Actress Selma Blair takes on a role of a lifetime in new documentary about life with MS

click to enlarge Selma Blair was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an aggressive autoimmune disease that affects more than one million people in the United States, in 2018. - Brian Bowen Smith
Brian Bowen Smith
Selma Blair was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an aggressive autoimmune disease that affects more than one million people in the United States, in 2018.

Selma Blair is on fire.

The Michigan-born actress is in New York City on her first press junket in what feels like forever and she's excited to walk to get coffee and soak in the east coast autumn air. She's thrilled to have bumped into a friend, and pleased that she and the person were able to recognize each other through face masks, because, as she says "I can understand that love anywhere."

Blair, 49, is also tired. She has some steam left, but admits to feeling sleepy. She compares herself to a kid waiting to take a test as she barrels through back-to-back meetings and interviews, talking a mile a minute with the strength, eloquence, and self-awareness of someone who has not only taken tests (and aced them) but someone who has been tested in ways most people will never experience.

All in all, though, Blair is having a pretty good day.

"Let's check-in with each other," she says via telephone, a siren wailing in the distance. "How are you feeling?"

Despite it being a "good day," Blair says her body is eating her teeth now, and she's started dyeing her pixie cut in shades of white and silvery platinum to disguise the patches of hair loss as a result of her newly acquired alopecia. Sentences sometimes get lost in an uncontrollable brain fog and the sleepiness that inhabits her on this particular day, as it has been, for as long as she can remember, a loyal and unwelcome companion. Her body is, and always has been, in flames.

These are all symptoms stemming from Blair's multiple sclerosis, an aggressive autoimmune disease that affects more than one million people in the United States, and is, as Blair says, a "snowflake disease," meaning it is unpredictable and manifests differently for every person, making it difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to explain. Though symptoms vary, MS ultimately is a neurological war between the brain and body's communication, one in which the body's immune system and central nervous system (that's the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves) develop an abnormal response to each other. This internal chaos causes inflammation which, in turn, damages the fatty protective substance that insulates the nerves, as well as the actual nerve fibers themselves. The damage, much of which is often permanent, can cause a range of speech and mobility issues, as well as tremors, numbness, loss of vision, dizziness, fatigue, difficulty focusing, and loss of muscle control and coordination, just to name a few.

There is no cure.

For Blair, her diagnosis took nearly a lifetime to confirm, validating years of gaslighting by doctors who assumed she was just another exhausted actress/mother/woman after enduring years of barely existing in a body plagued with unexplainable pain, fatigue, and self-doubt as her brain, unbeknownst to her, short-circuited.

But for Blair, an MS diagnosis wasn't a bad thing. It was an answer, and one that would lead the star to take the role of a lifetime: herself.

Blair's journey with MS as a single mother and a working actress is the focus of a new vérité documentary from director Rachel Fleit. Introducing, Selma Blair is an unflinching portrait of Blair's quest for a stem cell transplant, an extreme procedure with a high mortality rate which is often performed to stop the progression of illnesses like MS. Blair received the grueling treatment over a two-month period in Chicago during the summer of 2019, and, as the documentary reveals, was one of the most difficult experiences of her life. For the viewer, well, it will break your heart. But, thanks to Blair's ability to laugh through it all — with some help from some comically small rubber hands — the film is also restorative, healing, and a reminder that sometimes, being brave can be as simple as deciding to stay in bed.

"We have a long time to be dead," Blair says at the start of the film. "And I spent so long trying to kill myself, or numb myself, or check out — or figure out how to be alive by being half dead. And now I just want to help other people feel better."

Blair was diagnosed in August of 2018, and revealed her MS two months later on an Instagram post. "I am disabled," she captioned the doctor's office mirror selfie. "I fall sometimes. I drop things. My memory is foggy. And my left side is asking for directions from a broken GPS. But we are doing it. And I laugh and I don't know exactly what I will do precisely but I will do my best."

She continued, "I want to play with my son again. I want to walk down the street and ride my horse. I have MS and I am ok. But if you see me, dropping crap all over the street, feel free to help me pick it up. It takes a whole day for me alone."

The post has garnered nearly two thousand likes and thousands of comments from fellow chronic illness warriors, some as recent as last month. "I might have MS, but MS doesn't have me," a new comment reads.

