A Candid, Vulnerable Selma Blair Explains Why She Invited Cameras to Document Her MS Journey

Selma Blair has been in pain her entire life, enduring bladder surgeries during her suburban Michigan childhood, getting unnecessary root canals as an adult and periodically even losing her vision. She had, and still has, ceaseless muscular-skeletal pain, and muscle contractions called dystonia in her neck that affect her speech. Blair just thought it was normal, that everyone feels these things — that to have a body means to tolerate pain.

“I’d compare myself to people,” Blair says. “I didn’t understand people didn’t hurt every day.” She pauses. “I’ve hurt since I can remember.”

While making those comparisons, Blair was not generous to herself. “I was chronically a miserable person,” she says with a dry laugh. “I was a loving person, but yeah: miserable, a bit sharp, a bit snarky, a bit angry that I had to get up and do things when I just chronically felt unwell.”

Blair rose to stardom in such movies as “Cruel Intentions” (1999), “Legally Blonde” (2001) and “Hellboy” (2004). Even as she suffered, she worked prolifically. But in August 2018, after a lifetime of baffling afflictions, she finally got a diagnosis at age 46: She had multiple sclerosis. While that turn of events, which she announced publicly that October, would be devastating to most people, for Blair, it was a relief.

“If I could have acknowledged that there was something real — a label that people understood — it would have just helped me emotionally,” she says.  “If I could have found this label and given myself some solace that I was actually a fucking trouper, I would have been much easier on myself.”

Blair’s story is now the subject of the film “Introducing, Selma Blair,” directed by Rachel Fleit in her feature debut. The documentary revolves around the lead-up to and aftermath of Blair getting a stem cell transplant — a radical treatment for MS — in Chicago in the summer of 2019. “Introducing, Selma Blair” drew rave reviews when it premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in March, having already been scooped up by Discovery Plus, the nascent streamer. It will get a limited theatrical release from Strand on Oct. 15, and will begin streaming on Discovery Plus on Oct. 21.

How Blair got to an emergent place with her always compromised health unfolds poignantly in “Introducing, Selma Blair.” Her already acute symptoms worsened after she gave birth to her son, Arthur, in 2011. “I really couldn’t move,” she recalls. “The pain was so intense in every joint, in my hip, everything.” Her self-hatred spiked as well, with her interior narrative, she says, sounding something like this: How am I such a weak lazy-ass that I can’t handle what every mother does?

The stem cell transplant procedure, which takes two months, is brutal — and the film isn’t an easy watch. Intensive chemotherapy brings Blair’s immune system down to 1%, after which stem cells that have been harvested from her body are transplanted back, rebuilding her immune system from scratch. At times in the hospital, Blair was at such risk of infection — stem cell transplants have a high mortality rate — that the vérité documentary uses her self-taped video diaries, because no one could enter her room for fear of endangering her life. “Introducing, Selma Blair” is the opposite of a vanity project, and rarely have the stakes been so high in a celebrity documentary.

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Brian Bowen Smith for Variety

Thankfully, the procedure worked. Blair, now 49, is in remission, meaning no new lesions have formed in her brain or on her spinal cord since the transplant more than two years ago.

Though the movie undoubtedly has a moving ending, and feels complete — Fleit finished filming in June 2020 and locked picture on New Year’s Eve — its story continues in the form of Blair’s actual life. Troy Nankin, her close friend and manager, who produced “Introducing, Selma Blair,” puts it this way: “She’s still in the movie. This is actually still unfolding.”

What’s unfolding is that Blair is making gains, certainly, but she’s still in a lot of pain, falls sometimes and continues to have dystonic moments when she talks. “You go into it thinking, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a cure.’ But what is cure?” Blair says. “It’s just a period of acceptance that I’m changed. And that’s fine; I’m lucky.”

Fleit makes it clear that Blair — very much the subject of the movie, and not a producer — gave her free rein. The director also has an autoimmune disorder, alopecia universalis, and related to Blair immediately. “The film is about the human spirit,” Fleit says. “It’s about ‘I’ve been born into this body; this is my life. Can I accept myself? Can I embrace myself? Can I help others while I’m here? And can I live the fullest possible life that I can?’

“I saw myself in Selma. And I saw that most human beings who are on this planet can relate, whether or not they have MS.”

