BY ANDREW FISH
Interview conducted for Venice Magazine
Knowing Melissa Leo as the fiercely devoted matriarch of The Fighter, a champion of human rights on HBO’s “Treme,” a sacrificial mother in Frozen River, and a dirty cop in last year’s Conviction, it leaves one wide-eyed when meeting her in person. The intense, singleminded vibe of her on-screen roles gives way to an easy, warm thoughtfulness and gently flowing conversation. Winner of 2011’s Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as Alice Ward in The Fighter, and an Oscar nominee for 2008’s Frozen River, Leo is a strikingly free spirit, which is likely what makes her so open to the compelling characters she plays. Beginning with her mid-’80s stint on “All My Children” and working up to a five-year run on “Homicide: Life on the Street” in the ’90s, she’s been a vessel for fiery personas for quite some time. She’s portrayed the grief-stricken yet resolute wife of Benicio Del Toro in 21 Grams (2003); a sexy and supportive waitress with an extracurricular love life in Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005); a downtrodden alcoholic in Righteous Kill (2008) with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino; a delightfully adept con artist in Don McKay (2009) alongside Thomas Haden Church and Elisabeth Shue; an insightful truck driver in Everybody’s Fine (2009), again with De Niro; and the agoraphobic, estranged wife of James Gandolfini in Welcome to the Rileys (2010), featuring Kristen Stewart. She’s also appeared in 24 Hour Woman (1999) with Rosie Perez, Fear of Fiction (2000) with “True Blood”’s Sam Trammell, and The Dry Land (2010) with America Ferrera. A stage actor as well, Leo performed alongside Anna Paquin and Alison Pill in Neil LaBute’s 2004 production of “The Distance from Here.” She appeared in the five-part HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” with Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood, and in Kevin Smith’s Red State, featuring John Goodman, who also played Leo’s husband last season on “Treme.” (“What a pleasure to be married to him — in the movies!” she laughs.)
Wrapped in her faux fur and sipping iced tea under the night sky on the rooftop of a West Hollywood hotel, the veteran actor settles in for a chat. The following interview took place in January 2011.
The Fighter tells a great story.
Melissa Leo: I’m very, very proud to be a part of it.
You play a powerful mother who, from her perspective, just wants what’s best for her son.
That’s nice to hear you say that.
Did you adopt that point of view when you were playing the character?
Very much so. [Director] David [O. Russell] had brought the women in Micky’s life into the story in a bigger way when he came onboard as the helmer. Because when I met David, and when Amy [Adams] met David — by my understanding — they were still roles that were being built by him. And that was actually what captivated me the most, the belief David had in me. I wanted to hang on for the ride to see if he could really make me into this thing he saw me so wholly as, the moment we met.
In what way was your character a work in progress?
I had a glorious three-and-a-half or four months where I had the role and I had some meetings with [costume designer] Mark Bridges for the costumes, and the meeting for the dyeing and cutting and recutting and cutting again of the hair. That’s unusual for me to have that kind of prep time on something. There was so much to putting her together. It was sort of this endless circle. Film, for me — I think I’ve said it in the magazine before — is a collaborative art. It’s perhaps the collaborative art. An orchestra or a ship at sea are the things that come to my mind that are akin to it. The way a group has to work together under a single guide who knows that perhaps there are people aboard that know more. The navigator knows more than he about the navigation.
And it ends up being more than the sum of its parts.
Apparently so! [laughs] I think everybody was hot to trot and on fire and ready to go, and Mark Wahlberg [who also produced] had set up something that was an unbelievable opportunity for every one of us. And it wasn’t lost on one of us, meaning Christian and Amy and Jack McGee and those seven women that showed up to play the daughters.
What kind of prep was involved during that lengthy period you mentioned?
Some of it is a time and a sitting-with. And at the beginning of that few-month period with Fighter, I had had an opportunity to meet Alice Ward, who — I will say as we sit here — is quite fragile in a Boston hospital. She was pronounced dead a few days ago, and the sports press got ahold of it and wrongly pronounced it because for 45 minutes CPR was [being performed]. And she came back, and I saw her and her daughter the other day in Boston. A remarkable, amazing woman.
