Director Marina Zenovich has a knack for tackling complicated male figures in her documentaries, including Roman Polanski, Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams. In her latest project, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong shares rare insight into his life, mistakes, and regrets with the two-time Emmy winner.
Over two four-hour installments, ESPN's Lance dives into Armstrong's rise and fall, from winning seven consecutive Tour de France titles and beating cancer, to admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs and watching those titles get stripped away. Zenovich also interviews members of his inner circle, teammates, and rivals to explore the athlete's life from every angle.
Ahead of Sunday night's premiere, Zenovich chatted with EW about what it was like working with Armstrong and why she thought a woman should tell his story. Part two of Lance airs Sunday, May 31 at 9 p.m. ET.
Entertainment Weekly: Other stories have been told about Lance Armstrong. Why did you decide to take him on as a subject?
Marina Zenovich: I had worked with ESPN in 2016 about the Duke lacrosse scandal called Fantastic Lies. Everyone was really pleased with it, and I enjoyed working with them, so we were looking for another project to work on together. One day, I got a call asking me if I'd be interested in doing a film about Lance Armstrong, and my first thought was, "Why?" There had already been films made about him, books written, and even fiction films. I remember hearing interviews he did with Howard Stern and Joe Rogan around this time, and he seemed to be in a different part of his life, and I thought maybe now he'd be more open. I love a huge challenge, so I flew to Austin to meet him.
My film was originally supposed to be about the U.S. Postal Service lawsuit, but we started filming as it was settled, which was a page-turner in his life. People have asked me why he decided to do [the documentary], and I don't know the answer because I didn't ask him.
What was he like to work with?
I had a lot of fun! You know, I've made films about people who don't want to participate and some about people who are no longer with us. So to have a living, breathing, energetic, smart, funny, attractive main character was awesome. [Laughs]
Did he shelve anything at any point?
He told me nothing was off-limits, and I could ask whatever I want so I went for it. I filmed him eight times from March of 2018 to August 2019. He let us into his home, let us film his kids, and we traveled all over. We traveled so much I became Executive Platinum with American Airlines! We went to Texas, South Carolina, Colorado, Oregon, and many places in Europe. I really wanted to tell this international story about how this American from Texas arrived in Europe and became the story.
With that being said, Lance is a professional in front of the camera. If there's something he didn't want to answer, he knew how to deflect. But I am really proud of the work we did, and I feel like the film had to be directed by a woman. As a woman, you come to the story much differently than a man would have. I was just really interested in him as a human being and viewed this as a character study on what it takes to kind of be this iconic sports figure who had such a rise and then this like incredibly dramatic fall.
It's interesting that you didn't edit out the moments where he's deflecting.
We had real rapport, but I did have to work with keeping him on track and getting what I needed from him. He's incredibly playful, funny, and light on his feet. It was fun to be around him. Having said that, he didn't bully me or lie to me, so I had to straddle those two worlds knowing how divisive he was and continues to be.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.