Under the Tuscan Sun is the rare film that hits all four quadrants of escapist cinema: romance, real estate, Italian food, and female friendship. It helps, too, that the central crises faced by Frances Mayes (Diane Lane), the protagonist of the late Audrey Wells’s 2003 rom-com drama, are relatively benign and occasionally delightful in nature. When we meet Frances, a renowned writer, she’s about to find out that her husband is cheating on her and that his mistress wants to purchase their shared house. Her loyal and sardonic best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh), who’s in possession of a spare Gay Tour of Tuscany thanks to a new pregnancy, ships Frances off to the idyllic Italian countryside. While in Italy, the depressed and slightly manic Frances stumbles upon a crumbling estate and spontaneously buys it. The primary issues she faces over the course of the film — outside of getting over her ex — are figuring out how to fix her villa with the help of a motley crew of builders (all of whom are a little bit in love with her), getting over writers’ block, and getting laid. Over the course of two hours, she has a torrid affair with a hot Italian man, forges deep friendships with her eccentric neighbors, cooks a shit-ton of pasta, starts writing again, and hosts a wedding at her eventually gorgeous home. It’s all very Nancy Meyers by way of a drunken Fellini.
Lane is the film’s center of gravity. Without her, the whole thing would feel frivolous and unbelievable, too fantastic even by early-aughts standards. Lane, fresh off her Oscar nomination for Unfaithful, digs as deep into Frances as physically possible, giving a naturalistic, raw performance that the script alone doesn’t really demand. She’s at turns jubilantly sexy and insecure, despondent and passionately angry, sometimes in the span of a single scene. She moves effortlessly between laughing and crying, between hurling a beautiful vase onto the ground in rage and straight-facedly grasping an Italian statue’s penis while entering the throes of passion. There’s a reason why, all these years later, people still rent Frances’s Italian villa — we want what she has, and what she has is a lot of pasta and sex and Diane Lane’s incredibly emotive face. Ahead of Lane’s next project, a mystery called Let Him Go co-starring Kevin Costner (in theaters November 6), I called Lane up — she was in quarantine in Ontario — to talk about her memories from filming Under the Tuscan Sun. We ended up having a wide-ranging, digressive conversation about finding her comedic potential in Frances, binging raw garlic in her go-to taverna between scenes, and her “embarrassing” real-life trip to Cortona.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Ontario, and I’m finally getting to film something very different for me — a series for FX. It’s a crazy time to be attempting to work in my profession, because we’re in a unique window of time, as you know. It’s a conundrum of huge proportions. Suddenly I’m an essential worker for the entertainment industry, and I got into the country based on that type of work visa. I’ve never had to get a visa to film here, and I’ve filmed here more than anywhere else.
I will have been here for five weeks by the time I shoot my first day of filming; I’m on day 13 of quarantine and then we have the costumes and the hair and the getting-to-know-you stuff with the rest of the cast. I’m super-grateful, though, that people are all taking it seriously. Nobody has any denial. I mean … Don’t get me started.
I know where you’re going, and I’m right there with you.
All the unmentionables. So many. It’s a minefield.
I was just watching Under the Tuscan Sun again last night, and I found myself crying.
Which part got to you?
I think the end, when she turns on the faucet that’s been dry in her house and water finally flows out.
Oh, yeah. There’s something about women and flow. Every known meaning of the word.
What do you remember about where you were in your life when this movie came your way?
Good lord. Do we have to talk about that? I’m teasing you. It’s been a minute. My daughter was, I think, in third grade, and now she’s been out of university for a couple of years. That’s where I was at in my own motherhood journey. The director and writer, whom I adore — Audrey Wells, a dear friend who’s no longer with us — her daughter was 1, and now she’s almost done being a teenager. But you know, this movie is so beloved. I see it come on top-tier streaming services with no commercials, and I’m like, “You see! We still get love and respect!”
Were you ever worried that you wouldn’t?
Not at all. It’s just that you never know. We’re always throwing it at the wall. Are you kidding me? If they knew what made hits, they’d make more of them. That’s my bumper sticker on the whole industry. You gotta keep the process fun, keep your integrity in place about why this role was chosen at this moment, and make it about the experience, because you have no control over the outcome. Especially in this medium. It’s not like theater, where your talons are in the dirt and you can feel the audience and know if it’s working or not. Suddenly, you’re promoting it and you’re like, “Oh, right. I wonder if I should see it and see if all the scenes I remember shooting are even in there, still!”
