Capone sits down with actress supreme Melissa Leo about FROZEN RIVER, RIGHTEOUS KILL, and more!!
Published at: Aug. 13, 2008, 9:22 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Capone here.
I've had something of a personal and professional crush on actress Melissa Leo since her days as Det. Sgt. Kay Howard on "Homicide: Life on the Street." She'd done loads of TV work as well as smaller parts in film before then, but that was the role that really bound me to her and made me excited whenever I'd spot her in a film or TV show after that. If you want to see Leo in her youthful prime, check out a film called STREETWALKIN', in which she plays a high school student who turns into a Times Square hooker. Classic.
Just before, during, and after "Homicide," Leo began to get bigger parts in the films of Henry Jaglom and in films like THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO. But it was her performance as Benicio del Toro's long-suffering wife in 21 GRAMS that got her major critical recognition and acclaim. Her lack of an Oscar nomination was a bit of an embarrassment for the Academy. In more recent years, she's put in solid performances opposite Robert De Niro in HIDE AND SEEK and Tommy Lee Jones in THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA. She's been doing mostly smaller films of late, but she's about to appear with De Niro again (as well as Al Pacino) in RIGHTEOUS KILL.
The occasion for our time together was a rare lead role that Leo has in the extraordinary film FROZEN RIVER, in which she plays an abandoned wife and mother of two who can barely make ends meet. She joins forces with a Native American woman in an uneasy alliance smuggling immigrants across the U.S.-Canadian border. It's a great character study, but more importantly, it's a rare chance to see this gifting character actor really shine in a lead role (think Richard Jenkins in THE VISITOR). Leo is just shy of 50 years old, but she's one of the most lovely women I've ever seen, and she's also one of the sweetest ladies in the world. Cackle all you want about my being hypnotized by her charms; I won't deny it. But I think there's some solid material here about the craft of acting, a subject many actors don't feel comfortable talking about. Here's the glorious Melissa Leo…
Capone: I’m really happy to meet you, first of all. Second, I’m probably a little older than most of the online people that come through here. So to me, “Homicide” was just the quintessential show, and I always love seeing you pop up in places, usually I’m not aware you’re going to be…
Melissa Leo: Yeah, I come sneaking in, don't I? [laughs]
Capone: I remember a couple of years back, I don’t remember who put the list out, but it was a list of 10 actors--male and female--that you want to see in every movie, character actors. And, you were on the list. I think that Gary Cole was on the list, and…I just thought, That is so true, because any time I see you pop up, I think, Okay, there must be something worth paying attention to in this movie because you’re in it.
ML: Oh, yeah. That’s really sweet to hear. That’s great.
Capone: Anyway, I know a little bit about the history of [FROZEN RIVER]. Can you talk…not so much about the character, but about your personal connection with the journey this film has taken. I know it started as a short that went through the film festival circuit.
ML: Very slightly, very slightly. So, James Schamus, who is Focus producer with 21 GRAMS, invites me not far from my house to his hometown in upstate New York, to Chatham to a sneak preview of 21 GRAMS, and a little Q&A after, and a little reception. And, at the reception, this blue-eyed, blonde-haired, short little thing [writer-director Courtney Hunt] came up and asked if I’d read her short script. I said, Sure. And, I read this mind-blowing, wonderful short with two characters, basically, the blonde and the Native. And, I called her right up, and I said, When do we get to do it. It’s great.
So, we went up to the actual location on the St. Lawrence where this would occur, where she had spent four years seriously researching and even some years before that, because it’s where her husband is from. It’s something that she had heard tell about…that there’s these people in that month and a half, two month, when the St. Lawrence River freezes over…
Capone: The smugglers.
ML: They go back and forth…all sort of things across the river, you know. Booze was a big thing back in the Prohibition, right?
Capone: A practice close to me heart. I didn't realize the smuggling history went back that far?
ML: I would say before there were cars to drive across that the Native peoples were doing some kind of trade across that river. And, then, when they become borders of Canada and the United States, then it’s illicit trade, so then you’re going to make that much more coin on whatever you’re bringing across. And so, we shoot the short. She sends me a copy of the short when she edits it. “Ah, you did a really good job,” she said. “Want to do the feature?”
“I didn’t know that you had a feature!” So, she sends me that feature script, and I am, “Absolutely. When do we get to do it?”
And, she said, “Well, as soon as I raise the money.”
