She’s been a working actor for almost 30 years – having dropped out of Purchase College of the State University of New York to take a role on “All My Children” – but it’s only in the last few years that Melissa Leo has become a brand name unto herself.
Indeed, when Kevin Smith approached her to act in “Red State,” which debuts this week at Sundance, “he told me thought that having me in the film would let people know that it’s a serious project,” Leo says, sounding amazed at the very thought.
Leo is an odds-on favorite to be among this year’s Oscar nominees for best supporting actress, for her role in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter.” And her win this week at the Golden Globes for the role makes her a serious contender to take the Oscar home.
A nomination would be her second in three years – after a best-actress nod for 2008’s “Frozen River.” Between shooting those two films, she’s acted in almost two dozen films – and played a starring role on the acclaimed HBO series, “Treme,” whose second season she’s currently filming.
At the age of 50, Melissa Leo is obviously in her prime. But she couldn’t quite see herself playing Alice Ward, her “Fighter” character, and says, in this telephone interview, that she had to be talked into taking the role by director David O. Russell.
Q: Is it true that you didn’t think you were right for the role of Alice?
A: The first thing was the age issue. I said, “Don’t you think I’m too young for this?” I thought I was too young to play Mark (Wahlberg) and Christian (Bale’s) mother. David completely ignored my questions. He believed I was Alice. I went along with David’s belief that I could do it. I wondered how I could find her inside of me. And meeting Alice Ward, I decided I do have her in me.
Q: What sort of obligation do you feel playing a real person who’s still around?
A: It ends up being a beautiful obligation. The relationship Mark established with the family through many years and promises he’d made was strong. David didn’t know what he’d find when he joined the project but he fell in love with the family. So it was an enormous responsibility. It’s been a delightful experience to work so closely with them.
Q: What was it like meeting Alice and the family before shooting started?
A: Meeting her face to face – she grew up under very different circumstances than me. My grandmother and Alice grew up in the same era. They’re American women from the same era. There’s something about working women of that generation that’s important to recognize. I didn’t have a lot of time but I got the generosity of spirit of her and her family.
Q: Yet there’s the feeling that she seemed to favor Dicky over Micky. How do you feel about that?
A: A lot of people might question her choices but not if they walk in her shoes, which I did. I’ve spent 30 years of my career studying human behavior, so show me someone who doesn’t have that side of them. We’ve all made mistakes and we know why we made the choices we made. Did she favor Dicky over Micky? It seems that way. For me, she didn’t love one more or less. She loved each the way he needed to be loved.
Q: She had nine children. How hard is that to get your mind around?
A: I fantasize about a family that big. I’m a little jealous. My son is my greatest joy. I loved being pregnant, giving birth and changing diapers. Were life different, I would have had more. But it’s a crowded world so if one does the trick, let it be. I began to collect older kids, friends of my son. I like a big family. The more I work, the bigger it gets.
Q: “The Fighter” is actually your second film of 2010 where you had a Boston accent – “Conviction” being the other.
A: That “Conviction” character, Nancy Taylor, was probably more fictionalized than Alice. And we shot “The Fighter” right in Lowell, where Alice is from. It’s much harder to shoot a Boston accent in Michigan, which is what we did with “Conviction.”
Q: What kind of impact did “Frozen River” have on the kind of films you were offered?
A: It’s been a pleasant change since “Frozen River.” I get paid a little more and get offered films like this. I continue to hide myself in roles. That’s my joy and pleasure. It’s easy to be typecast but I haven’t come close. It happened after “Homicide: Life on the Streets” – and that character was so far from me that I didn’t understand it. I’ve continued to play all kinds of roles, all kinds of women in all kinds of stories.
Q: What have you done since finishing “The Fighter”?
A: We shot “The Fighter” in the summer of 2009 and I’ve done a lot since then. “Conviction,” “Welcome to the Rileys,” a few others that have yet to come out. I did “Mildred Pierce” for Todd Haynes and HBO. And, of course, “Treme” – it’s one of the best jobs I’ve had in my life. I love the woman I play. It’s great to be doing this kind of storytelling in the most unique of American cities. It’s a great job. I’ve done a lot. I love being busy.