You really captured the tight-knit family sensibility in this film.
Not by myself. After the seven sisters and Jack McGee, there’s also the town of Lowell, the support that the family gave, the photo albums that they opened up and shared with the entire production company, and the footage that’s available because of their extraordinary lives.
Watching the dynamic you guys had as a family, I kept picturing Micky, Dicky, and the seven sisters as little kids, and how the interactions must have been very much the same back then.
Isn’t that beautiful to see that little bit of footage of them? It was brilliant of David to bring that in. That’s exactly where I had to begin, because of this question of where her love lay and a belief in many of the ensemble’s minds that she did not, in fact, love them equally. And I did fight to say — [with] my experience as a mother of one — that would not be possible.
A central conflict in the film is what appears to be a greater love for one boy than the other.
One of the things I see when I watch the movie is that Alice does go the moment Micky opens his mouth and says, “I need you, ma!” She’s there at the drop of a hat. She might have made a mistake in earlier years and he might be too shut now to take it in — but Micky, your mother loves you with all her heart.
Is that the place you were working from when you played the character?
Exactly right. I found everything in Mark Wahlberg that was admirable and delightful and amazing and awesome and beyond your normal mortal. [laughs] I show up now on the red carpets and see either him or Christian — as unlikely as it was being 10 years older than them, that I could play their mother — I will never see them as anything but my sons. Maybe someday the opportunity will come that they marry me and Christian up — wouldn’t mind that! — but until that day… [blows a kiss]
I’m guessing that working with Mark and working with Christian were two very different experiences.
Absolutely. If I were an acting teacher I would observe that they come from two very different schools. There’s some bad acting, without a doubt, but there’s no bad way to act. There’s no technique that supersedes some other technique. And even though Mark would probably find a way to trip me in my party dress for saying it, he too has a technique. And it’s a beautiful technique that’s been practiced for years in Hollywood films.
How would you describe it?
He brings himself so greatly to the character. I would imagine this experience of living within a boxer because he was going to play him for five years, training, might have done something to his system. What he does is a Cary Grant/John Wayne school of acting. It’s a beautiful thing in film because it can help tell a story. That steady calm of his, it was something to witness! I just kept walking my tightrope toward him and what you see is what you get.
He trained for five years, having no idea if he would get the film made.
I wouldn’t say he had no idea. He’s been pretty successful at realizing his dreams and goals. If he doesn’t have a way, he finds a way, is what I see in him, and that’s a remarkable thing in this world. There’s a lot of “I can’ts” and “I doubt its.” I think that he had a belief that he could do it. And what I’ve heard Mark say is that he had made a promise to Micky. This is another beautiful thing about Mark, and I believe that is why there is the movie, The Fighter. He had made a promise to Micky that this movie would be made. Their legacy could easily be forgotten. This movie gives a hit to this family. It made me want to go look up the Sugar Ray stuff and watch it a little more carefully. Back in the day I used to watch him. He was so pretty! [laughs]
Tell us about working with Christian and how you went about portraying Alice’s relationship with Dicky.
One of the descriptions I give of Christian consistently to the press, especially if they want to make some kooky guy out of him, is that, in my experience of him, he’s so made of light you can barely see him. Maybe we have a closer brand of acting that’s better left nameless; the kind of discussing that needs to happen there is minimal. For example, the scene in the car, singing. He had a CD and I had a CD, and I’m tone deaf and I had begged him to help me with it. It was about all we had talked about prior, probably that afternoon, as I waited six, seven hours to shoot it. We got out there and the light was falling, and I don’t know that the producers were all that keen on trying to get what was not a cheap song. [laughs] So why shoot it, man? Light’s falling! What do you need it for? What’s the movie got to do with Dick and his mother? For David, it had everything to do with it. There were three love stories he was telling. Between the brothers, between Micky and his woman, and between Dick and his mother.