What appealed to you about it at the time?
I remember meeting with Audrey for the first time, and she explained something to me that was like a lightbulb going off in my head. I didn’t realize this woman was going to become a treasured friend in my life and that lightbulbs going off over my head would be happening as a result of our interaction and her affect on me for as long as I could keep her in my life. She just had a brilliant mind, and her empowerment of me cut through my own self-doubt. When I said to her, “I have to be completely honest with you. I read the script and I don’t see the humor. I know I’m flawed in my understanding here” — and she had to literally explain something that became so embarrassingly obvious to me in hindsight: All humor stems from pain. It’s the distance we get from that pain that allows us to laugh at ourselves, and what a healing thing that is.
That’s my aha moment that came after. [Frances is] dealing with a horrible divorce, and not just going through it, but the sense of betrayal that’s there, and you don’t even get to feel special, because you’re this massive statistic. No medals of martyrdom in that department. It’s not terminally unique. You will survive. But at the time, you don’t think so.
The great thing about this movie is that the book [by Frances Mayes] was beloved and it was fresh. But there was no plot there that you could make a movie about. So Audrey took her internal wisdom and self-effacing humor and love of women (and herself as one), and the growth process of becoming mature versus immature — trusting yourself more — she inserted that into the book. Thematically, there was a similar thread: [The book] was written by a woman, and it was her journey, taking on a new life in Italy. But she was doing it with a husband! So the movie is Audrey inserting her journey and her learning curve of how to love again, from a broken heart. And it’s incredible. Because you go through each stage: doubt, horror, regret, feebleness. Everything. Your guts are on the floor. And let’s start from there. Where you’re slipping in your own viscera.
That’s kind of what it’s like, when you’re starting from scratch. I don’t think anything dies harder than a dream.
Audrey said she never considered turning to anyone but you to play Frances. Did you know that at the time?
No. I wave away compliments. I don’t take them well. I just smile and look at my feet, and I’ve gotten better at saying “Thank you.” But “no” would be the short answer to your question. She probably said it many times, and I didn’t believe it. One of those, “Oh, you say that to all the girls.” I dated a director before. I know how actors are spoken about when they’re out of the room.
At the time of the film’s release, you were interviewed and you said, “I already had the emotional equipment for this character. I completely understood her.” What were you referring to?
I had started from scratch multiple times in my life at that point. I had the bravery to uproot myself and move from New York City to California when I was 18; I moved to Georgia with a U-Haul after I felt my first earthquake. I was like, “Bye, gotta go!” But I came crawling back to California, happily. But in Georgia for 20 years, being a tax-paying part-time resident there near my mother, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and said, “I can do this.” I did Santa Fe, New Mexico. I reinvented myself in terms of pulling a geographic [relocation]. It takes some stoicism. It takes some long-distance friends who reminded you what you were thinking, why this was a good idea. Finding humor in the culture barriers — in our film’s case, it was the actual language, which makes it funnier — and bonding over poetry.
It’s a great piece of Velcro. It’s very sticky. You can understand somebody if they have the appreciation of a poem that you share. I digress.
What poems are helping you right now?
Funny you should ask! I’m in a rental home, and these people have an amazing array of books, many of which I’m familiar with, so I feel very consoled by some friends in the bookshelf. But I found this anthology of poetry, and I’m just gonna go upstairs to where it is — I looked at the spine and thought, “Ooh, what is this book?” This one is called Staying Alive. Not the Bee Gees song. “Real Poems for Unreal Times.” I thought, I’m pulling that down off the shelf! I need some grounding. I’m sleeping crazy hours right now; it doesn’t matter when I sleep or when I’m awake, since I’m in quarantine. This [book] is from 2002. I’m like, “You think it was crazy then?!” That book actually came out when I was filming [Under the Tuscan Sun], so there you go.
You also said during press for the film that it was “rare to find a role that gives you so much to do.” Do you still feel that way about the roles coming your way?
Audrey trusted me and my comedic potential. Once I had a little wind in my sails, I was completely seaworthy. You need somebody to believe in you a little bit. You can’t put a value on that. I remember seeing her on set, and she would always be elegant and feminine but never lacking in strength or power. I just gotta say it out loud. It was a beautiful thing to behold. And to do it in Italy, surrounded by men taking direction from her? That’s no small feat. I don’t think I answered your question. I think I dodged it.
You said the role was rare — and this is the last time I’ll quote you to yourself, I promise — and also that it was “refreshing coming off of Unfaithful, which was the male perspective of the female experience.”
