We caught up with the talented and sexy Selma Blair at the Los Angeles press day for her new film, The Poker House, a poignant gritty film set in small town Iowa and directed by Lori Petty. One of today’s most exciting and versatile actresses, Selma first gained our attention for her performance in Cruel Intentions, a youthful retelling of the classic novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Hit the jump to read the full interview.
Selma starred for two seasons as the title character in the WB’s Zoe and then appeared in the hit comedy, Legally Blonde opposite Reese Witherspoon. She then starred opposite Cameron Diaz and Christina Applegate in The Sweetest Thing and in two independent films that garnered her much critical acclaim: Dana Lustig’s Kill Me Later and Todd Solodnz’s controversial Storytelling.
Selma starred in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. She also appeared in John Waters’ A Dirty Shame. Her other recent film credits include Paul Weitz’s In Good Company opposite Topher Grace, Marcos Siega’s Pretty Persuasion, and Thomas Sigel’s The Big Empty opposite Elias Koteas.
Most recently, she co-starred opposite Greg Kinnear and Morgan Freeman in Robert Benton’s Feast of Love, opposite Antonio Banderas, Meg Ryan and Colin Hanks in My Mom’s New Boyfriend, and starred in Ed Burns’ Purple Violets. Her upcoming films include Happy Together with Dermot Mulroney and Hope Davis. Selma also stars alongside Molly Shannon and John Michael Higgins in NBC’s “Kim and Kim,” a U.S. version of the popular British TV series.
In her new film, The Poker House, Selma plays Sarah, a strung out mother who struggles against desperation and poverty to raise three young daughters (Jennifer Lawrence, Sophia Bairley, Chloe Grace Moretz) with a pimp father (Bokeem Woodbine) in a home overrun by gamblers, thieves and johns.
Selma Blair is a terrific actress and we really appreciated her time. Here’s what she had to tell us:
Well just be thankful you didn’t have to get into Sarah make-up today.
SELMA BLAIR: I could have used it. I liked that make-up.
Why? Other than the fact you’re totally unrecognizable.
BLAIR: Maybe that’s why I liked it. That makes your job so much easier to play someone. Those scenes where I’m looking in the mirror, it’s just like I can’t even see myself so it helps to not look like yourself when you’re playing a character that won’t look at themselves. That made it blissfully easy and working with Lori. I liked her make-up. I liked it. I like whenever you can have the help of something that can be a little bit bigger than the average character you get to play.
Does that change things as soon as you see when the make-up is done? You might already have had an idea and then you go in a different direction?
BLAIR: Yeah. Unfortunately for me, I also realized the last day of shooting that I have a great idea for this character. (Laughs) I was like, “Oh my God, it took me this long to get there.” But hopefully, live and learn and it won’t be such a slow process from here.
Did you dye your hair or was that a wig?
BLAIR: I had my hair blonde at the time. It was a wig but in the front it was my hair and the back. I do that a lot in movies. You know, I wear it like a fall. But yeah, I had my hair blonde at the time. Very light blonde.
What were some of those ideas that you had for the character later in the process?
BLAIR: Well I didn’t so much for that character, thank God, because it was such a short process. I think I worked on that film four days so I didn’t have time to say “Oh my God, I’m doing it all wrong.” And also, Lori was so instrumental in making sure that I felt right on with it at the start. She would tell me if there was something she wanted more of right away. I love that dialogue with directors. Sometimes they don’t do it because they want to be so respectful, like “Oh I won’t want to tell the actor or even give them a line reading.” I’m like no, no, anything to engage just helps you do it because in film we don’t have rehearsal time. We don’t have anything. We get the script. The first time you say the lines is in front of a camera. It’s practically an audition and hopefully you’re more prepared that that, than just an audition. Yeah, I like to engage in anything on set with the director or the actors and Lori was great about that. But yeah, no, other films, definitely. I’ve watched them and afterwards said, “Oh God! I have a great idea for this character. Much better choice I can make.”
