Selma Blair on Baring Her Soul and Weeping at Art Basel Miami In a Post-James Toback Catharsis

December 8, 2017

W Magazine Interview | by Stephanie Eckardt

Selma Blair may have only dropped into Art Basel Miami Beach for about 24 hours, but the actress made quite an appearance when she stepped into a spotlight atop the roof of the Miami Beach Edition hotel on Tuesday night, flanked by Caroline Vreeland and 15 other women in identical black leotards who joined her standing in the wind for a full hour. After weeping so much with them that they formed a “Greek chorus,” Blair then dined with her new friends and was already out of town the next morning, taking care to fly out just in time to pick up her son from school in L.A. on Wednesday afternoon.

Lately, things have been moving at breakneck speed for Blair: Since she publicly aired the secret she’s harbored for nearly two decades—that the director James Toback once sexually assaulted her, then threatened to kill her if she ever spoke up—she’s also discovered just how wrong she’s been all these years in thinking that she was Toback’s only target. (More than 300 women have come forward with similar stories of their own over the past month and a half.) The camaraderie has come as a surprise to Blair, and Tuesday night provided her with the first chance to experience it in real life rather than just on Twitter, coming together with a group of women to ruminate on their emotional states in the post-Harvey Weinstein reckoning and their experiences with sexual harassment and assault to altogether form “Synaptic Fatigue/Dear in the Headlights,” a performance presented by the artist Tara Subkoff with the Hole Gallery. Just after stepping out of the spotlight, Blair talked what was going through her head that whole time, how Toback seems to have made assaulting women his “life’s mission,” and why despite her experiences with him and other men in the industry, she never once considered turning her back on acting.

How are you feeling right now, having just stood so exposed in a leotard facing a spotlight for a full hour?

Exactly a full hour—I didn’t move my feet once, and I had nothing planned. I just wanted to feel compassion for myself, and there ended up being a lot of emotions: a lot of grief, some rage, some amusement, some shame, joy. Not as much joy, but there was hope. Sometimes I’d get lost in the moment, and then it was like waking up from a dream and I’d start another story in my head. I was already into it but the show actually started when the opera singer, Rebecca Ringle, started singing. She sang stories in five different languages about women going through despair, rape, futility, sorrow, and some of the music was 400 years old, so sometimes it was jarring and sometimes it happened to be right in time with my emotions. But it was an incredible thing to have her there being the voice of all us.

I saw that Caroline Vreeland just posted an Instagram of herself crying during the performance. Did you also end up tearing up?

Yes, yes I did. There was no plan, it just came about, and yes, I have to say I wept. And I heard a lot of other women in the background—like a Greek chorus of weeping. There was a lot of grief and sorrow. It was interesting because I usually get really uncomfortable crying in front of people, but this was for Tara’s art piece, and I thought it was important to just let myself go and see whatever emotion came and be honest, so that I can be honest and listen to other people. So yes, there was weeping. I thought it was a really big luxury to stand up with a bunch of women—literally—and show our emotions, to not have anyone tell you you’re being dramatic or to shut up and just say, I don’t care if I’m being judged. I don’t care if I’m being dramatic. I’m just going with the emotions, which was scary to me because I wasn’t doing it really as an actress—I was doing it more from my own well of imagination than someone’s words or script. We didn’t talk about it all beforehand—it was kind of a private experience that became public—but it was especially cathartic to me to really hear the other women being unafraid in their feelings.

How did the audience react?

Well, I could only see a headlight. Occasionally I could hear a camera click or see the glint off someone’s cell phone, which was like a strange other world that made me feel that invasion of privacy. Being somewhat of a celebrity or an actress or something, even though I’m not particularly famous, that’s still a part of my everyday life—the paparazzi capture almost every walk I have with my child, and it might not really show up anywhere, but it’s my daily life. So it was weird to have this public, very intimate thing photographed and see the same thing that comes to play in real life.

Caroline Vreeland and Selma Blair performing in “Synaptic Fatigue / Dear in the Headlights” by Tara Subkoff and the Hole Gallery.
Madison McGaw/BFA

The original premise of the performance was to focus on a specific time you’ve been harassed or assaulted. Did you really stick to one experience for an hour, or did it open up over that space of time?

