Actress Melissa Leo

Award-winning actress explains why she feels her character was a remarkable woman.

Melissa Leo has been called an actor's actor. She earned an Emmy nom for her work on daytime TV's All My Children and was a standout in the groundbreaking series Homicide: Life on the Street. She also stars in the HBO drama Tremé. Leo found her niche in indie films, including a powerful supporting turn in 21 Grams. She was an Oscar nominee for her work in Frozen River and won a Golden Globe and a second Oscar nod for her memorable performance in The Fighter. A New York native, she studied drama at London's Mount View Theatre and later at SUNY.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Melissa Leo back to this program. Every time we see her, it seems she’s been nominated for some other award [laugh], an Oscar in this case for her role in “The Fighter.” The film, of course, also stars Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams and Christian Bale. Here now a scene from “The Fighter.”
Tavis: You have quite a family in this movie. I leaned over to Melissa to ask her how many kids in real life she has. She has one. So what’s it like playing the mother of nine kids?
Melissa Leo: Well, first off, I’m really glad I just had the one [laugh]. But it was extraordinary. I don’t know if I would have known how to love them all, but I learned from Alice.
I learned from the way the kids talked about their mom still today, 20 years beyond what you see in the film, and really mostly from Alice herself, the extraordinary woman who paved – you know, “The Fighter” is not a film about Alice Ward. It’s about primarily Micky and his brother. So you catch Alice’s story along the way. But really, a remarkable woman paved the road. I don’t even know how many women there are in the fight management game even today.
Tavis: In researching for our conversation, I was comparing your age to that of Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale and I’m thinking that maybe one should be offended when Mark Wahlberg calls you and asks you to play the mother – his mother – when your ages aren’t really that far apart. Yet if Mark Wahlberg calling you to play his mama ends up with a nomination for an Academy Award, I guess you can’t complain, can you?
Leo: No, you can’t complain. I advise anyone, if you get a call from Mark Wahlberg, take it and do whatever he says [laugh]. It wasn’t a call from Mark. I was invited to meet with David at Mark’s suggestion. Of course, he had seen “Frozen River,” and I went with every intention to tell David thank you, but no thank you. Maybe down the line. I don’t see myself in that part.
Five minutes into the conversation with him, and he has me hook, line and sinker because he believed in me. As an actor, you really want that in your director. There’s a bridge of trust between you and that belief from the director clearly, I learn, his belief can be stronger than mine and it can work.
Tavis: So Mark is on record – speaking of Wahlberg saying that when he saw you in “Frozen River,” to your point, he knew he wanted you for this role. So it’s nice to have, obviously, a beautiful thing to have a director who believes in you, but how cool is it when the producer on the project says up front, “This is the person I want” and they come and get you?
Leo: He had been living with this story for a long, long time. Probably knows Alice and the family better than any of us. A remarkable honor to me that he would have named me as the one to play this part, a delicate balancing tightrope walk of a part.
Tavis: Jonathan, put that last picture back up again, the solo shot. Thank you. I wanted this shot up just for a second here because the one thing that I love about your work – and I’m not the only one in this town who feels this way – is that you have this knack, really, Melissa, for losing yourself in these roles.
I mean, it’s not just the great acting, but when we see you, you take on, you embody the character. Talk to me about your process for how you literally lose yourself in these characters.
Leo: Well, honestly, Tavis, I think that’s the fun of acting. You know, that’s the job. I will show up innately in every part I play, no matter how disguised or recognizable I am. That’s sort of the least important. That’s the unavoidable part of it. So then I either will look to the script and, quite frankly, with “The Fighter” there wasn’t that much of a script to begin with. Before we started shooting, it was there.
It was a much more oral history, photo albums, stories told by both David, Mark, the family, everyone like that, and an extraordinary amount of work on an external appearance of Alice. The hair is not a wig. It’s my hair. We cut it. We cut it again. David wanted it even shorter, right up the back of her neck.
Tavis: The last time, you did your own makeup. You didn’t do makeup this time, did you?
Leo: No, I did not.
Tavis: On “Frozen River,” you did your own makeup. I remember that.
Leo: I lucked out. The girl I had worked with 20 years before in Rhode Island, who is the second in the trailer and did my face for Alice each day, Tricia Heine, and there you have it.
The external part of Alice, the internal part of Alice, comes in a necessity for me to believe the ground she’s walking on. So either I’ll gather information from the family, and there will be misinformation because everybody has their own interpretation of the truth, and then I’ll make it sit somewhere in me and that’s where my experience as a mother really comes in.
I do only have the one, but I don’t know how you could have any amount of children and not love those human beings like nothing else on earth, and every one of them the same, but different, I would imagine.
Tavis: I have nine brothers and sisters which means, I guess, it’s a good time to say, “Thanks, Mom.”
Leo: Oh, good for you.
Tavis: “You did a good job, at least from my perspective.” She did a good job. When you suggested a moment ago that, before you guys started shooting, the script wasn’t completely developed in the beginning.