Did being a mother help you bring that maternal feeling to the surface in this film?
I know that being a mother gives me an understanding of playing a mother that I doubt I’d have completely. I can play a murderer without murdering, and I could probably play a mother without being a mother, but does it not give some deeper depth? And that’s all
we’re looking for — layers.
Did you have fun with the wardrobe and hair?
IhavetosayI’msofarfromherinsomany ways, there was a reticence in me to go into it. I love costume, so I allowed myself to be led by somebody who clearly understood the period, and the character we were going after, and was being guided by my guide, David, so I went along for the ride. It was, in a certain way, fun wearing it. The response from the locals in Lowell to me as Alice — if I wasn’t so busy working on my career I could have gotten all sorts of dates there in Lowell. [laughs] And I love that the costume so informs her. The walk and the slippers or the boots. It’s all a part of who she is. And I think Alice really likes the way I look in it, and I love that.
Did the wardrobe help you sink into the character?
Absolutely. I needed all those things. It was kind of a scene in the makeup and hair trailer in the morning as she came into me, as I saw her appear in the mirror. It would start from scratch every morning. And then to walk out and be greeted by so many. There’s always somebody from the family around on the set.
At the end of the film we see everyone redeemed, at which point it becomes clear that Alice really did want what was best for her kids.
That’s David O. Russell and his big heart. And to help beat the drum, I gathered information from a lot of those guys in the boxing gym. It seems to me that, maybe even in a bar, she’d gotten to know these cats. And her boy was a feisty little thing and needed something to do with his energy, especially in a Lowell winter — so, up to the boxing gym! And, by Jesus, if the kid didn’t have a talent that would be criminal to ignore. And she sees what hoodlums run the fight game and she’s not letting him into that on his own. And her baby boy comes along and he just follows his big brother everywhere. By then, Alice and Dick are doing something serious and they’re making the family a living and have the hope of making a mighty good living, as a matter of fact. So Micky’s not bad if Dick works him a little. What the hell? Throw him in the ring. Go, boys, go! And they’re off to the races. And neither of them would have had careers without her, period. Point blank, flat out.
Do you think it was difficult for her to watch her kids in the ring?
She talked about that more than anything. She talked about how hard it was to watch her boys fight in the ring. She could manage right up until they stepped in there, and then “mama” took over and it was very hard for her. That’s the way she described it.
You’ve been nominated for a Golden Globe. That must have been nice to hear!
It was super-duper to hear for me. They’re a very fussy, very particular bunch of people. Frozen River was not recognized at all; I don’t know that they even saw it! So this, and the recognition of so much of the film — because it did take so much to make it happen — it’s really, really fun. I hope that I can stay awake at the party; I hear they’re filming it! [laughs] Somebody nudge me if I nod off. It’s not because I’m not completely happy to be there, it’s just that it’s been such a couple of weeks. I also have my job down in New Orleans, so I’ve been doing that a bit. Maybe there’s time for rest; I don’t know.
Let’s talk about the three years you spent preparing for Frozen River.
I had met [director] Courtney [Hunt] at a screening of 21 Grams, just by chance. She said she had something to show me, and we did the short and it was quite successful. I called her to tell her so, and she says, “Do you want to make the feature?” And I said, “Yes, sure!” [laughs] And I get the feature script eventually from her and — is this a good story! Especially if it’s in my hands to go lay it down. Wow! There’s a visceral thing that happens. It happened with Marianne in 21 Grams. It was like a stick of dynamite in your hand. So I would call her every few months when things looked dry for me and wondered how she was doing. It was a partnership that was formed to get the thing done, and then getting it distributed as widely as possible for that itty-bitty little engine. [laughs]
Your character in Frozen River was another fiercely devoted mom.
