Late Bloomer

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Selma Blair first caught audiences' attention sharing a sexy onscreen kiss with Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions, the teen-take Dangerous Liaisons. She courted controversy again with Todd Solondz's Storytelling, in which her character, an earnest college student, shouted racial epithets while engaged in a sex act with her African-American professor. But her new film, The Poker House, might be her most surprising role to date. The feature directing debut of actor Lori Petty (Point Break), the film is based on Petty's teen years. It tells the story of young Agnes (Jennifer Lawrence), whose home is used as a brothel and gambling den by her drug-addicted mother, played by Blair. The film opens in limited release July 17, before being released on DVD Aug. 18.

Blair's raw, vanity-free performance in The Poker House is a sharp contrast to the stunning, outgoing figure she cuts in real life. In fact, upon meeting the gregarious Blair, it's hard to believe she's made a career of playing tortured souls like firestarter Liz Sherman in the Hellboy franchise. She has proven equally adept at comedy, going all out in the raunchy comedy The Sweetest Thing (for Cruel Intentions director Roger Kumble) and on last year's NBC comedy Kath & Kim, in which she played Molly Shannon's spoiled daughter. But perhaps her best comedic turn is as herself, in a popular YouTube video that pokes fun at the paparazzi—and at Blair. (See below.) Recently, Blair spoke to Back Stage about criticism, auditioning, and acting her age.

Back Stage: Had you met Lori before she offered you the role in The Poker House?

Selma Blair: I didn't know Lori before. I read the script and wanted to play it right away, then found out it was based on real events in her life. I was so moved and proud of her—although, who am I to be proud of her—but just as a woman, knowing she had gone through such a dark period and was writing about it and had become such an accomplished actress. So I didn't know her, but I fell in love with her right away. She's a pretty grand woman.

Back Stage: Were you at all hesitant to work with a first-time director?

Blair: She's an actress, obviously, so I felt really comfortable in her hands. And she's not a shrinking violet, so if I'm doing something that's really off, she would have no qualms telling me to stop. So I never felt tentative; I never worried, "Is this too big?" It felt real to me. But I know one reviewer said, in a negative way, "This film has the biggest performance in the world, it's so over-the-top, by Selma Blair." Lori said, "No, don't you listen." Because when people are that strung out and wanting to escape from their life but at the same time wanting to get noticed, those are some big, ugly moments.

Back Stage: So you're admitting you read your reviews?

Blair: I'm sort of a glutton for punishment. Actually, that's not totally true, but in this case I was so supportive of Lori, I wanted to read all the reviews. So I came across that sentence. It's so sad; it's so much easier to remember the criticism than the praise.

Back Stage: How do you deal with criticism?

Blair: In this case, I told myself I should probably just be glad they're talking about the damn movie.

Back Stage: Do you spend any time reading what the public is saying, like on message boards?

Blair: I try not to. Guillermo [del Toro] warned me during Hellboy not to check out message boards, but I did. And I was like, "Oh my God, people hate me! They think I'm the ugliest thing ever and should be chained up and live in a basement." People really get creative with hatred on the Internet. And it's hard, it's cyber bullying. You should know better not to get involved with that negativity, but we're human and we're intrigued when people are saying something about us. But there are supporters, too; there are fan sites that are really nice that I check in on once in a while. And it's sweet, and I'm just grateful to have a fan. But Guillermo said it best when he told me, "Don't look. It's like licking the bottom of a toilet seat: Nothing good is going to come of it."

Back Stage: Would you say Poker House was one of your most challenging roles?

Blair: People assume that. And they say same thing about Storytelling: "Oh, how hard to go there." But it's my strength—or weakness—as an actor and as a person that those are the easy roles for me. The darker sides of people are a familiar spot for me, and those are much more comfortable, honest roles for me. There's something to hold on to, rather just being there and being the girl.

Back Stage: The film features an amazing performance by young actor Jennifer Lawrence. You also started out young—

Blair: Well, not really. I went to college at the University of Michigan first, and actually started kind of late. But one of my first films that people saw was Cruel Intentions, where I was playing a 14-year-old. But I was, like, 26 or something. I was lucky because I got to play a teen for a really long time. Which is fortunate, because I don't think I would have been able to break into this business without being able to play a teen for a time. God knows, if I moved here now, I can't imagine I'd get a job, ever. So I'm grateful for that and grateful that I got to grow up on screen—even though I was already grown up, so I didn't have all the angst that goes with actually growing up.

Back Stage: Did you ever worry about being stuck in young roles?

Blair: I still get stuck in young roles, other than this one. But I try to break out. I'm going to be a 40-year-old woman before I'm going to be anything else, so it's so funny when people say, "Oh, she's a teenager, we'll think of her for the daughter or the daughter's friend." I want to say, "Oh my God, someone look at me! I'm a grown-up." But, truthfully, I've never really minded. I just figure I'll have to learn to be a better actress for them to see me this way.