I’m thinking, is that like when you’re working on a project where you get a chance to have that kind of freedom initially, is that like a trampoline where you bounce around until you figure it out, or is it like a tightrope where you’re walking and not so sure where to take the character? Does that make sense?
Leo: [Laugh] It does.
Tavis: It’s a crazy question, but let me just ask, yeah, yeah.
Leo: I’m laughing because, with David, it’s a little bit of a tightrope that is a trampoline as well [laugh]. Maybe Philippe Petit could do that. I don’t know about me. But there had been a script, you know, because Mark had had this project for so long and Aronofsky had a script.
David O. Russell coming into it really saw that the women were integral to these men’s lives and wanted more about them in his script. So when I met David, he was revamping what had been there already. At first, I only saw 20 pages of it. You know, eventually before we shot, we had the whole thing and there was a little making it up as we go along with this one.
No, hard for me to describe how I worked on Alice in a funny way because there was so much other involvement. Like we keep on citing “Frozen River,” such the polar opposite of that, of really, you know, Courtney was a beautiful guide and she’d written a beautiful script that we could clearly follow together, but most of the work on who of Ray was my own.
Tavis: Amy was here, I guess, not too long ago and, of course, what everybody in this town is talking about is that you are both nominated in the same category, so what’s that gonna be like?
Leo: Well, some people say that we’re nominated like in competition or against each other in the category. I really like the notion that I am nominated with Amy. She was a delight to work with on set. To have a bond and a feeling of really enjoying someone and then have animosity onscreen with them is really, really fun for an actor to do.
She was also a really good friend. I mean, we were in this lousy little motel just outside of Lowell and Amy and I spent a lot of times together having dinner and, when Jack would come along, we’d stay up late into the night laughing and talking. It was great to have another female actor that, while we’re having our down time, I could spend that time with. They don’t let that happen all that often.
Tavis: What happens inside your home, inside your head, inside your heart, inside your camp, you know, the Melissa Leo camp, when you start doing projects that you start getting nominated for with some regularity? How does your world start to change when you’re not just an actress now? People recognize you, you know, as a celebrated actress and nominations come along with that. What changes? How does it change?
Leo: This is a really good spot to be asked that question because I can remember very clearly coming here, I think, with a single publicist who I don’t know that I even knew that well on the day I met you to talk with you about “Frozen River.”
Tavis: And now there are 35 people over here. Got cameras everywhere. No, just teasing you.
Leo: Not quite 35, but I have a few more people with me.
Tavis: You got people now.
Leo: And folks to come along and mind my makeup and my hair. It’s a little bit bigger of a deal and, quite frankly, although “Frozen River” will always be deeply dear to my heart, this walk through all this hoopla and la-de-da is really kind of fun this time.
I mean, we’ve got Mark Wahlberg, for God’s sake, you know, and he goes sashaying down the hall in front of you. Nothing like it, let me tell you [laugh].
Tavis: I’m imagining how you even get seen if you’re following Mark Wahlberg down the carpet.
Leo: Well, that’s part of the fun of it. You can be that fly on the wall watching the whole thing happening. It’s really kind of nifty.
Tavis: Yeah. Is this one of those – before I let you get out of here. You hear these stories all the time. I’m not sure how much I believe them.
When you get an ensemble cast like this with Christian Bale nominated, of course, Amy nominated, you nominated, Mark, the producer and great actor in the piece as well, is the harmony that we see now amongst the group the same kind of harmony that existed on the set?
Leo: It’s been such a beautiful, beautiful journey. The whole entire film right down to the seven sisters and Jack McGee and Mickey O’Keefe as Mickey O’Keefe was cast so beautifully and aptly. Not only with the right actor in his character, but also at the right moment for each actor to be playing that character.
Something about the many, many years of Mark’s training that put in him a character in a way I don’t know if he’s ever been so deep in a character that he’s played. With Christian, his readiness to go ahead and do it. Amy’s desire to, you know, share with the world a little broader aspect of her as an actor. We were all so call it ready, willing and able, and with great parts to play, all of us.
So it was a remarkable shoot with a lot of interactions kind of along the line of the characters we were playing. That’s sort of what happens on the set. Then to meet up with them as the film is released at the red carpets for the screenings and now beyond it, the awards tables, sitting there at the Golden Globes table with all of my family there, really, really fun, downright fun.
Tavis: This is getting to be perennial [laugh] for Melissa Leo and I hope she keeps getting nominated because, if she does, I guess that means she’ll keep coming to see us on our show here.
But congratulations on the nomination. Of course, we’ll all be watching on the big night to see how this works out. But it’s a great project and I’m glad to have you on.
Leo: Thank you. I’ll come any time you ask.
Tavis: All right, whether you’re nominated or not.
Leo: Absolutely.
Tavis: I’ll hold you to that. “The Fighter,” nominated for seven awards in this year’s Academy Awards, starring one Melissa Leo.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm