Danner is famous for her acting roles in Meet the Parents and Will & Grace – but there's a lot more to know about Gwyneth's mom

By K.C. Baker
June 05, 2015 05:30 PM

Besides being known as Gwyneth Paltrow‘s mom, Blythe Danner is a Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress whose career has spanned 50 years.

The 72-year-old has appeared in hit shows including Will & Grace and movies like Meet the Parents. Now, after a half-century in the business, she has landed her first leading onscreen role – as a widow who finds romance again in her latest movie, I’ll See You in My Dreams.

But did you also know that she also sings?

Here are a few things you may not know about Danner:

“I loved singing jazz when I was younger,” she tells PEOPLE. “That was actually my first desire, but I went into acting.” (She sings an old favorite, “Cry Me a River” in I’ll See You in My Dreams.)

While acting was her primary focus, she still managed to show off her singing skills over the years.

Here is a clip of Danner singing He Plays the Violin in the 1972 movie 1776, where she plays Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha.

“My daughter is frisky,” she says. “She likes to say what she wants to say. I think it’s great. That’s one of the things I’m saying about getting older. I feel more liberated. I wasn’t that way when I was younger.”

She says she liked playing Carol, a 70-something, call-it-as-you-see-it retiree in her latest film. “I love the fact that she’s snarky,” she says. “She is no B.S. She says it like it is. She is more solid and strong than I am. I thought, ‘This is what I aspire to be like in life.’ ”

“I think that’s one of the great things about getting older. I feel much more confident at 72 than I did at any younger year,” she adds.

Her Three Grandchildren Call her Lalo

Apple is the one who made that up,” Danner says about Gwyneth’s 11-year-old daughter. “I had all kinds of names ready because my mom and dad had great nicknames as grandparents. I mentioned them to Apple and she said, ‘No.’ She had just really started to talk.

“I said, ‘Well, who am I then?’ And she said, ‘Lalo,’ and laughed and laughed. She thought it was hilarious. So about an hour later I said, ‘Who am I?’ and she said, ‘Lalo.’

She loves that Apple came up with the name. “People say, ‘Oh you don’t want to be called grandma because of age? I said, ‘No. I’m very readily telling what my age is. I don’t care about that.’ I’m glad she made it up. It’s creative and she likes knowing that she created it.”

She Wears Her Own Clothes in I’ll See You in My Dreams (Well, Mostly)

Before the lightning-fast, 18-day shoot for I’ll See You in My Dreams, Danner says the film’s costume designers “came and raided my closet.”

Almost everything she wears in the film is hers – except for a bold green, leaf-print blazer that she sports in a laugh-out-loud speed-dating scene.

“That green jacket,” she says. “I wanted to lie on my back after it was finished and say, ‘How could you let me wear this jacket?’ It was funny.”

She’s More of a Homebody

“I am a bit of a hermit,” she says. “I can be a bit of a loner. I don’t need people so much except I’m lucky to have my family and a handful of very close friends. I’m not a big social butterfly. I don’t go to all the parties in town.”

She Is Still So Proud of her Late Husband, Bruce Paltrow

While “Bruce was just so funny,” she adds that her husband of 33 years, who died from throat cancer in 2002, made a big impact as a producer and director. “I still have people who come up to me and say, ‘Your husband changed my life.’ ”

Jake Paltrow (left), Blythe Danner, Gwyneth Paltrow and Bruce Paltrow
Ron Galella Collection

Paltrow produced and directed such iconic TV series as The White Shadow and St. Elsewhere He also directed his daughter in the 1999 movie, Duets.

“He won the first diversity award from The Directors’ Guild for helping women and minorities in our business,” says Danner. “He was more proud of that than any other award.

“When he died, Denzel Washington (who starred in St. Elsewhere) said, ‘If it hadn’t been for Bruce, I would have never done all of these movies.’ Bruce led him out of St. Elsewhere to do every movie he was offered.

“He taught all of those young guys from The White Shadow how to direct. They have all become leading directors. He just believed in giving people a leg up and not to hold anybody back.”

“I do as much as I can to promote the Oral Cancer Foundation and the Bruce Paltrow Fund, she says. “The Bruce Paltrow Fund goes into disenfranchised communities to give free screenings to people.

“Gwyneth has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Oral Cancer Foundation through Stand Up To Cancer. I’m really proud of her for that.”

For more on Blythe Danner, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now