So, I said, “Well, let me know.” Then, for three years, I called her every six or seven months, wanting that lead in that story, and didn’t want it going to somebody else, and wanted to make sure she stayed on the ball and did it, because it was a script that needed to be shot.
And, she tells me now that when each of these calls came--maybe over three years’ time, five, six phone calls--it would come when she was just at her wits’ end. She and her husband had tried everything they could think of. Nobody wanted to make the movie, they certainly didn’t want to make it with Melissa Leo in the lead. Now, if you would use So-and-So, maybe she could get it made.
But, she was hell-bent on using me, which was really good for me. And, she eventually got the money raised, primarily from one financier and a couple of other people putting in a goodly amount of money as well. And, I was shooting in South Africa, January a year ago, and I heard by e-mail that she got the money. So, I came right back from Johannesburg and went straight up to Plattsburgh to shoot, because we had to get going on it as soon as she got the money, ‘cause the river wasn’t…the water wasn’t going to stay frozen for long. [laughs] We had a very small window of time in which the film could be shot, and if we lost it that year, it would be another whole year, and chances are by then the money would have backed out.
Capone: When you read that initial short script, what was there about Ray’s character and the predicament of two struggling women that made you say, I just have to do this?
ML: Well, I feel funny, but I’ll be truthful in my answer. It wasn’t so much some connection to Ray, although I’m sure I felt that. It was more the notion that she’s carrying the film. To be a female actor, I again and again and again find myself being someone’s partner, someone’s daughter, some guy’s something. This woman was a human being in her own right, and it was probably that that attached me to it in that way. And, the notion, too, that it’s the starring role. I’ve done a couple of leads along the way, but it’s not what gets offered to me, by and large.
Capone: And, to say that these characters, even just the single-mother character, are people you don’t see a lot in films, let alone Misty’s [Upham] character. You don’t see them on film, and, in some cases, there are people who don’t want to see them on film. It’s something they almost don’t want to acknowledge. We get dropped into the middle of Ray's troubles. Did you conceive of a time, either with or without the director, when she wasn’t so desperate? Did you find it necessary to come up with a backstory? Is that how you work?
ML: I don’t know that I find it so necessary to do that. It’s an often-asked question about things outside the frame of the film: What happened before the film started? What happens after the film ends? And then, the other tangent of that same thought is, What would you do, Melissa, if you were in those circumstances?[laughs]
Capone: [Laughs] I won’t ask you that!
ML: That’s sort of, a little bit, even further a field. But, yeah, I have some knowledge in my mind, not a conversation with Courtney per se, because I think she probably has in her mind what Ray’s history is up to then. I didn’t feel that it needed to be timelined or documented or discussed, but, let’s face it, she’s got a 15-year-old boy, and she’s got a 5-year-old boy, and they both have the same father. And, father’s a gambler, and he’s not there now. Hmm-m-m, I wonder what she’s been up to for the past 16 years. Pretty easily answered, right?
So, what I do as an actor is, before I start making anything up, I go to the script and see what information I can get there. And, in a good script, all your questions will be answered. All the ones that need to be answered. Did Ray grow up in a trailer herself? I don’t know. Where was Ray before she met that husband? I don’t know.
Capone: Or even how she met him. How did she end up being this white woman on this reservation?
ML: I, Melissa, happen to live in Oklahoma on an Indian reservation in a white family’s house. They leased it from the tribal council, the Res, some Indian…I’m not sure, but it was leased to this white family on reservation land. But, not to confuse apples and oranges, Ray Eddy’s trailer is not on the res. Again and again in the film, you pass a green sign that says ‘Entering the Land of the Mohawk’. That’s when you go on to the Res. So, we both go on to Res land and off it, just like you can in Europe go from Switzerland to France.
Capone: Speaking of the Native American aspect, was that also something that you also found unique and interesting about the script? I remember seeing Misty in SKINS a few years ago, which is one of the few films that deals with the Native American situation honestly and brutally as I’ve ever seen it. So, was that something important to you--to sort of get that story told?
