Catching Up With Melissa Leo

On the limits of control and how the clothes make the character

Movies Features

Given that Melissa Leo had to wait until she was 48 for her first Oscar nomination, it seems only fitting that her latest accolade should be handed to her a little later than planned. With filming running long on the upcoming M. Night Shyamalan-produced, Twin Peaks-indebted Wayward Pines television series, Leo was delayed an entire day before making the trek from Vancouver into the nearby mountains for the 13th annual Whistler Film Festival. Prior to a special screening of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners—in which Leo plays Holly, a suspected kidnapper’s elderly aunt who proves to be far more complicated than she initially appears—she was honored with the festival’s Luminary award for her body of work. Speaking with Paste the next afternoon, she offered some thoughts on her recent successes and insights into her methodology.

Paste: Congratulations on the award they handed you last night.

Leo: It’s such a beautiful symbol. It’s a beautifully hand-carved talking stick. I thought it was so funny that they’d give you the award after you’d talked.

Paste: We are, of course, coming up on awards season. It’s now the five-year anniversary of your Frozen River Best Actress nomination. Does it seem like it’s been that long?

Leo: I have a funny concept of time. Sometimes we go to work at five in the morning. Sometimes it’s five at night. I rarely know what day of the week it is. So, when you say “five years,” I think, “Oh gosh…” Part of it feels like it was five minutes ago. Part of it feels like it was even longer than that.

Paste: Yours certainly wasn’t the first out-of-left-field nomination. However, you really capitalized on that nomination and used it as a turning point in your career. Did you realize at the time how many opportunities had suddenly opened up for you?

Leo: Being an actor, you have to give up some notion that you might be in charge of yourself. When you can commit to that notion of a guaranteed insecurity, then you’re on your way to doing what I do for a living. It’s far less in my control and my command than the question makes it seem.

Paste: Prisoners is a film in which moral ambiguity plays a large role. Of course, moral ambiguity relies on everyone involved in the production being on the same page. What were some of the conversations that you had with Denis Villeneuve that ensured everyone was dialed into the film’s complex tone?

Leo: The initial conversation with the amazing Denis Villeneuve did, in fact, convince me to do the project. I wasn’t sure that I felt it was responsible as a filmmaking family to make an entertainment—which a thriller is by nature—about the abduction of small children. So, role aside, I just wondered about the film. It was such a well-written, complex script that didn’t get lost in its complexity but drew you into its complexity. The way it had been penned, it was so ready to shoot. But, do we need to do that?

I wish I had a tape recorder and I could tell you what that man said. But, it might not’ve been what he said … it might’ve been the way in which he said it. He totally understood and shared my concern. His sense of responsibility about the subject was far greater than I could’ve ever hoped. Furthermore, he assured me that he would keep us safe while we worked in this dark water that Prisoners would bring all of us into.

Paste: You seem to adopt a very physical approach with many of your characters. With Holly, there’s obviously some make-up and prosthetics involved…

Leo: (laughs) Where are the prosthetics?

Paste: Uh… I understood there was some padding involved in a few places?

Leo: Oh that! (laughs) Hardly prosthetics. Just a little foam rubber in the pants.

Paste: Do you tend to find your characters through their physicality?

Leo: It’s hugely important. (gestures to her body) This right here in the chair … this is the tool. I can do things with my face, my voice, my accent—it’s simply a tool of the actor. I don’t aim to disguise. I just look for her. [Costume designer] Renée April had these great elastic waistband jeans for me to wear… That’s what made me go, “Ba! We need a bottom in these jeans!” She very excitedly went and had this foam rubber sewn into a pair of granny panties.

And, by god, that bottom landed Holly for me. The bottom is big from sitting and watching TV a lot. So, she needs to be slumping and out of shape in other ways. So, then I found when I walked, I didn’t lift my feet very much. I started shuffling. The more I shuffled, the lower my voice got.

I was then guided by Denis. I initially thought that Holly would be a sweet, grandmotherly woman when we first see her. When Denis saw me exploring that idea, he said that he needed her to be the same woman for the entire film. That’s so simple but such great direction. A director more often needs to take actors away from ideas they think are so clever and get them in the movie with everybody else. It’s a fascinating process of going and finding her. It’s very often the clothing that tells me how she walks, rather than me telling the clothing how to move.

Paste: You’ve continued to work in television with Mildred Pierce, Treme and now Wayward Pines. Do you likewise see yourself returning to small films on the scale of Frozen River and Francine, where you have the opportunity to take a more central role?

Leo: There’s something about being able to carry the story in Frozen River or Francine that makes for an interesting and hard day’s work for maybe a month. We, as actors, are part of that storytelling art. And the more of the story, you get to tell…

Amy Adams used to talk about it when we were working on The Fighter. There’s something about supporting other actors when the role is truly a supporting role. You’re now aiding and abetting the storytelling in that way. I loved that Amy kept saying that to me because I really get it now. That’s a joyous, wonderful thing to do. That notion of being that actor who could either lead or support… It just keeps it interesting. And although it’s different disciplines in the end, you can always learn one thing to bring to another.

I still don’t feel like I’m in control of it, but I hope to continue doing all the things that I do.

Paste: Do you have any interest in producing and playing an active part in generating meaningful roles for women who are perhaps underserved right now?

Leo: That’s two questions. First, I’ll say that it’s kind of a dangerous conversation to complain about what’s available for women. I say let’s forge ahead and do what we can with what we have because that’s what women do anyway. Just forge ahead with a sense of optimism. And, when we are playing the women they ask us to play, that we own some sense of responsibility about the women we play. I think that can subversively change the lexicon of what is the very complicated way that women and men are portrayed.

Producing? No. People also ask about directing and teaching. I have no interest in any of those things whatsoever. I love to share the knowledge I have but don’t believe that acting can be taught. It can, however, be learned.

But … I’m not so good at being in charge. The notion of trying to nurture projects along, I’ve been doing that somewhat. I’ve been doing that for some time with five or six scripts that have interesting women for me to play. But, like I said, I’ve been doing this for a while, and you don’t see any of them being shot, do you?

Paste: I know there’s been some discussion of you and Neil LaBute doing this interesting project called The Toll that would see you playing a toll booth worker who ends up fighting terrorists.

Leo: That falls into that category. It’s a script that came to me through different connections. It’s a very well-written script and cleverly devised story. We are indeed talking about it. I think it would delight both Neil and myself. However, whether the powers that be allow it to happen is not really up to either of us.

Postscript: At the festival’s closing awards brunch, Toronto writer-director Ingrid Veringer (The Animal Project) called upon the audience to donate $6,000 to help her launch a screenwriting lab aimed at developing a half-dozen micro-budget indies from female writers-directors. Leo quite literally rose to the challenge, vaulting from her chair and declaring, “I’ll do it!”

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