I thought of interviews, I thought of times as a young girl when people tried to take advantage of me every day. I did think of my experience with James Toback and how shaming that was and how angry I was to have to be silent for so long because I was afraid. But then I also thought of the wonder of this moment, that women are finally able to express things publicly that they hadn’t felt they would ever tell a soul—even though I never wanted to tell my story publicly. I just wanted him to stop. I didn’t want anyone to ever know private details of my life, but so be it. If that’s what it takes to change things, then I’m on board, and I’m on board for something an artist like Tara is trying to do in making sure we keep going and and are still heard. So I drew from the hope of this moment now,and hope for my son and hoping he can redefine ideas of masculinity, and then the sadness of all the victims and the predators—how messed up and alone they must feel, too. It wasn’t just one “me too” moment—I was thinking of the whole aftermath of it, and the anger and the hope and the relief.

Right, anger in particular is something I feel like I’ve only just realized I’m actually allowed to experience.
Me, too. I turned all my anger into depression—my whole life, everything, even if it wasn’t a big deal. I’ve been a sad soul for most of my life, and I’m really not. It was a lot of just turning some healthy anger inward until it turns into something unhealthy and you recoil from compassion for other people. I’m seeing the compassion come out amidst the anger now, though, which I think is what is going to change things.

Were you contacted to get involved with this before or after you spoke about your experience with James Toback?

Tara contacted me just a couple of days ago, and for me to get on a plane and leave my son is everything, so I really believe in her. But I was one of the first to speak out against him, and then I helped some other women on Twitter assemble 37 of us. I ended up not wanting to go on the record for [The L.A. Times], but I did after James Toback called them cunts and cocksuckers and said he’d never met any of them. That was when I was like, these people are so protected and entitled and sick, and he’s a real predator—not unlike a lot of them are, just in everyday work harassment, too. So I was like, I’m not going to leave these women hanging in the wind—if I lend any face to them, then I’ll do it for them and for us, and I spoke out to Vanity Fair. And now I think more than 300 have come out about Toback, and I’m sure there are thousands. It’s like his life’s mission. But outside of even people just being scared into not acting grossly inappropriately, I really do think things are going to change. I really do. Women are going to realize they can speak out, and that women will stand with them—and men, too, and that’s huge to have the support of men. I love it, we need it. It’s not that I want revenge, although sure, revenge would be nice for some people who really, really damaged a lot of people’s careers and souls and livelihoods, but it’s really about changing things so this doesn’t keep happening and is our way of life—that we’re silenced and marginalized and made fun of and gossiped about.

Do you still have a network with the other women now?

No, it was mostly in the beginning to assemble a group of other victims of James Toback, which we did on Twitter, and who I found on Twitter, because I thought I was the only one. Except for running into two women who’d said he’d f—ed me and I was dirty, like I was dirty girl who wanted dirty stuff. I was like, What? One, that never happened, two, how dare this man slander me and gossip about me and try to discredit me to other women he’s trying to assault? I have become friends with a girl on Twitter that was sex trafficked for years, which has opened my mind to how huge this is. Right now, we’re just kind of pruning the tree, but the whole tree is sick and and it needs to healed.

A lot of women have recently recalled turning away from the industry they wanted to work they were harassed in it. Did you ever consider stopping acting because of the way you were treated?

No, I didn’t blame the industry. I blamed this person. My whole time in this industry I’ve only had a couple of harassments, and [Toback] was the only assault I ever had—the only real brainwashing, con-man, predatory, manipulative experience. But before I was in acting and I was a student, it happened to me, and it happens to people in all walks of life. The power of the entertainment industry can really protect its predators and put women up against a real machine, but it also happens in any industry, so I didn’t at all for one second think of turning away from acting—that’s what I do. But it was a dark spot on my soul. [Laughs.]

You sound surprisingly upbeat for having just tested out weeping in public.

Oh yeah no, I’m fine. I’m not someone who holds on to stuff anymore. I have dinner to eat, a bed to go to, a son to see, and women are getting to feel things, so my life is good and this was a good moment. It wasn’t at all morose for me—it was actually a celebration.

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