And another mom that’s made mistakes. She has two boys and is split between them, with a difference in the way she treats them. Very different from Alice, but reasons I made up in my own mind for why Ray Eddy would be different with the older and the younger boy, to help tell the story and keep you grounded in the belief that they’re real people. They have a past and hopefully have a future, if we can get some place to live that doesn’t leak! [laughs]
Tell us about working on “Treme.”
It’s the best job I ever had! I work in a town that could use a certain light shown on many aspects of it. I get an opportunity to do that, and it’s warmly received by those people who have hated everything that’s ever been made about them. Aren’t they a fussy bunch! To work with [executive producers] David Simon and Nina Noble, and I still work with [co-executive producer] David Mills every day, and all the rest of them gathered down there. It’s a happy set, a fun set. I love my character, I love the woman that it’s loosely based on, and I have a friendship with her and her husband.
Your character is driven to get at the truth.
Toni has a sense of morality in her that is as unique as New Orleans. What is immoral and a crime against humanity is quite clear for her. Not everybody would always agree with all of it [laughs], and a beautiful part of the job is the way that you can see so many sides. And quite frankly — although it might get taken the wrong way — there’s something [to be said] for this white actress to show up and have my face on the screen with people of color so regularly, starting first and foremost with Khandi Alexander. Makes me feel so pleased and proud to be a part of it.
Can you give us a hint about what we might see in the new season?
If you look into the not-so-distant history and examine what happened after Katrina hit and the levies broke, and that town is flooded and people were forgotten. The first year there was an extraordinary effort by a very few to stand in New Orleans and say, “I am home.” And that started an influx of people that also said not only, “I am home,” but, “Where is my help?” But you gonna get somethin’ done, you gotta do it yourself. From what I’ve shot already down there, which I’ll tell you nothing about, we definitely are not examining the city and its people less this season — only more. [laughs] And mo’, mo’, music, too!
Are you having fun spending time in New Orleans?
Last year I did. I stayed down there and got to know the town much better, but I still didn’t go out that much. I’m a homebody. I live between some sort of drum practice that rents out space in the Buddhist temple next to me, and the church bells. I hear that music daily and the trolley on St. Charles. It’s an extraordinary place to spend time and I’m glad to be doing it.
You got to slow dance with Tommy Lee Jones in a junkyard in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
[gasps] Yeah, baby! And he wanted me to sing, and I tried so hard. There again, me and my singing, tone-deaf Melissa. And then he tells me on the day something I’d never dreamt of — he wants me to sing it en Español, por favor! So I tried. I could have done better singing the English part, I’ve always thought that. But slow dance with him, yes indeed. Yummy!
That’s not the kind of experience many actors get to have.
He was extraordinary to work with. I hope that someday he’ll invite me into another film he’s doing. Yeah. Man. Such a beautiful, beautiful movie. It’s Mr. Jones’ picture. [Guillermo] Arriaga [and he] wrote it together. He was wise in choosing his writer and used him the way a filmmaker should. And the same with every one of us and his camera and his editing and his sound editing. It’s a beautiful movie and a beautiful story.
It was great to see sexiness and love among people who are past their 30s. Hollywood films tend to relegate those things to the younger set.
It goes back to the reasons I hesitated about Alice Ward in the movie. I’m 10 years older than those guys, man. What are you talking about? There are plenty of very fine actresses 10, 15 years older than me who will sell you the ticket. [They’re] beautiful. It’s always gone on. In my 20s, I noticed that it was, “Thirty-five? What?” It would be written in the script! Are you sure you want me? It’s something that goes unnoticed as if it’s not happening. Didn’t we get Title Nine and don’t we get to vote? [laughs]
You had a really nice scene with Robert De Niro in Everybody’s Fine.
I remember shooting it with him really, really well. And by then I did feel like we knew each other, and I find him such a dear actor to work with. It was a very intimate scene even though nothing romantic happened between them. I wanted to relate with him, and [director] Kirk [Jones] really wanted me to be stiller with it and give away less. And it was actually a really good lesson in an afternoon of shooting, how little something can be and still get the same thing across. I wanted there to be a little love story between them. I saw that. Now, maybe next time I can get him in bed! [laughs]
You had an important part to play in Conviction.
