Blythe Danner is on a bit of a roll right now.
The Tony- and Emmy-winning actress, currently celebrating her 50th year as a professional actor, is fresh off of her acclaimed leading performance in the Broadway play “The Country House,” and is now set to unveil her new film “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
From director Brett Haley, the film is a sensitive, astute and beautifully-acted slice-of-life, confronting big ideas such as loss and grief with crackling humor and unwavering honesty. Danner has earned rave reviews for playing the leading role of Carol, a widow of many decades who finds herself exploring new and unexpected relationships. Her supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches, including Sam Elliot, June Squibb, Mary Kay Place and Martin Starr.
A veteran in the business if there ever was one, Danner is quick to note that all of this attention is quite new to her. She’s also fully aware that getting a principal role of depth and nuance at an age over 60 is quite the rarity. In an exclusive interview, Indiewire had a chance to speak to her about that and more, including the actress’ thoughts on the differences between studio and indie moviemaking, working with a much-younger director and why Chekhov is the best playwright around.
So I loved the film.
I’m going to cry! That’s the best news I’ve heard. I don’t think anybody your age has even seen it, or certainly had that response. I’m so gratified to hear you say that. It is a film, I think, that speaks very eloquently to young people, especially people who are sensitive. Last night, a young friend went into the bathroom after the screening and couldn’t come out. She was sobbing. She’s about 40 now — that’s very young to me. [Laughs] And a very young friend who’s in her late 20s was weeping, and I thought, you know, I’m so impressed that these souls, these lovely people, can identify and see what’s ahead. They feel that this particular group of people, my age, has been marginalized.
To that point, I kept asking myself, “Why haven’t I seen this woman’s story before?” It felt so natural and real.
It has an ease about it. I feel guilty even saying this, but it was easy to make. This was probably some of the more complex work for me — a very three-dimensional woman. The emotional range that [Haley] allowed us to explore was so rich. I just couldn’t get over how easy it was, because it was on the page so beautifully. Having written it and directed it and edited it, he did something that most writers cannot do — cut it to the bone. I think it’s, in the end, a very positive film that deals with sentimentality in a very minor way. It’s just not terribly sentimental, and it could have been so. I really admired his discipline, being able to pull back.
One of the things I really admired about your performance in this film is that you never go “big.” And a big part of that is the balance of comedy and drama, which is so integrated. How did you approach that?
I agree completely. My favorite playwright is Chekhov. “Three Sisters,” “The Seagull” — these are plays that marry that so well. No other playwright, even Shakespeare, can play comedy right in the same beat, practically, as something so emotionally heavy. Somebody can be making a joke and then weep, and you buy it because it’s written so well. Not that Brett is Chekhov, but he’s close to the essence of that kind of difficult balance. It’s a high-wire act what he puts on that page, and he just gave us the freedom to explore. And in 18 days, you don’t have a lot of time to fool around.
Throughout your career, you’ve done studio comedies and a lot of indie films as well. Through the years, for you as an actress, what is the difference?
Give me an indie any day. Not that I’m not grateful for the studio work — that pays the bills. The indies don’t, but they give you something far more rich. The big difference that I would say — and there are a lot of differences — is that when you’re working with the crews, they’re like this: [leans forward]. They’re leaning forward. And there are [the studio] guys, who have been around the block and have done it for years and they’re all kind of hanging back. They’re lovely guys and they’re working hard, but they don’t have that curiosity.
[The indie guys] are still learning, and there’s a curiosity. There’s a hunger for wanting to make it the best they can make it by contributing what they’re contributing. It’s very alive on an indie set. I adore it. I don’t think there’s anything better.
Even with the time constraints?
I think we were particularly lucky because even though none of us had worked together before, everybody was on the same wavelength. “Let’s do this little jewel of a script. Let’s pay it what it deserves — full service.” We’re not holding back, we’re not doing anything that isn’t to serve it as it should be.
I’m also curious about your relationship with Brett Haley. He made his first film for $5,000. You’ve been in this business a long time — what kind of balance did you strike?
I was very nervous about whether I would have the stamina to do it — putting myself in this major, beautiful, three-dimensional role that would demand a lot of me in 18 days — and whether I could pull it off. And would we be talking? Would we be arguing? Would we agree? He couldn’t have been more wonderful. My agent said to me, “How can you pass up this role?” and I said to him “I’m only nervous about my limitations, and frankly this young man who did a very good job on his first movie, but this is a very different film. He’s dealing with old people now!” But he was just incredibly compassionate and flexible. There was never a major snafu. Everything worked.
We had a fabulous cinematographer, Rob Givens. They shoot it so differently now, with soft lighting and digital. I thought digital would be cruel because I’ve been on it in the past, and I just cringed. But they’ve really come a long way with it, and he definitely knew what he was doing.
How was it working with Martin Starr? He’s the youngest actor in the movie.
So wonderful. When I met him, we had tea the first day just to chat and get familiar. I felt so relaxed. At one point I asked, “Are you a Buddhist?” He said, “Yes.” There’s this serenity that emanates from him, and this sure-footedness. He’s just a wonderful, lovely, soothing presence. And he helped me both on and off the set because he was just there in a very supportive, loving way.
You also had great scenes with June Squibb, Mary Kay Place, Rhea Perlman…
I had to bite my cheek several times because they were so funny. In the pot scene, I said, “Look, I’m in every scene, girls. Just take it.” I decided there was nothing that I could really contribute except being stoned in my own, stoned way. I wanted them to be in it more, and I was so happy they were there. Just watching them was fun.
I also saw you in “The Country House,” and I’m just wondering with all of this attention you’re getting — is it overwhelming?
I don’t know what to do about it! I said somewhere, I’ve never been asked by so many people to talk. It’s just been really overwhelming. Here I am, celebrating my 50th year in the business as a professional — I got my equity card — and as I said, I feel a little guilty that this was such a lovely, easy shoot. Just getting wonderful feedback is a joy. It’s like having dessert.
Do you think it says something that this is really the first time you’ve had a chance to break out like this? You mentioned the “marginalization” of actors your age. Can you speak to the role of aging in movies?
I think that it’s changing and will change more. Look at the baby boomers who are marching through. They’re en masse now. I think there will be a greater need for this kind of a film. I’m hoping that they’ll embrace it, because as I said, I’m amazed by the generational gaps that have all responded so far. I think it’s just a human need, now, to [know how to] handle grief and loss. We’re alive for such a long time. As we live even longer, we’ll need to learn more and more of it. It depends on how we handle that as we move forward. It’s the price you pay for loving. It’s the price you pay for surviving. I think that this movie is a gift to all of us, in a way. I couldn’t be more pleased to be part of it.
“I’ll See You in My Dreams” hits theaters in limited release today.