That’s kind of the mystery of filmmaking. You’ll use every ounce of every minute you have. In the end, it seems to be enough.
The moving parts behind long-time film critic and New York Film Festival programming director Kent Jones’ semi-autographical feature Diane dates back to his pre-adolescent days growing up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which then became whole upon him seeing veteran actress Mary Kay Place’s performance in 1997’s The Rainmaker by Francis Ford Coppola. In that latter film, Place portrayed the plucky mother to a son fighting a losing battle to leukemia. “I just knew she was the one,” says Jones. “She had a soulful quality.” Diane’s titular character was written for and designed around Place, and evident in her flawless and astute delivery, it’s a role she was born to play.
Diane (Place) is an altruistic septuagenarian widow whose life is entirely devoted to the needs of others and she does what little she can to ease their burden. Her days are filled with cyclical encounters: contemplating life’s woes with her best friend, Bobbie (Andrea Martin), when they’re not volunteering together at the local soup kitchen, and playing gin rummy with her cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), who’s in the hospital with terminal cancer. Diane also spends a great deal of time checking on her wayward and duplicitous grown son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who has made a real mess of his life: he’s unemployed, living in a squalid apartment, and debilitated by his heroin addiction. But from snatches of her conversations with Donna, and later Brian, we soon learn that beneath her becalmed surface she might be atoning for a past indiscretion—her charitable disposition also stemming from a deep underlying guilt, and her propensity for busywork driven by a desire to impose order on a life that’s underpinned by distressing uncertainty. Is her apparent selflessness motivated by love or guilt? As long as she keeps making her lists and ticking them off, she’ll be okay. As long as she keeps moving—driving endlessly from one grey Massachusetts suburb to another—she will never have to look inward. To piece this puzzle together, we’re always hovering and eavesdropping, and what results is a windblown sort of movie that feels personal and tender yet unsentimental, and brimming with poetic cadences and understated rewards.
Diane picked up the Best Feature, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography prizes in the U.S. Narrative Competition at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Anthem shared a conversation with Place last week via Skype to discuss her towering, career-best performance and her future plans.
Diane hits select theaters and VOD on May 29th.
Hi, Mary Kay. How are you doing?
Well. How are you doing today?
Wonderful. I just saw this movie and it was incredible. You’re so phenomenal in this. I’ve been hearing raves since the Tribeca Film Festival last year. Films have such a long life, don’t they, even before they reach the general public? Are you a very patient person when it comes to stuff like that?
Well, I’ve never had a lead role before so this one has a little more—I have more skin in the game and emotional attachment. But I’m emotionally attached to all the movies I do. This one has a little more special meaning. I confess that there were times when I was wondering, “Is this ever gonna come out? Is the day ever gonna come?” But here it is, and we’re all happy about it.
I’ve been reading your other interviews and I can also imagine that people will be quick to comment on what a wonderful role this is for a woman, especially for a woman of a certain age. I think this is a great role, period—for anyone.
When did you know that this was something different? That it was going to be a good one.
The minute I read the screenplay. I wasn’t sure if it was actually gonna get made because it was unconventional. It was not commercial. It was a very unique screenplay structure. That it would be a hard sell. I couldn’t imagine who would give us the money for me do it because I’m not a name actress. I’m not on those lists of bankable actors. So I didn’t know if it would ever get made, although Kent [Jones] seemed to have this confidence that it would at some point. But none of the facts really lined up. It was kind of a miracle that it even got made in the first place. But the minute that I read the script, I thought it was really an interesting character. The script moved me. There were things that I didn’t understand about it, but it didn’t even seem to matter. It still held me in a certain way and it resonated in my body, and I know that’s always a good sign.
And this role was written for you.
I believe Kent sort of based Diane on his mother. It features the supporting women around his mother’s matriarchal family.
Was Diane somebody who was recognizable to you from your own life?