There you go. That’s pretty apt. You want me to put a caboose on that train? [Under the Tuscan Sun] was like a salve on a wound. [Unfaithful] was a movie that dealt with trauma, that dealt with shame and regret and self-loathing — all kinds of things that come with feeling, you know, unfaithful. It was a very long and arduous shoot. [Under the Tuscan Sun] felt like rewards for my efforts in terms of being allowed to be a part of something that brings comfort. Sometimes you want drama, to be taken out of your life in a different way, but … [Laughs.]
I keep thinking of the scene where I’m jumping on the bed, screaming, “I still got it!” As a woman, that was hard.
I wanted to ask about that scene!
I mean, come on now! I’d never lost it at that point. This is another thing about the movies. I think the entertainment industry fears age and experience in some way.
You say “of course,” but why?
Well, I think it’s very clear that the industry fears age, especially for women.
The [scene] where she’s like, “Whew, wow, I’m still considered a viable sexual entity” — I’m like, “You can still have 12 babies, what are you talking about?” What is this criteria that we internalize? We witness this woman who’s internalized this stuff, and it’s just kind of preposterous. But we experience the preposterousness of the internalization of this self-doubt. If you want to feel young, just look at your old pictures. You’ll go, “Why did I feel so old and insecure then? Now I’m 95, and I was doubting myself at 79? I had a lot going for me at 79!” I think it’s a common human Achilles’ heel to have a sense of discomfort around numbers.
I’m interested in your experience of it. You’ve been in this industry for a long time, and like you said, it abhors women’s aging — how have you internalized or not internalized it?
I don’t surf, but I’ve surfed enough, to use an analogy. It’s like that. It’s a wave. You can harness it and have a good time. Or you can panic, freak out, and drown. [Laughs.] There are many options between those two extremes, but that’s how I look at it. I’m always accepting things on a daily basis, especially now, during this dang pandemic. It’s such an inside job, happiness.
Do you ever go back and watch your old work, watch your younger self?
No, no. I mean, once in a while I’ll go back and remember moments and go online and type in something about the scene, and I’ll watch a scene, like being in a punk-rock band, at 15 years old, with Laura Dern and two guys from the Sex Pistols. Sometimes it’s like, “Did I really live that? Or did I dream that?” There are some funny moments that I would compile for humor, in terms of things that went awry that I remember that are on film and they’re funny to me, but nobody else would ever see that it’s strange or odd or funny. Maybe another actor would.
Do you have any specific examples?
Just a stumble or a moment that was authentic, not scripted, but they kept it anyway. And in an awkward way. It would be nice to be funny on purpose sometimes. But [Under the Tuscan Sun] gave me that opportunity to be intentionally, I don’t know, outsized in terms of my reactions. I do feel sometimes that I am a bit outsized. I tend to want to rein it in a little, Lane.
In your real life or performances?
Yeah, in my real life. And then I see my performances and I’m like, “Why didn’t you trust yourself? You should have put it out there more!” An actor is a tortured soul. Never satisfied. That’s what keeps us addicted to the experience of wanting another swing with the bat.
To get back to Tuscany: What was filming in Italy like? Were you going out every night, drinking wine, eating pasta?
Oh, golly. I remember going to a little taverna that made the best minestrone I could get my hands on. I’d eat a big bowl of that with bread and butter. I’d even ask for garlic on the side, just chop it up, and bring it raw, it’s fine. I felt so nurtured by real, living food from the earth. You can’t replace things being made by hand. Nothing about it was trucked in, except possibly vegetables from another town. It’s just a different way of treating agriculture and food, getting out of the large scale of America. I was keeping to myself. I’d prepare for the next day. It was a tough workload. There was no scene I wasn’t in, hardly. I had to pace myself. There are so many wonderful memories I have of scenes that went well, at the time, but I can never be sure. So sometimes I’ll look back and say, “Did that go as well as I think it did?” And it did, it really worked.
It’s like jazz. It has to go well. Which is very interesting, because Audrey was a jazz DJ in college in Sausalito. I think, Houston, we have a theme here.
Is there a specific scene you remember going well?
Well, Lindsay Duncan. She is a formidable actress. Her tortured soul — or I should say inspired soul. Talk about a muse! Her character, Katherine, she defies gravity in terms of the way Frances was experiencing it. And sometimes you have to see somebody do it to believe it can be done. Of course, you see behind the curtain and see that Katherine does suffer indignities and pain in order to be so flamboyantly romantic at a whim. Of course it hurts to risk. But to not have risked is a different sort of pain.
