It’s been 11 years since Blythe Danner last walked the Broadway boards in Follies, but this stage and screen star has been keeping plenty busy. Between starring in the Meet the Parents movies, frequent appearances in Williamstown and off-Broadway, and guest-starring on TV shows from Huff to Will & Grace, Danner also plays mother to Gwyneth and Jake Paltrow, and doting grandma to Apple (age eight) and Moses (age six) Martin! Now, Danner is back on Broadway as Millicent Winter, the kooky mother to Matthew Broderick in Nice Work If You Can Get It. Below, Danner recalls Broadway debut bloopers, her favorite old-school musicals and getting recognized by Fockers fans on the subway.
We’re so excited you’re back on Broadway!
This has been such a happy experience, joining this cast. I was reading the newspaper today and I thought, oh my god, the Middle East is going to hell in a handbag, the gun issue…there’s so much that’s sad and depressing right now. And I get to go to the theater every night and listen to beautiful Gershwin music and watch these young people so full of grace and joy—I feel very fortunate.
How much fun is it to play this eccentric mother, Millicent Winter?
It’s wild, because she’s really not on stage very long. I try to bring as much as I can to her. Some nights she’s really wacky, and other nights she’s less so. It’s nice to have the freedom that [director] Kathleen [Marshall] has given me. She didn’t tell me anything, she just said, "Have a great time with it." It’s wonderful when a director says that!
What did you think when you first saw the show?
I haven’t been that keen on musicals in the last several years—She Loves Me is still my favorite musical, and West Side Story, the things I loved as a young girl—but I certainly wanted to see Matthew and Kelli O'Hara, because I think they’re both wonderful, I worked with Kelli in Follies 11 years ago. I went [to see Nice Work] with a friend of mine who had been ill, and in five minutes, we were transformed into this jolly state. Every night, by the time I go on at the end of the show, I feel wonderful. And what could be more wonderful than Gershwin? This is very uplifting. There’s something in the rhythm and the deep, wonderful lyrics. It’s light, but it also has depth that we don’t have in much music today.
How much fun is it to go on at the end and turn the entire plot upside down?
It’s so fun, and the audience has already been warmed up. Joe DiPietro has written a wonderful script around all this music. What Kathleen said to me is that Millicent is sort of an Auntie Mame character, so that’s how I came to it originally. Matthew is so creative and comes up with such funny stuff, so it gives you motivation to find little things and keep it fresh. My theory in anything you do is to keep exploring, keep digging deeper to find new stuff. Not arbitrarily, but things that enhance the character and the whole show.
Are you having as much fun offstage with Matthew and the cast as you are onstage?
They’re very welcoming and sweet. There’s a gathering afterwards in Matthew’s dressing room, and people have a drink or talk about what happened onstage and other theater stories. My half-hour isn’t until much later, which is very nice. I love to stand in the wings and watch them dance—I love to watch the scenes.
What are your favorite memories of starring on Broadway throughout the years?
My very first time on Broadway was Butterflies are Free, before you were born. I was 25, and I was in that for a year—and all kinds of funny things happened! Keir’s [Dullea, who played Don Baker] character is blind, and I came on smoking a cigarette. A cigarette butt fell onto this pillow that he was holding, and I didn’t see it, ‘cause I was busy acting—“schmacting.” [Laughs.] He had seen it, but he couldn’t tell me that! We had to wait until it smoldered. Luckily there was a sink onstage, so I ran over and turned the water on. And I did [the Broadway premiere of] Betrayal with Roy Scheider and Raul Julia. That was a joy. We were directed by Pinter himself when Peter Hall had to go back to England for a while, so that was a real thrill. Blithe Spirit was also a lot of fun. Geraldine Page would always say, “Good night kids, see you in the morning,” and then she died one night. That was so tragic. I’ve had all kinds of adventures. Up at Lincoln Center, when I was doing The Philadelphia Story, my children used to roller skate down the hallway [under the Beaumont Theater]. They really grew up backstage.
We’d love to see you and Gwyneth star together on Broadway.
I would love that; I hope so. We’ve done The Seagull and Picnic together at Williamstown, and we had fun working together, but she’s all over the place. Hopefully, one day we will. When her kids are a little bigger, maybe.
What’s new with your grandkids?
We’ve been texting! Apple and I text, which is wonderful; I never thought that we’d be doing that. She sends me pictures of the dog, and I take pictures and send them to her. They’re great. They’re in London right now, but they may be in L.A. for a while soon. It’s very hard to ever pinpoint my whole gang. My son is in South Africa right now, working on a film that he wrote, so everybody’s busy.
Has anyone in the family gotten to see you on Broadway yet?
My son and his wife were able to, but Gwyneth hasn’t yet—her apartment was really damaged in [superstorm] Sandy, so they haven’t been able to stay in it. They’re redoing the whole building—it’ll take months. But hopefully when they come back, they will. I think the kids will enjoy it.
That’s what’s great about Nice Work: The whole family can enjoy it.
Sometimes it’s like we’re at the Super Bowl: You’re never quite sure what the audience is going to do. During the matinees, we get great reactions. They go crazy sometimes, screaming and yelling, like a football game. The more you get of that, the more you give—I mean, you like to think you’re always giving your all, but they make you open up even more and get very spunky.
How has starring in Meet the Parents changed your career?
I’ve always had a middling kind of a career, not great highs and great lows. I just love working, and I’m so very glad to be working now. I take the subway all the time, and a lot of times somebody will look at me funny and say, “Mrs. Focker?” And I say, “Well, actually, no, I’m Mrs. Byrnes, but yeah, you’ve got the right movie.” But it’s fun. It was a great run, three of those movies.
Besides riding the subway, what else do you like about being back in New York?
I travel so much when I work, I’ve really been happy to do Nice Work because I feel like a true New Yorker again. I have my little regimen during the day, and I can take advantage of the museums and the things that I love. And people watching!
Are there any roles you’ve wanted to play that you haven’t gotten the chance to do yet?
I’ve been reading quite a few plays and participating in some play readings in town with some people that I admire a lot—I can’t get into details since we don’t know what’s going to happen, but I love doing that. Hopefully one of these plays, or a couple of them, will come along and be directed further. Some drama, [speaking in Southern accent] heavy drama, quote-unquote [laughs].
See Blythe Danner in Nice Work If You Can Get It at the Imperial Theatre.