Blythe Danner is running behind schedule. By her own admission, she’s “not very organized,” but she’s had to push back our interview a few hours—okay, nearly five—for an unexpected reason. “All of a sudden, people want to talk to me,” Danner says with a laugh. “It’s a very unique situation.”
That’s because in her fifth decade as an actress, Danner has finally become a leading lady. (She says her turn as a free-spirited Texan in 1974’s Lovin’ Molly doesn’t count: “I was just getting my sea legs there.”) With top billing in I’ll See You in My Dreams (out May 15), Danner delivers an affecting performance as Carol, an elegant widow who reenters the dating scene with the encouragement of her girlfriends, played by June Squibb (Nebraska), Rhea Perlman (Cheers), and Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill). As she develops relationships with a frustrated pool man (Martin Starr) and a suave, cigar-toting charmer (Sam Elliott), Carol sees new opportunities in life’s later chapters. “I have such an understanding of this woman,” says Danner, who was widowed nearly 13 years ago after the death of her husband, director Bruce Paltrow. “I think one of the good things about living this long is that it’s all fodder. It’s all grist for the mill.”
As Carol, Danner exhibits quiet sincerity, as well as a penchant for sly wit, partly enhanced by her character’s taste for chilled white wine. “I love the fact that Carol tells it as she sees it,” says Danner. “It’s liberating to play someone like that. You can be snarky and pull it off.”
Directed by Brett Haley, who wrote Dreams with Danner in mind after seeing her in the 2012 indie, Hello I Must Be Going, the Kickstarter-funded film generated buzz during its run on the festival circuit, including at Sundance, where Danner’s performance earned a standing ovation. But unlike her Oscar-winning daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danner never wanted to be a movie star. In fact, she sought out ensemble films to avoid the attention of a lead role.
“I used to be very self-conscious,” she says. “I’ve always felt much more comfortable in company situations, and that’s how I began. I always wanted to be a good actress working with great people and doing work I wasn’t ashamed of.”
Age, she says, has freed her of some old insecurities. In Dreams, Danner tackles scenes where she smokes marijuana (“I was never a big pot smoker—it always made me anti-social”) and sings a soulful jazz standard. “That was actually my first
love,” she says. “I wanted to sing jazz more than I wanted to act.”
In the years since her husband’s death, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actress has kept busy with varied projects—she recently starred on NBC’s The Slap and in The Country House on Broadway—and with being a grandmother, but she admits that rebuilding a “rich” life hasn’t been easy.
“After Bruce died, I thought, ‘Oh God, what now?’ ” she says. “But I’m motivated to keep myself open to possibilities. I don’t want to close in.” Whereas the typical Hollywood actress tries to look 30 forever, Danner considers the passage of time more of a blessing than a burden. And retirement from acting is definitely not in the cards. “As long as I’ve got the energy, I would love to keep it up,” she says. “I’m very fulfilled at the moment. This particular movie has been… an unexpected present.”