In October 2018, Selma Blair posted to her Instagram: “I am disabled. I fall sometimes. I drop things. My memory is foggy,” she wrote. “And my left side is asking for directions from a broken GPS. But we are doing it.” It was her way of announcing her multiple sclerosis diagnosis, which she received in August 2018 after many years of symptoms. “I was never taken seriously until I fell down in front of [Dr. Jason Berkley] trying to sort out what I thought was a pinched nerve. I have probably had this incurable disease for 15 years at least. And I am relieved to at least know.”
In the three years since publicly revealing her condition, Blair, 49, has shifted her focus away from acting as she underwent treatment for MS. She returned to the screen this year as the subject of director Rachel Fleit’s Introducing, Selma Blair, a raw and uncompromising look at the ways in which MS has upended her daily life as she undergoes a painful stem cell transplant to stave off symptoms of the disease. The film had its premiere at this year’s South by Southwest, where it received a Special Jury Award for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling in the documentary feature competition. After an awards-qualifying theatrical release Oct. 15, the film saw an Oct. 21 launch on Discovery+.
At The Hollywood Reporter‘s Women in Entertainment fete on Dec. 8, Blair received the Equity in Entertainment Award for increasing the visibility of people with disabilities in Hollywood. Ahead of the event, Blair was joined by James LeBrecht, 65 — a disability rights advocate who earned his first Oscar nomination for co-directing the 2020 documentary Crip Camp — for a free-flowing conversation over Zoom about their revelatory docs, the occasional burden of bringing visibility to an able-bodied audience and what Hollywood can do to make the industry more accessible for everyone.
SELMA BLAIR I saw Crip Camp and then idolized you, Jim. I don’t think I reached out immediately, but it was Crip Camp that [made me] become aware of you. I was not used to seeing a collective, a group of people with disabilities in this able-bodied world. And I had such a crush on one of the characters who said in the documentary that he was very grateful he had an outgoing personality.
JAMES LEBRECHT Steve Hoffman said, “If you don’t have an outgoing personality, you’re screwed.” That was something that I was also told by my father, in not such perfect words. But he basically said to me, “Look, Jimmy: Being born with a disability, people aren’t likely to come up and say hi to you. So you’re going to be outgoing.”
BLAIR You don’t get to meet people and ask things like, “How’s your guide dog?” “Do you need help getting across the street?” You do realize, even at a young age, if people have added burdens in their daily life having to deal with disability, they probably want to be on their way and not have [an able-bodied person] interrupting their day. And we mirror a lot of our behavior from what we see in the media and on film. [A lot of disability stories are] very heightened, or phony inspirational. Crip Camp was just a revelation to me. … It was as simple as being able to show that movie to my son and have it be a natural, normal thing instead of some “other” story, some “other” world. It [sparked] a simple shift in my mind and how I approach people.
LEBRECHT You know, Selma, the thing that’s really striking about you is that not everybody is willing to, or is capable of, embracing a disability that comes on all of a sudden.
BLAIR You know, it can be such a ruiner of spirit when you feel overwhelmed in life, period. Money. A disability. Emotional disabilities. Ruin. Hopes. Dreams. It’s all hard to navigate. When I’d reached my own emotional bottom, it was only after revealing myself that I understood visibility made a difference. Whether I’m an actress or not, I’m a human being. There was also another documentary I saw … that you also worked on, with Jen Brea.
LEBRECHT Unrest [Brea’s 2017 feature about struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome, a long-misunderstood disease].
BLAIR Invisible illness and invisible disabilities can get double flak. There’s a hierarchy, as you said to me, a pecking order.
LEBRECHT I’ve been joking lately: “Is it a good disability or a bad disability?”
BLAIR I have a “good” disability. But for people who can’t see it, you look like you could do better, like you’re lazy. When people are in a wheelchair, everyone has to know why. There are times when I would like to use a chair because my balance gets so off, it leaves me exhausted. I can get from point A to point B, but point C might be a shitshow.
LEBRECHT Let’s be clear, we’re joking around a little bit in regard to pecking orders and such, but there is some truth to how society and the disability community view people with different disabilities. What I really learned at Camp Jened, the subject of Crip Camp, was that you treat everybody with patience and respect. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to take them five minutes to say two sentences. Or if they keep forgetting. You give everybody their due respect and time of day.
You made this conscious decision to say, “I’ve got MS. And this is affecting me. But I want to use my situation to try to do good in the world. Like, I’m not going to shy away from it; I’m going to own it. And in fact, I’m going to allow this documentary to be made about what I am going through.” Why did you decide to do that?
BLAIR I was already in this visible business, which I love being in, and I had already started to share, for better or for worse. In the past when I’ve been ashamed of something, I would just sabotage and devolve. It doesn’t help a person no matter what. But my health was failing, and my abilities were changing. I wasn’t seeing well, and I was walking into things. I wasn’t drinking anymore. And I didn’t know [what it was].
LEBRECHT You talk about getting into sobriety — that’s major self-care. And so then having to really deal with the symptoms of MS, I think, is when you have self-acceptance. You said something in The New York Times that I’ll never forget: “This is my human condition.” That is just a lovely way to not only describe oneself with a disability, but that all of us are in our human condition. You hear, “Well, everybody’s got something.” Yeah, that’s true to a good extent.
BLAIR I see everyone in their human condition, certainly, and there’s a place for it in film — where there just hasn’t been the noise yet. Now it’s starting, the noise of the people who are realizing, “Wait, I get to tell my story.” So many talents are being uncovered among people who didn’t have a seat at the table. What I love most is that I’m learning from you. And that’s the important part of being visible now. I might not make the best choices all the time, but I am really trying to live in my skin. I am a much kinder person and a better mother for it, and I hope that for people it doesn’t have to be a scary thing.