Is that when you call the director and producer and say “Sequel. Sequel.”
BLAIR: (Laughs) No, that’s when I call them and say “Sorry. Sorry.” There’s a film I’m shooting right now that I really thought would be very different and I thought I was going to really play this gorgeous femme fatale that was completely out of touch with reality but at the same time was really the strong woman and give me two days alone with this character and oh God, she’s shattered. She looks like a femme fatale that went through the washing machine and I like it that way. I really love the characters that fall apart.
Is this character in Columbus Circle?
BLAIR: Yeah. She’s written this old timey heiress who lives…and her dialogue is very kind of Lauren Bacall. It’s evolved into something kind of twitchy and weird that has a very nice Ava Gardner wig on. (Laughs)
What was your first reaction to this material when it was presented to you?
BLAIR: I loved it. It was a quick decision. They said “Here’s the script. Lori Petty.” Love Lori Petty. Didn’t know her. Loved her. “We need an answer by tomorrow and it’s going to go shoot in a week in Illinois.” So I read it and, of course, I wanted to be on board. Anyone that’s going to pour their heart out in such a poetic and honest way without fear, without apology and without judgment. She doesn’t even judge her mother and her mother’s her biggest supporter now and wishes she were in the film more, like I’ve said. which I think is very funny. It was a special experience. I was on board right away.
Did you meet Lori’s mom in the process of making the film?
BLAIR: No. I didn’t. She wasn’t there when we were shooting. She was at a screening I was at but I didn’t see her. She’ll be there on Saturday. I’m going this Saturday for the Q&A.
Do you think if you’d met her first that it would have impacted your interpretation of the character at all?
BLAIR: Yeah, it might have because she’s a very different woman now. She’s a successful business woman and has been. (Laughs) Not a ‘has been’. She has been a successful business woman so I didn’t want to smarten her up. I’m afraid if I would have seen her in that way I would have added elements in that. No, this is a woman that’s really messed up right now. Let’s just show it. It doesn’t have to be sugar coated. She is *the* worst mom at this point. It’s bad. I didn’t want to take her mannerisms. She’s a much more controlled person now.
What was the biggest challenge you faced creating that character?
BLAIR: I don’t know it there were any. Maybe there was. It happened too quickly so I didn’t think about it. I know that there were moments maybe I was afraid it’s over the top. I’ve also said Lori was very “No, it’s not.” My instinct was it could have even been bigger. It could have been but I didn’t want to throw the whole balance off the film. The film is actually kind of quiet so if I’m completely tearing up the joint, it would have been like whoa! I mean, a character that is that lost in their life, you have carte blanche to be as big as you want but you have to have respect for the film so you stop. But [with] Lori, it was a really easy process. Once I got that hair on and those nails, I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t scared of it the way I am by some other characters.
Was your own upbringing considerably more idyllic than this movie?
BLAIR: I dare say. It was just as colorful in a strange way but we had a functioning family. I had two good meals a day and I went to grade schools and I was a well dressed, appropriate child. But no, there’s plenty to draw on and I’ll have to wait until my mother is dead to tell that story. (Laughs)
Hopefully it’s more of a comedy.
BLAIR: Because she will not forgive me. Yeah, if we mean…yeah, well, I’ll stop there. (Laughs) I love my mom very much. I want her to love me too.
You have such powerful scenes and interaction with Jennifer Lawrence. How was it working with Jennifer and the process of the two of you together in some of the pivotal scenes?
