Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Selma Blair is one of those actors who stands out even in a giant ensemble. While appearing in her fair share of high-profile projects like Legally Blonde and the Hellboy films, she’s always maintained a steady pace of acclaimed independent work at the same time, from her collaborations with Todd Solondz (Storytelling, Dark Horse) to becoming one of John Waters’ most absurdist modern characters in A Dirty Shame. That being said, she’s more than happy to talk about her one line in Can’t Hardly Wait, too.
When we caught up with Blair, she was busy promoting the new horror-comedy Mom And Dad, in which she plays spouse to Nicolas Cage while suffering the effects of a rage virus that makes them want to murder their children. She filled us in on what it was like trying not to accidentally kill people with a meat tenderizer, filming Hellboy, and the one time doing the splits in an audition got her a job.
The A.V. Club: You get to do some fairly serious physical action in this one. It seems like you had an affinity for it—in the film you’re really gung-ho in those violent scenes.
Selma Blair: I would love a role that’s even more gung-ho. Mom And Dad—I didn’t view it when I read it as having some action, but yes, there was. What would seem like an innocuous meat tenderizer turned out to be the biggest fear of every PA and producer—everyone on set. You know, it’s dangerous, because you’re running around and you’re taking close swings at people with something that really could kill them. It’s not like you have a gun with no bullets that you’re doing cinematically. You actually have a weapon that you’re swinging at people [Laughs.].
So they tried to remedy that with a foam mallet, but then it didn’t have the heft that was real, so I was always, like, very closely guarded. It seemed so ridiculous, but this meat tenderizer was really the bane of every safety person’s existence on that set. There was a lot of pressure to crack the mirror right, to do things and not kill Anne Winters [who plays the teenage daughter] in the process. So it was a little bit tough. But I loved it. I’m a really athletic person—I’m not that coordinated, but I’m really athletic, so I would play a superhero doing my own stunts in a heartbeat. But hopefully not taking swings at people. That’s not a good idea for me.
AVC: So no more meat tenderizer scenes?
SB: No, it was really scary. You can really fuck someone up with a meat tenderizer, even just pretending. Because you have to get within a few inches of someone but not hit them, you know? But when you’re running around and you stop, it’s like, “Oh, my god.”
AVC: And it’s not just running around with it, but you and your co-star, Nicolas Cage, both have to go crazy at the same time. So you’re not only running around and doing this very physical thing that could easily kill someone, but you have to seem completely out of your mind at the same time.
SB: I mean, I find that I’m really good at looking like someone losing it. I really like that. [Laughs.] But at least Kendall was very—I mean, she would have been a good murderer. She was a good mom and she would have been a good murderer. She’d kind of have a plan and she’d guide Nicolas. So, for me, it’s not like I was out of control, frenetic crazy—I had a mission. But it was an added level of danger. I was a little nervous. And with real knives and stuff. You know, it’s not like the highest action movie, but those little things really add up on set and can really be a bit of a mindfuck.
AVC: According to IMDB, this was your first on-camera role. True?
SB: Oh, my god. Yeah. I loved that show so much. It was so ahead of its time. I can’t even remember the actor’s name in it—he still went on acting for a long time. The redhead. I can’t believe I can’t remember. [Michael C. Maronna—Ed. note.] That show was so charming and so good, and I was so thrilled to be playing the pretty high school student. I’ve never thought of myself that way—or middle school. I was a middle school student! I was riding a bus—I was the girl on the bus. The episode was called “Das Bus.” Oh, I loved it. I had that on video and I just replayed it and replayed it for every friend that would watch. It was pathetic. I was so excited to be seen in that light, as the cute girl. I loved it, I loved the wardrobe on it—everything. That director—I wish he’d hire me again.
SB: [Laughs.] The warrior princess.
AVC: Yes! This was a very memorable episode of Xena. [It was a TV pilot that was recut into an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess when it failed to go to series—ed.]
SB: It was like a spin-off of Xena and maybe they were going to make it into a TV show—they didn’t know. I remember the audition process; I was driving there and I was listening to The Cranberries’ “Dreams,” so I was thinking of that audition again recently with the sudden passing of Dolores [O’Riordan, Cranberries singer]. And I remember that song, I was like, “Okay, I can do anything” as I was driving onto the lot at Universal. And I went in and I was much older than the role. I was playing high school people, but I still looked relatively young in my 20s. Alison Lohman was there at the audition and she was so young—she was probably 14 or something. I did the splits in the audition for some reason—she was like a cheerleader. And so I think that got me the part. I think the splits—it’s the first time that got me a part. The only time, really, I must admit. [Laughs.]