LEBRECHT That’s part of what really made me want to get to know you. I think one of the first pieces of advice I gave you was, “You’re not going to have all the answers.” As Nicole Newnham and I were making Crip Camp, I started worrying, “Oh my God, I’m going to have to [speak for] all the disabled.” And there’s no freakin’ way. I can talk about what it’s like to be othered. I can talk about what it’s like to have never walked before and use a wheelchair. But you shouldn’t have to feel like you need to be an expert.
BLAIR I am not a self-appointed spokesperson. I’m a person. If any visibility I have can raise more awareness, to mobilize people to get on board … these are human conditions that we’re all being made aware of.
LEBRECHT I think some of us are finally getting the visibility to say, “Look, the reason certain films about disability work is because the filmmaking team had people with disabilities.” And that the same old tropes that we’ve been hearing for decades about disability being a tragedy, or that you have to overcome your disability — [we see] right though that.
BLAIR There are a lot of bullshit expectations in a fairy-tale world. Those are fairy-tale movies, and the harm [comes from when] they’re the only ones people see.
LEBRECHT Who are the people [making those movies]? They do the safe thing over and over again. We have to create this environment in which people who have nonapparent or nonvisible disabilities don’t have to live in that closet.
BLAIR My diagnosis changed nothing other than maybe a perception that I’m a tragic figure or an inspiring figure or something in between. Which can be a lovely story. I welcome it. But, really, it’s the realization that our abilities are all fleeting.
LEBRECHT When you have a disability in this world, you learn how to MacGyver everything because you live in this world that’s not built for you, right? But if people simply said, “What do you need to do your job properly?,” people figure these things out. It’s really your choice about where you want your acting career to continue to go. I’m a firm believer that many things can be done to make it easier for you. It’s just that we’re not used to saying, “One of our performers today is going to be limited to three hours on the set, and we’re just going to build our schedule around it.”
BLAIR That seems like an impossible ask! I’m finding other avenues in the meantime. There is real value in executive producing and bringing my perspective. If I can help inspire filmmakers that are much greater than I am to think outside the box and create bigger stories …
LEBRECHT There have been effective ways of increasing the number of women or people of color or LGBTQ people in the industry and to give them on-ramps for directing, for writing, for producing. And that simply needs to be done for the disabled community. There’s a whole wing of the Writers Guild of people with disabilities. There are incredible people out there who are fighting to build their careers. But it’s one of those things: “I don’t see anybody, so I guess no one out there could do the job.” That’s bullshit. We’re out there, but people aren’t willing to just put some effort into the saying “Who’s not at the table?” One in four adults has a disability, but we’re so underemployed in the industry and so under- and misrepresented on the screen. This is Hollywood’s responsibility. I’m not saying that this is a walk in the park. Everybody has to adjust or make changes.
BLAIR Are there labs for the disabled community in entertainment? Like Sundance Labs, but like a Camp Jened that’s really creative.
LEBRECHT There are two film camps on the East Coast. And there’s Zeno Mountain Farm, which made this great musical about a year ago called Best Summer Ever. There’s another place in Vermont called Camp Jabberwocky. There are summer film programs that are giving people really good training.
BLAIR We don’t really have anything in the Hollywood community.
LEBRECHT In an ideal world, you don’t have to build this whole special infrastructure. When Nicole and I went to Sundance, we got invited to the editing lab. And it was like, “Oh, those trailers are not accessible.” So they made an accommodation. They found a space near the trailers, and in fact it was a lot better. But there are things like [not having] a ramp to the stage in the screening room.
BLAIR [We don’t want to hear,] “Oh, a special place for you.” The aim is to have a special place for all of us. The same fun things that able-bodied people get to do, such as these retreats, [should not be] off-limits to people with disabilities. It’s not written, “This is for able-bodied people,” but we know it feels like that when you can’t get in the door.
LEBRECHT I’ll give you an [example] right now: It’s awards season. I’m an AMPAS member, [and I get invited] to a lot of events. But then I hear, “That party is at someone’s house. You can’t get into that.” I shouldn’t have to ask anymore. Don’t exclude me and say, “Oops, I forgot.” That’s bullshit.
BLAIR You have beaten so many odds, and then you finally get to the table, and it’s like, “Oh, I’m sorry, the ramp is 4 miles down the road for you. That’s where you’ll sit, but we’ll celebrate you here.” That is the hypocrisy and isolation and sadness that comes when you are a pioneer.
LEBRECHT We have a very shared experience in that there have been times in our lives when we have felt the need to hide aspects of what our body was doing to us. When you get further along in your career, your life gets a little bit easier. I’ve been a sound mixer for 25, 30 years, and it took such a long time for me to feel like my reputation was good enough that I didn’t have knots in my stomach when I met somebody that I was trying to get a job from.
BLAIR I’m lucky to get to have a chance to tell any little bit of my story, about the stigma of the crippling immobility I sometimes face. When people actually stop me on the street, they want to have a conversation about disability or accessibility, or how they see their sister in me and how they struggled to believe her. Stories of disability are stories of people. [I say to] my beloved Hollywood community, please … I just really urge people to see us all.
LEBRECHT I have this opportunity to really change what it means to be disabled. And that’s worth the last 65 years or so of putting up with some pretty dismissive crap.
BLAIR That’s how I feel, too. That is a very rewarding, essential feeling.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.