Blair wants you to see her living with multiple sclerosis

LOS ANGELES • Selma Blair could talk for only a half-hour in our first session. That was as long as she trusted her brain and body to cooperate - any longer and she feared her focus might start to wander or her speech might begin to trail. "We're being responsible in knowing that smaller moments will be clearer moments," she said.

For Blair, no day is free from the effects of multiple sclerosis (MS), the autoimmune disease she learnt she had in 2018, but believes began attacking her central nervous system many years earlier.

This particular Friday last month had started out especially tough - she said she woke up in her Los Angeles home feeling "just bad as all get out", but found that talking with people helped alleviate her discomfort. Blair said she had had good conversations earlier in the day and had been looking forward to ours.

So, if she needed to take a break during this interview, she said with a delighted cackle, "it just means you're boring me".

An unparalleled lack of inhibition has always defined Blair's best-known work. She is 49, with a resume that includes seminal works of teensploitation (Cruel Intentions, 1999), comedy (Legally Blonde, 2001) and comic-book adventure (Hellboy, 2004).

That same unbridled bluntness persists in all her interactions, whether scripted or spontaneous, with cameras on or off, even when she is sharing her account of the time she went on The Tonight Show wearing a strappy top she accidentally put on sideways. It is a story she told me proudly, within five minutes of our introduction on a video call, while her fingers made a maelstrom of her close-cropped, bleached-blond hair.

But Blair's candour has come to mean something more in the three years since she went public about her MS diagnosis. Now, whether she is posting diaries on social media or appearing on a red carpet, she understands she is a representative with an opportunity to educate a wider audience about what she and others with MS are experiencing.

It is a philosophy of maximum openness that she is taking further by appearing as the subject of a new documentary, Introducing, Selma Blair.

The film, directed by Rachel Fleit, is an unflinching account of Blair's life with MS and the stem-cell transplant she underwent to treat it in 2019. As Blair explained, she was hopeful the film would be meaningful to viewers who feel challenged and uncertain, whether or not they have a chronic illness.

For her, the documentary is just one piece of a larger effort to understand herself - to determine how much of her identity has been shaped by her disease, and what will remain or change now that she is being treated for it.

"If this had happened in my 20s, when I was trying to start a career and set a few shekels aside, I would have been mortified," she said. "I'm old enough now. I'm getting to know a whole different personality, and I'm not ashamed."

Thinking back to her upbringing in suburban Michigan, Blair described herself as a seven-year-old who toted around her own copy of the Physicians' Desk Reference, a massive tome of information on prescription drugs, and wondered why she experienced constant pain, fatigue and unpredictable mood swings.

These difficulties persisted into adulthood - the pain got worse, particularly after the birth of her son, Arthur, in 2011 - she had problems with her vision and experienced involuntary muscle contractions in her neck.

Until she received her diagnosis, Blair said, she could not understand why her symptoms varied from setting to setting.

"I can walk better in my house, but outside it's like a sand pit," she said. "With certain light, my speech becomes intermittent, even though my larynx is fine.

"It never occurred to me that there's a traffic jam that happens in my brain," she added.

In the flurry of attention that followed Blair's disclosure of her diagnosis, she was introduced to Fleit, and they agreed to start shooting the documentary in the days just before Blair travelled to Chicago for her stem-cell transplant.

Fleit said Blair exercised no editorial control over the film, adding that the endeavour would succeed only if the actress "was willing to show the world what really happened - that brutal intimacy and honesty that you just don't see - and she was totally open to that".

Fleit, who has alopecia universalis, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss, said she felt a connection to Blair as filming proceeded.

"Being a bald lady in the world has given me unique access to a certain kind of emotional pain," Fleit said. "It does not frighten me anymore, and I feel uniquely qualified to hold the space for another person who's experiencing that."

To actress 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 enterprise.

"This is the only thing we have - your life as an actor, it's all material, it's all story," Posey said.

She added: "Anyone who can find purpose in creating what they're supposed to create and bravely live their life, that's art. That's the triumph."

With our half-hour coming to its end, Blair and I said our goodbyes. Our next session, planned for that Monday, had to be delayed when Blair fell from a horse she was riding over the weekend. As she told me - this time over the phone, as video calls were making it difficult for her to focus - she had lost her balance and hyperextended her thumb, but was otherwise doing okay.

She was more embarrassed by how she felt she had behaved in our first conversation, using her admittedly outrageous sense of humour to paper over her anxiety.

"I get so spooked because there is 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 the defence of a shtick when I feel like I'm faltering."

She was also bothered by a remark she had seen on her Instagram account from someone who offered support for her documentary, but said, as Blair described the comment: "I wish a regular person were doing it, like a person that's not a celebrity, because it's not the same."

Blair emphatically added: "I am a regular person."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2021, with the headline 'Blair wants you to see her living with multiple sclerosis'. Subscribe