ML: No, again I’m just a truth-speaker, and I’ll make myself look bad and say, No, not when I looked at it. It was purely selfish, I wanted to be Ray Eddy. I thought it was a great part, BUT… in working with Misty Upham and the other Natives we worked with, and Heather Rae, who came along to produce as well, I will--for the rest of my days--be grateful for the relationships that I made with Misty, with Heather, with their families, with the Natives that came down from Conawaga and worked with us in Plattsburgh, that play the brother-in-law, Mike Sky that plays the law-enforcement from the reservation…all of those other players, with the exception of one guy, Dylan Carusona, who came up from New York and was only partially Native in fact. So, [along with] what anyone watching the film can learn about modern-day native life in this country, which is fascinating and never before seen, I also had first-hand experience. And, it was completely on par with the time I spent two months shooting in Pakistan, for example, working with a Pakistani crew. To see the inside of a world that whites are not privy to was astonishing, endlessly fascinating.
And, a really important point to bring up about the film, a really, really important point…that Misty Upham’s character, Lila Littlewolf, has never been seen on screen before. You get a couple of guys along the way, Adam Beach does a little work. But any actress who happens to be Native American that’s been on film, it’s been this ‘leathers and feathers’ show. It’s been them looking at the sky, and wandering through the fields, and being…What does Misty call it…It’s like a heroism, that they make the Native to be the…Well, Natives are all kinds of people, just like whites are. And, you’ve got your stoic Natives, and you’ve got your idiot Natives [laughs], and, even more so, you’ve got people who a little bit of everything. That opportunity for a Native actor to portray a citizen of the United States is kind of earth-shattering.
Capone: I can’t remember the last time I saw even a modern portrayal that wasn’t in a film directed by a Native.
Capone: And, I love those movies. I wish I could remember the guy’s name who did SKINS and SMOKE SIGNALS…
ML: Chris Eyre.
Capone: That’s right. So, I like those movies, but they do sort of fall into that realm you’re talking about.
ML: And, it’s a dilemma for actors who are Native, because it’s a Catch-22--either you work in Native film or you don’t work. By my observation, in the last couple of years getting to know Misty, I would say there’s some pretty apparent oppression going on, purposeful oppression going on that we must tear down the wall of.
Capone: Speaking of oppressive, this story really weighed on me a long time after I saw it. It is heavy, there’s no getting around it. How do you tap into something that is that gives you the look on your face that that you have during this movie? You can almost watch these circumstances age your character prematurely.
ML: Ah yes. My job is exactly the opposite of what you would think by asking that. If I were to play Juliet and kill myself every night, well, I could just do one show, right? [laughs] So, what actors learn to do is act as if we are killing ourselves so you believe it and you feel. That’s my job--not for me to feel. It’s far more complicated, what I’m doing than just feeling like I don’t have any money. I also know there’s a camera three inches away from me, and there’s a light that’s positioned just so, so I have to be here. I have those lines I need to remember, and, Oh, shit, this is the scene when I wanted to make that little look out the corner of my eye. So, I’m working, I’m not feeling. Sorry! [laughs] But, what I’m working to do is to get you to feel. So, it’s my pleasure. I love working.
Capone: Okay. But, you acknowledge there are some actors who might answer that differently, who would say they have to feel it in order to act it.
ML: Very differently, yes. Absolutely, absolutely. I would not want to live their lives. [laughs]
Capone: Well, we do hear stories about people like that getting sort of lost in certain roles, especially the ones that play Jesus.
ML: That is where we lose many of them.
Capone: Yeah. At least in some of the things I’ve seen you in lately, you seem to take on these very, very serious roles. Do you ever just wish someone would throw you a lighter part?
ML: Did you see the “Law & Order” I just did recently?
Capone: Was it the regular “Law & Order”?
ML: Yeah…I call it ‘irregular’, because nobody’s from the original cast.
Capone: No, I don’t think I did.
ML: Yeah. "Personae Non Grata" was the name of the episode. Well, yeah, she’s busy murdering people and stuff, so it’s kind of serious in a way, but she was really fun. She was very different for me, a woman who dresses like a 17-year-old, but she’s my age, which is not 17 any longer.
Yeah, I would be happy to sink my teeth into anything, as long as I felt that the helmer had confidence in my doing it. I had fallen into a couple of things that were funny, and that’s really fun. There is nothing like the experience of having done something that you hope is humorous and have people laugh at it. Gosh, that’s a thrill. Yeah, I consider my range boundless. It’s a question of who will hire me for what.
Capone: Speaking of which, you just named two places that it sounds like you shot in recently that are not in this country--South Africa and Pakistan. Can you tell me about those films?