When audiences watch “Introducing, Selma Blair,” they’ll not only bear witness to Blair’s medical journey, but get to know her as a person — as a mother, a daughter, a friend and someone who can crack a joke even in her most dire circumstances. Blair has been in the public eye for a generation, propelled into fame during the late ’90s/early 2000s teen boom in popular culture. She was a significant figure in the resurgent #MeToo explosion in fall 2017 as well, after coming forward with her story about James Toback: Blair was a voice in a Los Angeles Times story about Toback, alleging anonymously that the director had sexually assaulted her in the late ’90s. A few days later, she spoke out by name in a first-person account published by Vanity Fair. (Though Toback’s accusers number in the hundreds, he has always denied the allegations, and did again to Variety when reached last week.)

“Introducing, Selma Blair” reveals that Blair is once again in the middle of a crucial cultural conversation — one about disabled people, and the need to understand chronic pain and illness. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, and the long-term effects of a disease that’s afflicted tens of millions of Americans still unknown, Blair’s voice is coming at an essential moment.

And so is the hope she’s found in the past few years.

“We have a long time to be dead,” Blair says early in 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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Blair and her son, Arthur, in a scene from “Introducing, Selma Blair” Courtesy of Discovery Plus

To enter Blair’s house in a woodsy part of Studio City is to join her menagerie. Nankin texted earlier to say she’d left the gate open, and to warn of spotty cell service. The housekeeper, Mercedes, is vacuuming, and waves hello. Arthur, Blair’s 10-year-old son with ex-boyfriend Jason Bleick, floats in and out of the interview, playing with a manual balloon pump, and sometimes attaching it to parts of his mom’s body. Nankin’s assistant, Ben, who’s minding Arthur, brings in unsolicited iced coffees from the nearby Alfred. And Blair puts herself in the chair she thinks she’ll feel most comfortable in, while also pointing out that the Christmas tree to her left is in honor of her friend Carrie Fisher, who she says kept Christmas decorations up all year long. Blair’s hair — which Arthur shaved before her chemo treatments began, as seen in “Introducing, Selma Blair” — is now short and blond. When she plays with it as she talks, it sometimes stays in a spike of its own volition.

In the film, Blair is self-deprecating about her career in a way that’s rare in Hollywood — saying she knew she was never a star, and didn’t try that hard. She echoes those thoughts in person too. “All I could give is what I could give,” she says. “And I was always asking, ‘Is there a part for a corpse?’ Like, that’s what I felt I could play.”

In her 20s and 30s, Blair was working all the time, toggling between mainstream studio films and indies, such as Todd Solondz’s 2002 provocation “Storytelling.” She became a Hollywood fixture, and was frequently featured on magazine covers throughout the 2000s. She grew close with Fisher, to whom she looked as a mother figure. “I’m having a party! You’re so cute! Come, it’s my birthday!” she imitates Fisher saying to her when they first met, affecting a scratchy screech. In “Cruel Intentions,” Blair was 26 while playing 14-year-old Cecile Caldwell, a wide-eyed, preyed-upon ditz who eventually gets her revenge. “I was already kind of a worn-down, old Jewish soul,” Blair says about relating to Fisher, “and she was just a breath of fresh air.”

How Blair was finally diagnosed — and then got the stem cell procedure — is what she calls a “loving miracle in this Hollywood community.” After years of mysterious symptoms, which she’d sometimes write about on Instagram, her leg gave out while she was walking in a Christian Siriano show in February 2018. Blair says she knew that wasn’t psychosomatic, because she was so happy to be there: “I’m on the catwalk and wanting to be the shit — I love this moment!” A few months later, her hands basically stopped working, which she chronicled in a June 2018 video she sent to Nankin as she attempted to write him a note.

“Stuff was going wrong,” Nankin remembers. “And I — like a lot of people — was just blowing it off.” But after seeing the video, he thought, “Oh fuck, something’s up.” Blair says actor Elizabeth Berkley, “who I had known from Michigan through my life,” insisted she see her neurologist brother — who diagnosed her with MS. And then Jennifer Grey, practically a stranger to Blair, got in touch to say she was coming over, and told Blair about a treatment for autoimmune diseases out of Northwestern University that she’d heard about from a friend. Blair initially said “not a chance,” thinking “we’ll figure it out.”

But Blair kept getting worse, and she wasn’t responding well to the medications that typically treat MS. So she told Grey she was open to it, and Grey helped get Blair into the program.

With illness, especially with autoimmune diseases, there are countless doubters and haters telling you you’re making it up — and Blair had grown used to that from people commenting on her Instagram. “Yet there were also the people that were just tuned in to wanting to help, and —” she stops to compose herself. “That broke my heart open, and changed me forever.”

