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Blythe Danner didn’t waste any time getting her professional acting career off the ground. After graduating from Bard College in the early 60s, the budding thespian quickly snapped up a series of impressive roles in live theater, from a turn in the musical “Mata Hari” to her Tony-winning performance in “Butterflies Are Free.” Danner is still performing live today, recently starring in “The Country House” on Broadway just last year. Her theatrical resume is an enviable one, complete with roles in such classics as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Seagull” and “Betrayal,” but Danner also moved into both television and film early on, which makes it all the more surprising that the Emmy-winning actress only got her first lead role in a film in 2014.
Danner has easily translated her talents from the stage to the small screen (her Emmy wins came care of her supporting work on “Huff,” the Showtime series she won back-to-back awards for in 2005 and 2006) and into feature film offerings, but the vast majority of her big screen roles have consisted of supporting turns that she elevated with her natural grace and unique sense of humor. Although Danner has worked steadily in the cinematic space since 1972, thanks to a role in George Bloomfield’s “To Kill a Clown,” and has made her mark in mainstream hits like the “Meet the Parents” series, Danner has — literally — never been a leading lady.
That changed in 2014, thanks to indie director Brett Haley, who cast Danner as the lead in his deeply charming “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January. Haley previously directed another festival hit, “The New Year,” which featured another meaty role for a talented actress (in that case, Trieste Kelly Dunn, who plays a shiftless bowling alley worker with a maximum of relatability and charisma). For “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” Haley and co-writer Marc Basch explored similar territory, focusing their film on an older widow (Danner) who tentatively embraces the idea that life can still pack some (mostly pleasant) surprises even in its twilight years.
Much like Carol, Danner got to experiment with plenty of new things for the part, including bringing a very compelling (and funny) friendship with a younger actor (Martin Starr) to life, getting romantic with a leading man (Sam Elliott) and even adding some girl power to sections of the film that see Carol hanging with her closest girlfriends (don’t let their age fool you, these women have some serious fun). There’s karaoke and lots of wine and even a little bit of pot, but there’s also some heartbreak and deep reflection. It was a big part, and even Danner didn’t accept that it was meant for her.
In May, the actress told The Toronto Star, “I’m always playing the friend or the mother or the crazy lady down the street. I thought Brett wanted me to play one of the bridge club who act as Carol’s support group. When he told me he wanted me to play Carol, I really had to think about it.”
Despite some initial trepidation — the actress told The Star, “Frankly, I was worried about my stamina. I’d never carried an entire film on my shoulders and I wasn’t sure I should try it for the first time at 72. We didn’t have a big budget and we were shooting it in 18 days. That’s really very short. Luckily, I had the weekends off, which gave me a chance to rest up” — Danner accepted the role, one that related to immensely.
“I’m not usually so enthusiastic about many of my projects, but I cherish the range of emotions this lets me use,” Danner told The Star, “the script did reflect a lot of the things I had gone through in life.”
A true labor of love, Haley and his team — including Danner, who became attached to her part early on — used crowdfunding to complete their production financing. The film debuted at Sundance in January to a flurry of positive reviews and a lot of love for Danner’s star turn-in-the-making. In May, the film was released in limited theaters, and it’s gone on to make a healthy $7.4 million at the box office (not too shabby for a film that utilized about $61,000 in Kickstarter funds to get made).
Also in May, Danner appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, where she reflected on how her own life experience actually made her the best fit for her first starring role: “One of the things about being my age now — I’m 72 — is that I’ve lived a long life and it’s all there, it’s all crisp [sic] for the mill, you know? So I thought, aren’t I lucky to be able to access all of this? So it didn’t frighten me. I just felt that this was a wonderful present that I was able to call on to so much in my life and I was surprised that this was not so heart-wrenching. I just — all the emotional stuff just sort of came in waves.”
The long wait, as it turns out, was worth it. Danner told NPR: “This is the 50th year of my professional work life, so it’s an anniversary gift, this movie.”
Indiewire has partnered with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand for September’s Indie Film Month. Enjoy exceptionally creative and uniquely entertaining new Indie releases (“Love & Mercy,” “The Overnight,” “Time Out of Mind,” “Cop Car” and more) all month long on Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand. Go HERE daily for movie reviews, interviews, and exclusive footage of the suggested TWC movie of the day and catch the best Indie titles on TWC Movies On Demand.
READ MORE: Project of the Day: ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’