ML: Pakistan was many years ago…I think about my son, and it was probably more like 18…When was the Gulf War on? That’s when I was over there.
Capone: That was a while ago--1990, 1991, I believe.
ML: Yes, 18 years ago. And that was a film by a director, a Pakistani Frenchman, Jamil Dehlavi with…James Wilby, we played husband and wife. It was IMMACULATE CONCEPTION. It never got a release here. It was released briefly in England, and that’s as far as I know. Oh, and then Shabani Azmi, very big Indian actress--India Indian--was in it as well, and they had a retrospective at Lincoln Center a couple of years ago. They screened it there.
South Africa. Darrell Roodt. The year that TSOTSI won for Best Foreign Academy Award, there was another South African film up that year, YESTERDAY by Darrell Roodt. And, Darrell Roodt directed me in a film of a mediocre script that I sort of thought I could make something of, because it was the lead. A mother gets a phone call in the States. Her son is being held by a drug lord in Johannesburg, where he was traveling. He owes money. Call the Americans, they have money, send the money by Telex. I don’t have any money; I’m a waitress. And, I somehow scrap together the money, go to Jo-burg to find my son and meet up with his hooker girlfriend. Me and this gloriously beautiful Lisa-Marie Schneider traipse around Jo-burg, trying to collect the money to pay off the drug lord. It’s even more of the action/adventure--Mom as super hero--than FROZEN RIVER. And, it’s uneven in the end, and it kind of works. Maybe some day people can see it on TV. LULLABY.
Capone: And then, you made another film with Robert De Niro. You’re in RIGHTEOUS KILL, right? Did you work with him in that film?
ML: Not yet. I shot in Connecticut a few months ago, did a couple of days with Al Pacino. He comes to my house, talks me into going with him. I go to a restaurant with him, and me and John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg and Al have this little scene together. So, we shot that a few months ago. And, as a matter of fact, Monday I am due to go and shoot something opposite Mr. De Niro in RIGHTEOUS KILL, so I will be opposite both of them in the end. I wasn’t originally. And, I also did EVERYBODY’S FINE with him just earlier this year, him being Robert De Niro.
Capone: Okay. I’m bouncing around…You mentioned 21 GRAMS before. I’ve spent a little bit of time with [director] Alejandro [González Iñárritu], so I’m aware of how he works. What was that time like for you? It was stressful just hearing him talk about it sometimes.
ML: That’s interesting. It wasn’t stressful at all for me, being there. Did you talk to him 21 GRAMS time or BABEL?
ML: Things got harder then. I don’t know, I say this to so many people, I’m hesitating on the Internet here, but here’s the truth, as I know it: Alejandro and Guillermo Arriaga were introduced in Mexico as an amazing writer and an interesting director that should meet. They met, they agreed upon a collaboration that would be three triptych films. And, AMORES PERROS, 21 GRAMS, and BABEL all have that triptych theme to them. And, that was what the partnership was. It was no life-long partnership, like the Duplass brothers [Jay and Mark], who grew up together, making films since they were three. Not that partnership at all.
Guillermo Arriaga, within five minutes of meeting the man--one of the greatest writers I’ve ever, ever read or had the pleasure of meeting, for sure--will tell you he is an atheist. Alejandro never sat to a meal, not even a snack on the set, being a Mexican Catholic, that he didn’t say a blessing over it. What I observed on 21 GRAMS is that here were two men who had done something incredibly remarkable and very well suited to filmmaking. Filmmaking is a collaborative art. It’s not a one-man game. And, they had gone even beyond this bogus notion that became very popular a few years ago to ‘agree to disagree.. Let’s just agree to disagree. They weren’t going to agree to disagree; they didn’t agree! But, they could allow each other to be who they were. And, that was what the partnership was, that is the strength of 21 GRAMS and AMORES PERROS.
By the time it got to BABEL, they'd included movie stars, Hollywood money, and other complicated items. Now, the writers’ strike just completed, the actors are getting ready for it… I just saw an old Dick Cavett show or something like that and he said something like, “Well, yeah, you know, it's like they treat the actors and the writers.”
I knew what he meant, you know what I mean? We don’t ever get the…unless you’re So-and-So, right? Directors and movie stars…But, actors and writers, we’re the scum of the earth, really, for the recognition, for what. If we didn’t have writers, we couldn’t do anything.
Capone: Clearly. That’s been proven.