Once she made the decision to undergo the treatment, Blair thought it should be documented, even if only for Arthur to watch later. In March 2019, Nankin asked photographer Cass Bird, who had just shot Blair for Vanity Fair, whether she had any ideas for a director. At the time, Bird was on vacation with Fleit in Costa Rica, and facilitated the introduction; Fleit had directed three short documentaries, and was looking to do more. “These guys took a chance on a director whose biggest credit was a film about gefilte fish,” Fleit says with a laugh.

Fleit and Blair met over FaceTime that month. “She’s disarming and charming and lovely and kind and dear,” Fleit says. “And I knew very early on that this was a vérité film, and that I just needed to keep showing up, and holding the space for this woman.”

According to Nankin, their immediate bond was key: “If we hadn’t met Rachel at that time, I don’t know that anything would have ever gotten made. Because it’s not like we were going to do it regardless.”

He and Blair met with producer Mickey Liddell — Nankin’s former roommate — and secured funding for the project from Liddell’s LD Entertainment.

Fleit started production in May 2019, shortly before Blair left for Chicago. She completed filming during COVID, during which Fleit feels like the world was experiencing what Blair does every day: “We have no idea what’s going to happen, do we? That’s very much like living with an autoimmune disease.”

“When I was editing the film,” Fleit says, “I was like, ‘Wow, if Selma really allows us to show her in this state, we have something extraordinary.’ And she did.”

In fact, after screening a late cut of the documentary, Blair had only one note for Fleit: “She said, ‘Rachel, that last shot at the end in the archival footage is actually my aunt, not my mom. So you’re gonna probably want to replace that.’”

About being on camera, even at her most vulnerable, Blair says in a near shout: “Oh God, I loved it!” She stops to laugh. “Isn’t that terrible? I felt like I had a friend.

“I might not be comfortable once people see it. Because then you’re considering people’s reactions — or their sense of your drama or your personality or your chronic illness or whatever.”

Now that Blair has a future, she chooses to see her stem cell transplant — aided by all the nurses and hospital staffers who helped her — as a “rebirth.”

“You made it. You’re here,” she says. “This is a gratitude thing, and it doesn’t mean you’re going to always be comfortable.”

In “Introducing, Selma Blair,” Fleit asks Blair about acting again, and she says no. Director Solondz, who worked with Blair in “Storytelling” and cast her as the same character in 2011’s “Dark Horse,” says that decision would be “a loss to movies.” But as a friend, Solondz understands: “I think there are more important things — like her health and her family and her well-being.”

Yet Blair herself is less sure about that “no” right now — though she remains concerned that she can’t match take after take, and doesn’t want to “fuck up the day.”

“Yes, if there’s the right thing — I’m not going to try and insinuate myself in somewhere,” Blair says, then makes a joke. “I’m not someone that’s been nagged by ambition.”

For those who love Blair — and there are a lot of them — whether she acts again or writes a book or simply devotes herself to helping others, what happens next isn’t a concern: That there is a next is what matters.

“She is going to help millions of people,” Fleit says. “With the film, I know people will see themselves, and find relief in that.”

Nankin, who met Blair during “Cruel Intentions,” says he’ll be by her side, whatever happens. As for what he wants for Blair, it sounds simple — though it’s not. “I want her to feel good!” he exclaims. “I want her
to be happy.”

At the end of the movie, Blair says she’s at peace: finally, after a life of pain and turmoil. Does she still feel that way today? “Sometimes,” she says. She thinks about it more. “I am at peace. I really didn’t know joy. I really didn’t — until my diagnosis.”

Suddenly, Blair realizes the time, and panics — she’s going to be late to meet up with “Crip Camp” director James Lebrecht, who’s staying downtown. She’s changing her clothes, Ben is putting the directions on her phone and Pippa the dog doesn’t like all the hurrying.

“Our abilities are fleeting, and I think that goes for all people,” Blair says as she’s rushing to leave. “We all just need to calm the fuck down and stop judging everyone’s process, because it doesn’t help.”

Styling: Elizabeth Stewart/The Wall Group; Makeup: Rachel Goodwin/A Frame Agency; Hair: Kevin Ryan/Art and Commerce; Look 1, (Tight portrait): Shirt: Saint Laurent; Look 2, (Seated portrait): Shirt and pants: Chloe/Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills; Shoes: Neil J. Rodgers