BLAIR: She was such a sweet, vulnerable and also really capable girl as this character, and the scenes that I have where I’m kicking her and stuff, yeah, that felt good. I liked that. (Laughs) It was really good to bully. It’s like all those things I had as a kid where all the people would bully me and I’m like I see how monsters are created. There’s like a certain satisfaction and knowing you’re in a safe area obviously, that you’re both in on it. Thank God. There’s nothing about me that wants to bully a child. It was surprisingly fun to kick around. I threw those kicks in. She didn’t see them coming (laughs) and I kept doing it each take, more and more, because I really wanted her to cry. I really wanted this character to cry because I was just thinking as my character. When I’m a miserable person, I push other people’s buttons to make them more miserable than me. I have on some of my worst days. So that was kind of my character, you know, every time I was in front of the camera, so yeah, I would just torture her. That scene in the bathtub, she was heartbreaking, and when I was doing my whole monologue which was going on for a while, I’d just look over at her and I’d just burst into tears and I couldn’t because my character wouldn’t cry. I would cry as Selma but my character wouldn’t cry for her in the bathtub. She’d cry for my make-up smear and the make-up and I’ve got to go out there. My character cries at all the things she lost. It’s not what she has in that bathtub. She’s not seeing that. That was a hard day because she’s such a vulnerable, beautiful young girl.
Was the kitchen scene filmed on that same day also?
BLAIR: No, it was the next day. She was really great in that scene.
How was Lori’s directorial process for you? You’ve worked with so many different directors. Does she go through it sequentially or does she break it out for you?
BLAIR: I think we actually went in order for my character. You know, I worked so few days. And so I think she went in order which was really kind of her so I could find those little moments if there were glimmers of love for my child, which I did have while shooting it, whether it came out or not. But I quickly shut them off and threw hate in her face instead because I didn’t want to feel that as that character. I can’t even remember what Lori did because it was really seamless. She just made me feel really comfortable. Sometimes she’d tell me to go off. I mean, not so much me because I’ve been around a bit more, but to Jennifer. She was like “What are you doing? Get off in your corner. Get off there.” She was always keeping her in that space of a child and these quiet moments for her and protecting Jennifer on set so she wasn’t distracted by Doritos and things like that. She just created an environment on set that was safe for everyone to play a big game of pretend and not ruin their own little psyche in it. We’re all just figuring it out. It’s such a tiny film.
Your choices in films are very diverse – from The Poker House and Storytelling to Hellboy. What goes into a choice when you’re picking a role? Is there anything specific that you look for?
BLAIR: No, I’m just all over the place. Sometimes it’s the director, sometimes there’s like two words in that script and I’m like “I want to say those words!” The whole rest of the script might be hogwash but you’re like, “I have one scene where I get to do this and it’s going to be fun.” No, now I have to probably be a little more careful. Probably if I’m lucky enough to have a career in this for a long time I imagine I’ll stick around that way doing completely insane, silly comedy and then something that might wound people a little bit more. I hope. I like that balance.
Seeing Lori go behind the camera and tell her own story, did that inspire you in any way. Do you have a story you want to tell? Do you want to direct ?
BLAIR: I do want to direct. I want to write more than I want to direct. I’m a bit afraid to write. My own experiences are I really honor people’s secrets and I’ve been a holder of a lot of secrets in my life and I wouldn’t want to betray them but at the same time they make up my life and they make an incredibly good story. I’m really torn on how to protect, how to really get far enough away but keep an essence of that without ever really betraying the people who’ve entrusted me with some of their things. I do, I do want to write. Hopefully, I will.
Did you see Lori struggle with any of that while she was making the movie or was she just so embracing of those secrets?
BLAIR: She was focused and they weren’t secrets any more and, like I said, she had her mother’s support and that was probably the one that you’d have to be afraid of offending the most because that was really unflattering light. But no, she was there. She was on board. She didn’t feel bad. None of us felt bad for doing it. I felt a little nervous when her mom was at one of the screenings. I said something really thoughtless on the microphone in the front. I was like “…and portraying such a horrible, hateful woman…” and I just meant within the script’s context. I don’t know her mother and her mother’s in the audience somewhere and afterwards I was like “Oooh, oooh, I messed up so bad. I gotta be more thoughtful.” I know nothing of her mother other than just in this dramatic moment. I think I did that in a few interviews about her mom. She’s not someone to be trifled with. I need to shut up.
