Actress Blythe Danner

Award-winning actress, one of the stars of the Fockers film franchise, explains why she feels more like herself when she’s acting.

Blythe Danner has won numerous awards and appeared in almost 100 films. She made history as the first actress to be nominated for three Emmys in the same year ('05) and won for her work in Showtime's acclaimed series Huff. She also won a Tony in '70, the same year she made her film debut. More recently, she's starred in the highly successful Fockers film franchise. Danner has a long-running association with the Williamstown Theatre Festival and also finds time to support various causes, including environmental issues and the Oral Cancer Foundation.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Blythe Danner to this program. In addition to her role in “Little Fockers,” the Emmy and Tony-winning actress can also be seen in the new film, “Waiting for Forever.” The movie opens this Friday in New York and L.A. Here now, a scene from “Waiting for Forever.”
Tavis: I saw you checking out the clip. What do you think?
Blythe Danner: If I could only see it. Well, I love to play these characters who are not quite sure who they are. She seemed a little whacky there, but she’s great. This film is delightful. It’s a romantic comedy, and Rachel Bilson is my daughter, and this wonderful kid named – an English boy named Tom Sturridge plays a short of Chaplinesque character who’s searching for his long-past girlfriend.
There’s a wonderful sort of little side story with Richard Jenkins and I, and even though we have not a lot too do, they’re very fully drawn characters and I love the fact that there’s comic and also very sad, there’s some very tearful scenes.
I like the challenge of having to create a character who’s small, represented small on the page, and try to flesh them out. That, to me, is a great challenge, I find.
Tavis: Let me go back to your first comment, because it struck me immediately, that you like playing characters who are not always so sure of who they are.
Danner: Yeah.
Tavis: What did you mean by that?
Danner: Well, I think sometimes there’s so much writing that’s one-dimensional, and I love to work with directors and producers who give you freedom to kind of falter and to be ambivalent or ambiguous, even. It gives you a chance to flesh out and to search, and to me, the fun of acting is reacting, first of all, which is why I’ve never liked to do a one-woman show, because acting is what you get from your fellow actor that gives you your grist for the mill. I just like that way of working and I like those –
Tavis: I’m only asking this because I saw you quoted somewhere speaking about this. In the comment you made, and I’m paraphrasing, was that relative to a movie like this, at your age you don’t get a chance to play three-dimensional characters, you don’t get a chance to play romantic characters, necessarily, at your age. Care to expound on that for me?
Danner: Well, yeah, there’s not a lot – I don’t get a chance to play the great roles on film. I’ve never been an A-list actor, so I’m very grateful when I have roles like this that come up because they’re just challenging. They’re great fun.
Also, I think actors anyway, I’ve always felt that I’m more myself when I’m acting, actually, even now. Now that I’m getting older I have less of this, but I’ve always felt more solid when I’m in a role than I am in life. I’ve always felt (laughter) kind of terrible about that until I heard Maggie Smith say that, apparently, that she felt so much more who she was when she was acting than she did in life.
And I thought, oh, well, good, if Maggie Smith feels that way, then I’m keeping good company.
Tavis: Why do you think that is the case? What do you make of that?
Danner: I don’t know what it is. I think it’s that actors are often brought up in a world that it’s not concrete, we’re not always the – we’re not great at doing all the – my husband used to say that I was not a concrete thinker. What is that? I was a, what do you call this?
Tavis: Abstract?
Danner: Yes, and he said that – and thank God he wasn’t, because he was the heart of the family and kept us all on track. But I think that sometimes acting just allows people who are a bit doubtful about everything to find solid ground.
Tavis: You keep saying things I want to explore, so forgive me.
Danner: Sorry, I know, I’m opening weird little doors there that –
Tavis: No, I like it. I’ll keep walking in. You keep opening, I’ll keep walking in. That’s what makes it fun for me. When you said a moment ago that you have never been an A-list actor, that came off your lips with such ease. You seem settled with that, you seem comfortable with that, where there are some folk in this town who want more than anything else to be an A-list actor in this town.
Tell me your viewpoint on the balance of your – the breadth and depth of your career and not having been an A-list actor over that period of time. That’s not always the worst thing, necessarily.
Danner: Well, for me it was great, actually, because I’ve always had a kind of anonymity.
Tavis: Unlike your daughter.
Danner: Yeah, unlike my daughter, who is –
Tavis: Who is an A-list actor who has no anonymity.
Danner: And has no anonymity. When I’m with her and I see what she and her husband, Chris (unintelligible) they go through, I think, God, please leave them alone, let them have a – let them live. They spend so much energy trying to do that that sometimes it’s hard for them.
They’re trying to find their privacy so much of the time, and I think it’s – for me, it was always I loved the stage. That was my first – that is still my first love. When I would come back, say, from Broadway doing a Broadway show and come here, my lady at the grocery store, “Ms. Danner, how was the shopping in New York?”
They didn’t even know I was an actress. So I kind of always thought that was kind of great.
Tavis: Again, you said this and I want to follow up on it. So you and your husband, which we’ll talk about more in a moment – I want to talk about the work you’re doing in his memory and his honor – but your daughter, obviously, we all know is an A-list actor, does, in fact, have little privacy these days. So you knew as her mother at some point you saw she was going into this business.
Danner: Yeah.
Tavis: Did you encourage that, did you discourage that? What do you make of the fact that now she’s in it, she and your grandkids have very little privacy now?