Four months following her initial post, Blair appeared on her first red carpet post-diagnosis for the Vanity Fair Oscar party, her short blond hair slicked back, her body draped in a flowing pastel gown, a cape, attached to a bejeweled choker, floating behind her, and in her hand, a black cane. It wasn't intended to be a statement, as Blair frequently relies on canes and other mobility assistance devices — it was a necessary accessory and, for many, it touched on the importance of having someone of Blair's status show the world what it looks like to stand tall and strong while also wobbling, unphased. Blair, and those closest to her, consider this coming out of sorts as a life-defining moment, one in which the star of films like Cruel Intentions, Legally Blonde, and Hellboy has never looked more beautiful.

Blair appeared on her first red carpet post-diagnosis for the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar party - Kathy Hutchins /
Kathy Hutchins /
Blair appeared on her first red carpet post-diagnosis for the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar party

"I think a lot of my chronic illness was embarrassing for me pre-diagnosis," she says. "And there was self-medicating that kept me away from people because I knew I could act sleepy or strange but I couldn't understand it. I thought, 'I'm just not cut out for this world.' I mean, that is what I thought, because I didn't know that I really had some neurological issues that were making things quite hard at times, and so the deal was, I'm gonna just be hones, because it seemed to really help me in a time of need on Instagram at one time.

She adds, "The kindness of strangers and my responsibilities as a mother really transformed me, and when I made the decision to do stem cell it was me committing for the first time to just get through this treatment good or bad because we have this experience and maybe I can help someone feel less alone. It's not changing the world, but it could change someone's life, and who knows if they're going to change the world."

Making a documentary about Blair's illness wasn't always the plan.

It wasn't until she decided to undergo the stem cell transplant that she realized the process should be documented, with the intention of being a gift to her son, Arthur, because, as Blair says in the film, they were shooting what she thought were the final days of her life. And she's not being dramatic (though she is fully capable of being totally dramatic). Doctors instructed Blair to make funeral arrangements prior to the treatment, not because they thought the MS would kill her, but the fight against the MS could. In a tearful-turned-smile-inducing moment prior to her initial intake procedures, Blair considers a costly green burial over being buried in a Jewish cemetery. "They've never really liked me, the Jews," she says, puffy and weepy. "I'm part Jewish."

It was her former publicist-turned-manager, best friend, and, as Blair jokes, fake husband, Troy Nankin, that reached out to Cass Bird, a photographer who had previously shot Blair to inquire about a director who might be a good fit for this deeply personal project. Bird just so happened to be in Costa Rica with Fleit, who had only three short films under her belt. A month later, Blair and Fleit met over FaceTime and a bond was made. Fleit was it.

"That's the greatest thing about Selma and this project for me as a filmmaker, and an auteur — nothing was off-limits," Fleit says. "We kept the cameras rolling even during really intense medical moments. And Selma wasn't in the edit at all. While she might have had a spark of inspiration that what she was going through would make a good film, as soon as I was brought on, her hands were off the wheel, which is very rare in a celebrity documentary," she says. "We did develop a serious trust between each other."

Like so many who were moved by Blair's courageous red carpet appearance in 2018, Fleit saw herself in her, too. Fleit, a New York City native, has alopecia universalis, an autoimmune disorder which prevents her from growing hair anywhere on the body. Though it's not medically disabling, it's something the writer-director has struggled to accept.

"I think human beings need permission sometimes to embrace ourselves," she says. "I watched her embrace herself in a way that really allowed me to do the same. I mean, I've been embracing myself, intermittently, and, like, incrementally, as life goes on, but being in such close proximity to a person who really chooses to accept it, and to really embrace who she is fully... not to mention the fact that she totally loses all of her hair in the middle of the film, so for a moment we're both bald. And she's just walking around Chicago, like, it's no big deal. And I'm like, holy shit, I spent my whole life hoping to have that ability."

“We have a long time to be dead,” Blair says at the start of the film. “And I spent so long trying to kill myself, or numb myself, or check out — or figure out how to be alive by being half dead. And now I just want to help other people feel better.”

