Interview: Best Actress Nominee Melissa Leo
Tue, 10 Feb 2009 17:42:02
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Melissa Leo embodies what it means to be an actor in the purest sense. She is devoid of vanity and artifice, and has dedicated herself to a career path that drives her to the deep, often disturbing recesses of fictional worlds and the characters in them. She is not a marquee name, lacking the celebrity profile of, say, a Kate or Meryl, but her performance in Frozen River has garnered her a recent wave of high-profile attention. She staked her spot in this year’s Best Actress category with her turn as Ray Eddy, a mother of two who forges a relationship with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman with whom she embarks on a dangerous string of illegal acts. They’re driven together by desperation, and their story is one that emphasizes the simultaneous importance and agony of human connections.
I had the opportunity to interview Leo yesterday morning, just two weeks prior to the Oscar ceremony. She spoke about launching Frozen River’s public journey at Sundance, finding inspiration in John Wayne, and giggling with fellow nominee and friend Richard Jenkins throughout the whirlwind of awards season.
How are you processing the journey that you’ve gone through since Sundance in 2008?
It has been wholly unexpected with the little film that we made. We just hoped to complete the film and perhaps find some money to get it into post [-production]. It has been a most remarkable and, I have to say, enjoyable, adventure. Sundance seems like yesterday. The lingering time was after we shot the short and we spent three years hoping for financing before we got to shoot the feature. This year has gone [by] lickety-split.
The movie started as a poem by [director] Courtney Hunt, correct?
Yes, there was a poem. She showed me that poem the day before we started shooting. In her inimitable, poker player style of directing, she kind of just dropped it off and said, “Here, read this. I thought it was kind of interesting.” I even inquired who it was by and where she found it, and she didn’t say. She’s a very wonderful director in that way. Oftentimes a director feels they need to say too much to the actor, and her reserve [regarding] when to say what is a mark of her true talent.
The relationship between your character and Misty’s in the film is a balance of being combative and sustaining. How did you develop the dynamic between yourselves in preparation for the film?
It’s really a credit to Courtney, again, both in the writing of the script and in the direction of us, to have captured the way that two people can be in that tiny little car on other planets at the same time. It’s something Courtney explored as she wrote [the screenplay]. [Ray and Lila] might break through the ice between the two of them. But, then again, [Courtney] didn’t know what she wrote, if they would be able to, and she didn’t want it to happen falsely.
This project struck me as a unique vehicle for women in film today to take ownership over the filmmaking process. Was this something you kept in mind?
It was a great female role on the page. There was something unique and unusual about this woman standing on her own two feet making her own decisions for her life and her children. She is not their mother as much as they are her children. I hate to talk about it like it’s a women’s film, because it’s just a really good, gripping story and adventure to go on in the dark for an hour-and-a-half.
I think it had much more to do with what anyone of any race or any gender can do if they have a really good story in them, take the time to get it in a clear script on the paper, hold true to that vision through all the nonsense one goes through to shoot a film, and then you have hope in the editing room of really putting your movie together. That is what happened with Frozen River, and that is what makes it so special.
I know that John Wayne was a reference for your performance. How did he enter the picture?
Again, in Courtney’s inimitable way, she did not want to make a movie that excluded men in the least. She had worked with me in the short, and she knew from working together [that] my worst habit as an actor is to do too much—and I do it all with my face. The Duke did it all with his gut as he stood firmly on the ground. You trusted him when you didn’t trust what he was doing. Even when you didn’t like him and his opinions and his bigotry, he could remain a hero because of how he stood on the earth in his beliefs. She told me to go look at him. I put the films in the VHS [player] and said, “Oh, I can work with that.”
“My hope is that I will not change [after the Oscars], but I do hope that my work can broaden.”
Frozen River is really one of the only truly independent nominees this year. Do you feel like ambassadors at the Oscars in a strange way?
It’s a delightful inspiration—my story and the story of Frozen River—to many talented people. Stick to what you believe to be the right path for you and, lo and behold, you never know what [could] happen. I am not big on the competition game. I don’t believe you can compare performances to find a “Best” anything. If there’s a best in the bunch, I might’ve had the “best” role, but that’s not the same as the performing of that role. I think, in all the eyes of all of the nominees it’s different than [for] those that watch and see the horse race in it. I feel honored and special, and our work was done so long ago; it’s out of our hands.
I don’t know all of the facts and figures about all of the other films involved, but I would go so far as to say that in my experience of filmmaking, Frozen River is the only truly independent film in the lineup.
As you've gone through this strange journey, have you noticed a shift either personally or professionally?
It’s hard to speculate what might happen, but I feel very hopeful for my career, and that is the most important thing about all of it to me. Anyone who knows me well knows that beyond my beautiful 21-year-old son, acting is my life. I love it and I hope to always continue to do it. If [this] opens more doors for me, that would be great. I did say to a very close friend on the Wednesday morning before the Thursday morning announcement, “Give me a hug. This might the last night of the first part of my life.” Because it is as big as that. My hope is that I will not change, but I do hope that my work can broaden.
Richard Jenkins is a friend of yours. How does it feel to go have the Oscar experience simultaneously?
It’s been one of the great delights of the year. There’s a small festival out in Calabasas called The Method Fest that celebrates actors. Very few film festivals, even if they recognize actors, are about actors, per se. Method Fest is, by definition, about the actors. Richard Jenkins and I were both honored up there very early in the year. I got the chance to see The Visitor; we got the chance to giggle heartily together about what looked like was going on with these small films we had been a part of. This wry sense of, “Wow, golly, here we are,” whether side by side on the red carpet or across the room at events. It’s been delightful to have Richard Jenkins along.
What are some of your favorite performances from the past year?
The only one that can come to mind is The Visitor. I do not see very much. I have seen clips; I have an idea of some of the body of work of some of the other nominees. I am not a film watcher. I never have been. I watch to a purpose, [like] when a director says, “Watch John Wayne.” I eat it up heartily. A good close friend is in something and I go to an event to see it. I stumble into a movie or two at a film festival, perhaps, but I’m not really a movie watcher.
For people that will, as a result of the Oscar attention, seek out and watch Frozen River, what is it you hope they walk away from the film with?
I think that the strongest message in the film is the sense that’s it’s so important in the world today [to remember]: [Say you] have someone move in across your front yard. They [might] cook food and you don’t like how it smells every evening. You don’t really like the way they keep their front yard, or the way they look, or the car they drive, for God’s sake. Watch out. That person might someday save your life.