Danner: Yeah. Well, she handles it very well. As she said to me one day, “Mom, everybody thinks that they have this right to invade us in every possible way.” She said, “I didn’t seek this. I sought – I wanted to be a wonderful actress.” She grew up in a family where her father and her mother both were in show business and she loved that, but she didn’t set out to be a big star.
So she said that she gets so annoyed when people say, “Well, you should have expected this.” I think she copes with it very well. I just think it’s almost an impossible thing.
Tavis: You mentioned your husband a couple times. I want to come to this now primarily because – well, not just because of his work in this business, but because as you said earlier he was the rock in your family. So tell me about how a family moves forward when the father, the husband is gone, and he is, by your own admission, the rock?
Danner: Yeah. Well, as everyone has been through this knows, it’s far from easy and it’s nothing that leaves you. Maya Angelou, I think, said it so wonderfully in a poem, that the rough edges smooth a bit, but it still impacts you extremely strongly.
I get letters still from people who he helped. Bruce got the first diversity award from the Director’s Guild for helping minorities and women in the workplace. He was the first person, I think, to have a nursery for the then-called secretaries and helped a lot of those women become directors and producers.
All those guys on the “White Shadow,” from Timmy Van Patton, who’s now winning all sorts of praise for “Boardwalk -“
Tavis: Empire.
Danner: Thank you. Thomas Carter and –
Tavis: Denzel Washington (unintelligible).
Danner: – Denzel, Denzel, who actually said when Bruce died that he would – Bruce allowed him to leave “St. Elsewhere” for every single film he was offered, which is unheard of, because Bruce really wanted to give everybody a chance and he knew how talented Denzel was.
But all those young kids in “White Shadow,” a lot of them became directors. He was really proud of that award, that diversity award.
Tavis: What was it about him that made him so open to way back then, in fact, diversity, inclusion, balance?
Danner: Well, he grew up sort of as not a wealthy family in a wealthy town, and I think he saw people being somehow treated in ways that he didn’t always approve of, and he really was – he would talk to the men who swept out the studio exactly as he did the head of the studio, and it didn’t always win him –
Tavis: I can imagine. (Laughter)
Danner: Yeah, he almost put somebody through a window once who’d lied to him, the head of a studio. He was really – I think what people loved about Bruce is that you knew what you were getting. He just didn’t mince words. If he made fun and really teased you, you knew he liked you. But if he was – he could also tell you he didn’t. He was great.
Tavis: Cancer, the work that you’re doing on cancer now, tell me more about the ongoing work in his memory.
Danner: Yeah, the Oral Cancer Foundation is really one of the very top 10, I think, of the nonprofit cancer foundations, and the Bruce Paltrow Fund, because he helped minorities so much we have gone into towns for people who have not been able to afford the testing.
We’ve also been trying to get the message out that oral cancer is growing. Really, extremely high numbers now of young people – we’re trying to encourage people, prepubescent children, girls and boys, to get the inoculation against HPV, because HPV 16 is also found in cervical cancer, and they’re finding that this is growing because of oral sex and sexual contact.
We’ve just got to get the word out. There’s got to be a lot more done, and parents and grandparents, everybody should know about this.
Tavis: I want to circle back to the movie, and specifically the title of the movie, because there’s so many things that you’ve said in this conversation that I could draw a lot of touch points from relative to this title.
So when you saw the script, when you saw this title, “Waiting for Forever,” what does that say to you? How does that speak to you, the title, “Waiting for Forever?”
Danner: Oh, “Waiting for Forever.” Well, I have to say that the producers have said it’s pretty funny because we have been waiting for forever for it to finally come out.
Tavis: To get it done, huh? (Laughter)
Danner: It’s finally out and together and edited. I thought it was – I loved the very catchy, good title. I also, if I could, please, Tavis, just quickly land on the point of this cancer also growing not only from sexual contact but also because of the pollutants, and I was so happy to hear Obama say in his speech last week that they’re really going to push back and not allow anything to be tampered with that interferes with the health of our children and grandchildren and everyone in the country.
The public just does not know how much pressure is being brought now upon the EPA to weaken these laws. The lobbyists are just hitting them like crazy for mercury and so many pollutants. So we really, please, everyone should keep on top of this and write their congresspeople and let them know that the health of our children and of all of us is so important.
Tavis: Nothing more important than that, yeah. Before I let you get out of here, so the new film, “Waiting for Forever,” opening in New York and L.A. and later around the country, but speaking of children, there’s a whole new generation of children who’ve come to know you, young folk, thanks to Ben Stiller –
Danner: Thank you, Ben. (Laughter)
Tavis: – and “Little Fockers.” What do you make of that?
Danner: Oh, gosh, it’s so funny. On the subway in New York, because I always rode – I love the subway – and I’ve got kids who were saying, “Are you, are you the mommy?” I said, “Yes, I’m the mother.” (Laughter) That seems my big claim to fame.
Tavis: A whole new generation of fans.
Danner: I love it.
Tavis: Yeah, but you’re okay with that, though?
Danner: Yeah, I’m fine with that.
Tavis: Okay. So “Little Fockers,” of course, you already know Blythe Danner is in, but the new one, “Waiting for Forever,” starting in L.A. and New York, and as I said, opening around the country after that. Blythe, good to have you on the program. Thanks for talking to me.
Danner: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: It’s my pleasure.
Danner: A tremendous honor for me.
Tavis: And for me as well. Thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm