particular film.

In the film, Penny has a lot of difficult balancing motherhood with her career. Were you able to relate to that?

Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) and Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) © 2010 Disney

That’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 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, to be a good parent is the most previous and most daunting task that I can imagine, let alone that I know exists.

Like horse training, calling forth the greatness of an entity, whether it’s a child or even a race horse, and working within their understanding of themselves and getting them to believe in themselves is a noble task. The jury is out on me, but I sure love my job. I think Penny is very gratified too, in terms of Secretariat being one of her kids.

Can you talk about the experience of watching the videos of the Triple Crown races with Penny?

Watching the original races in their original broadcast form with Penny on a VHS was a reminder of where we’re at in our history, to see all the commercials in between the broadcast. And then, to watch Penny watch it again, she was absolutely re-engaged. It just really sealed the deal for me that I better not screw this up.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane