'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Blythe Danner ('I'll See You in My Dreams')

The revered actress of stage and screen, a Tony and Emmy winner, talks about marking her 50th year as an actress with her first leading role in a film, for which she's received a Gotham Award nom.
Courtesy of Bleeker Street Media
Blythe Danner

"What a way to celebrate 50 years in the business," says Blythe Danner, the great actress of stage and screen, as we sit down to record the Awards Chatter podcast and begin talking about I'll See You in My Dreams, the 2015 indie film that offered her the first big screen leading role of her illustrious career. "I'm so used to playing supporting roles and really have been very content with that," the 72-year-old adds. "I mean, I never had a great surging desire to be a movie star."

(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes with Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet/Seth Rogen/Danny Boyle, Jason Segel, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Benicio Del Toro and others — on iTunes.)

From an early age, Danner's interest and ambition was in the theater, where she was a hit at an early age: indeed, at 26, for her performance on Broadway in 1970's Butterflies Are Free, she won a Tony. "I didn't really enjoy it," she confesses, because she found that the hullabaloo that comes with individual recognition can get in the way of work. "At that moment I remember thinking, 'I think I'm just gonna get married and have kids' " — and quite soon after, that's exactly what she did. In 1969, she married the director Bruce Paltrow, and gave birth to two future filmmakers, Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow in 1972 and writer/director Jake Paltrow in 1975.

Over the ensuing years, Danner dabbled in the movies — "I've always loved indies," she says, and appeared in some very good ones over the years, such as The Great Santini (1979), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990), The Prince of Tides (1991) and three for Woody Allen, most notably Alice (1990) — but she always found herself back on stage. (She received subsequent Tony noms for 1980's Betrayal, 1988's A Streetcar Named Desire and 2001's Follies.) "That's where I felt the most comfortable. The little bit of film I did way back in the beginning was, to me, constricting ... I just found it horrific. I did not like it."

That said, she accepted a role in the Focker franchise of big screen comedies — Meet the Parents (2000) and Meet the Fockers (2004) — that reminded many who had forgotten of her range. And from it she began being offered and taking more work in television, a medium more welcoming of actresses of a certain age than film, if not theater — and she did a fair amount of it between theatrical productions. She was Emmy-nominated for Will & Grace (1998-2006) and later, on a night in which she was up for a record-tying three Emmy acting noms, won for Huff (2004-2006).

When, now in her seventies, Danner received an offer to star in I'll See You in My Dreams, a low-budget indie about a long-widowed woman who finds new love later in life, she immediately recognized it as a good part — but had some serious doubts. For one thing, the director, Brett Haley, was still in his twenties — what could he know about the inner-life of a senior citizen? For another, she was "intimidated" by the thought of having to carry a movie at this point in her life — would she have the stamina? And, furthermore, she had some doubts about whether it would be painful or cathartic to revisit the sort of grief she herself felt when her beloved Bruce died of oral cancer in 2002, ending a beautiful 33-year marriage.

In spite of these reservations, she took the leap, said "yes" and says she is tremendously happy that she did. The shoot wasn't easy — just 18 days, with no rehearsal and shot only partially in-sequence (her preferred way of working) — but it was a joy. She bonded not only with the other actresses who played her character's friends — Oscar nominee June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place — but also with contemporary Sam Elliott (who played her character's lover and gave her the first kiss on the lips that she's received since her husband's passing) and young Martin Starr (whose calm demeanor greatly endeared him to her). She reflects, "Everyone wanted to be there and was really pulling for it."

There are scenes and moments in I'll See You in My Dreams that feature some of the most powerful acting that Danner has ever done — comforting a dying golden retriever, singing a heartbreaking song at a karaoke night, emotionally crumbling upon the metaphorically-significant entrapment of a long-elusive rat — which is quite an achievement in light of the fact that she has been doing such strong work over so long a period of time. The remarkable thing is that, in the world of film, she has never received any real recognition for her work at all.

That's, perhaps, why she says that the overwhelmingly positive response to the film and to her performance has meant a great deal to her — the standing ovation following I'll See You in My Dreams' Sundance premiere, the great reviews from critics, a best actress Gotham Award nomination and especially the heartfelt tributes from friends and family, including her children, who have hosted luncheons in her honor. "Having been a supporting player all of my life, all of my career, except in the theater, at first I had that same strange reaction I did when I first had success [with Butterflies Are Free]. But I just have embraced the celebration of my 50th year — and being acknowledged as someone who has done a good job in a starring role in a film has just meant the world to me."

Danner hopes that people will walk away from I'll See You in My Dreams reminded — by both her character's journey and her own — that older people have a lot to offer in the world if given a chance to show it. And, reflecting on it all, she makes it clear that she certainly plans to keep grabbing every good chance that comes her way: "I loved escaping from my own persona into somebody else's, and I still love that. I find a freedom in that that I don't have as a person."

I'll See You in My Dreams was released by Bleecker Street on May 15 and now is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Awards voters are being asked to consider Danner in the best actress category.