Thursday, February 12, 2009
Variety Interviews Melissa Leo
Melissa Leo, star of the AMAZING Frozen River, and Oscar nominee for best actress, gave a rare interview to Variety magazine. AND they are endorsing HER for best actress!! Thats a huge endorsement .. will it matter this late in the game? I thought she gave an emotional, raw, and endearing portrayal. Here is the interview:
Little Gold Men: You’ve had nine movies come out in both 2007 and 2008, not to mention your TV credits. With a schedule like that, how can you still approach acting with the same passion?
Melissa Leo: Golly. I love acting. I really love acting. I am always learning. It is always new. The job of an actor is to do something as if for the first time—if you’ve done it 500 times onstage already, or if it’s your first take in front of the camera—as if for the first time. It’s always new and different, and that’s why it keeps fresh for me, always.
You’ve been working with remarkable consistency since the early ’80s. When did you realize you wanted to become an actor?
When I was very, very young—four or five years old in New York City. My mother took me to the Peter Schumann Bread and Puppet Theater Workshop. Peter would teach us to not just manipulate the puppet but to be the puppet. It freed the inhibited child that I was. I found there was a space and a people that I knew and felt comfortable with, inside the darkened theater. And I learned, slowly, what it is to be an actor and how an actor can be employed and all of those things.
What was your first job actually getting paid to act?
I got a check for 100 and some-odd dollars down in Key West, Florida for creating a role in a Tennessee Williams play at the Key West Community College of Theater—the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center.
What was the role?
It was the role of Gloria in the play Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis?
Okay, I’m not familiar with that one.
And nobody is. It’s been performed to my knowledge twice: Once in the late ’70s down in Key West and once in the early ’90s. I believe a small production was mounted in New York City.
Let’s talk about Frozen River. What drew you to that material?
Well I had met Courtney Hunt at a screening of 21 Grams and she was very moved by the truth in my performance, and inquired about the possibility of us working together. And I said, “Send me what you’re thinking about and we can certainly talk.” Her husband in the car ride home nudged her and said, “Show her Frozen River.” She had been working on it for some years and had several different drafts and I got a twenty-page short-film script, pretty much just two characters: The blonde and the Mohawk. No names ever mentioned, very little back-story. Pretty much the story in the segment of the film where the bag is left on the ice. Once the short was cut and she had it on a DVD to send, she did and I watched it and called and said, “You made a beautiful short. Very, very good work.” And she said, “You want to do the feature?”
“What feature? Sure!”
Then for three years I hoped and prayed and called her every now and again to find out if she had found the money. Three years later we actually went up to Plattsburgh, and Misty Upham [who plays Lila, a Mohawk Indian] rejoined us from the short and we did the feature.
Where do you live most of the year?
My home is in Ulster County, New York. That’s where I raised my son. I’m a New Yorker by birth. But I stay out in Los Angeles in a very busy little house on the edge of Culver City that I share with young filmmakers. Misty Upham lives there with us now—anybody in the industry, young and talented, that needs a little stepping-stone into Los Angeles.
Did living in New York State give the material extra resonance for you?
There’s probably some ways that my own self and personal story came along for sure. It’s what an actor does—brings themselves because they can’t be avoided. I did live in southeastern Vermont growing up, so I know the cold, sparse, under-the-poverty-line way of life in a northeastern clime. A great deal of pride in New York State that I do have, and the great vastness that New York State in fact is—from our beautiful coast to our incredible, albeit small, but amazing, mountains.
You said you were looking within yourself. Would you call yourself a Method actress?
Yes, I am very proudly a Method actor. There’s a little misfortune with how that term is misused at times, but yes indeed a Method actress.
Did you do any special to research this role?
Well the most special research tool I had was Courtney Hunt herself. And you know, again, it’s sort of a twofold thing of having had the experience of playing Ray Eddy, though I didn’t know her name, in the short. Then living with her there in my heart, for sure, hoping that we would get to actualize the film—the feature—and traveling around and doing other jobs and perhaps seeing a woman’s haircut and going, “Oh, there’s Ray’s hair.” You know that sort of slow, without a pen and paper; just a slow gestation with Ray was very, very helpful to me. I also made sure that I would not… that Melissa would not have any inconveniences of sniffles or the flu or uncomfortableness in the cold, and really prepared myself in a gym by getting myself as fit as possible before shooting, and in a sauna at the local YMCA up in Plattsburgh to regulate my temperature so that I would not suffer from the environment in a way that I might have without that kind of preparation. And then just a deep, abiding love of living in my imagination. It was so clearly scripted on the page, who she was, I didn’t need to fabricate that stuff, but simply lived in her, who I had met on the page.