She reminded me of my grandmothers who lived in similar sized towns in Texas, and I spent my whole life going to those towns at least twice a year if not more. Always in the summer and on holidays growing up. Then as an adult going there as well. The casseroles were exchanged, taking the friends to doctor’s appointment—all the kind of stuff is the fabric of this. I really related to that. It’s about talking about those communities of people. I think there’s a diction in a lot of people’s families, whether they’re direct people in their lives or descendants of the family, we’re an addictive culture. That I related to because there’s addiction in my family. Not anything like this one, but there’s been alcohol addiction. Also, I feel like if you’re a human being, you had regrets and carried shame. In some ways, not maybe as long or big a burden as Diane carries, but we’ve all experienced that feeling. So I could build on that and imagine the rest.
I think we all know or have met Dianes in our lives: someone who’s so giving to others that they maybe don’t spend enough time taking care of themselves.
Or even know what they want or need. They’ve never even asked themselves the question. They’re used to that caretaking role. Probably their mothers and grandmothers were that way, too.
At the core of the movie is this question: is Diane simply altruistic by nature or is she trying to make up for some kind of unresolved guilt? In your understanding of her, do you think she was more or less selfless her entire life or did it come later? Is it inherent, like she literally can’t help herself but help?
I definitely think she’s both of those things. I think she behaves in a pattern that she’s done her whole life, and that her mother probably did. It’s just a pattern of behavior. I think she’s also a good person and cares about people, but I don’t think she knows any other way until later when she has time to reflect. She begins to understand more of what maybe her needs and wants are, and gives herself the experience of thinking about that and doing some of those things.
The film has so much to do with death. Diane is imprisoned by her son’s addiction. She watches her cousin fading away on her deathbed. She’s seeing her relatives pass from just old age. How do you think Diane feels about her own mortality? Do you think she was afraid of her own demise?
I don’t know if she was afraid, but I think she was getting familiar with the idea of death—surrounded by so much death. As one of the characters says—I think it might be Estelle [Parsons]—“What did you think? That you’re going to live forever?” You do think that as a child. Then suddenly people start passing in your family and you realize that death is part of living. I never thought about it until recent years, personally. I’ve played about four different characters who die, either on a TV show or a film. For me, I started thinking about it and what metaphor worked for me is that part of me that needed to die so a new growth or consciousness could come in, and I used that as a way to explore dying. I think she probably didn’t take the time, because you’re right, she’s atoning by being busy all the time so she doesn’t have time to think about this guilt and burden she’s carrying. At a certain point, she has time and faces it directly instead of avoiding it.
That’s so true. As long as you keep yourself constantly busy, you’ll never have to confront what’s real and scary. There’s such an amazing scene where Diane is just going at it with her son and his wife. It’s an amazing scene showcasing powerful performances in a movie full of them. Does a scene like that just sing on the page already when you read it as an actor?
Yes! I mean, all of it was juicy pretty much, but that was a juicy scene—definitely. And it was beautifully written, but it took awhile to get all the rhythms right. The movement and the blocking. The beats, piece by piece, of that scene. But once we got it, it was just really fun to play.
I believe this film was shot in 20 days.
The challenge of directors is very clear, which is trying to get everything you envisioned in the time allotted. What was the challenge for you on this project?
It turns out, even though it was 20 days, we had plenty of time. Things miraculously fell into place, in each blocking of the scene. The death scene at the end we went over and figured out the blocking before we shot because I was afraid we were not gonna have enough time doing the day of. We had all the time we needed. It was like the fishes and the loaves. It just happened that we had just what we needed. Then there were scenes that I was nervous about, but again, once we got into the actual scene and started working on it, it just seemed to work out. It was really exciting. It was challenging. It was pretty challenging, for sure, but somehow everything seemed to just ultimately work out.
It’s so rare to hear that on a movie. That you had what you feel was enough time. You more often hear that you were racing against the clock.
Well, we were racing against the clock. No question about it. Everything was done fast. But I’m used to working fast because I worked in television.
There’s never enough time so we’re always working fast. I like working fast. But it’s not that we were leisurely walking around the set. I didn’t mean to imply that. We had to work fast. But even the complex, complicated scenes we ended up having time to get them right, you know? That’s kind of the mystery of filmmaking. You’ll use every ounce of every minute you have. In the end, it seems to be enough. You can stretch it in some way to where it’s enough.
