Selma Blair could only talk for half an hour during our first session. That was as long as she trusted her brain and body to work together—any longer, and she feared her attention would wander or her speech would falter. “We are responsible in the knowledge that smaller moments will be clearer moments,” she said.
For Blair, not a day is free from the effects of multiple sclerosis, the autoimmune disease she learned she had in 2018 but which she says started attacking her central nervous system many years earlier.
This particular Friday in September had started off particularly difficult: She said she woke up in her Los Angeles home feeling “as bad as everyone else,” but she found that talking to people helped ease her discomfort. Blair said she’d had some good conversations earlier in the day and was looking forward to ours.
So when she had to take a break during this interview, she said with a delighted cackle, “it just means you’re boring me.”
That same unbridled bluntness persists in all her interactions, whether scripted or spontaneous, with cameras on or off, even when she shares her account of the time she went on “The Tonight Show” wearing a strappy top that accidentally pulled them sideways. It’s a story she told me proudly within five minutes of our introduction on a video call, as her fingers made a maelstrom of her cropped, bleached blonde hair. (To explain this style choice, she burst out in a brassy Ethel Merman-esque voice and sang, “I want to be a shiksa.”)
But Blair’s candor has come to mean a little more in the three years since she went public about her MS diagnosis. Whether she posts personal diaries on social media or appears on a red carpet, she understands that she is a representative with the ability to educate a wider audience about what she and others with MS are experiencing.
It’s a philosophy of maximum openness that she continues by appearing as the subject of a new documentary, “Introducing, Selma Blair.” Directed by Rachel Fleit, the film is an unwavering account of Blair’s life with MS and the stem cell transplant she underwent to treat it in 2019. (The documentary will hit theaters October 15 and air October 21 on Discovery+.)
As Blair explained, she hoped the film would make sense to viewers who feel challenged and insecure, whether or not they have a chronic illness.
“This is my human condition,” she said, “and everyone has their own, but I think we are united in feeling alone or scared when we have a big change in our lives. This was not a vanity project at all and I am quite capable of loving vanity.”
For Blair, the documentary is just part of a larger effort to understand herself – to determine how much of her identity has been shaped by her illness, and what will remain or change as she receives treatment for it.
“If this had happened when I was in my twenties, when I was trying to start a career and put a few shekels aside, I would have been mortified,” she said. ‘I’m old enough now. I get to know a completely different personality, and I am not ashamed.”
Thinking back to her upbringing in suburban Michigan, Blair described herself as a 7-year-old who lugged around her own copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference, the vast amount of information about prescription drugs, wondering why she was experiencing constant pain, fatigue and unpredictable mood swings.
These difficulties persisted into adulthood: the pain got worse, especially after the birth of her son Arthur in 2011; she had vision problems and involuntary muscle contractions in her neck.
Until she received her diagnosis, Blair said, she didn’t understand why her symptoms varied from setting to setting. “I can walk better in my house, but outside it’s like a sandbox,” she said. “In certain light my speech is interrupted, even though my larynx is fine.”
“It never occurred to me that there is a traffic jam in my brain,” she said.
In the flurry of attention that followed Blair’s revelation of her diagnosis, she was introduced to Fleit, and they agreed to start shooting the documentary in the days just before Blair traveled to Chicago for her stem cell transplant.
Fleit said Blair exercised no editorial control over the film, adding that the pursuit would only succeed if the actress was “willing to show the world what really happened — that brutal intimacy and honesty you just don’t see — and she was totally open to it.”
Fleit, who has alopecia universalis, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss, said she felt a special bond with Blair during the filming.
“Being a bald lady in the world gives me unique access to a certain kind of emotional pain,” Fleit said. “It doesn’t scare me anymore, and I feel uniquely qualified to hold the space for another person to experience that.”
But not everyone in Blair’s life immediately felt comfortable pursuing both the film and the stem cell transplant. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Blair’s ‘Cruel Intentions’ co-star and longtime friend, said she was afraid of the treatment, which involved an intensive chemotherapy regimen.
“I just felt like it was so risky,” Gellar said. “And her attitude was, yes, I’m fine now, but in 10 years I may not be and I won’t be a candidate for this treatment. It was now or never. And now or never is a very good definition of Selma.”
Gellar was also unsure about the film project – “I’m a very private person, I can hardly bear going to the supermarket,” she said – but she understood Blair’s point of view: she thought it was important to her son.