You say you stuck very closely to the script but the film does have a very improvisational feel, and I think that’s a testament to the acting on one hand, but also to the way it was filmed.
I think all of us there—from costume makers to art design, to our beautiful shooter Reed [Morano]—all really understood, again from Courtney’s amazing screenplay, that what we needed was something very real. We didn’t need it to look prettier, and we didn’t need it to look more barren; we needed it to look as it was. Courtney chose very carefully as she cast, and chose very carefully as she shot, in spite of it being this really minimal amount of time to shoot in. She would walk away from the scene when she thought she had it, and she would stay until she got the scene when she needed to. I think a lot of the work she was doing in that was the evening out of performance so that nobody would stand out either as acting too much or not an actor and uncomfortable.
Wow, you’re a real champion of Courtney Hunt, aren’t you?
And she is a champion of me. She could have made her movie long ago if she had taken a name that was more familiar with people than mine.
The film struck me as almost less nihilistic Thelma & Louise—two women who are drawn together by the desire to survive rather the desire to throw caution to the wind. Did you have that feeling?
I’m not a movie watcher so I’ve never seen Thelma & Louise.
Do you ever watch your own movies?
I watch my own work all the time, and it’s not what it might sound like there. I watch my own work because I can learn from it. I always do. I can watch myself easily. I don’t sit there judging it—I see what’s wrong with it, for sure—but I don’t take it as some grand admonishment on me. I take from it what I can learn: “Oh that’s too much of a reaction on my face. I can lessen that and you’ll still know what I’m feeling.” Watching things that me and a director had talked about and tried to help work and, “Did we nail it? Oh yeah we did—oh, kind of missed there!” That kind of watching for me is a vital part of what I do. I trust my opinion better than anybody else’s opinion. I don’t have vanity and ego. It’s all much more practical to me than that.
Sort of the way an athlete watches tapes of his games to see what he could have done differently…
Oh! I like that! Yes, I like that! [laughs]
What would you consider the big turning points in your career as an actress, whether it’s roles or it’s things that you’ve learned?
I keep on having this notion that’s not one single mountain that I have summated, but an entire mountain range. My first year out I was nominated for a daytime Emmy. I have had nothing—nothing but critical acclaim the entire time I have worked. This might be it. This might be the one big break, but it’s hard for me to see it that way. And who knows what tomorrow brings? There is hope, and I can finally sort of dream that maybe I might get this kind of role, or be able to work opposite that kind of actor, or work with that kind of director. But I haven’t gotten there yet—so I won’t believe it till I see it.
Awards definitely give you recognition, but what do awards mean to you beyond that?
I’m just only assessing that now, and it’s been an incredible year for recognition, from the Grand Jury Prize for this film I’m starring in out at Sundance, and then the little Method Fest out in Calabasas gave me recognition of a Maverick Award for all my work and they played a film I shot just before Frozen River called Lullaby, and they gave me a Best Actress for that. Then I went to Marrakech and won a Best Actress there. The Gotham Awards gave me a Spotlight Award recognition. And it’s lovely; it’s really lovely to feel exactly that—recognized. And it’s fun, and I get to wear these fancy clothes that I don’t own, but I get to wear them. But what it really, really, really means to this old actor is maybe I’ll get more work! And not just more work, cause you see I work all the time, but a lot of those things are sort of one scene, or maybe I’m helping a young filmmaker out with a short, or maybe I play somebody’s mom for a couple of scenes. But to really, like with Ray Eddy, sink my teeth into some woman and be her and have you believe that I am her—I hope there’s more of that.
Have you noticed that there are different types of roles being offered to you since the nomination? The kind of roles that you are hungry for?
I have to say to you I don’t know. I know that the agents and the managers are very busy on the phone with people. There were some ideas that were afoot prior to the nomination. I, myself? No, the big boys have not called me yet.
Two final questions: First, what kind of role would you want to play in the future, and second, what kind of role do you definitely never want to play?
Well I’ll go to the second question first because I’m hard-pressed to think of something I would never want to play. I think that if I can take a woman on the page from being what I would call a thankless part, and make her role in the story have meaning and her life on this planet have a reason... Maybe that thankless part is the thing I would turn my back on, but I would probably more likely look and see the way that I could make her into something more than it appears to be. The sort I would like to play: I will tell you that I have a beautiful script written by a couple of people about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford when they were shooting Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? And I would really like to play Bette in that film. And a woman by the name of Audrey Munson on whom I’m trying to get a script written right now.
Thanks very much for speaking with me, Melissa.
Best of luck on Oscar night.
Oh, thank you so much!