She’s the black hat, and unlike Alice Ward, she was fictionalized more than anybody else in the story about Betty Anne and her brother. When you bring it up, it makes me giggle because I immediately think of [Sam] Rockwell. To go and arrest his ass… [laughs]
It was fun?
Too much fun! More fun than a girl should have and call it work. Absolutely. What a delight to work with, a joy and a delight, and he’s so freakin’ good in that movie.
It’s a pivotal scene when you pull him out of his regular life at gunpoint.
And the power of that uniform and weapon in society. There, again, I had made a backstory for the woman. Why would she do something so out of school? There were a lot of things about her, [like] ambition, that were in the documentation about what was going on at the time. I needed something else; why peg this guy in this way? I thought that he and Nancy seemed fairly close in age, and in school maybe she hoped to go to the prom with him and he didn’t show up because he was eating candy with his sister somewhere. Or even further back, in fifth grade, he slighted her on Valentine’s Day. [laughs] So that’s layering for an actor. That’s what you put in there and see if any of it floats to the top.
You’re originally from Manhattan?
Manhattan, from the East Village on one of the prettiest blocks in New York City. It’s used in film because of that, right up from Saint Mark’s Church.
When did you decide that this is what you wanted to do?
I was probably, really and truly, as young as three or four. My mom had a really good friend who was quite good friends with Peter and Elka Schumann. They had the Bread and Puppet Theater, housed in the building that a few years later became the Public Theater. We would go over there and do puppet workshops, and at Christmastime we would do the Nativity. I just remember this experience. I was an uncomfortable child, and pretending was a great comfort to me. I spent a lot of my early years pretending with my family or anybody else — with my dollies or whoever would participate. [laughs] And here was a darkened room with grownups sitting quietly, watching the pretend — encouraging it by that fact alone — with other grownups pretending, too? Whoah! I couldn’t think of anything happier to do and I still can’t. It just made sense to me, and not a lot has, really. [laughs] There’s a comfort in it and a knowingness. That theater would have the puppeteers not just manipulate a puppet, but be a puppet. And that is what I still do now. I went to theater school in London, I went to SUNY Purchase for a few years, I’m a member of the Actors Studio. I took some acting classes in New York back in the day; I didn’t get too far with those, but that was the beginning of it.
Then you started getting television work?
Yes, I had been in London at theater school and I came back and I messed around for a little longer, and I ended up at SUNY Purchase [and then] to New York City. I was waitressing and made a commitment one day to simply only act. If I was going to do it, the distraction of earning a living to have food to eat was just ridiculous! [laughs] So I said, “Nothing but acting.” I made a commitment to myself that I’ve kept to this day. Yes, a soap early on. I worked three days on “All My Children.” They wanted me to come in and screw up Peter [Bergman] and Taylor Miller’s happy marriage, and after the first day of shooting they called and asked if I would sign a three-year contract with them. I signed a year contract and I was nominated for an Emmy that year. I was also doing a play at the Public Theater, back in the same building where I had begun — with an Equity card now.
You landed a nice gig on “Homicide.”
Many years later after much work, a lot of episodic — “Miami Vice,” “The Equalizer,” “Spenser: For Hire.” “The Equalizer”: [speaks into the microphone] Anybody out there listening, I’m looking for the footage! I’m a ballerina in that. I danced Swan Lake, or so it would seem. And then, yes, five years on “Homicide” until they fired me from that. I had done a year on another show called “The Young Riders,” and TV movies. That was how I earned my bread and butter.
What do you love about what you do?
I probably could say “everything.” The same as back in Peter Schumann’s darkened puppet theater, a belonging. A sense that I get it, I understand it. The way you can go to work at 5am or 5pm and work a 12 or 18-hour day. Reinventing myself, examining humanity from a human point of view.
Original publication date: January 2011
*Photo by sagindie from Hollywood, USA, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.