And we went to New Zealand to shoot it, and that was actually kind of physical, too. I’m a terrible dancer. Terrible. Just the pits. And I had to do these cheerleading things and it was just cringe-worthy. I mean, I’m so bad, so that was painful. But I can ride a horse—that was fun. And Liz Friedman was the writer-producer and she wound up kind of co-creating Orange Is The New Black and then went on to do other things, and was a writer on House—producer, actually, I think. It was my first time away—we were gone for like six months. Yeah, it was a good experience. But I was tired; it was, like, really cold.
AVC: While you were filming, it was freezing?
SB: Yeah, I have pictures where I’m wrapped in one of those silver blankets between takes—one of those hypothermia blankets, you know? It was rainy in Auckland. We were in Taupo and Auckland, and [New Zealand] was the most gorgeous place in the world.
AVC: It feels like this was the coming-of-age movie from that era that never got as much attention as some others.
SB: Yeah, I remember I read that script and I really loved it. I was so happy to have gotten it and it didn’t really go anywhere. Dominique Swain had just come off Lolita, where she was just the most gorgeous, charming Lolita, and I was so happy to get [the script for Girl]. Jonathan Kahn—that was the director—I remember I went over to his house for Thanksgiving. Oh, my god, and Tara Reid—we went over to his house, and I had this horrible sense of humor. There was this huge coffee table book—and his mother was the nicest woman—and I joked—I suddenly lifted it over my head and pretended to slam it down on her head. [Laughs.] It was horrible. And she was terrified. Tara forever thinks I’m the craziest person and Jonathan—thank god—has such a good sense of humor and laughed. But I truly frightened this poor woman. I mean—ugh, god, my timing was just too good. It was horrible. So I’ve never done another movie for him. [Laughs.]
But we had a good time on set. Jay Ferguson was so great, and he was in Mad Men—he played kind of the bully-jerk. But I loved that. And that handsome guy who was in Powder—I can’t remember anyone’s names—
AVC: Oh, Sean Patrick Flanery.
SB: Yes! Right. Thank you. Yeah, he was a big deal. That movie—yeah, I felt really young making it. I felt really young in all those teen ones I did—they were really kind of the epitome of great teen angsty movies.
AVC: Speaking of which...
AVC: So many people have little cameos in that. You’re credited as “Girl Mike Hits On—”
SB: Number two?
AVC: Number one.
SB: Oh, I was number one! [Laughs.] That was a movie everyone wanted. I wanted the lead girl sooo badly, I think it was Lauren Ambrose. I wanted it so badly, I kept auditioning. I didn’t get it, but I think everyone that auditioned—because everyone went out for it—got some screen time in it, you know, like me. Like, a line. It was just one night of shooting, and my dear friend Deborah Kaplan wrote that and directed it with her partner. It was—it was just the time. Everyone loved that movie. I just had one night on it, but it was a good movie. I liked that movie. I’m still pissed I didn’t get that lead role. [Laughs.]
AVC: Talk about beloved movies.
SB: Legally Blonde was something that I just knew was going to make Reese the biggest star in the world. I had just finished filming The Sweetest Thing, and it was the same DP, and I had already finished Cruel Intentions, which is the same director. Wait, no it wasn’t—it was Robert Luketic on Legally Blonde—Sweetest Thing was the same director as Cruel Intentions. Look at me. It was my first time with Robert Luketic, but I had just finished Sweetest Thing with that DP, and I already knew Reese from Cruel Intentions. So it was like being home again. And I loved playing the girl I grew up with—I grew up on the East Coast, playing with girls named Abigail Harrington, and Weatherly Stroh—of Stroh’s Brewery. So that was home to me—just making it a little bigger. But I knew—seeing Reese handle that with such intelligent ditziness—and she’d just had her baby and she looked fabulous and she’s such a hard worker. I just knew. I remember doing press for that movie and Reese was already exhausted, but someone that would never say they were exhausted because she’s that much of a professional. And we just laid down on the bed together at the Four Seasons, and she’s like, “What are people going to think of this movie? They’re just going to think I’m some ditz.” I’m like, “No. They’re going to love you.” And they do, for good reason. She was amazing!