Well, for you, it’s the character instead of the person.
BLAIR: Yeah, it’s the character. I never met her so I didn’t think of it and I didn’t want to meet her because I would have tried to make it nicer probably so she wouldn’t be mad at me.
You seem comfortable re-watching and reviewing your own work. Was there something you enjoyed most as a viewer watching this movie? I mean, aside from the scenes where you get to bully children.
BLAIR: I just really enjoyed – not having anything to do with me – I really enjoyed the girls. I really enjoyed watching how much Jennifer’s character really seemed to love her sisters and that was…you just don’t ever see it anymore. You always see everyone pitted against each other – children and popularity contests and all this stuff and all the modern stuff we see on TV, so I really loved this old fashioned love story between sisters. I really did enjoy that scene in the bathroom where my character is talking to Jennifer and Jennifer is so trying to reach out for love and this person just won’t see it. I think that was a beautiful moment for two characters.
What do you think is the secret to Lori being a survivor? This kind of situation could have broken another person.
BLAIR: I don’t know. I think probably that she’s such an amazingly creative person. She’s played a million roles. I mean, she’s played strung out hookers, she’s played physicists, she’s played everything and she’s such an adept [actor]. She can really tune into these characters. I think that probably might have. I can only conjecture. I don’t know. I think she’s a really honest person and I think she expresses herself to her mother, to her sisters and friends. She has a network of people that love her. This woman makes you love her. Lori is a really, really lovable person and really generous.
What do you think is the ultimate message that you would like to see the audience take home with them from this film?
BLAIR: I don’t know. Ask Lori that, she wrote it. These children survived and, especially the one that this most horrible thing happened to, she flourished and she will flourish and there will be setbacks and things. It really is a great survival story and love story of the sisters and also, by knowing that it’s based on really true events, and maybe even knowing that this mother, the one that seemed like she’d never return to the land of the living and caring, that she is and she supports this film and she supports Lori’s truth of how she wanted to tell it and that to me is one characteristic of a great mother that will let you tell your life the way you want to even if it involves you in a really, really unflattering way. There’s a lot of redemption in that and people do horrible things but you can choose to change and they all seem to.
Can you talk a little bit about working with Todd Solondz and what that was like?
BLAIR: I love Todd. Forever I will consider him to be one of my dearest friends even though we don’t speak very much right now. He is a very private man and he’s a very special man. I think he says what he wants through his work. I don’t think he wants his own opinions and blathering on, not that he’s one to blather, but I think things can be more special if you just let it be. His writing is so succinct. His things are so darkly comedic and I find to be very true even though some people are like, “Oh my God, that’s ridiculous. That sarcasm is crazy.” “Are you kidding? That’s a funny day in the life.” I mean, that’s real to me. I get it. He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t even want to walk around with a plastic shopping bag. He doesn’t want people to see his tuna sandwich. It’s too much information. I understand and I wish I could be more like him but I’m an actress that needs to try and sell herself or sell the story she’s telling or whatever. So, here I am, blathering on and you don’t want to see any of my movies because it’s fucking boring. I’m fucking boring you all. (Laughs) So he has the right idea. I’ve never done any good by talking to you all. (Laughs) Really. I’m not saying your jobs are useless. I’m saying there’s people that can do it more eloquently and that don’t need to. I wish I could just go to work and could be good at it and learn and tell better stories instead of telling how I’m trying to tell a better story.
Obviously the words speak for themselves, but I’m just curious as a front seat person who’s been on the set with him if you had any insight into what his process is as a director?
BLAIR: He was just very specific and it was such a perfect and controlled environment. I’ve never loved being on a set so much as I did on Todd’s and then Lori’s was kind of a second to that. I love him so much. I’m not trying to be cheeky with you, like “You know why. The work speaks for itself.” I also don’t ever want to betray him. He’s someone that doesn’t want to give out information about him so I guess… I know you say it as a fan and as a journalist and not at all as gossip or anything but then I’m like, “Oh, he doesn’t like to talk about it. I’d better shut up. What do I know?” And I haven’t even worked with him in six years so for me to start talking about him…
Is it tough this selling side of your job and being asked to do these things?
