After decades of being a ‘company’ actress, Blythe Danner is stepping into the spotlight with her first leading film role. She tells Keeley Bolger about “carrying on” after being widowed, her relationship with daughter Gwyneth Paltrow and feeling invisible
Blythe Danner was married to the producer Bruce Paltrow for over 30 years before his death in 2002, and wistfully chuckles as she recalls her late husband’s words of wisdom.
“Sometimes, people said to Bruce, ‘You and Blythe have been married for so many years - what is the secret?’” explains the 73-year-old actress, known for her roles in Meet The Parents, Will & Grace and TV comedy Huff.
“And he said, ‘We never wanted to get divorced at the same time’.”
Their daughter Gwyneth, who earned an Oscar for 1998’s Shakespeare In Love, has often cited her parents’ relationship as a shining example of marriage.
Born in Philadelphia, Danner started her career in the late Sixties, working in Broadway musicals before meeting and marrying the “very funny” Paltrow in 1969.
Theirs was one of the most stable unions in showbiz and they went on to have two children, Gwyneth, now 43 (who Danner starred alongside in Sylvia and early Nineties TV movie Cruel Doubt), and son Jake, 40, a director.
“He did not want to clip my wings,” she says of her husband. “He really wanted me to do the things that would fulfil me, but after the children were born, I pulled way back.”
Paltrow died from complications arising from oral cancer and pneumonia, while in Rome celebrating their daughter’s 30th birthday.
He remains a huge presence in the family.
“I always say he was the heart of the family,” says Danner, who initially aspired to be a jazz singer. “He just was so wise and taught us all so much of the value of family. We both were lucky to have close families, hence down it gets handed, from generation to generation.”
His favourite poet Robert Frost has given her strength over the ears.
Danner, elegantly dressed today in a purple cardigan and white blouse, with dark rimmed glasses accentuating her blue eyes, quotes Frost’s famous line: “In three words, I can sum up what I’ve learned about life: ‘It goes on’.”
“He would not want us to wallow,” she continues of her late husband. “He would want us to go out, be strong.”
One of the things Danner - who won a Tony Award back in 1970 for her performance in the play Butterflies Are Free - is certain would have met with Paltrow’s approval, is her first leading film role, in the widely acclaimed indie comedy I’ll See You In My Dreams.
“I can just hear him saying, ‘Good!’ He wanted me to do more for myself.”
In the film, Danner’s character Carol is a widow who begins to find the everyday activities, that have given her life structure, difficult when her beloved dog dies.
With the support of her loyal friends (played by June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place), Carol embraces the world again, re-connecting with her daughter, striking up an unlikely friendship with her pool maintenance man, and pursuing a new love interest, played by Sam Elliott.
Both her children have raved about her performance in the film, with her daughter throwing a special meal to mark both Danner’s 50th year in showbiz and the starring role.
“I couldn’t have been more happy about that. She spoke at the luncheon they had for me in California and it was just beautiful. She was just so warm and lovely. I was very proud of her, as I am of all that she does.”
In particular, she liked the way the film didn’t marginalise older people.
Despite initial nerves that she wouldn’t have the “energy” to be in every scene, she accepted the role and found much common ground with Carol.
She adds: “When you get to my age and you’ve gone through so much, [those emotions] are easy to access.”
“I walk past a mirror and I go, ‘Who’s that?’ I go, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s me’. I feel younger than I am, and then you look at yourself and you go, ‘Good heavens, I’m not that young person anymore’. You’re perceived differently. Sometimes you feel invisible on the street.
“Sometimes you walk in New York and maybe when you were younger, somebody would take a second look at you, but that doesn’t happen much any more.
“I don’t bemoan the fact, it’s just the reality. It’s one of the interesting things about getting older.”
One of the advantages of age for Danner is spending time with her four “delightful” grandchildren (including Paltrow’s two with Coldplay singer Chris Martin, who she famously ‘consciously uncoupled’ from in 2014).
They’ve given her “a whole new life”.
“My son’s children live right around the corner, so when I’m not working I see them almost every day,” says Danner, who adds that her daughter’s children, Apple and Moses, have inherited both their parents’ musicality.
“My daughter’s going on a book tour, so I’ll go and spend time with the kids because Chris [Martin] will also be doing a tour. I was delighted to be asked to come out and be with them.”
All four grandchildren refer to her by the same nickname.
“I said to Apple when she was very little, ‘Who will I be here...Woof?’, because I had a friend whose grandchildren called her Woof and I loved that and I love dogs,” the actress explains with a smile.
“She said, ‘No!’ She could barely speak and I said, ‘Well who am I?’, and she looked and she thought and said ‘Lalo’ - and then she laughed and laughed for about half an hour. She just thought it was hilarious! About an hour later, I said, ‘Who am I?’, and she said ‘Lalo’, so that stuck.”
Paltrow’s a well-known advocate for clean eating, so how indulgent a grandmother can Danner be?
“I am somewhat,” she confides with a smile.
“I spoil them a little bit, but you know, their parents have their views and their rules that they like, and I try to follow them... except once in a while!”
I’ll See You In My Dreams is in cinemas and on digital download now, and available on DVD from Monday, February 29