Now Playing

Diane Lane stars as Alexandra Del Lago in Tennessee Williams’ "Sweet Bird of Youth"

Sweet Spot

by Matt Lee | Men's Book Chicago magazine | September 13, 2012

For an actor it doesn’t get much better than Tennessee Williams, and for Tennessee Williams it doesn’t get much better than the character of Alexandra Del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth. World-weary movie star Del Lago is picked up by young hustler Chance Wayne in order to further his own Hollywood ambitions and, convolutedly, help win back the woman he really loves. A signature Williams creation, she’s an unforgettable concoction of wit, lust and desperation. From Sept. 14 through Oct. 25, no less an actress than Unfaithful and A Walk on the Moon star Diane Lane visits the Goodman Theatre to star as Del Lago in white-hot director David Cromer’s production of Sweet Bird. We chatted with her about the play and more.

The most obvious question is, why a play, why now and why Chicago? Ha! I like that! I’m asking myself similar questions. You know, life is about saying ‘yes.’ When this came my way I was so excited to work with David, and it was such a large opportunity in terms of scale of expectation. With David… you know, I took some wind in my sails from his confidence in me. I’m a good sail; I do good with some wind. And I’m eager to apply some of myself that there isn’t any room for in front of a camera.

I understand that the film differs significantly from the play. Isn’t that something? What a world for an artist. Here’s a piece of art by an artist about an artist portraying an artist. It’s so kaleidoscopic. And yet [the film] neutered it. They did. I guess for ratings. Shocking.

The dialogue in the film is still so rich, though. What’s your relationship with Tennessee Williams? Did you become familiar with the play in your New York theater days? My theater days in New York are deeply archival! I don’t know if they hold any anchor as far as a comparison. I will say the experience I have of Tennessee’s work was doing A Streetcar Named Desire for television with Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin. But it was almost painful to film the play because you slice it up, as one does when they make a film, into these little quilt pieces, and it gets assembled later. We did manage to have some full run-throughs to experience it, selfishly, and to apply to the end result. But the feeling of connectedness to the experience with the audience was not something that I got to enjoy. So this is my comeuppance.

What specifically attracted you to the character of Alexandra Del Lago? She embodies a lot of qualities that are traditionally male, almost—in the sense of her power, her confidence, her audacity. And thank you, Tennessee, that will be a delicious meal to enjoy for once! Because the shrinking flower, you know, apple pie, what do you call that… the ‘sympathetic character!’ There you go! ‘Oh, she has to be sympathetic.’ I tell you, this is refreshing for me. Unfortunately I’m getting it all in a 20 cc dose to compensate for all the times I had to appease the feminine aspect of what moviegoers prefer. So you know, it’s just much more fun.

David said he hopes one idea audiences take away from the play is that we all have a complicated relationship with time passing. Do you agree? Uh, ‘yes,’ in a word. Time does morph, doesn’t it? It changes with our perceptions and with our strengths and weaknesses. It is an amorphous experience. It is definitely the currency of life; the great leveler of all playing fields. You never know how much you got until you don’t got it anymore.

I was just walking in one of those cemeteries from the 1700s, the founding fathers and all that, in Massachusetts, where my husband was working, and every epitaph was this finger wagging at you, like, ‘Oh, you’ll get yours!’ ‘You’re not going anywhere!’ ‘You’re all mine, it’s just a question of when!’ I mean really? That’s what you want your epitaph to say? OK, fair enough, I wouldn’t have much of a sense of humor at that point either. But yes, it is sobering to put it mildly. Or, it drives one to drink, right?

True enough! I’ve heard you’re particularly excited to work with Finn Wittrock, the actor playing Chance Wayne. He was very luminous and powerful in the Death of a Salesman production I saw on Broadway. I don’t get back to New York as much as I would like and I don’t see everything that I would like, so to actually have the memory of him from the audience... And it was a great feeling to not be flying blind in that department as well.

You recently filmed Man of Steel here. Was there something you enjoyed about the city that enabled us to lure you back? I’ll tell you a story. I was walking through Chicago and saw the bridge was up over the river—and there was a car teetering off of it! And there were cops everywhere and a crowd gathering! And I’m standing there watching this and I’m like, ‘Where are the news helicopters; this is incredible!’ I didn’t see any helicopters and I thought, ‘What’s happening?!’

And it was a movie being filmed! I think it was Spider-Man. And I thought, ‘Really? I’m the only dolt on the street who doesn’t realize this is a movie being filmed, and I’m here filming a movie myself.’ I fell for it! I’m such a yuckster.