Just circling back to what you were saying earlier, you said there were parts of this script that you didn’t really understand because it is unconventional. I thought Kent’s decision to show us those transitional moments on Diane’s drives was so impactful. It gives the film rhythm. It gives her world such a sense of place that feels lived-in. What did you make of that on the page, which is maybe more an abstract idea for an actor?
I think the transitional use of it was good, but I also think that the monotony and the relentlessness of it said a lot about her routine. Somebody in the audience asked me a question and they were annoyed about the car thing. But I said, “As irritated as you were, think how irritated she was.” Every day going on these endless errands? Kent said, “You can’t walk anywhere in these communities.” You have to get in your car and drive to them. It’s a different drive from what we have in L.A., for example. It’s country roads. There’s a monotonous quality to it. It was part of the tone, I think, of the movie. It illustrated that. And like you said, you can see what the environment was from the car. No leaves on the trees. The winters aspect of the community at that time.
I really thought that those drives gave Diane such an ethereal quality as well, as if you’re drifting and hovering from one place to another—floating almost.
Yes. I love that. I completely agree.
It really lines up with the important spiritual quality of this movie as well.
Some people don’t sense those spiritual qualities. I definitely was hit by those when I saw the first rough cut. I’m very happy to hear that you also felt that.
This is a different question, but I’ve noticed you being described as being a character actress. I’ve always been hesitant to use that label because I know from experience it means something different to every actor. How do you feel about it? I don’t even know the origins of that.
I have no idea about the origins, but I love being a character actress. The characters are the most often interesting. That’s why they call them character actors—because they’re characters! Or as my father used to say, “Now he’s a charagulor” They’re often times more complex and interesting than the ingénue or the main person. Obviously, every film is different and in many films that’s not the case, but I’ve always loved being a character actor and continue to love being one.
Those are always the characters that resonate.
They’re the characters that separate the civilians from the martians. Character actors are the martians.
I had already known that you were a wearer of many hats: acting, singing, directing, and writing. I just had no idea that you were nominated for your writing on M*A*S*H and you directed a really iconic Friends episode—“The One with the List.” You obviously have a very rounded understanding of the overall creation. Is there something left to explore that you haven’t yet on either side of the camera?
No, I think I’m done changing hats. I think it’s time for me to just buckle down. There is one thing. I hesitate to mention it, but there’s a screenplay that I started years ago about my grandparent’s town in Texas. I failed at making it unique enough. I was just a little too conventional and I never really nailed the story. It’s this female coming-of-age in this small Texas town. Very personal. Before I pass away, I’ll probably be in a rest home, an old folk’s home, still working on it. Even if it doesn’t get made, it doesn’t matter. That’s the one thing I need to finish writing to the best of my ability. Whether it never gets made or not, it’s not as important as just the doing it—the writing. But if it was possible, then that would be the one thing I would ever want to write or direct. Otherwise, I’m very happy to be an actor at this point in my life.
I would love to see your movie get made.
Well, to get written would be the first thing.
[Laughs] So far, I’ve failed at that big time so that remains to be seen. That’s why I hesitate to mention it. That would be the only time that I would venture off. Songwriting I may do, though, because that’s fun. That’s for myself. But a directing job, I would never do that. At this point, I’d rather focus on this script and working as an actor.
You recently told NPR that Diane is a character study—a “character of the unlived life.” We so often talk about not wanting to be on our deathbeds thinking about the what-ifs. Is there something outside of acting that you’ve been thinking about exploring these days? Obviously, that could literally be anything.
I’ve been on a spiritual journey with centering mind and praying and mindful meditation and working with my dreams—dream images. So you’re working with the unconscious. Diane really started this whole journey that I’ve been on for the last three and a half or four years. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about that and the dream work and centering prayer and mindful meditation. So that’s been a big part of my life in recent years.
That’s amazing. I can’t say enough good things about your performance and this movie. It really floored me. I had read so many good reviews since Tribeca last year. It was already hyped up in my mind, but I wasn’t prepared for how good it actually is. I haven’t seen a performance this good in a really long time.
Wow! Thank you so much. I really appreciate that, and I so appreciate you helping spread the word about Diane.