Blythe Danner on the Price of Aging, Insomnia, and Her First Starring Film Role

Photo: Mike Pont/WireImage

When we walked into Blythe Danner's suite in the Waldorf Astoria last week, we were greeted by an unexpected sight: Danner dozing gracefully in the hotel's armchair, looking every inch a member of Hollywood royalty. "Vulture?" she asked. "Are you going to devour me?" Thus began our first-ever interview with a fully horizontal subject."You'll have to forgive me for not getting up," she told us. "But I never tire of talking about this film. I'll talk till I'm blue in the face." The film in question is I'll See You in My Dreams, currently in limited release, which stars Danner as a lonely widow shaken out of complacency by her encounters with a rakish cigar aficionado played by Sam Elliott, and a floundering pool boy played by Martin Starr — two very different men, to say the least. Amazingly, it's Danner's first starring role in a movie, and as our critic Bilge Ebiri puts it, she "breathes deep life" into the film's small-scale drama. We spoke to her about her 50 years in the business, the price of aging, and her favorite lifestyle newsletter.

I can't believe this is your first starring role. Why did it take this long?
I have no idea. It's not something I sought, ever. I'm a stage actor. I've always felt like I belonged on the stage. I never envisioned being a movie star, and I still don't think I am: I'm a stage actor who's had the good fortune to get a great role in a movie. I've done movies over the years, some of which I'm proud of and some I'm not.

Which ones are you most proud of?
I love The Great Santini. The Fockers films were fun. That's the one the kids come up for. But this one, I just spoke to a young man who saw the film, he was sobbing! And I think it takes a special kind of young person who feels my generation is marginalized. You just don't see movies about my generation very much. We're invisible. And I'm glad that these young people are responding to the fact that you will grow old and die. You will suffer. We all experience loss, and grief is the price we pay for loving. You have to not fall apart, and keep going.

Is that what Carol is struggling with the most?
I don't know that she's struggling. I think she's gotten too content, you know? I think it happens to a lot of old people. I see it in myself. I like being alone. I like my own company. I don't like to be out and about, socially. I don't know whether that comes with the territory, being alone — we can fold in on ourselves too readily, in a way. But she likes her routine. She loves her dogs. She's not really seeking anything. Her husband's been gone for 20 years — the last thing she wants is to meet a guy. So I think it's great that she's jousted out of this sedentary lifestyle.

I was trying to summarize this movie to my parents. I wouldn't quite call it a rom-com, even though it is quite funny.
I think it's hard to describe. For me it's very Chekhovian. It really travels the gamut of emotions. You've got comedy and heartbreak almost coinciding. And no playwright does that better than Chekhov. That this young man [writer-director Brett Haley] was able to inhabit the bones of these older people and understand that life journey, I think, is remarkable.

What was the best direction he gave you? 
Relax. Breathe. My actor friends who were there last night, not even hearing one another, said, "You were allowed to breathe." It's such a gift. because that's when you start to find the nuances, just being allowed to be.

The film rests on your chemistry with Sam. Was that something you had to develop, or does Sam Elliott just have chemistry with everybody?
Did you meet Sam? [Elliott was giving interviews in another room.]

No. I just heard his voice, echoing down the hallway.
I stop in my tracks every time I hear him on television. I could listen to him read the phone book. He's just wonderful. So kind and gentle. It was so easy. I always feel guilty, because I've never done a film that felt so easy.

[Danner yawns.]

I'm so sorry, it's not you. I didn't sleep last night, on top of having a hundred interviews. I don't sleep. I'm an old lady that wakes up after four hours, kicking herself. I get so angry with myself.

What do you do when you can't sleep?
I read a little. I turn over, I watch a little something. And then I try to go back. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't.

What's the first thing you do when you wake up?
I barely open my eyes, and pray that there's light. And if there's light, I feel a little heartened. And then I look at the clock. If it's dark, I don't look at the clock, I just lie there and meditate. I don't even get up to read, I just say, you are not getting up yet. Breathe. Breathe again.

How would you characterize your relationship with Martin Starr's character? There's times it seems like it's verging on romantic, and even if the film doesn't quite go there, it doesn't close the door on it either.
I think it's great that Brett elected not to. I think it's a great friendship. They both need someone. They both are lost in a way. She is less lost than he is, but she's lonely. I turned to Martin when I first met him and I said, "Are you a Buddhist?" And he said yes. He just emanates serenity and a sureness that really helped in our scenes.

A more conventional movie would have made his character the main character. And I'm glad they didn't.
I certainly agree. Because then it wouldn't have been about my character!

Where do you think Carol's next step is after the movie ends?
She'll be even more content. She's lived again, and lost, but that old dog is symbolic of her carrying on. My only suggestion to Brett was, don't you think she should be doing more in the world? I said, I'd be out, hopefully volunteering, working on Planned Parenthood ... And I think his point was, we just want to examine a small world. I think it was very smart of him to keep it like that.

It's almost like a play cast.
It is. And we worked together like a play cast. It almost had the feeling of a little repertory company. All of us. 

Have you seen Five Flights Up? It's got Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton as an old married couple. It's sort of the mirror-image movie to this one.
No, I haven't. I haven't been reading a newspaper or anything. I don't go online because I hate it all. I don't understand it. I can't make my brain and my fingers cooperate with the text. I'm just a mess. I belong in another era.

Do you read Goop, though?
Of course. I'm a devoted mother. That's the one thing I know how to do. She's a very bright, brilliant girl, my girl. She's really handled all of her life quite well. She's got a thick skin, which we all have to have in this business.

Is that also one of the reasons you don't go online?
I don't like to read stuff. I don't even know what they write. I'm told, but it's hurtful to see things written about your baby.