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Unlike most celebrity vanity projects, Blair isn't a producer on the film and gave Fleit only one note: she asked for a photo to be swapped out from the archival footage because it was a photo of her aunt, not her mother. Never once did she shy away from Fleit or the cameras because she didn't look pretty nor did she ask for intimate moments (like Blair being bathed by a friend, nude in a bathtub, post-transplant, or the many times in which Blair breaks under the unbearable weight of existence) to be scrubbed from film.

"This is my document of her experience with almost no feedback from her, except her ability to show up and be honest with me on our filming days," Fleit says. "Beyond making films that show a different way of being in the world, I want to tell the truth, always. The truth is exciting to me and interesting. And I'm curious about the truth versus anything else. I mean, that's what I think we all want to see but sometimes we sort of settle for something close to it. And I think that's what is powerful about our film."

Letting go of control as a celebrity in filming an honest portrayal of her harrowing stem cell transplant journey was easy for Blair because she says she has never felt like a celebrity, though she admits she wouldn't mind feeling more like an A-Lister because "it can be super fun at times."

"I feel like a girl from Michigan that went to college and went to New York to figure out what she was going to do and had this dream come true," Blair says. "But there were other dreams. I wanted to be a writer and I was like, OK, what's going to hit, writing, photography, or acting, and luckily I got into acting and started working. It was a grind and I never really got famous, although I don't know if I ever tried, or could, you know? It's not like you have a choice to say, 'I have star power,' or not. I was happy to be invited to the party. I was happy to have a job."

She adds, "I was happy to muddle through."

click to enlarge Selma Blair and director Rachel Fleit bonded over losing their hair. - Discovery+
Selma Blair and director Rachel Fleit bonded over losing their hair.

Nearly two years following the transplant, Blair is now in remission, which means she no longer has lesions forming throughout her central nervous system. More specifically, she has relapsing-remitting MS, which the actress describes as having flare ups that come and go, but with each flare up, one accrues more brain damage, and the longer a flare stays, the more damage you accrue until you can no longer accrue damage — at which point the MS could backslide into being progressive.

The multi-step transplant process is a clean slate, albeit, a dangerous one. The treatment includes multiple rounds of intensive chemotherapy in an effort to reset the immune system, knocking it down to just 1%. The stem cells that have been harvested are then introduced into her body and, from there, the immune system slowly begins to rebuild itself. During almost every step, the risk of infection is high and even being infected with something as simple as a cold could be life-threatening.

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment in the film comes toward the end, following the procedure, when Blair returns to her personal rustic and overgrown Grey Gardens in California's Studio City. The transplant did not cure Blair of her symptoms because, like the illness itself, the procedure impacts patients differently and it can take up to two years to see the treatment's maximum results.

"While I'm in an amazing place, I have no complaints," she says. "All I'll do is complain, by the way. But the stem cell transplant, the bone marrow transplant, did halt my MS when nothing else would. But when I went home and I thought oh my god, I'm still exhausted and dizzy and anxiety is still in my veins, and that's a pattern I'm gonna have to learn just to help myself, and I was still just me. And I really bought this fairytale like yeah, you have a new lease on life — which is what the doctor said, and that is absolutely true, I have a new lease on life. This thing isn't progressively killing me right now, but it's still how I've always felt and that was a hard pill to swallow."

click to enlarge Blair had a hands-off approach to the documentary. - Discovery+
Blair had a hands-off approach to the documentary.

The film was initially a gift to her son, who appears throughout the film in various stages of disinterest (because, video games, duh) and intimacy. Perhaps the most tender documented interaction between the two comes when Blair allows him to cut and shave her head before chemo because he was scared of what it would be like when she lost her hair. Instead of shocking him with a bald head months later, he was given control of the situation, a beautiful moment — not to be outdone by the indoor dodgeball match instigated by Blair before she left for her treatment, set to the nostalgic backdrop of Usher and Lil Jon's hype anthem "Yeah!"

The documentary, however, quickly began to take shape in the form of a love letter to motherhood and, specifically, to Blair's mother, Molly, who died in the spring of 2020 during filming — and also during the pandemic. Introducing, Selma Blair also introduces Molly as a strong and complicated woman who, Blair says "tethered a darkness" to her early on, for which she is no longer resentful of. The film features two conversations between Blair and her mother, one of which takes place at the end of the film when Blair decides to leave a voicemail to her mother, well after she had died.

