Diane Lane in Secretariat
The title character of "Secretariat" is the thoroughbred horse who stole the nation's heart when he won the 1973 Triple Crown. He was so popular, in fact, that during the lead-up to the Belmont Stakes he graced the covers of "Time" magazine, "Newsweek" and "Sports Illustrated" in the same week. But the star of the new Disney film isn't the horse himself—it's the breeder who put him on the map. Oscar® nominee Diane Lane portrays the inspirational Penny Chenerey, and she chats with Oprah.com about motherhood, the power of horses and why she may never return to the Kentucky Derby.

Watch a clip from the movie.
Rachel Bertsche: Tell me a little bit about Penny Chenery. She wasn't exactly who people expected to see in the barn back then.

Diane Lane: Yeah. You know, I think she was such an anomaly being a woman in her situation that the media saw something very exciting to capitalize on. They seemed to forget that this was her family business and she'd been born into horse breeding. Although, she stepped away and had some kids and lost her cred, I guess.

RB: I know you spent a good amount of time with Penny in real life. What struck you most about her?

DL: She is truly regal. That's the word that comes to mind. And I don't mean that in an aloof way or anything along those lines, but some people just have a real backbone, and that's what she's got.

RB: Did that inspire your own performance? Did you study her closely, or did you take liberties in this role?

DL: No, I was doing my very best to live up to the real Penny and do her proud because she deserves that. I mean, what a rare opportunity to spend time with the person that you're bringing to the screen. She was so excited and came to visit us while we were filming, and that was super neat. Then we just said, since she's in the stands watching us anyway, why don't we put her in some costume and let her sit a little closer? [Penny has a cameo as part of the crowd watching a race.] So she was game, and we loved her for it.
RB: What do you think it was about Secretariat that won over America? Obviously he was incredibly skilled, but three magazine covers in one week is a no small thing.

DL: I think that he personified—if you can say that about a horse—a purity and a simplicity and an expression of joy. At the time, we were so parched for anything that felt as good as that. We had such negativism and cynicism. We had a glass ceiling for women. Roe v. Wade hadn't come to pass yet. Watergate, Vietnam War. It was just such a turning point.

I grew up listening to so many diverse points of view about America and our destiny and our fate and our ethics. We killed some our greatest leaders of all time in those years.

With Secretariat, it was like the world could stop and smell a rose for a moment. America actually exported something nice. I was only 8, but I was in Europe with a theater company when those covers came out, and it took awhile back then to get a magazine overseas, so he'd already won the Triple Crown by the time we were looking at all the hoopla leading up to it. And I took it very personally. I felt like: "Well, of course it makes sense that a horse is finally getting on the cover of all these global publications because humans are finally getting it. Horses are the greatest thing ever." You know, with my childlike innocence and love of horses.

RB: I'm sure it was nice to have something that wasn't divisive.

DL: Precisely. There was no agenda. There was no affiliation. There was no us versus them. When Secretariat decided to just pitilessly own the history books forever with his run at the third race of the triple crown, Jack Nicklaus wept. People were crying. Secretariat is number 35 in the all-time record of greatest athletes, and the only nonhuman in there, because it was such an expression of heart. If you go on YouTube and watch him run right now, it's a little postage stamp of a thing, all black-and-white and fuzzy, but you can see why this movie was begging to be made. And the backstory is just as interesting as the races are. It's really a beautiful thing to behold.
RB: You went to the Kentucky Derby this year for the first time. What was that like?

DL: Well, I was the grand marshal! So it was, like, ridiculous. I was there on Penny Chenery's coattails, and I couldn't believe it. It was an amazing experience of going for an hour and waving at basically the entire state of Kentucky who'd come to line the streets and watch the parade and greet Penny and say, "There's the girl from Perfect Storm." I was delighted; I was pinching myself. I felt like: 'Well, this is it. I've peaked. I can never come back to the Kentucky Derby!' No, I'm teasing. I would love to go back.

RB: This is definitely a movie for the whole family. What would you say is the great message of the film?

DL: I think that there's a through line of the investment in believing in ourselves. And where does that come from? Where does anyone have the audacity to believe in themselves? I think if you look behind the curtain of great people who have accomplished much, there's a parent who believed in that person. Penny and I both had fathers who we felt we needed to live up to. Whether it was how they treated us or what they said to us or how they invested in us, we knew that they were watching. It's very bittersweet that Penny's dad passed away before getting to see Secretariat achieve his greatness. For me it was the culmination of my father's career that I should ever be nominated for an Oscar®. [Diane's father was acting coach Burt Lane. He died in 2002, and Diane was nominated in 2003.] It was so close, but then I didn't get to share it with him.

RB: And now you're a parent. Your daughter is 17.

DL: Yeah, I'm looking down the barrel of the empty nest.

RB: Are you excited about that?

DL: It's bittersweet, for sure. You get comfortable in the role that you've been in for so long, and then you give them a pair of car keys and you're lucky if you even get a text. It happens pretty quickly, let me tell you. It's very unceremonious, that switch over, but I'll certainly miss her.


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