BLAIR: You want to do them because you want people to see the movie and I love Lori and I want people to see her movie. I want all success for her. There are some performances you’re proud of and you want to show them and then other parts, it’s like “Oh, this is the paying part of the job.” I get it. I do get it. I’m not trying to be an ungrateful little twat, but you know, I’m really not the most eloquent speaker in these and I’ll say off color things and get myself in trouble. It’s like I just wish I didn’t have any personality that went along with acting. I wish I could just go act.
But that would be a different interview.
BLAIR: (Laughs) Well, for whom I don’t know. Things in print look a lot more serious than you intend them.
You said you watch a performance and there’s things you’d like to incorporate. Do you feel in Hellboy 2 there were things that you incorporated from the first movie that you really wanted to do when you were given a second chance to do another film?
BLAIR: It was really tricky on Hellboy 2 for me because it was a completely different character. In Hellboy 1, she was so damaged and had all this baggage and was like a 12-year-old with her best buddy. She was going to make this decision that they would have this really sweet kiss at the end. I’m not watering the movie down to that but my character was this sweet, awkward, kind of Gothic weird thing and then in the second one she was a woman and it was important and that was really difficult. Maybe it’s difficult for me to play women. I’m so used to playing … not like it’s easier for me to play men … I’m saying I really had the majority of my career as playing an adolescent or pre-adolescent or woman-child. So, when I actually have a role that’s just a strong, capable woman that is supporting and loving her man and also dealing with pregnancy and all these things inside, the movie is such a grand thing so it’s all lovely being a part of it, more than lovely. I love those movies. You know, it was a very different character. I couldn’t bring much from the first one to it because she had let that go. She had to, to function.
Has there been any discussion on your end about a third one?
Get on the phone!
BLAIR: (Laughs) I would love to. I love those people.
Do you keep up with the comics since the movie has exploded into this huge thing now?
BLAIR: No, I’m not like a meltdown buying them whenever a new one comes out. I couldn’t even get my action figure. I had to get one sent to me from Universal. I went to the store. I was so embarrassed trying to buy your own action figure.
It is Universal. That is the problem right there.
BLAIR: They did send me some. I actually have three incarnations of my action figure – ‘on fire’ Liz, ‘really burning with fire’ Blue Liz, and then ‘regular’ Liz.
Is that odd for you going into a store and seeing a doll of yourself?
BLAIR: Oh, I love it. I just love it. I have no shame. Everyone else is like “Oh, it’s weird.” I’m like, “No, it’s not weird.” Oh my God, I wish I could give it to all my friends. I love it. That was a thrill. And she’s so petite. Her thighs didn’t touch the way mine do. (Laughs) She looked taller. Yeah, I loved it.
When you’re looking at the doll at the store, has anybody approached you and said “Oh, that’s you!” and they’re trying to….nothing?
Why don’t you take it off the shelf and display it next to you?
BLAIR: They knew who I was when I went in the store. I was like “Got any dolls that are like me?” And they were all sold out. I was like, “I know it’s so embarrassing but you only get a doll made once in a life, if that.” So, I’m going to go in. I have no shame.
That’s a good thing that they were sold out already.
BLAIR: I know. Right?
Well as long as you have merchandising rights.
BLAIR: Oh, puleez! Do you think I’m George Lucas and Harrison Ford? My God, no! I can’t even get a doll. Forget the merchandising rights. No, that was a thrill though. I have no shame. Oh my God.
Are you still finding that balance between the bigger, more commercial projects and then these kind of more interesting films where you can immerse yourself into the character and explore more?