"Mom, oh my god, it's you!" she squeals into her iPhone. "Mom, you know how you called me maudlin before? Well, you ain't seen nothing yet! You're dead!" she laughs.

That moment in the film follows one a bit less dark and twisty as Blair refinishes and refills a mitten-shaped pond in her backyard — her very own Great Lake.

"It was my mother's dream that one day, we'd have enough money that shewe'd have a little house on the lake," she says. "All she wanted to do was be by a body of water and I could never do it, and certainly in California, that's not my paygrade, you know, those homes are millions of kajillions. And so I did the pool, and I call it Molly's Pond, and it's like a little Great Lake. It was here when I got the house but now it's my Michigan lake pond and it's Molly's, and I wish she was here to have a Michigan night with me, with the mosquitoes, and the gin and tonic and a cigarette, god bless it, and we'd just sit there," she says. "I miss it. I miss her. She was a really strong formidable amazing woman who really believed in the importance of being important and I never really got that, but now that I truly feel there is a space for my perspective at this time, that really does help people and helps myself. I think she would be proud, and I think there's some importance in that."

She continues, "She gave me different love and the love and support she gave me wasn't what I maybe I thought I wanted, but she gave me what I needed. And I admire and love her forever. I mean everything will forever be a love song to my mother."

Blair, who grew up in Southfield and attended Cranbrook (she even sports a Cranbrook sweatshirt in the film), as well as the University of Michigan, says she would move back to the Mitten State in a heartbeat, and, at one point, was looking at buying a house here to stay close to her family. But, for now, as long as, you know, global warming doesn't swallow California up, she's sticking to the west coast.

"I love Michigan, she says. "I mean there was a time I was very happy to leave, you know, like after college I was very happy to go to New York and leave my life in Michigan for a time. But you know, after being away, my mother dying and wanting to be so close to my sisters, especially my sister Lizzie... I would move back there in a second, but the fact is I share custody of my son with dad and he's a California guy, and his life here. But if the shit hits the fan in California, uh, Michigan, we're all coming home, and I'm bringing daddy and we're making a move," she says. "That's the plan."

It's hard to make plans, Blair admits, because of her illness, and her commitment to being a present parent, but even more so when it comes to her work as an actress. The documentary, however, will put Blair in yet another role, one she is already quite comfortable in: a notable figure with a chronic illness. It is this position that has primed Blair to become the face of MS, not unlike her friend and actor Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in the early '90s, and who inadvertently became the most famous person with Parkinson's. Blair doesn't mind her newfound responsibility within the disabled community, and says if she can "move the needle in any way" with her status or her illness that can be helpful to others struggling, then she is honored and privileged to be that person for those people. But she hopes that, in the process — because, as she says, navigating the world with MS is a major process — people show her grace and patience.

"I am OK, the problem is — and I'm not used to being the subject of a documentary — it's very different than playing a role because you're playing yourself, and the movies are still going once filming stops, and you're still the person and you'll always be the person until you're not alive," she says. "I'm just learning how to kind of be this new me that really is game for anything."

One of the most frequently asked questions Blair has faced following her diagnosis is when the star, who has enchanted audiences for more than two decades, will return to the big screen. The truth is, she doesn't know. Life with MS means being debilitated by a variety of stimuli which can provoke unpredictable symptoms. But she says, if the right thing comes her way, she wouldn't be as quick to dismiss the opportunity as she may have been before getting the transplant, because that girl from Michigan who once famously swapped spit with Sarah Michelle Geller? She's not dead yet.

"Lights can do things to my speech, you know, any new stimulus and transitions, moments of transitions, bring about a whole slew of symptoms and they pass," she says. "It's like hiccups and stutters and ticks and you know, things that I never would have thought I'd talk about before, but I realized, wait, maybe other people have this, and that's holding them back. Because, for so long, I was really ashamed and felt weird and thought people would judge me, and so you know, I want to be able to do my job as well as I could or better than I ever had before. So if that moment comes around, I will jump at it — if I could jump ... one day. I'm open to how I can be of service but also have a joyful life. It's going fast," she says. "It's going fast."

Introducing, Selma Blair is in select theaters Friday, Oct. 15 and will be available to stream via the Discovery+ app starting on Thursday, Oct. 21.

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