As Gellar recalled, “She would say, ‘God forbid, if I don’t make it, Arthur has a whole video diary of what I’ve been through. He never has to wonder, have I given up? He will know how hard I fought to be there for him.’”
For Parker Posey, a friend and colleague of Blair’s for nearly 20 years, the decision to make a documentary was as much a legitimate form of expression as any other artistic endeavor.
“This is all we have — your life as an actor, it’s all material, it’s all a story,” Posey said. “Do I go into something that gives me meaning, away from the narrow-mindedness of most entertainment?”
Posey added: “Anyone who can find purpose in creating what they should create and live their life courageously, that’s art. That’s the triumph.”
Blair, for her part, said that once filming for the documentary started, “I don’t think I noticed. There was really no directing and I mean that in the best way.”
She added: “I don’t think I’ve realized there’s a movie coming out that I’m the subject of. I didn’t really process that.”
As our half hour came to an end, we said our goodbyes and I told Blair I was looking forward to reconnecting with her in a few days. In a comically ethereal voice, she replied, “God willing, if I’m still alive.”
Our next session, scheduled for that Monday, had to be postponed when Blair fell from a horse she was riding over the weekend. As she told me in a follow-up call – this time over the phone, because video calls made it difficult for her to concentrate – she had lost her balance and stretched her thumb, but otherwise she was fine.
She was more ashamed of how she felt she had behaved during our first conversation, using her admittedly outrageous sense of humor to allay her fear. “I’m so shocked because there’s still, even in my mind, a stigma of, you won’t bring it — you won’t be able to make this mind-body thing work,” she said. “I’ll use a shtick’s defense if I feel like I’m shaky.”
She was also annoyed by a comment she saw on her Instagram account from someone who supported her documentary, but said, as Blair described the comment, “I wish an ordinary person did it, like a person who is not a celebrity, because it’s not the same.”
Blair added emphatically, “I’m an ordinary person.”
Cynthia Zagieboylo, the president and chief executive of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said Blair’s decision to share the story of her experience could benefit other people who have the disease and those who want to learn more about it.
“There’s no right way to go through something like that,” Zagieboylo said. “There are no two stories about MS that are the same and for people to express themselves it is very personal.”
When someone like Blair is open about her illness, Zagieboylo said, “people may feel less alone in facing the challenges of their own MS. People experiencing possible symptoms may recognize something. It could lead to an earlier confirmed diagnosis.” of MS, which means that people can be treated more quickly and that leads to better outcomes.”
She added: “There’s really no downside to sharing her journey with the world in a really authentic way.”
Blair said she had been told her MS was in remission, which she said meant, “There’s no clear path for my disease to get worse, and that’s huge. That gives you breathing room.” There was no set timetable for how long her stem cell transplant would be effective, but, as she put it in her signature style, “I could be hit by a bus sooner.”
One of the strange benefits of this period of relative calm is the chance to learn whether past behaviors that she considered to be fundamental components of her mood and personality—the outbursts, the impulsivity—might be manifestations of her illness.
Blair described a conversation with a neurologist who asked if she was taking medication for pseudobulbar affect, a condition that can lead to sudden uncontrollable laughter, crying or anger.
“I said, ‘No, this is just me, what are you talking about?'” Blair recalled. “She says, ‘Or maybe not.’ It never occurred to me.”
Blair added: “I don’t know if I will ever work out my neurological damage. I know I can find new ways, but I’ve been scarred for so long.”
She continues to help raise Arthur, whose tutelage she shares with his father, Jason Bleick, a fashion designer and her ex-boyfriend. But she said her son hadn’t been able to see the entire documentary.
“After about 20 minutes, he didn’t feel comfortable,” she said. “He was afraid that people would see me like this and talk behind my back or not give me a job.”
Blair said she very much intends to continue working as an actress and, as much as she’s seen as a step back from the industry, it’s not because she doesn’t put herself forward for roles.
“The parts that have been offered to me since I got my diagnosis are the old woman, the person in the wheelchair, the person bumping into walls,” Blair said. “I may be those things, but I’m still everything I was before, and I shouldn’t be relegated to that.”
But now that she’s brought herself out in the most sincere way, Blair hopes her efforts will remind others — and empower themselves — that this kind of transparency is valuable.
“There’s a difference it can make for people,” she said. “I don’t mean it in a flaky, soft way. I mean really make the time to move on because you never know what people have in them, and what a relief to know even adorable people like me” – she couldn’t suppress one last knowing laugh – “are bothered by their own brains and sometimes corpses. That is the comfort I would like to give.”