Back Stage: Did you study acting at University of Michigan?

Blair: No, I went to University of Michigan for my Fine Arts in English and psychology. I mean, I was interested in acting. I did plays there and, of course, in high school—the kind that would empty out at intermission. It's pretty sad, but even that experience toughened me up. I'd just say to myself, "Not good enough; I didn't keep them." The first one I did was a snooze cruise. I'm really sorry, T.S. Eliot, but it was Murder in the Cathedral. Really, do a bunch of kids want to hear monologue after monologue about medieval times? If I could have left at intermission, I would have!

Back Stage: Are you still interested in doing theater?

Blair: I really want to do theater now. I'd do it anywhere that's going to be the right thing for me—I'm better suited for Mamet than I would be for Shakespeare. I love having rehearsal time; in film it's a rare experience to get to explore a character because so much of it is done with editing and lighting and there are so many other storytellers involved. Which is amazing, but as an actor it's so different from what I thought I'd be doing. Which is breaking down a character and discussing it with the other characters and building trust. Sometimes on film, it's the first time I've ever said the lines.

Back Stage: Can't you just ring up David Mamet and suggest working together?

Blair: I think some people could. I mean, if Julia Roberts picked up the phone and called you, you'd be pleased. If Selma Blair picked up the phone…they might think you're mentally unhinged. I'm not saying I'm at a bad point in my career, but you kind of have to get a point where that's okay. But maybe that's just in my head; maybe I should try it. Cut to: me in jail for stalking David Mamet.

Back Stage: Is there anyone else you want to work with?

Blair: I would love to work with Roman Polanski; I'm sorry to all the people who are detractors of his personal life, but I really love his films. Jeffrey Tambor told me to write him a letter. What would I say? "Dear Roman, I would love to play in one of your big movies. I am an actress. Sometimes I am quite good. Goodbye!"

Back Stage: Do you still audition for roles?

Blair: Oh, absolutely. I'm really not trying to be self-deprecating, because, as my mother tells me, there are enough people that will take me down a notch, I don't need to. But I don't audition amazingly well. A lot of it is based on confidence, and if I have the confidence, I can really flourish and do it. Audition rooms can be very critical, and it can shut you down. You have your page and it's kind of rattling and you turn the page and you lose momentum—it's like an intermission every time you go to look at the next page. I don't know if I've ever gotten a job from an audition, except for Cruel Intentions.

Back Stage: I understand that was sort of an unusual audition.

Blair: Well, I'd come to L.A. from New York and I auditioned for a bunch of things and got some really silly stuff. And by the time Cruel Intentions came along, I was so used to not getting stuff and callous to criticism. So I went in there, and the director, Roger Kumble, said, "Okay, so how old are you?" He wanted to make sure I was 18 to play the part. But I thought, "Oh, he must think I look 26." So I said, "Fuck off, how old are you?" And he just kind of sat up in his chair. Any other director would have said, "That's rude and I'm not paying attention to her audition." But it was just a case of meeting someone you get along with and was amused by my audacity.

Back Stage: Roger also directed some episodes of Kath & Kim. Did you enjoy doing television?

Blair: I'd done TV years ago, playing Zoe Bean [in the WB show Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane], and it was so much fun. I was terrified because it was a live studio audience, but I loved the people and the experience. But I didn't think TV was for me. There's just too many opinions, and it's hard on the creative process—unless it's cable, where they let you do what you want. I'm glad I did it, and I loved the cast and the producers. And at times, it was really freeing to get to play this sloppy girl who thought she was all that. Someone who's so confident was so fun. I could do anything and not have to worry: I could make any ugly face, and she thought she was the shit. But I think that show should have been on cable. It should have gone further and slightly darker. It was the brightest, most Technicolor show. TV is a hard process; my hat's off to people who do it.

Back Stage: Was there ever a time when you thought about leaving the business?

Blair: Not since I came out to L.A. There are times when I wish I could change some qualities about myself so I could be more successful or get to choose things or to get off my duff and write something. It'll probably come; I think I may just be a late bloomer. But when I was in New York and trying for a few years, I was dirt poor and living in the Salvation Army and I had a moment before bed one night. I was sleeping on this little cot and I thought, "I'm going to give it two more days." Sure enough, an agent called the next day who had seen me in a class. I think she thought I was horrible, but she saw something in me. So she called me in and had me read, and I signed with her. It took another 75 auditions for me to even book a commercial, but I was on my way.

Back Stage: Anything else you want to add?

Blair: Everything I've said in this interview is a lie. [Laughs.]