Filming "Cinema Verite" was an odd experience — even for veteran actress Diane Lane.
The HBO movie focuses on the true, behind-the-scenes story of "An American Family," the 1973 PBs series that is widely regarded as the very first reality show. By extension, the family the series focused on — aptly named the Louds — became the prototype for the Osbournes, Simmonses, Kardashians and every other reality family that's followed it.
The meta aspect of the production — there was "a camera crew filming a camera crew," as Lane explained Tuesday night — made for a layered, somewhat complicated production.
Lane and her co-star, Thomas Dekker, spoke to about 200 people at the Landmark Theater in West Los Angeles after a screening of the 90-minute pay TV film. The screening and panel discussion, moderated by TheWrap's editor-in-chief, Sharon Waxman, were part of TheWrap's Emmy Screening Series.
From May to December, 1971, a PBS crew filmed about 300 hours of the family's life, ultimately condensing it to a dozen episodes.
Lane, Dekker and the other actors who portrayed the family watched the episodes the way some folks read the Bible.
"It was like an actor's dream," she said. "A gold mine … How could you not watch?"
She explained that watching the actual people onscreen gave her and her castmates a deep understanding of the characters' quirks and styles.
Dekker said he "got" his character by watching the real-life Lance Loud on the Dick Cavett Show.
"I'd never seen anyone like him — move like him, walk like him," Dekker said.
He said that before he got the role, he hadn't heard of "An American Life," and that he has enjoyed the reaction of others who didn't know about the show.
And they got a deep appreciation for the family and for that time in American life.
Lane explained that unlike today's reality show characters, the Louds didn't have any idea what to expect — and didn't worry about being boring.
"They had no guile," Lane (pictured center with Dekker and Waxman) said. "Well, not no guile."
Lane's character, Pat Loud, is the mother of the family. Her husband, Bill, played by Tim Robbins, frequently travels and has a series of affairs. Her oldest son, Lance, played by Dekker, is openly gay in an era in which it was rare to be open.
And they all come across, though flawed, as human and likable.
Some of it is that they don't entirely understand what they're getting into with the new form of entertainment now called reality TV.
"Nobody had ever been burned yet," Lane said. "After that, you can't say you're not warned."
In addition to that, Lane said it was fun to watch Gandolfini, who plays the show's producer, in a different sort of role.
"He really did transform himself," she said. "He was so happy to step away from Tony Soprano."
During a question-and-answer session with audience members, Lane said she enjoyed playing Pat Loud and likes playing more complicated characters.
She said the Angelica Huston character in "The Grifters" is the sort of role she'd like to land.
"That's fun," she said. "I mean, evil is fun … I'm eager to see the shadow side of women come back into cinema."
Lane's next major role, however, isn't quite so dark: She plays Clark Kent's mother in the upcoming "Superman" movie.
It's a good role, she said.
"The ultimate challenge is to raise a good man."