BLAIR: I guess I’ll always go back and forth. There is a really light, joyous side to me that can tap into some really over the top comedy stuff. I love the physical comedy. I love all that and then I really love the stuff that’s the grey matter in our minds. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to do both. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to continue working…if I shut up (Laughs).
I think fans are more interested in what you have to say than you give yourself credit for. So, with that in mind, can you talk about the plot of the film that you have coming up next, Columbus Circle? How does your character in that fit in?
BLAIR: I play a reclusive heiress who’s been a shut-in for 17 years in her Columbus Circle apartment in New York. She’s been really damaged and there’s a murder than happens across the hallway and the police start coming around and they start to question her. She has one confidante in her life played by Beau Bridges and he was a friend of her fathers who helps support me in this seclusion. I have tons of money and so I order everything online which explains the really snazzy wardrobe. (Laughs) It’s a thriller and I don’t want to give too much away. Hopefully, it works and it will be worth telling. A couple moves across the hallway into the murdered woman’s apartment and brings me out of my shell and lures me into this. It’s the con in me, maybe. (Laughs)
With a script like that, which sounds like a mystery thriller that has a lot of twists and turns, are you good at figuring out the ending before you get to it?
BLAIR: No, no, I’m pretty lazy in the brain. I just keep reading. I don’t really think about it. This one actually surprised me. It was a good script but I think the way I’m playing it, I’ve changed the whole ending. I’ve got to tell those directors. (Laughs) It’s for real. I have too much chemistry with the girl, with Amy Smart, so now we look like we’re a couple. The whole character has changed. (Laughs) The whole thing. It’s so funny. The director takes me aside and says, “You guys have a lot of chemistry in these scenes.” So I was like, “It’s so weird.” She’s a reclusive shut-in that falls in love with the girl…that’s too much. (Laughs) I’ve ruined this film.
Ben Kingsley has said in the past that it’s much more difficult to play a drunk character with the choreography in terms of re-shooting and getting back in character. Did you find that to be true shooting Sarah?
BLAIR: Well, shooting Sarah, it was such a short time and we moved so quickly so yes, I imagine if it were to be a much longer shoot and you have to stay true to continuity while you’re also still kind of free falling with a character that’s drunk, because who knows what comes out when you have the liberty of being drunk, so yeah, I imagine what Sir Ben Kingsley says is…I can imagine. But with this one, we’d just do a couple takes so there wasn’t a ton to repeat but I was conscious of it. You have a continuity person coming up to you saying, “Okay. You stumbled here. You picked this up and turned it around in your glass.” And it is kind of difficult to have to match things when you’re free associating and free falling. Thank God the shoot was so short so it wasn’t that challenging.
I always look forward to seeing what you’re going to do when you’re doing a public event, when you’re on a red carpet or something because you seem to have fun with your fashion. Can you talk about your approach to personal style? Does it differ in your everyday life from what it is when you’re doing a big public event?
BLAIR: I think for a while I really tried to impress my mother when I’d get gussied up for a red carpet event. I hold her in the highest esteem and how she would put herself together and how she wanted her children put together with very classic fashion sensibilities so I really honored her with that and felt much more comfortable when I’d go out and just felt very appropriate for the event, because what comes out of my mouth isn’t always appropriate so I feel like you have to have a balance, like you can’t scare people away too much. But yeah, in my own life, I run the gamut from completely immature, kind of punk clothing even though I’m not punk but I do love some of the fun of that even though I’m probably far too old to wear it, but I guess a punk would say, “Fuck off! It doesn’t matter.” (Laughs) So, no apologies there. You know, I just wear everything. I mean, as a child I would dress in costume a lot. Every day was a different style at school and my mom thought I was crazy but I enjoyed it and no one ever gave me any flack for it. But no, I almost completely wear a gown one day and then wear a whole equestrian outfit the next day with the boots and the crop. I mean, ludicrous. But it was really fun and I think if you’re well meaning, the clothing is really, really fun. I like to be a little more conservative in my ‘going out’ life.
“The Poker House” opens in theaters on July 17th.