I also enjoy that awkward moment of an American woman being seen through male European eyes. Not only are you white and female, but you’re from America, and you represent whatever Italians think about Americans. And that’s in the script. They deal with it a little bit. It was refreshing to consider, “Oh, we are not the end-all. There are other cultures with other versions of how to be female. How fantastic would that be? Can we swap for a few weeks and get a break from our old programming? So we can be refreshed with the opportunity to see ourselves in different lights, different frames?” And my first husband was European. So I always vibed with that sense of exploration.
There are these scenes where she’s being chased around and hit on by Italian men. Was that your own experience there?
[Laughs.] Well, I was always on duty. I had to go back to Cortona a year and a half later.
For fun! Because I didn’t get to have any when I was there. I mean, that’s not true. But I didn’t get to have any of the experiences that my character did. I wanted to have them, not just film them. I went back, stayed in the hotel room, went to the butcher, went to the cheese shop, and enjoyed the dang town for myself. Can you imagine? The [film] posters were still up! And it was so corny. I was so embarrassed. I’d hide and run. I wouldn’t stand anywhere near that poster. But I went back with a sense of purpose to just enjoy it, the tastes and the smells and the sounds. I knew exactly where I wanted to go and stand. I knew exactly where I wanted to go and sit. Where I wanted to have my cappuccino. Sit while the bells were ringing. Alleyways to walk at night. So I did selfishly allow myself that experience. It’s the only time I’ve gone back to a location and claimed it.
Did you go alone, like Frances?
No, but that’s okay. They didn’t get in my way.
There was an article a few years back in the Washington Post about the “Diane Lane Thing,” this quality you have that is sort of ineffable but makes you universally appealing. Do you know the article I’m referring to?
This is getting me into dangerous territory where I’m getting embarrassed.
Well, there’s a lovely quote: “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.’” Had you read that before? Does it ring true to you, this idea that you’re vulnerable and a survivor?
I think so, when it was printed. It was wonderful. Jane has a very — she does not mince words. She doesn’t say anything she doesn’t stand behind. So I felt very complimented. And I have survived a bunch of things. It’s funny, because I used to really be uncomfortable with that word, vulnerable. Oh, man. Some people fear it. Some people bury it. I remember that word coming at me out of the mouths of directors. That’s what they wanted, the vulnerability. But once you say it and name it, does it chase it away? Does it make it self-conscious?
Of course, when you’re an actor, you’re supposed to be able to say, “Faster, funnier,” and then do faster, funnier. And being vulnerable is an experience, and then conveying it is something else. I think it’s important to have [vulnerability] for my craft, for my characters. But I also — I don’t know. I don’t see it as a weakness. That’s one thing I’ve learned over a long period of time. That vulnerability is a tremendous gift, certainly in my line of work. I don’t think I could ever be a proper politician, because you have to have the skin of a rhinoceros, or something. I don’t know anything about rhinoceros skin. Maybe it’s sensitive and delicate, I don’t know. But it’s funny to be in an industry where you are literally judged for a living — if you’re popular it’s better, if you’re not it’s not so good. Now it seems like the whole world is in on that act. That’s what seems to have happened with social media. Like like like like like. I’ve never participated because I knew I couldn’t handle the heat and so I didn’t want to go into that kitchen. Some people like it, though. And I’m glad.
Who approaches you more about Under the Tuscan Sun, men or women? And what do they say to you?
I think women are more comfortable to say to me that they enjoyed the film, because it’s the female experience. Not a lot of men really kind of cop to that. Back when it was in theaters, and less than two years old, men would come up to me. It’s interesting. Sometimes they were angry about — oh, I’m confusing it with Unfaithful! Men would come up to me and they’d be upset. “How could you betray him?” But that’s because I was in Italy [when Unfaithful came out]. It was challenging to be a woman in that culture. You need to have a certain strength and I don’t really know what that is. I never found it. At group dinners, I’d notice that other people would get their food, and mine wouldn’t show up. I’d look at Sandra Oh and say, “Is it just something I possess, that there’s a void when I place an order in an Italian restaurant?” I’m kidding. It did happen but I think it’s a metaphor for a larger thing.
But people would tell me they really appreciated and felt touched by [Under the Tuscan Sun.] There was a knowing sense of, “I vibed that. I vibed the awkwardness and triumph.” It was as though we’d read the same poem.
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