LM: And, they tried, they tried to do it…Exactly. But, what makes a good film is a good script. And we're still finding out what the art is. It’s a very young art, there’s been expanding. And, these writer/directors, they shoot them one way and put them together another way. AMORES PERROS and 21 GRAMS look like that, but they are not that. That is writing. They don’t shoot a contiguous film and make some complicated vision in the edit, like others have done before. That’s Arriaga’s writing.
So, I knew what I had in the script, and I landed the part after one complicated thing after another, and then it was mine. And, there, too, with that role, nothing was going to get in my way, like show up and be anxious about working across somebody that I think is really quite spectacular [Benicio Del Toro]. I just put that behind me and went to go meet Marianne’s husband Jack.
Alejandro as a director was lovely. For me, it was everything I needed--and no more and no less. He gave me some specifics as we went along, sometimes pertaining to the scene itself and sometimes more general acting comment, something he came up and whispered in my ear at one point. I’m streaming with tears, and he was undaunted by that. Some directors back off "Now she's working"; and he knew better than that. And, he came up and said to me, in my ear, he goes, “Melissa, it is much better for you when you don’t clench your jaw.”
And, I looked in the mirror a while later, and this [clenches jaw] that I think makes me look so strong looks really stupid. [Laughs] So, I loved working with him, I totally did. I think that that partnership got complicated.
Capone: Yeah, I had heard that by the time BABEL rolled around that it was not a comfortable situation, to say the least.
ML: And, it’s a shame. It really is a shame. They’re both astonishing, incredibly talented men. Whoever that was in Mexico that introduced the two of them was really clever to do that.
Capone: We were talking before about humorous films, and I forgot one of the first things that I remember seeing you in were a couple of Henry Jaglom films. How did you fall in with that?
ML: Henry is somebody that I met in New York City. Is one of the Henry Jaglom films you’ve seen ALWAYS? Henry’s in it. He leads in it, and it’s about the breakup of his marriage, and his ex-wife…Patrice [Townsend] plays his ex-wife, and I play her little sister.
So, Henry had gone through that separation, or was trying to get through that separation. Like depicted in the movie, it really devastated him, but he did not stay in California as depicted in the movie. He went back home to New York City, and I was out of SUNY-Purchase by then. I can’t remember where I was living then, somebody’s couch or another. I had not gotten my apartment yet. That came a little later. Money was very, very tight…I was dancing on stilts at parties to make money, you know; on thing and another, trying to make ends meet, and find one’s way into this…Oh, they pay you to act? Where do I sign up? From that stage, auditions and things.
There was a handful of months there when Henry was healing from his divorce from Patrice, and I was getting my feet under me that we became very fast friends. And, it was very comfortable for me, because there were no romantic inclinations with it. He was a little too much older than I for me, but a very, very fast friendship. And, I would keep him company and hear sad tales about his missing wife, and he would feed me, literally. [laughs]
And, so he was first a very, very good friend, and then, when it came time to shoot ALWAYS, he had this thought in his head that there was something about me that reminded him of Patrice. I think it had more to do with the time in which he got to know me than anything actual. But, I went out and played Patrice’s sister.
Capone: As a Maryland native myself, “Homicide” was always on in our house, and just to have something representative of where we grew up…
ML: I still tell people one of the best things about that job was the kids who come up on the street and say [excited shriek], “It was my grandpa’s house on the show last night!” Do you know? It’s a Bal'more thing, right?
Capone: Between “Homicide” and any John Waters film, I can always get a little fix of home. What did you learn from doing that show? What did you take away from that whole experience?
ML: I learned that television work is very, very hard work, and I hope to God I’m given another opportunity to do it regularly like that, because I can do a better job, not the acting of it, but in what my expectations of it will be. There’s only so much you can expect from being on TV, work-wise. You can’t get too…the way I get very married to my characters and indignant in my characters. It doesn’t really work for you on TV. You’ve just got to do what comes down the pipe, because there’s so many heads involved in it.
And, the other thing I got out of it was a deep, abiding love of Baltimore. [Laughs] I’ve gone back several times and visited with people. Center Stage brought me back, and I had a great time doing something there. "The Vagina Monologues" brought me as the hometown girl on its road show, which I thought was really sweet. So, I came away with a second hometown.
Capone: Melissa, it was really great talking to you. Thanks for spending so much time with us.
ML: Hey, this was really good. Thank you.