AVC: Now when you see her you get to say, “I told you so.”
SB: Yeah, right? But it was a game-changer. That’s an American classic. I was so proud to be Vivian Kensington. I still have an argyle barrette. Sophie Carbonell did such an amazing job with the wardrobe—it’s just iconic. Yeah, that’ll forever be—girls still like it. It’s not dated to them. Little girls now still watch it. Yeah, I goofed around on that set a lot. Osgood Perkins was on that—he had a small part—but I swear he’s going to be one of the most important directors. You just watch. He’s really come into his own now, and he just did a movie with Kiernan Shipka. [The Blackcoat’s Daughter—ed.] You see all these people that had such small roles in these things coming up and I’m begging them for a job.
AVC: That’s something of a recurring theme when we talk to people for this feature—so many films and shows from when people were coming up in the industry were full of actors in tiny roles who are now really well-known people doing incredible work.
SB: I mean, I feel like everyone I’ve ever worked with has surpassed me so much... I don’t think ambition was ever my strong suit. I always wanted to be successful, because you want to be good at what you do, but I’ve definitely always enjoyed playing a supporting part. I really enjoy the success of others. I mean, now that I’m older and have a kid, I like success on my own, but I always enjoyed all my parts playing the fifth wheel. I mean, just loved it. There was such freedom in it and I still got to enjoy watching everyone work. And people are huge now. I don’t think Reese would even remember me.
AVC: Todd Solondz’s movies come across as these little indie labors of love. I always wondered if making them is fun or if it’s this epic struggle of blood, sweat, and tears.
SB: It might be blood, sweat, and tears for Todd, because things are so important to him and so specific. He has such a rhythm and a tone. So while he may have to work so hard to keep that intact, it allows the actors the freedom to just breathe. Because he’s done all the heavy lifting. He really has. He has everything the way he needs it. And so we can just get there and be whatever he saw in the audition. It was my second time working with him. I love him truly, very much. And I don’t think he’d ever worked with an actor a second time. It was groundbreaking.
AVC: That must feel like quite the compliment.
SB: It was beyond flattering. I had done Storytelling with him as Vi, and Miranda was actually Vi years later. In the credits, you see it’s Miranda/Vi.
AVC: That’s right; it says “formerly Vi.”
SB: So it’s the same character. But it’s unimportant; it doesn’t matter. It’s just kind of for the fans to know and think about. It’s the most relaxing environment. Again, because he’s done everything. And his words are so clear and so spare.
AVC: Because it was the second time, did you feel like you had more of a shorthand understanding?
SB: Yes, yes. And we had spoken and we had remained friends, so I totally understood—and I was playing the same character, basically, it was just a little more depressed as time went on and her dreams were gone. Yeah, we had a shorthand ever since the first day of Storytelling, when I did a scene and I’m looking away at my boyfriend limping away, and I give the camera 30 different looks to show my emotions and he’s like, “Stop, you’re going to ruin my movie. Just look. Just look ahead.”
And I was like, “Oh! I totally get it. My apologies; I’m so embarrassed.” So I understood everything about this simple—you know, his lines really say it. He chose this character and we’re done. Less is more. So I got it. I would be ready to go back to work with him any day he’d ever have me.
Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), Hellboy: Storm of Swords (2006), Hellboy: Blood and Iron (2007)—“Liz Sherman”
AVC: It seems like you all sort of fell in love with your characters; you returned to them almost a half-dozen times, including the video game.
SB: Yes. I love Liz Sherman. I love Guillermo Del Toro. Everyone who’s ever met Guillermo Del Toro knows that he’s the most generous, creative, mind-bogglingly wonderful man. And I was so lucky that he had seen Storytelling and he asked me to do Hellboy. And then I watched Devil’s Backbone and I was blown away. And I remember my first meeting with him—he couldn’t have been warmer, but I always had a kind of immaturity about me dealing with people that were in charge. Not really knowing how to conduct myself. And I got on the floor and curled up into a ball under a desk, which is so weird—as I was doing it, I was like, “Oh, my god, you’re a freak. Get up. What are you doing?” And I looked at him like, “I’m so sorry,” and he’s like, “No, it’s natural. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?” He’s just the most giving person and made me feel not like a freak. And then I realized that’s okay, because that’s Liz Sherman. If she showed anything, if she had emotion, if she didn’t know what to do with things, she’d burst into flames.
