Selma Blair wants you to see her living with multiple sclerosis

Selma Blair could only talk for a half-hour in our first session. That was as long as she trusted her brain and her body to cooperate — any longer and she feared that 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, the autoimmune disease that she learned she had in 2018 but that she believes began attacking her central nervous system many years earlier.

Selma Blair arriving at a special screening of her new documentary about her MS journey.Credit:Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

This particular day in September had started out especially tough: She said she woke up in her Los Angeles home feeling “just bad as all get out,” but she found that talking with people helped alleviate her discomfort. Blair said she had had good conversations earlier in the day and that she 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), comedy (Legally Blonde) and comic-book adventure (Hellboy).

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 personal 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 that the film would be meaningful to viewers who feel challenged and uncertain, 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 frightened when we have a big change in our lives. This wasn’t a vanity project at all, and I’m very capable of loving vanity.”

For Blair, 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’m 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 7-year-old who toted around her own copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference, the 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 couldn’t 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 said.

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.”

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

Fleit, who has alopecia universalis, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss, said she felt a particular 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 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. “Am I going to land in something that gives me meaning, away from the pettiness of most entertainment?”

Posey 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.”

Blair, for her part, said that once shooting started on the documentary, “I don’t think I noticed. There was really no directing, and I mean that in the best way.”

With our half-hour coming to its end, we said our goodbyes, and I told Blair I looked forward to reconnecting with her in a few days. In a comically ethereal voice, she answered, “God willing, if I’m alive.”

Our next session had to be delayed when Blair fell from a horse she was riding. As she told me in a follow-up conversation — 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 OK.

She was more embarrassed by how she felt she’d 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.”

Blair said that she had been told her MS was in remission, which she said meant “there is not a clear path for my disease to get worse, and that’s huge. That gives you breathing room.” There was no certain timetable for how long her stem-cell transplant might be effective but, as she said in her characteristic style, “I could get hit by a bus before that.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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