She was this flat character, but at the same time had so much inside and had this power that spoke for who she was. I mean, that was her. That was how she ended up presenting herself. So he’s the most understanding man of people’s idiosyncrasies. And I’ve never done that again, but he allowed me to never do that again because he really made me feel safe. He’s such a wonderful man. And we shot that first one in the Czech Republic and I fell in love with Jeffrey Tambor, and Ron and Jeffrey and I lived in the same apartment building. He’s forever my friend. But I loved it. I loved playing someone with that power and that brokenness. I had some late nights in the Czech Republic. There was a lot of cigarette smoking. I hate that. I don’t know how I lived.
AVC: That was also your first experience with a super effects-heavy movie. Do you remember the process of dealing with that for the first time?
SB: Absolutely. I was just so lucky because I was wearing cotton and wool and a beret. [Laughs.] And I saw what these dedicated performers were going through—Doug Jones and Ron Perlman and the monsters—they were in makeup for a total of 12 hours a day. They were like six hours on, four hours off, in between touchups—and I just kept my mouth shut. What’s so amazing about Guillermo is he doesn’t do that many special effects: it’s there. He creates the monsters. You’re stepping into his brain, the most sensational thing. So you’re not, like, talking to a ball—you’re talking to the fish man that’s in the suit. It’s all creative. And of course my flame wasn’t real, but there always was a flame on set, near or in my face—things that were real, so you could get into that. The only time that was a bit unnerving was when I burst into flames in a mental hospital and I’m writhing on the bed, and I’m like, “How does one writhe on the bed when they’re bursting into flames?” And then there’s no flames. So that was a bit awkward. I remember feeling really self-conscious because it just looked like I was humping an exorcist.
But it worked out. And they layered that with some special effects—it’s great. But, yeah, I felt a little wonky that day. A little self-conscious.
AVC: I’m guessing this has slightly fewer happy memories than Hellboy.
SB: You know, I’d had my son, and he wasn’t sleeping—he was 6 months old or less—and I was a single mom going back to work. I was so grateful to be working in L.A., but it was a hard set, because it was two episodes a week, which is never done—except for Tyler Perry, no one’s jumping on that plan again. It’s exhausting. And, you know, I was a fan of Charlie Sheen—he’s an incredibly likable, affable guy—well, until he doesn’t like you.
SB: But I did genuinely really got along with him, I liked him. I think he has an amazing sense of timing. You know, the material wasn’t inspiring, necessarily, but it was a good job to have. And we had a falling out and it happened very quickly. Very quickly. But the actual experience, it wasn’t bad; it was just a fast-paced set. And the days were very, very, very, very long. I’ll just say that. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, two episodes a week is crazy.
SB: It really wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t a great ending. But I did 43 episodes; fine.
AVC: Guessing a John Waters set has a notably different vibe from just about any other set you can imagine.
SB: Yeah, it’s surreal. It’s so weird. We’re all doing it as if we’re John Waters at the table read at his amazing house with the most amazing artwork. And he is kind and he is generous and he is also—I mean, I’ve really worked with some of the loveliest directors, and John Waters… wow. I wish I saw him every day, because he’s a delight. But he does this reading, and we listened to a tape I think, of him doing all the lines. So it was in my head—John Waters’ voice doing my character, and I never let it go. So maybe that’s why he has such a touch to his movies—we’re all doing John Waters doing the characters. But to work with Tracey Ullman… [Sighs.] What a legend, what a beautiful woman. I already had known PJ—Johnny Knoxville—we were already friends. It was good. Putting on those boobs was surreal—that was like three hours every day being naked with some hot guy gluing on these prosthetics and dappling them to look like skin. But I’ve never had problems again with nudity after being that vulnerable. But some people thought they were real as I’m walking around the set.
AVC: What? You’re kidding.
SB: They were huge; they were utterly outrageous—Ursula Udders. That was a crazy movie. I don’t understand that movie at all. I don’t get it, but I’d work with John Waters again in a heartbeat. He’s just a delight. He’s wonderful. What an artist! What a kook. What an amazing person.